With Hong Kongers flocking to Japan just now, buoyed by a healthy exchange rate and charmed by the sakura (cherry blossom), I congratulated myself on being ahead of the curve before realising that although I had been immersed in the escapist world of Miyazaki many times I was yet to visit the land of their conception. What was he escaping from? What was I waiting for? I hastily screwed on my dive helmet and joined the queue.
Is the subway as easy to master as it looks? That depends on whether you’re being sarcastic or not. This first-timer struggled valiantly before being dragged down to new depths of inner despair by its multi-coloured tentacles; raging silently against the dying of best-laid plans like a mute Godzilla with a clipboard. Fortunately, once I’d grown used to their intimidating imperial-era uniforms (peaked caps and brass buttons that could have been inked by Hergé in the ‘30s) and wildly disparate ages (either incredibly young or past retirement age – perhaps a symptom of Japan’s aging population) I found station officials to be incredibly helpful. Likewise, despite the rush, commuters were often willing to help the stranger in their midst, even when he was doing his best to pretend he wasn’t particularly lost.
Tokyo must be especially interesting to a virgin twosome, as opposed to a single wanderer. It might be the safest city in the world but I can imagine other, self-inflicted hazards popping up. It is NOT the place to go as a couple if one of you smokes and the other doesn’t (smoking areas are sparse and grim) or if one of you is good at directions and the other isn’t (but thinks they are). I could barely walk by the end of my interesting, expansive and fiercely independent travels by train/foot. I’m a ditherer in company but decisive when alone. After the disappointment of the Imperial Palace (at a time when global leaders are being exposed as little more than corrupt, money-hoarding despots, there is something profoundly dispiriting about a gathering of commoners, myself included, camped compliantly outside Palace walls, content to take long-distance photos of a private sanctuary for the elite, then move on as if this were a perfectly normal way for our tax to be spent) I found a Ginza architecture walk recommended by Time Out and there was no stopping me – I had to discover all the buildings on the list, even though many had been occupied for years; from the neo-renaissance clock tower attached to the Wako store (emblazoned with ‘SEIKO’) to the Bordeaux pub at the end of the trail – an incongruous hobbit house hidden by a hairy fringe of shrivelled ivy. The zigguratian silhouette of a capsule hotel a road or two further brought to mind regeneration cells for an abandoned Mars expedition. I limped home like a dented probe.
Home for the night was Nui Hostel in Kuramae, a converted warehouse on the banks of the Sumida River, recommended by friends for its superior dorms, local beers on tap, and enthusiastic Japanese hosts. I went to bed having shared a few craft ales with fellow guests and the hipster owners – far from legless but wondering how I was going to survive the rest of my trip without functioning feet.
‘Where can I hire a bike?’ I ask the stern-looking woman at Kyoto’s Tourist Information, fresh off the Shinkansen and invigorated by the view of Mount Fuji en route.
‘Kyoto is not good for bicycles, too many people,’ she tells me.
‘Okay…and if I want the occasional cigarette while I’m not cycling around the city?’
‘Here only,’ she uses a stiff finger to stub out the smoking area near the station, obliterating a dozen sheepish commuters and a couple of defiant European retirees with a single decisive prod.
I take her advice with a grain of salt and yet another perfectly formed mini-sandwich from the nearest 7-Eleven. Sure enough, it turns out to be flexible. True, I can’t always cycle around Kyoto comfortably, but this is due to rainstorms, parking problems and the occasional impatient lorry driver rather than the crowds (light compared to Tokyo). Cycling on the pavement is also perfectly acceptable, while cycling by the Kamo River at dawn, beneath the cherry blossom, and under iron bridges that return me to Manchester, is an experience so sublime that I almost wished my grumpy tourist information lady was sat astride my handle bars, Ms Piggy/Kermit style.
How do I get up in time for my 6am ride? Easy. Unlike at Nui, the bunks at Bakpak Hostel don’t have sound-stifling curtains around them. On my second night I return to find a middle-aged couple has moved into the dorm along with an elderly matriarch. Mysteriously, they select choose bunks near the window, beyond a partition, while choosing to position the old lady on the opposite side of the room, on the bunk below me. Won’t she be scared, being so close to the weird-looking foreigner with the limp?
The son, or son-in-law’s sheepish smile is explained and the couple’s logic crystalised at 4.30am when I’m woken by duelling snorers. Not only is the old lady a regular snoring factory (one with a blocked chimney by the sounds of it) but a young Hong Kong lad across the way is courting unconsciousness with all the grace of an airhorn at a rave, quickly forming a subliminal duet with his cacophonous colleague. In fact, so heavily and deeply does he sleep that when I find him dead to the world after my ride at 11.30am, it turns out death is only a minor exaggeration. Concerned at his profound lack of movement, it takes me an age to wake him. At one point I wonder if I should take a last photo of him for his parents but worry about what they would make of his half-on, half-off marijuana ankle socks.
Still, my roommates’ histrionics means I’m able to start my bike ride bright and early. I begin by following the river, stopping to watch birdlife; attempting to make it east to Fushimi-ku – a challenge set by a hip Hong Kong couple as I extended my map in the lounge the night before – but I’m blocked by repair work so decide to head west towards Arashiyama. By 8am I’m not quite at the famous bamboo grove but am within sight of green hills, having had a wonderful experience cycling in the veins of the city. An early morning novelty, I’m bowed at by policemen; join a party of giggling schoolgirls cycling to school, and cross rusty rail tracks while scouting for ghost trains. An old couple tend to fish in large tanks outside a dilapidated garage. Their family business? What happened? There are still enough cars around here to keep me on my toes. The sun peeks through the clouds and I must return to Bakpak to revive the dead, racing east in the wake of commuting cyclists young and old – more hills now clear to the east. I freewheel down into the city, my blistered feet a distant memory.
Before I present you with a watercolour picture of frolicking freedom, I should probably revisit the parts of Japan I found a little more…officious. It’s hard to know if it’s the addict or libertarian in me protesting when it comes to Tokyo’s outdoor smoking ban. I’m not a daytime smoker so it’s not like I was in hellish straits for want of a gasper, more that I was seeing the ban as the thin end of the wedge. Around Tokyo there are almost as many red crosses through prohibited activities as there are helpful cartoon characters and musical ditties to remind you of how to behave politely on the underground.
Somehow smoking indoors, next to people enjoying their food, is still tolerated. I was just getting used to a smoke-free existence when a distinguished looking gent, part of an elderly drinking clique, lit up in an innocent-looking café at lunchtime without hesitation. Yet when I sneaked down to the riverside in Kyoto for a crafty tab at dusk, I couldn’t help wondering if the two lads on the opposite bank were filming the sakura or me, perhaps with a view to claiming their reward from the authorities. I guess that’s what comes of watching Ten Years in Hong Kong and seeing director Kwok Zune’s scary vision of uniformed children informing on their elders…
Japan has left me tired but happy. Five days is too brief a time to get more than a surface impression of somewhere with so many dimensions. Perception varies; the cherry blossom is magical, until fallen petals mush beneath your tyres and make them skiddy; the rules are annoying, until you realise they allow you to walk around cities day or night safely, and without smoke getting in your eyes. I wonder if my planned all-nighter in the alternate universe of Tokyo’s neon-bled Shibuya district might have made everything make sense. My blistered feet mean sleeping in the airport before my early morning flight becomes a more realistic proposition; this in the company of a favourite, and weirdly appropriate, Japanese tipple – Mr Boss’s rainbow coffee.