Concrete canyons of skyscrapers blot out the sky. Freeways, express lanes, railway lines, overhead rapid transport tracks are everywhere. Tall blocks of buildings inset with thousands of small windows rear up towards the light. Then, surprisingly, slow-moving canals glitter beneath giant bridges. These are first impressions of Tokyo as I drive in from the airport. Lots of cars and trucks but no road rage.
On the ground, as we get to the heart of the city, there are throngs of expensively dressed people – girls in short, trendy, flirty skirts, baby doll dresses, leggings and boots (Hello Kitty rules); young and old men in perfectly tailored overcoats and professionally cut hair. Later that night, outside the hotel in the heart of this city of 13 million people, I walk along streets teeming with more people – mostly young. Musicians are playing on a street corner, citizens are relaxing in this urban environment after a day in the office. Tokyo relaxation means window shopping and stopping to talk to friends, or grabbing a bite in any one of a thousand little restaurants.
Christmas lights twinkle and the few trees are festooned with more lights. I feel as if I’m in the middle of a movie. This urban environment is another world.
The hotel room is tiny – you couldn’t even swing a newborn kitten in it – but everything works. I accustom myself to moving around in a very small space – two steps to the window, three steps to the minuscule bathroom which is ultra-efficient. Every time I inadvertently brush against the toilet seat it flushes, lights come on alongside the lid and ask me if I want to spray, turn on the bidet function, stand by, keep the seat heated or change the water pressure. It’s all a bit intimidating.
In the busy hotel restaurant at 6.30am, scores of people are getting breakfast from the sumptuous buffet (jellyfish, anyone?). Although the place is so busy, a wonderful air of calm prevails. If there is an earthquake, I think, I would want to be among these quiet, peaceful people. There is a natural dignity and politeness among them that is palpable.
The Meiji Jingu Shinto Shrine on a Sunday afternoon is crowded – especially with families. Small girls and boys are brought here in full ceremonial traditional dress for special blessings. It’s like a doll’s parade. A couple of wedding parties – with bride and groom again in full ceremonial Shinto costume – are posed for photographs before they proceed in solemnity with the wedding party into a low building beside the main shrine. A gong sounds as they disappear into the dark interior.
Outside, the square in front of the shrine pulses with life. Pilgrims climb the steps to the shrine door, bow deeply, clap their hands twice, make a wish (often for good exam results or a suitable life partner), bow again and re-enter the swirling throng in the square. One young woman in sheer black stockings and long sexy suspenders under a frothy white mini-skirt prays devoutly beside a sober-robed monk.
The bizarre mix of Western chic, hip hop and age-old tradition – top fashion labels with brocaded kimonos – mixes and matches seamlessly because it seems that anything goes in Tokyo. Fantasy haircuts and cool threads pray devoutly to the gods of the two huge ancient trees guarding the steps to the shrine. Cruel-looking heavy black crows criss-cross the sky and caw raucously as a huge advertising airship drifts overhead.
The next day the scene repeats itself, this time at a Buddhist shrine. Only in Tokyo would a Buddhist shrine lead straight into a shopping arcade. Rampant consumerism meets fragments of age-old tradition.
However, only 30 minutes’ drive from the megaopolis, another world begins. Dozens of small mountains appear – Matsako, our superb fashionista guide, reminds us that 70 percent of Japan is covered in mountains. What’s left is inhabited by 127 million people.
“This is the way the world ends,” murmurs Marjorie, my analytical doctor friend from Cape Town.
It’s been a late wet summer so the mountainsides blaze with autumnal colours – scarlet, russet, orange, yellow.
We pass one of many golf courses. Eight million Japanese people (mostly men) play golf. They take public transport to the countryside and their golf clubs precede them by courier.
The weather stays perfect for Mount Fuji – Japan’s ultimate icon and symbol. Totally visible only 60 percent of the year, its perfect snow-capped conical shape pierces the bright blue sky. Our bus takes us to Stage 5 – a terrible tacky tourist trap but with wonderful views of the bare peak above the skyline. Like Kilimanjaro, this mountain is a stand-alone – it belongs to no mountain range although opposite in the far distance a snow-capped mountain range is wreathed in shreds of clouds.
We take a cable car down the mountain to Lake Ashi, then a boat ride to Hakone and the traditional bathhouse where we are to spend the night.
My room is spacious, mat-covered (take off your shoes at the door) with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking sweeping lawns, birch and pine trees. Ultra-simplicity rules. Two low tables, two cushions, a closet, “washroom” and bathroom all separated by silently sliding doors. It’s peaceful, zen-like. A futon is placed on the floor at night.
I take the traditional hot bath in the public sulphur-fed pool. Strip off, wash thoroughly all over and then slip into the steaming water. Aaah!
The meal is a traditional one. Raw fish, soup, tiny indeterminate vegetables, seaweed, a jellyfish cube, an edible flower sprig of Japanese basil, tiny slivers of duck, warm sake in earthernware cups. All served on exquisite porcelain and utterly delicious.
I think to myself that I haven’t seen one fat – or even overweight – person since I arrived in Japan.
The food is a revelation. The famous Kobe beef lives up to its reputation as probably the tenderest in the world. And so it should be. The cows listen to Mozart, are regularly massaged, and fed on beer. No wonder it costs R200 per 100 grams.
The Unesco World Heritage Site of Shirakawagu is like an alpine village. Century-old houses with steep roofs covered in thatch are surrounded by snow-capped mountains.
But nothing prepares you for Hiroshima. The A-Bomb Dome (another Unesco World Heritage Site) was the only building left standing after that fateful and fatal moment at 8.15am on August 6, 1945, when the first-ever atomic bomb was dropped by the US and between 80 000 and 160 000 people lost their lives.
I weep, with many others, at the Children’s Peace Memorial, and am scarred for life by the image of a human shadow on a wall in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – all that remains of a once living person.
Finally to Kyoto, yes, another Unesco World Heritage Site, a glitzy, glamorous modern shopping-mecca city cocooning little traditional and historical treasures: shrines, castles, the Golden Pavilion, the Ryoanji Temple and mysterious rock garden – all centuries old.
I visit a traditional (not tourist) geiko (geisha) house and talk to a meiko – an apprentice geisha. Unlike her forebears who were sold into slavery, today the meikos choose their profession as entertainers, musicians and dancers. And no, they do not sleep with their clients, although our meiko shyly confesses that sometimes they “fall in love” with their wealthy patrons.
I went to Japan with few expectations and many negative stereotypes in my mind.
I was bowled over by the in-your-face modernity, consumerism and crowds; by the ancient treasures; by the beauty of the mountains and the countryside; by the courtesy, friendliness and orderliness of the people and their way of life.
I could never live there – I’m too much of a rebel – but I would love to go back. - Sunday Independent