Japan is, for me, a fascinating country. A place which has kept its past as it embraces a very modern future; a place where so many cultures collide but somehow retain a whole. A country which has defied so many writers to define. A country of contradictions, but one of eclectic delights. A place to be a non-touristy tourist.
Consequently, Japan is the perfect place to do something a little different, to find something a little unexpected.
i) Watch Cormorant Fishing
He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.
So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. A fat orange moon climbed into view as I crossed the Togersu-kyo, or Moon Bridge. Small balls of fire floated across the bay: the fishing had begun.
Arashiyama is only twenty minutes from Kyoto, but on a summer’s night boats still glide across the bay. A brazier of burning woods is used to attract the fish. Limited by the ring around their necks, the cormorants bring larger fish bring back to the boat (given a smaller fish as a reward).
When finished, the cormorants rest on the sides of the boat, silhouetted against the light of the brazier as they stretch their wings to dry. To watch the cormorant fishing, is to bear witness to a world I thought long gone.
ii) Meet The Messengers of the Gods
For many Japanese Nara is sacred, for here the mountains divide Heaven and Earth – and the deer are the gods’ messengers.
With some 1300 acres to explore, Nara Park has more than enough temples to satisfy the most ardent visitor. The deer are everywhere: relaxing in the shade, nibbling the grass, wandering at their leisure. But be wary of succumbing to their doe-eyes. Buying a bag of deer food, I discovered them to be no longer shy. I stood surrounded, head-butted as they demanded their share. One had the temerity to approach the food stall; immediately the old lady whipped out a broom and chased it away. The deer may be sacred, but they don’t get a free feed.
iii) View A Blood Ceiling
I could just discern the faint outline of a footprint on the ceiling. In 1600 a group of samurai in Fushimi Castle committed harakiri. The bloodstained floor panels were moved to a temple in O’Hara to create a Chi-tenjo, or ‘blood-stained’ ceiling. Today, the nuns pray daily for the repose of the dead.
Famous for her temples, O’Hara is a small town near Kyoto. The Shorin-in Temple was founded in 1013, and one sub-temple is the Hosen-in, where I knelt gazing at the outline of a bloody footprint. In the garden stands a 600 year-old pine tree resembling Mt Fuji.
The magic of O’Hara deepens as evening falls. With the lights of Kyoto hidden by the forest, O’Hara lies locked away in a different time, where even a bloody footprint can be a symbol of peace.
iv) Walk With A Monk Who Has Been Dead 1000 Years
In Koya-san, Japan’s Holy Mountain, the Kobo Daishi has spent the last thousand years waiting for the Buddha of the Future. Monks still bring him food twice a day.
After ladling icy water over my hands, I bowed on crossing the Ichinohashi Bridge. The Kobo Daishi then joined me, and together we set off through the Okunoin, a cypress grove filled with over half a million tombs.
It leads to the Oko-in, the Kobo Daishi’s temple, a place to contemplate the road to Nirvana. Nearby is the Hall of 3000 Lanterns (the Toro-do), where two lamps have burned for over 1000 years without fresh oil. Another hall houses Buddhist writings brought here by Tripitata, the prince of Monkey fame.
I headed home as dusk fell. Tiny tracks led to more tombs hidden in dells and forgotten grottos. The only sound was the ring of bells as white-robe pilgrims vanished into the gathering night.
v) Spend A Day Eating From Vending Machines
Japan is a land of vending machines. Standing in a busy subway station in Tokyo, I was amazed at the sheer number of people buying sushi and Bento boxes on their way to work.
In Nara, breakfast consisted of hot noodles chosen at random from a vending machine. Coffee came in cans, the colour of the button giving a clue as to the contents: red for hot or blue for icy cold.
Lunch was fresh sandwiches, although the machine did offer toasted ones. Snacks came in a never-ending range of chips and Japanese sweets, chocolates and biscuits. Then there is the ice cream, including the interesting flavour of green tea.
Dinner options include barbecued meats, soups, dumplings, even curries (I ended up with octopus balls and rice). Intriguingly, many came with chips.
And to drink? Every type of flavoured water, soft drink, tea, coffee, cold beer, wine, mixers, spirits…. there really is nothing you cannot buy from these machines.
vi) Leave the Lights Behind
I emerged befuddled from Osaka’s maze of subways into the glare of her Dotombori area. Once famed for its traditional theatres, it is now filled with restaurants and neon signs. Enormous puffer fish beckon to those brave enough to eat the notorious fugu, while an electronic crab grabs the skyline with moving pincers.
I turned from the brightness into cobble-streets lined with shadows. Wooden buildings were lit by small lanterns, their signs a subtle stroke of calligraphy. The occasional open door offered glimpses of a tiny stone garden or private restaurant, places for a samurai to rest their swords and write haiku.
Away from the main thoroughfares I always found something interesting. Maybe a shrine, or a temple complex not listed amongst the top ten tourist sights. Catching a bus after dark in Kyoto I found myself alone in this teeming city with only the sound of crickets for company. Behind me was a wall of bamboo; at any moment I expected a street light to hop along beside me to light the way.
vii) Stay In A Village In Tokyo
Tokyo may boast the world’s busiest intersection, yet my ryokan (traditional inn) was in an area with a village atmosphere, and only 30 minutes from Tokyo Station.
Alighting at Chidori-cho Station, a simple barrier stopped passengers until the now above-ground train had gone, as if this was a simple country line. A few minutes walk away the Ryokan Kangetsu proved a maze of winding paths where even the branches of the trees formed archways. There were quiet rooms, computer rooms, reading rooms, even open-air baths.
One morning I came across a community garden. Even at that early hour people were busy amongst the lettuces, eggplant, herbs, snow peas, and cucumbers. At the entrance stood a giant tub for washing shoes, so as not to spread the dirt into the street.
viii) Underground Shopping
Heading into a subway in Kyoto I stumbled into an underground shopping mall stretching for what seemed miles. Shops sold food, clothes, electronics, herbs, noodle shops, vending machines – only for the cycle to begin again at the next station.
Underground shopping arcades prove perfect retreats not only during the rain, but also in the heat and humidity of summer. I was in total ignorance of their existence before arriving in Japan. They are amazing places simply to peer through the glass of those exclusive shops well beyond my budget, or to simply wandering through the food markets or shops selling traditional Japanese goods.
ix) Braving The Japanese Railways
Catching a train in Japan requires a leap of faith. Different companies own competing train lines, the stations never interconnecting. Subway maps are works of modern art, and equally as open to various interpretations.
From Osaka, I took what I hoped to be the train to Koya-san. Halfway into the journey the train pulled to a stop and refused to move. A smiling conductor kindly evicted me. I sat on my bags on an empty platform on an unknown station. Silent fields stretched to the horizon, and I watched the rise and dip of conical hats as farmers worked fields cultivated for centuries.
Fortunately, an unannounced train arrived. The land climbed to Gokuraku-bashi Station, where a cable car carried me to the top of the Holy Mountain.
The train had repaid my faith.
x)Visit Tokyo Fish Markets At First Light – Before The Tourists
Missing the main entrance, I entered the fish markets through a side gate. Workers whizzed past on what looked like giant beer barrels on wheels. The driver stood at the front behind a steering wheel, twisting through the chaos without slowing.
And chaos it was. Hordes of people were unpacking crates, selling, shouting, buying, or simply jostling from stall to stall looking for the beast buy; just when I thought I had it under control, another beer barrel shot past.
The markets may be a popular tourist destination, but at dawn they belong to the workers, already well into their day. They sell fish of all shapes and sizes, eels, squids, snails, rows of giant brightly coloured tentacles, and slabs of fresh tuna. Live fish are deftly killed with the quick jab of a knife or skewer.
An alley of tiny restaurants offers mostly sushi and sashimi – it could not be any fresher. Some had the aura of a night-clubs, with long queues waiting to enter.
Near the exit stood a tiny shrine, a centre of calm in the chaos. And, a few streets after leaving the markets, I spotted a sumo wrestler riding a bike. My trip to Japan was complete.
The Literary Traveller
A classic of Japanese literature, The Tale of the Genji dates from the peak of the Heian Period. It was written in the 11th C by a Japanese noble woman, Murasaki Shikibu, who was also a lady-in-waiting. Depicting the lifestyle of the upper echelons of the Japanese feudal system, The Tale of the Genji is also considered the first psychological novel.
The work revolves around the life of the Shining Genji, son of the emperor, and his favourite concubine Lady Kiritsubo. The novel revolves largely around the art of seduction – Genji marries his first wife at the age of twelve. The high-born seem to do little else than write poetry tot heir lovers, and even emperors are often ignorant of their true fathers. It was an era when style and aesthetics were more highly rated than morally and substance. To be beautiful, or poetic, or excel at calligraphy, was seen as a reflection of inner goodness, both in this life and previous ones.
In The Tale of the Genji Shikibu captures the life of 11th C Japan while describing humanity in all its shades and vulnerabilities, so even ten centuries later a reader still falls under her spell.
Please click the link if you are inspired to travel, or simply looking for ideas or advice.