By Charlie Carroll
Charlie is a full-time traveller whose hobbies include working a boring job in London and a bit of photography on the side. As a new member of the turtle team he will be positing regular blogs so if you would like to contact him with any abuse/praise, questions about Japan or otherwise, don’t hesitate to e-mail him on firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are an awful lot of rumours about Japan. Anyone who visits the country returns with choice titbits of the oddities they came across; sprawling urban jungles, fear of foreigners, oddly specific sexual fetishes, largely delicious (sometimes dangerous) food. I have no doubt that there is somewhere in Tokyo where you can experience all four of those at once. Often the stereotypes are warranted, mostly not, and just sometimes the stories go nowhere near describing the awesome absurdity you can encounter. Japan sits in that very thin grey area between madness and ultra-rationality.
Japan is unarguably beautiful. Admittedly the concrete sprawl isn’t entirely fictitious; it does sometimes feel like you can travel the length of the country without leaving the bright lights and picturesque power lines of the cities. Most recently I visited Kobe, a port still recovering from a devastating earthquake in 1995. A worthy city to visit in its own right, Kobe also has the benefit of lying within easy travelling distance three major metropolises; Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. All three can be reached with overland trains which remind me of London’s DLR, typifying the feeling that you never really think you’ve left one city before realising that you’re in the next.
Pictured above is a tiny Shinto shrine in the gardens of the Kyoto Imperial palace (a grand and must see structure itself), completely empty and separate from the hustle and bustle of both the tourists and the city. The Japanese have a very specific and refined sense of beauty as an aesthetically pleasing interplay between the natural world and man-made structures, which shines through in their traditional gardens and buildings. No matter where you go there seem to be thousands of serene little areas like this offering a perfect escape from the claustrophobic and sometimes oppressive urban world.
The more grand architecture in Japan is also particularly stunning. Nara, being one of the ancient capitals in Japan, is filled with huge temples and palaces which are an awesome sight to behold. Todai-ji is one of the more magnificent buildings, housing the largest bronze Buddha in the world. Admittedly quite touristy, it provides a nice insight to the more extravagant side of Japanese religion. If you go, make sure you visit the old knife-makers on the hills behind the temple. These blacksmiths come from families of samurai sword makers, but now make incredibly beautiful (and bloody sharp) cutlery.
Japan is also a clean place. It is very hard to litter there, the disapproving looks stay even the untidiest of hands (though they are unlikely to directly reprimand you, and will possibly excuse you for being a dirty Gaijin). Part of this cleanliness shows itself in the Onsen, the Japanese bathhouse. These are dotted all over Japan, but if you are in the Kobe area I would recommend visiting the Arima hot springs to the north of the city. Unless you are George Michael it takes some suppression of our foreign timidity to climb into bath with twenty naked men, but they are very rejuvenating and the piping hot mineral filled waters will wash away even the most stubborn of hangovers. Most are single sex, there are rumours of mixed baths but gawking foreigners have driven them far away from the tourist trail, while in classic Japanese eccentric style you can also find ones where you bath in tea, coffee, wine or chocolate.
Finally, one of the most important reasons to visit Japan is the food. It is not true that Japanese only eat fish and steamed rice, they eat as much fatty grub as us decadent westerners, but they do it well nonetheless. Obviously sushi is an absolute treat, and easily the best experience is had by trying the oddest things. I never had the guts to try Fugu, the poisonous blowfish, but I have managed raw chicken testicle and horse, both of which were surprisingly edible, though probably one-time experiences. I couldn’t even begin to describe the variety of delicious food in Japan (testicles aside), but suffice to say it is one of the primary reasons why I’ve continuously returned to the country.
I’ve tried to keep this short; you could write volumes on the wonderful eccentricities of Japan, from its Harajuku girls to pachinko parlours and hostess bars. All in all, one of the most important reasons why Japan is so interesting and why you would be mad not to visit, encompassing the fraction of examples I’ve mentioned above, is that it’s so damn different.
And if you really want an example of the oddly specific sexual fetishes (you know you do…), type Omorashi into Google. But, and I say this from the bottom of my heart, I sincerely recommend that you don’t.