Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The ten coolest things I did in Japan

A few years ago I went to Japan, ostensibly to see the cherry blossoms for Hanami (the annual cherry festival), but along the way I saw a bunch of very cool things. It was 10 days spent in wide-eyed wonderment at the hospitality, style and diversity of the japanese landscape and culture: 

1) Spent a night in a capsule hotel, Osaka. Read about it here

2) Paid $5 to spend an hour petting cats, in a circuit at the corner of the pet department in a department store. Read about it here

3) Meditated with Buddhist monks.

Mt Koya is the home of esoteric buddhism in Japan. At one stage there were over a hundred monastaries clustered at the top of this steep and holy mountain. Now there are around 80 remaining, some of which take in overnight guests. Monastery guests have the choice to meditate morning and evening with the senior monks and priest, to bathe in an in-house onsen (without any monks present of course) and to eat temple food - which is basically the most extreme, exquisite and fulfilling vegan food ever created. I did it all. But it was the meditating that I can recall in an instant - the warmth of the heated room against the icy mountain winds rattling at the sliding screen doors, the glint of candle light off dangling brass ornaments. I hope to remember it forever. 

4) Watched Japanese game shows.

After meditating with the monks, exploring and devouring the temple dinner and washing off the day's travels in an onsen bath I returned to my room to find a light, private supper had been served. Wrapped in a heavy yukata dressing gown, I sat on cushions, lifted a padded tablecloth covering a short-legged table and pulled the table over my crossed legs. (The table had a heater underneath it. Like the heated toilet seats, sometimes you wonder whether something would be useful at all, until you try it and you wonder how lived without it!)I ate light, sweet biscuits and green tea. And watched game show in which a mad-scientist-costumed compare invited contestants to tell a joke. In a curious interpretation of the Hey Hey it's Saturday gong, these contestants stood over a trap door which, at a nod from the judge, they would fall through the floor. I watched one contestant crawl onto the trap door on all fours, bark once like a dog and immediately fall through the open trap door. The camera cut to the mad-scientist-host who laughed manically in encouragement at the judge's fast decision making. I cocooned myself under layers of padded quilts while lying on folds and folds of futons and drifted to sleep, wondering at how 'other' this world could feel. 

5) Spent a Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi Park.

Going to see the cosplay kids at Harajuku station is the start of the adventure. Gothic lolitas and storybook characters in over-stated proportions come out to play, flirt, socialise and be seen. Beyond the dress up kids, indie bands busk, 'greasers' dance to rock and roll and racks of second hand clothes are sold. Beyond the music, dancers and stalls, the colossal Yoyogi Park, with a centuries-old castle in it's centre, opens wide, rolling and green across acres. Full-blossomed cherry trees sway heavily in the crisp wind and families picnic on blue tarpaulins. Between the picnickers, athletes and sports teams work out. Costumed dogs and lycra-clad rollerbladers weave along the pathways. I sat for a moment watching a group of drummers jamming and then a busker create artwork with spray cans while DJ'ing from a deck strapped to his chest. I sat watching until the sun set and I drifted through the twilight, past a reggae festival, into Shibuya, where the neon was blinking into brightness and a thousand people at once crossed the world's busiest intersection. 

6) Geisha-tracking in Kyoto.

Twilight is one of the busiest hours in Kyoto. For hundreds of years it's been the time that Geisha go to their engagements. Freshly bathed, powdered and dressed, they totter in twos on wooden geta shoes along the cobble-stoned streets. A patient tourist who chooses the right spot will be able to see quite a few pairs of geisha travel along the streets. An impatient one, like me, will race from one street corner to the next, forever chasing the silk tails of the kimono as geisha disappear around corners and down alleyways. After an hour or more of this mad racing, I finally saw two geisha stopping at the doorway of one of their engagements and saw, in full colour and close detail, the artisan elements of their costume and  their serene grace. It was breathtaking. 

7) A Keiseki banquet.

This is a traditonal banquet served in ryokan (old-style hotels). It consists of 12 courses. It would have helped to have had some explanation, but I had chosen a ryokan out in the countryside which was heavy on authenticity, but light on spoken english. A better understanding of what each dish was, and how it should be eaten may have prevented that awkward moment where I was caught cooking the raw horsemeat over a little stove that was supplied, probably, for an entirely different purpose. The shocked expression and quick raise of the kimono'd hostess' eyebrows when she walked in on me, chopsticks poised, lightly sauteeing the highly prized horse meat, may well have been avoided. Ever polite and hospitable, a giggle (mine, not hers), a shake of the permed hair (hers, not mine) and my transgression was overlooked and the next dish was served. 

8) Studio Ghibli.

This is the home of the animation team who have brought to life stories like 'Spirited Away' and 'Howls' Moving Castle' - Oscar-nominated films which become box office smash hits with every new theatrical release. The attraction only allows 250 people per day through the doors and exploring the rooms of the building is like exploring the imaginative mind of Miyazaki himself. 

9) Catching the bullet train.

Or rather, buying food to take on the bullet train. From beautiful and cheap bento, to hot coffee in a can, and patisserie treats packed with ice packs to keep them chilled - the whole bullet train experience is a destination in itself, whether you're into fast travel or trains generally, or not. 

10) Seeing the cherry blossoms. Yes. They alone were worth the trip. 

So . . . who wants to see what the 10 coolest things I missed were? There is always a reason to go back.