As soon as you hit the immigration queue, you realise that things are different in Japan: the people managing the queue are brisk, friendly and efficient: guys are moving the tapes around so that you don’t have an interminable zig-zag through empty lanes, a single girl dispatches each traveller to one of ten kiosks, checking paperwork for gross errors as she does it. The briskness and efficiency continues with the lady at the JR (Japan Rail) desk at Haneda Airport, who, in spite of limited English, sorts out our rail cards and various reservations, including getting us seated in the right places, telling us which side of the train we need to be on for Mt Fuji (not something I’d realised was an issue) and so on.
Having said which, they need to be: this country still does bureaucracy – on real paper – in a big way. Every train reservation took several pieces of paper, innumerable stamps and a bewildering number of different screens. The railway network isn’t integrated, so reservations outside the JR East region require the use of a whole different set of processes, including timetabling printed out on an ancient tractor-fed impact printer (anyone remember those?). The banking IT isn’t exactly integrated to global standards, either: lots of places don’t take credit cards, there are fewer ATMs than any city I’ve been to for years. In Nikko, a couple of hours outside Tokyo but still a major tourist site, there appears to be only three ATMs, none of which take foreign credit cards.
But the brisk, friendly, get-things-done kind of attitude seems to pervade everyday life: the everyday virtues of politeness and kindness to strangers are continually apparent. When we asked the way to the correct platform at Tokyo’s large and confusing Shimbashi station, perish the thought that the thirty-something man we asked should merely tell us the answer: in spite of having looked in the tearing hurry that characterises most users of the Tokyo subway, he turned round and accompanied us a goodly long way to the correct ticket gate for our line change.
We were expecting the high population density in Tokyo – it’s pretty well charted knowledge, after all, and we all know that the subway at rush hour is a serious crush. But it’s other things that bring it home to you: the amazing network of canals as you arrive from Haneda are a tell-tale of land reclamation from Tokyo Bay on a large scale, and when you’re at the Edo-Tokyo museum, well out of the centre of town, you’re still on the kind of density of high-rise building that you would normally expect only in downtown city centres. And when you finally take a Shinkansen train out of the capital, the dense urbanisation continues, only slightly abated, for just about the whole of the hour or so trip to Utsonomiya.
We all know that Japan’s cuisine is very separate from those of the rest of the world – different flavours, super-high quality fish, etc. The striking thing we weren’t expecting was the attention to how food looks. At the kaiseki (Japanese haute cuisine) restaurant in our ryokan in Nikko, we must have used some 20-30 items of crockery each, every one carefully chosen – sometimes to match some particular seasonal theme such as, in our case, plum blossom.
This is also the country of food packaging. The sweets/biscuits/general goodies shops pack everything in individual portions (down to a single biscuit or piece of crystallised fruit) before arraying it neatly in a box so beautifully that you could hardly conceive of gift-wrapping it: special see through model boxes are provided so that you can see what you’re buying. And it’s not the factories that go for multiple packaging. When the rice course at one of our dinners had utterly defeated us (rice is typically eaten at the end of a Japanese meal, which in this case meant about the tenth course), our leftover rice dish was given to us to take away in four individual portions, each in its own tray and lovingly wrapped in four layers of cling film. (We didn’t ask, by the way, it just appeared in a bag when we paid the bill).
Nikko epitomises some of the contrasts in the country. The town is famous for its major shrines of the Tokugawa shoguns (the first of whom, Ieyasu, was the single most important figure in making Japan into the single country that it remains today). The Tokugawa shrines and temples are in a sort of Japanese baroque – gigantically ornamented to the point where it’s quite hard to get your head round the sensory overload of different themes and motifs. And – on a holiday week end, at least – they are packed rigid with visitors. It’s all very well organised, but Buddhist calm and Ieyasu’s own rather austere-sounding personality are very much submerged in the throng.
But step just a few yards off the beaten track and the world changes. In the blink of an eye, you find yourself in the utter serenity and clear air of the mountain cedar forests; as you tread the well tended path through giant, ancient trees, you pass ancient shrines which don’t attract the big restoration funds: there might be a single brazier of incense burning, but the tiny stone buddhas with fractured limbs have not been tended. Yet amazing carvings can await you, and these are places of deep spiritual calm.
Back at the ryokan, the onsen bath is utterly seductive: a tub with continually circulating hot water, the perfect way to soothe limbs aching from a day’s hiking on mountain paths. There’s plenty of ritual attached – as in all Japanese things, there’s a precise schema of what order you’re supposed to do everything in – but the ritual works. In one of the busiest, most crowded countries on the planet, we finish the day more relaxed than I can remember.