In my more cynical moments, I’ve grumbled that all Japanese cities look the same, an endless expanse of YouMe malls, flat pack apartments and telegraph wires. Well, bollocks to that. In the first four days of my journey, I visited three cities, each with its own vibe, its own look, and its own experiences to share. Future blogs might be more about the people I meet and the events that unfold on my travels, but this one’s all about the places, three Japanese cityscapes. In lieu of more waffling, here’s part one of my travelogue.
I follow none of my own rules. Always start your journey on the right foot, I said. Give yourself enough time to enjoy places, I said. Choose young, cool hostels where you’ll make friends, I said.
So I showed up in Yokohama, painfully hungover from our summer camp wrap party, with a day to see one of Japan’s pivotal cities; arguably, the place which created modern Japan. I lay in bed in my rough hotel populated entirely by octogenarian smokers, catching up on the madness of King Boris on my phone for two endless hours. And then I loped off to Chinatown to check out the temples and shops. Over wonton soup and my first-ever, possibly carcinogenic pidan (century egg)１, I watched Jacob Rees-Mogg２ lie to somebody or other.
Alright, so despite the excellent food, Yokohama was a washout. But don’t let me put you off! The city is interesting as hell. The first port to open up to Western３ ships for two centuries, in 1858, Yokohama was the point of entry for foreign influence, and foreign people. The author Lafcadio Hearn and countless others set ashore here. Even now, it’s the least Japanese-looking city in Japan, part Miami, part Philadelphia, part London and part Bristol too. You can feel the internationalism swirling around you, and it’s a creative place too, where bands form and cultures meet at the waterfront. Japan needs more of this. I want to come back someday, and meet it with a less nauseous head on my shoulders.
Naked in the Rain
Four hours by bus into the Japan Alps, Nagano is comically different from Yokohama. Nagano is one of the most nihonteki (characteristically Japanese) places I’ve been to- orderly, traditional, aesthetically delicate and full of maples that glow red with the promise of autumn. Lots of Japanese cities have great buildings, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been somewhere with so many good ones. In Iwakuni and Matsue, the beauty is fenced off in an old town, and people have covered much of the rest with hideous malls or plain, unmemorable suburbia. In Nagano, there’s beauty all over the place, flowing out from the high street with its neat merchant houses and wood-shuttered windows. Japan should have more of this, too. I just don’t know what I want.
First up in the morning was Zenkoji. Now, if you’ve been in Japan a certain amount of time, you’ll be familiar with ‘temple fatigue’ the deep-seated weariness that sets in when all the haloed Buddhas and gravelled forecourts blend together in one megasacred multiplex.
Fortunately, Zenkoji is not normal. Everything about this place is out of the ordinary. The main hall does it first, a colossal wooden bird of a building that swoops down on you while you’re casting incense into the huge receptacle in front. I listened to a priest strike the temple bell over and over for ten o’clock, and admired a cryptic abacus outside the hall. Then, I stepped inside, into a heady, light-choked world of gold and black４.
In the bowels of the temple is the key to spiritual rebirth. Yeah, yeah, they all say that. But in Zenkoji’s case it’s a bit more literal, in the form of a gold key hiding in a pitch-black tunnel under the temple floor. The darkness aids meditation, but find the key in the wall and there’s your shortcut to deeper religious discovery. After I had been in the tunnel for a couple of minutes, I started feeling profoundly creeped out. Anyway, I found the key, I think. It’s hard to say in the only darkness. Across from Zenkoji, a museum holds countless images of Buddhas, some of them a near millennium old.
Nagano is famous for three things: winter sports, soaring peaks, and rice products, sake amongst them. So I decamped to Nishinomon, the seventeenth century sake brewery that was once owned by Zenkoji’s priests. You can take a tour of the brewery, and I obliged, taking in the huge metal tanks and pipes, the brute machinery of drunkenness. It’s mostly modern, what lives there now, but there are clues to an older world of bicycle deliveries and hand-pressing in the photos on the walls. At the shop, I settled on something different, a sharp, rich plum wine or umezake made using Nagano plums. It’ll be my last toast to summer.
To complete my Very Japanese Day (TM), I roamed the backstreets to Uruoikan, an onsen by a river in the shade of a mountain. Unlike a lot of those quasi-onsen public baths in the city, this place is the real deal, with subterranean hot mineral-rich water bubbling up and an outdoor pool. The weather was overcast- as I sank into the hot water, it started to rain.
I am aware that ‘ways to be naked’ is becoming a weird recurring theme in my blog, but I can’t emphasise enough how nice it is to be in an outdoor onsen in the rain. The cold water and the hot on your skin together is hypnotic. While Japanese bathers hid under the gazebo, I wanted nothing more than the downpour.
In fact, since I’ve been on a roll of ‘shit guys don’t talk about’ lately, here goes: Japan has done wonders for my body confidence. There’s nothing like being routinely naked in front of strangers at the swimming pool, gym, and onsen to shake off some of that unhealthy western shame about the body. The more I’ve been here, the more I feel comfortable in myself. Add to that a summer-in-the-great-outdoors tan, and, well. I’d do me. Lose the ridiculous beard and we’ll talk, mate.
City of Rebels
The train journey from Nagano to Matsumoto must be one of the best in Japan. It clings to the sides of mountains, affording thirty-mile views of the valleys below. It loops back on itself, ascends towards the clouds, and stops at some ethereal place called Obasute, which, like, take me back please. Sadly my phone died en route and I had to pay through the nose for a taxi to my accomodation, a bathhouse-themed hostel on the edge of the city. I’m learning a lot of travel lessons quickly this week, and learning lessons ain’t cheap. Although this was the onsen district, there’s only so much bathing a person can do in one day, so I curled up in bed and watched Netflix. Specifically, 13 Reasons Why, a high-school drama which gets less plausible with each episode.
I was there for the castle, really. Matsumoto Castle is one of Japan’s twelve originals, exceptionally well-preserved, and one of the oldest, built between 1592-1614 when Japan was still at war. Mieko, a volunteer guide, gave me an intriguing tour, showing me the secret floor with purpose unknown, the collection of beautifully made Japanese muskets, hidden guns and showy swords, the moon-viewing platform and the ishiotoshi, or rock-dropping holes. Scattered around were six crests for six different families who literally lorded over the castle, and then in time lost it.
My favourite fact about Matsumoto castle, about the city itself even,concerns modern history. In the seventies, George Lucas came to Matsumoto, a young filmmaker on pilgrimage. He’d loved his early experiences of old Kurosawa films. He saw samurai armour in the castle and began putting together an idea. In time, he went home and designed… Darth Vader.
I will forever more see Darth Vader as a Nagano boy. Drawn to the darkside by his baser instincts, there’s an alternative timeline where he gave up on all that ‘evil’ stuff and moved to the Nagano countryside to become a gentleman farmer. In the evenings, he sits on a mountain terrace, glass of plum wine in his hand, toasting the finer things in life as he surveys his lands below him. In fact, you know Disney should let me make the next Star Wars trilogy. It’d be a whole fucking lot better than Star Wars Episode XIV: Ooh, Is Rey Evil Now?
After checking out the city museum and eating grilled fish and salad, I wandered through the Matsumoto Timepiece Museum, which, ironically, I don’t have time for right now. This travelogue is long enough. Another day. I spilled out onto the streets, and walked around for a while, a little lost. Matsumoto clearly cares about its history, but the streets were noisier than staid Nagano, and I found a dead good record shop called Beatnik Records, the kind of place which has piles of CDs stacked half at random and is full of strange gems. There was streetside eating and a wild, reedy path along the river. I found myself liking Matsumoto the most of the three cities- it seemed offbeat, quietly unconventional.
Jimmy and Michael had their own explanation for this. I found them running a vegan cafe just off, Nakamichi. It’s a brave business venture in meat-loving Japan, but one that’s working for them. ‘It’s a city of rebels. When the government told Matsumoto to knock its castle down5, we said no.’ Well, that kind of figures. What’s it like running a business here? ‘Well, I feel like it’s sort of a merchant town. There’s a lot of start-up spirit here. If you want to try and do something, people are like, great, let’s help!’
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So here we are. As I finish writing this, I’m on the late train into my former home, Hiroshima, to catch up with some old friends and at least one new one. After that I’m hoping to get out and see some proper wilderness in Kumamoto. I’ll be writing from the road again soon enough. Catch you then.
1- made by preserving eggs for months with various stones, minerals and rice husks.
2- if you don’t know who this is, I’m seriously so happy for you.
3- well, apart from the Dutch at Deshima. That’s another story.
4- I’m not sure what Siddharta Gautama would have made of all this glitz.
5- in the 1870s, after the Meiji Restoration, when the government decided castles were a symbol of old Japan that needed to be overcome.