The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks in Japan
Disney and the
Beatles? Barry Dunstall finds out whether Tokyo is really so different
halfway down the Japanese archipelagos Pacific coastline at
just the point where the land starts swinging to the west, almost
seems to be the reluctant capital, backing away from the rest of
the country. The city is, after all, too modern, too dynamic and
frankly too Western to be the face of Japans traditional values.
Japan began assimilating elements of Western civilization in the
late 19th century and Tokyo continues to do so with vigour. There
is still plenty of good old-fashioned sushi and sumo wrestling in
Tokyo, of course, but only next door to hi-tech electronics stores,
Beatles tribute bars and Disney. If you want a culture shock, go
out in Tokyo is mercifully relaxed and inexpensive. Japanese fast food
includes gyudon (rice topped with cooked beef and sautéed onions),
tendon (rice topped with tempura) and soba or udon noodles. Sushi is
generally cheap, especially at the famous kaiten-zushi shops
where the food is served in bite-sized chunks on small plates circling
the room on conveyor belts. The most common ingredients are tuna, squid
and prawn, often accompanied by cucumber, pickled radish and sweet egg
omelette. And while were on the subject of eating, some words
of advice on Japanese etiquette: its rude to point chopsticks
at someone over dinner, pouring yourself a drink is also considered
impolite and so is eating in the street.
a glimpse of Tokyos automotive future, I visit Toyotas
Mega Web complex, ideal for those pitiful men who find carburettors
more exciting than the thought of Jennifer Lopez naked in honey.
You can test drive the latest models, try virtual reality motoring
or wander among sports cars from the 1950s onwards. Like a car showroom
crashing into a funfair, Mega Web is part of Palette Town,
an amusement park opened in 1999 and including one of the worlds
highest Ferris wheels. Take a whirl at night, when Tokyo spreads
out below you in neon glory, like a permanent urban firework display.
By day, there are spectacular views of the smog.
are all very well, but Tokyo is really the city of the subway train.
The vast underground system is quick, cheap, efficient and almost entirely
bewildering. The problem is not getting from A to B within the city.
The problem is getting from A to B within the labyrinthine stations.
It can easily take 20 minutes to walk from one platform to another at
Tokyos main subway station. One wrong turn and you may as well
set up camp for the night. Luckily, the Japanese are extremely helpful.
Stand around looking clueless for long enough and someone will come
over to help you. They may not speak English but they will try to help
you, even if they dont know what theyre trying to help you
The Japanese love a bit of retail therapy. Tokyos department stores
are remarkable, among the biggest I have ever seen. The stock ranges
from kimonos to wigs, as if the shops are obliged to sell every product
on the planet. There are cameras the size of credit cards (and just
as damaging to your bank balance). Of all the things I see, my favourite
is a pair of remote-controlled electronic feet designed to carry cans
of beer around the house. Fly out with a few spare suitcases so you
can bring everything you buy back.
Evening falls, so I join a few friends at Abbey Road, one of the Beatles
bars I mentioned earlier. Abbey Road may not be the classiest nightspot
in Tokyo, but the all-Japanese tribute band are musically far superior
to any group youre likely to find playing in an English pub on
a Friday night. They may not look much like the Fab Four and they may
not be able to mimic Scouse accents, but they match the Beatles
early musical style precisely. And, to be fair, the vocals arent
entirely inaccurate. The Japanese Ringo cant sing either.
In search of a more spiritual Japan one day, I leave Tokyo and head
south for an hour by train to the ancient coastal town of Kamakura,
once the seat of the feudal government. Kamakuras most famous
attraction today is the bronze Great Buddha, cast in 1252, over 13 metres
high and weighing more than 120 tonnes. Buddhism arrived in Japan from
mainland Asia in the sixth century, bringing lessons of enlightenment
and salvation that have been embraced ever since. Many of the 118 temples
and 41 shrines throughout Kamakura are surrounded by gardens that combine
plants, sand, water and rock to celebrate the beauty of nature. My favourite
of the temples is Hasedera, founded in the eighth century and graced
with waterfalls idly wandering down the hillside. Standing around are
tiny statues of the Buddha, many of which have been dressed, rather
surprisingly but presumably with all due reverence, in woolly hats and
raincoats. Its impossible to leave Kamakura without a feeling
you fancy escaping from Tokyo for a while but Kamakura does not
appeal, the elegant and iconic Mount Fuji can also be reached on
a day trip. At 3,776 metres, the mountain is Japans highest
peak and is particularly attractive to climbers in July and August.
More leisurely types enjoy the nearby Fuji Five Lakes district,
which offers opportunities for hiking, boating, fishing, camping
visiting Tokyo with children has no choice: you must by law go to Disneyland,
the nations most popular theme park. Turning the Maihama district
on the outskirts of the city into a destination in its own right, the
hotel-surrounded parks main attraction is perhaps the Disney Sea,
complete with a volcano on Captain Nemos Mysterious Island
and a cruise liner, the SS Columbia. Nearly everything at Disneyland
is moulded in the iconic shape of Mickey Mouses head, from the
coasters on the restaurant tables to the exhaust pipes on the resort
buses. The overall effect is rather unsettling, like a brainwashing
experiment controlled by a dictatorship. You get the feeling that anyone
found not having fun will be shot.
Over 12 million people live in the Tokyo metropolitan area, including
plenty of fat Romanian women offering you a massage in an
alleyway. To say the streets are buzzing would be one of the great understatements,
but Im sure this most accommodating of cities will always find
room for one more tourist. Go east. Go now.
Barry Dunstall April 2004
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