Five years had gone by since I was in Japan last. Three years had gone by since I was last in Asia. Of course, I had my fair share of “adventures” in those years, some even warranting the prefix “mis”. My life having finally stabilised, I was able to go again.
I learnt an invaluable lesson in late 2017. Never, ever count on British trains and public transport to run on time. After having to spend £300 on a last-minute flight change due to transport running late, I booked a night in London at a hotel with easy access to Victoria Station and the Gatwick Express. Yes, I know it’s dear but I’d rather get there quickly without having to risk any delays. The loo was broken, but people still used it and the effluvia had been splashed around the floor. I was also able to sneak in a visit to the Victoria and Albert in order to see their temporary exhibit on Frida Kahlo. When I lived in Madrid, I made a point of visiting a museum dedicated to what had been my favourite painter to that point, Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida. As with most things Spanish, I was utterly underwhelmed by what I saw and I have been ambivalent about his artwork since. It looks better in pictures than in real life. Frida Kahlo was the complete opposite. I like her artwork far better now, I appreciate her far more now.
The flight from Gatwick to Copenhagen was uneventful. Norwegian are pleasant enough and they’re not as petty as Sleazy Jet or Lyin’ Air. I didn’t really have the time to see anything in Copenhagen. We needed to leave for the airport in the morning and I was too tired to be bothered having had a neurotic work schedule for months and enough stress to test even the most patient of saints. I bought our tea in London. He, my travelling companion, the domesticated Viking, enjoyed that.
The first part of our flight to Japan was nerve-racking. We had 40 minutes to connect at Helsinki, the flight to Helsinki was fully booked and they only arrived on time — just. Fortunately, we were able to board quickly and arrive in Finland with enough time. Unfortunately, we also arrived during the mid-afternoon rush when flights to Fukuoka, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Seoul, Bangkok and Chongqing were departing. Helsinki is convenient for flights to Asia. It is the northernmost major European airport which allows it to capitalise on the fast Arctic route. Finnair have done just that and developed one of the best Asian networks of any European carrier. They are also the only European carrier to offer flights directly to Fukuoka.
In order to avoid any redundant train tickets, I planned our route to go from the south to the north without having to return anywhere. Having never left Honshu, I listened to two Japanese friends and flew to Kyushu. I don’t regret it. Fukuoka Airport is very close to central Fukuoka — two metro stations, in fact. There are no additional fees to access the airport. It’s an older building, 1970s, but convenient, quick and efficient. The immigration and customs proceeded quickly and painlessly.
We stayed at a flat in southern Fukuoka. It was quiet and well-maintained. The owner was kind enough to allow us to check in four hours early and prepared a fresh fruit plate for us. He was also kind enough to look for the domesticated Viking after we were separated. Japanese urban planning is confusing and it took us a short time to find where we were staying. We collapsed soon after we checked in. Our flight departed in the mid-afternoon European time and arrived early in the morning Japanese time, meaning that with our not having had any sleep on the flight we were effectively up at 4 AM. It was his first time sleeping on a futon — the proper, Japanese version. We found it comically awkward lying across from each other on the floor with a table separating us.
We had a simple tea that evening — soba and tempura. I enjoyed it, he loved it. It was simple, fresh and delicious. The following morning, we met an old acquaintance who moved early this year from Tokyo to Fukuoka. He took us to Daizaifu, an ancient town near Fukuoka known for its shrine and connexions with Tang China. It was fascinating. I enjoyed a Zen temple the most — just sitting there, quietly, looking at the leaves — just starting to change colour — swaying in the breeze.
We returned to Fukuoka and went to see a park, the ruins of Fukuoka Castle and then had tea — a pub dinner and tuna sashimi. Naturally, I was obliged to order everything — including the written order — in Japanese. I managed. The following day, we met again for lunch and he took us to see his office. He works for an advertisement agency and is the director of the Fukuoka branch. It was good to see him again.
We left for Hiroshima. It was my third time. He was overjoyed. He dreamt since he was a boy about travelling by Shinkansen. It wasn’t a dream any more, it was a reality. He squeaked excitedly when our train arrived. He loved every second of it. For the third time, I stayed at the Sunroute Hotel. Our room, by my request, was on a higher floor and had a river view. We were a couple hours early, but they let us check-in anyway. It was a pleasant visit. I went shopping and bought a couple pieces of artwork. I dragged him to Andersen Bakery — Japan’s version of a Danish bakery. Viking wasn’t terribly impressed by the authenticity, or lack thereof. Still, it was fairly good and we had a good chuckle. We visited Miyajima. It is definitely touristy, but still pretty and he took some pictures. It is said to be one of Japan’s most beautiful places. In the natural sense, that is true, but I didn’t care for the hordes. The Peace Museum was closed, but there was one particularly moving artefact on display at the Peace Memorial Park. A blood-stained shirt that belonged to a ten-year-old boy who died following the dropping of the A-Bomb was shown to the public. What did it say? In the 20th century, Japan went down the path of aggressive warfare and this symbolises the consequences. War brings only tragedy and loss for the many.
We left for Osaka by shinkansen. Osaka isn’t much, but it is convenient. The hotel was quite the experience. I don’t mean that in a good way. To be fair, it was clean and not inconveniently located. It was also loud and the room was tiny. The only saving grace was that we had a balcony with a river view. And we saw a party boat bursting with drunk Japanese people float past. That was slightly amusing in a depressing way. The man working at the front desk was a right treat. He took an instant disliking to us, especially to me. I realised that we had arrived early and I was not under the impression that we were entitled to our room earlier than the stated 4 PM. We merely wanted to drop off our suitcases. He only grudgingly, very, very grudgingly, agreed to let us leave them under the stairs. When we did check in, he had a hideous attitude and he made a point of utterly ignoring us whenever he saw us — unless, of course, he was inclined to sneer at me. Ho hum, pig’s bum, innit? When I said that the room was tiny… At times, I woke up because domesticated Viking turned over and started breathed on my neck — or he hit me with his arm. Not intentional, but we had almost no space and the mattress was painfully thin.
We visited Himeji Castle. It was beautiful and it was also one of his life-long dreams. To be fair, it was also one of mine. It hovers over the landscape, imposing but understated — elegant almost to the point of vulgarity. We had lunch near the station. It was, as usual, exquisite. I was happy to speak Japanese, to use it in contexts other than speaking with one of my teachers in that language. We went to Kyoto. I went there before six and a half years ago. I wasn’t as impressed as I thought I would be. I didn’t dislike it quite as much this time, but it wasn’t my favourite part of Japan, either. To-ji was well worth the visit, as was Heian Jinja with its fabulous garden. Kinkaku-ji, something that has interested me for years, was beautiful but it was overwhelmed by hordes of tourists which made it lose much of its charm. The best part of Kyoto was the evening course we took on Ikebana, Japanese flower arranging and the Japanese tea ceremony. The teacher is a master practitioner of both. It was slightly expensive, but we agreed it was better to have the session alone. She was courteous, but partial to the domesticated Viking. He was enthralled and hung onto every word. I had an air of jaded ennui about me. I’ve done that many times before. I still enjoy it, but I lost my beginner’s passion years ago.
We left Osaka and our claustrophobic confines and travelled to Kanazawa — a dream I had held onto for many years. We travelled by express train. I was in a state of rapture travelling through the Japanese countryside. I felt light. Arriving in Kanazawa was a profound relief, a world so different. We were both overjoyed when we saw our room. It was spacious, meticulously maintained and airy. The owners were obviously very proud and they took extreme care to maintain everything beautifully. I rather enjoyed my time there. I enjoyed the Higashi Chaya district — one of Japan’s best-preserved historic centres. I was happy to see Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s greatest gardens — an ambition I’ve held onto since I was a child. The rebuilt castle was interesting, but not quite as much as the late-Tokugawa villa in the garden. Gold leaf ice cream — now that was something! I rather enjoyed it.
The highlight of Kanazawa was a special performance at one of Japan’s most famous “cha-ya” — tea houses. The mistress of the house, Lady Baba, agreed to open her house for a couple hours a day for a special performance open to holidaymakers. At my suggestion, we had front row tickets and it was worth every rin. It is rare to be able to see geiko, the proper term for “geisha” outside the Kanto region, perform. Feeling rather cheeky, I goaded the domesticated Viking to volunteer to play drums with one of the geiko. Lady Baba caught onto that and had none of it. She volunteered me to do so instead. Those who are willing to risk their closest friends’ discomfort for the sake of a chuckle ought always to be prepared to do so themselves, to chuckle at their own discomfort. I bought a handmade cup and a copper wind chime in Kanazawa.
Nagano was interesting enough. For the domesticated Viking’s sake, I reserved a room in a business hotel with western rooms — including a soft bed. It was a relief for him, I admit it was a relief for me, too. I can handle sleeping on straw mats with thin mattresses, but no longer being the youngest, I rather enjoy small comforts. Nagano is a declining city. Like many parts of provincial Japan, it is slowly losing its population. As a result, it had a very different aura to the bustle of Fukuoka, Japan’s youngest major city and one of its fastest growing. Hiroshima and Kanazawa are growing, active regional centres. There not being terribly much to see in Nagano, we were both happy to visit Matsumoto and its great black castle — arguably the finest in Japan. We travelled through the Japanese Alps. I was in rapture, enthralled by the breathtaking beauty of the place. I couldn’t get enough of it. I couldn’t get enough of the castle, its views over the 10,000-foor Hida Mountains.
The final stop was Tokyo. This was where the domesticated Viking and I spent the most time apart. I was happy to be alone. To be introverted, to be entirely engrossed in my own thoughts. It was my fourth time in Tokyo. Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it. Actually, I somewhat enjoyed it. Then again, I booked a room with two rooms(!) near Ueno Park, my favourite part of Tokyo. I walked around the old Shitamachi area. I visited the old Yoshida off licence and, finally, made it to the Shitamachi Museum — a museum dedicated to life for the majority of people, not only the wealthy and powerful. I finally made it to the Bank of Japan’s currency museum, too. We left Japan. Getting to Narita was a chore. The train we took didn’t have a loo. It was early in the morning. It took over an hour. I think I set a new record for the fastest 100 yard sprint once we arrived at airport. Gold medal for the United Kingdom! Cue “God Save the Queen”.
The return flight was on a new Airbus A350. It is an excellent aircraft and it was a better flight than the flight to Japan on an older Airbus A330. When we arrived in Copenhagen, the domesticated Viking cursed everything around him. He was, we were, in a daze. He fell in love with Japan, going so far as to look at flats for sale in Fukuoka. I accepted it, grudgingly. We spent Sunday together in Copenhagen eating pølser before having cake at at Conditori La Glace. We visited the Danish National Museum. Perhaps the best thing of all, we probably became better friend during that holiday. Spending over two weeks with someone always carries risk. Somehow, we got on and didn’t irk or provoke each other. If anything, we bough laughed more than either of us had laughed for years. On Monday morning, we parted ways. He went to work, I flew back to London before taking the train to Dorchester. The journey was made more pleasant. A very engaging passenger sat next to me and we rabbited on non-stop from Waterloo to Wareham. It took over a week to re-emerge from a post-Japan stupor. I nearly wept when I unpacked the last few things. In autumn 2020, I will return, come what may. 日本、何時も有り難う。何同でも、大好きよ。
PS: In January, I am taking domesticated Viking on a long weekend visit to Kalmar, Sweden. What will we get up to there?