I wallowed comfortably in the exceedingly warm waters, the balmy mountain air was cool and smelled of the rich wood my surroundings were constructed from. I was butt-naked and in my first real Japanese onsen, the famous hot bath houses of these islands. The small courtyard contained a number of sunken baths of various sizes and yet I was alone. Another set of male travellers had been around and they had taken the cultural cowardly route and worn swimming trunks. There was no way I was going to do that, not that I am aggressively body confident, simply that I have been on a couple of naturist holidays and nakedness in front of others doesn’t concern me. When they saw my nakedness I think they were slightly embarrassed by their choice of trunks and very soon they left. The sun was high up and it was a beautiful sky-blue day. In the far distance, The only clouds I could see where those completely covering Mount Fuji. Somehow the fact that I couldn’t see the “old man” (few visitors actually do as it is clouded over so often) made its masked presence, surely enormous behind the clouds, a little exhilarating. Yes, this could have easily been my idea of absolute heaven and something worth travelling all around the world to experience. I had been imagining it just like this for nothing short of 10 years. If not for one thing totally ruining the experience…
I took a very long breath in and sighed.
Over a cheap speaker the onsen staff was piping in extremely irritating J-Pop bubblegum music. I have an eclectic musical taste, and like everything from Daft Punk to Miles Davis, but the sound was truly horrible. Try to imagine that a 10 year-old Kylie Minogue drank 50 cups of coffee, cloned herself 5 times and sang a song that sounded as saccharine sweet as having your teeth forcibly drilled out with Brighton Rock.
I tried, but I couldn’t take it for more than a few minutes and so rose from the heat and left to find a quieter place inside. Cesca wasn’t with me, she was in the girls-only side of the Onsen, and so I simply found a nice Japanese room laid out in traditional tatami style and went to sleep.
Yes, coming up to see the mountain from Fujikawaguchiko was a mixture of pleasure and pain. Our guesthouse up here was fantastic.
Equal best with the incredible YHA high up in Halls Gap, Australia.
All fabulously made out in high quality wood, with clean walls and large airy rooms.
If I could have bought the guest house whole right there and then I would have done so without hesitation.
It was lovely. The staff was the normal polite but seemingly-unhelpful Japanese found in these places. But, I was getting used to that as we eventually had quite an issue with the man in K’s House Tokyo.
During our Tokyo check-out, we had simply asked him to watch our bags while we went out that day. We had been guests there for almost a week. Every single guesthouse we had stayed in around the whole world had agreed to this. Literally, in every country, city and town featured in this journal we had done this. Mostly, they had a room to stick them in. Some places even had large racks to store them on.
He shook his head, “No.”
I tried reasoning, “Do you not have a room you can just put them by in while we are out? We will be back in a few hours.”
“Why not? You have made a couple of hundred quid off us, why not help us?”
“I can pay.”
I looked at Cesca and she at me. Clearly there was some huge cultural misunderstanding going on here, one where both parties thought that the other was being unreasonable. As is important when travelling in another’s country, I tried to see what the problem was from his point of view. Perhaps, space being of such a premium, he couldn’t fit our bags in his enormous guest house? Perhaps it was a security concern or because of terrorism?
Perhaps he was just an asshole.
Yes, I think that was it. So we left K’s and took them with us. Sitting in the lovely guest house by the mountain I felt that frustration leave me. The space was very special and airy. I therefore decided to create something, which is always a process that makes me feel better. I made a film while Cesca went out early to try to take photos of the mountain.
Afterwards we met up and went to the mountain’s visitor center. There we learned all about the great Mount Fuji;
it’s wonders and dangers.
But it was time to talk. We had considered WWOOFing (Willing Workers On Organic Farms), but the Japanese branch of this company had been exceedingly unhelpful in assisting us to find a place. I knew we were slightly off-season for many locations and had asked to peruse the “book” before buying it. I was happy to pay once we had selected somewhere, but the book was very expensive and if we didn’t find something then it would be wasted money that we could ill afford. The last thing I was trying to do was avoid paying the WWOOF people, but that is what they accused me off and in very angry terms. Consequently, I decided that I wanted nothing to do with them. This meant we were a week now unplanned.
“Darling,” I said, pitching my voice in the international husband tone for bad news. My voice said, without saying it, that I had bad news to discuss and I wasn’t being “difficult”, “horrible” or “mean” (all crimes in a marriage).
“What?” she said in the formal wife tones of response. Her voice said, in one word, that she recognised the pitch and, while she appreciated the inevitability of the coming conversation, her mood was not conducive to bad news.
Two words. A life time of conversation carried. All married couples can do this.
“We can’t afford to stay in Japan much longer,” I said, waffling as little as possible.
It was costing us nigh on 900 GBP per week to exist in Japan, barely exist. This was killing our already murdered, buried and recycled as firelighters budget.
“But-,” she began.
“I know. I love it too. A lot.”
“So why leave now?”
“No, not now, just earlier. I still want to go to Kyoto and also to Himeji, then we must go. What we must do now is change up the flights.”
She hugged me.
“Don’t worry,” I said my face buried lovingly in her hair, “we will come back.”
So, I went online and moved up our flight a week. While we had been in China we had already booked the bullet train tickets for Tokyo to Kyoto (they are much cheaper when booked this way as tourists). We collected our things and returned to Tokyo for one final night.
To celebrate our final Tokyo day we went to the Tokyo City Hall, which is a giant skyscraper with incredible (free) views of the city.
It was there, staring out of the windows, that Cesca got talking to a very nice middle-age Japanese man, who worked high up in Mitsubishi, he gave us a brilliant talk on the views around the tower.
His pleasant politeness, equal to our natural state, meant that a few happy hours went by together. Eventually we bowed and thanked him and parted company. Meeting people like that makes travelling worthwhile for me.
After the tower’s bar Sabatini drained more cash from the budget at an alarming rate, we moved onto Ginza and the giant Sony HQ.
This had some incredible tech exhibits and a mini cinema demonstrating the highest quality sound system I have ever heard, which was pumping out the Rolling Stones documentary movie on constant replay. Happily we went out that night to enjoy the nightlife and try a Japanese Internet cafe, which was quite an experience. Tokyo is quite lovely at night. The soft air, and pleasantly thought out architecture, well- we both could feel it. It is also very clean. I think that this is probably due to the ratio of Japanese to Foreigners.
To explain by way of example. Earlier that day we had been walking down a narrow road and ahead I could see some workmen digging up the street. They had the normal brightly coloured barriers up sectioning off half the street. To enable traffic to flow one of the workers was holding up the Japanese version of a traffic “lollypop” sign. I looked at him as we approached. He was the smartest looking workman I have ever seen. His clothes were immaculate and he was wearing bright white gloves without a blemish on them. Then, as we came closer, he bowed. Cesca and I shared a look of wonder. In Japan people look like they take pride in their work, whatever that work is, and all the jobs are being performed by Japanese. Whereas in the UK many jobs are performed by immigrants. Now, before I start to sound racist let me clarify this point. My society unfortunately looks down on “low grade” jobs. We have foreign people do our cleaning, our road working, our caring for the elderly, etc. These positions are (quite wrongly) considered “lesser”. Not so in Japan. All jobs are (predominantly) performed by Japanese; fully paid up members of the culture and society. The unification of the culture, the 98% Japanese, the “Japan for the Japanese” sentiment, means that these workers are not devalued. Honour comes from doing your job well and not by a valuation of personal wealth. I really like and respect that. I am not advocating a “Britain for the British” approach, I am just advocating a culture where it is about “doing” rather than “having”.
The next morning we got up early and went present shopping. Probably the best knife shop in the world is the Kiya store in Tokyo.
It was established in 1792 by a dynasty of knife makers who can trace their lineage back to 1571! Here you can buy blades of simply awesome quality, fit to grace the home of any Samurai.
My brother, back in England, had become a chef and I wanted to get him something special. 100 GBP later I had the greatest chef’s knife ever made by a man as well as a little something special for my pocket.
Buying here is the only way to get these knives as they don’t sell on the web or mail order. Either go there or don’t have one. That is an attitude I saw all over Japan. They really don’t appear to go in for American-style globalisation at the small level of craftsman. It is something of a pilgrimage to fly to Japan for a knife, so I hope he liked it!
Presents packed in our bags, we headed down to the Bullet Train station.
The white long-nosed train pulled into the platform and we both marvelled at it.
Travelling in this style had long been a dear wish and, I bet, a wish of many westerners.
The train was well proportioned and we sat on the right side as it glided out of the station exactly on time.
The speed it got up to was honestly shocking.
I have been travelling on trains all my life and commute into work, but I wasn’t ready for the speed of the world moving past the window and it made me a little speed sick.
“Bloody hell!” I said to Cesca.
“Never mind that,” she said, “look!”
I followed her pointing finger to see in the distance Mount Fuji clear all the way to the top! I rushed to start my camera and I barely caught it as we zoomed through the Japanese countryside and it was lost behind buildings.
Nevertheless, we got to see it after all and we both smiled to each other in happiness.
After the short journey we arrived in Kyoto and I found the city I would most like to live in in all the world…