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The Japanese and their Environment

We arrived (as previously discussed) by train to Takayama, a well-preserved little town that is proud of its craftsmanship and heritage. We were transferred to another ryokan this time a little larger, nestling in the beautiful Northern Alps. A British missionary, Walter Weston, gave the range this name, having been struck at how similar they looked to those he climbed in Europe. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the Japanese Alpine Club at the turn of the last century. We really do get everywhere.

We took advantage of the location by hopping on the Shin Hodaka cable car up to a typically well-organised observation platform which afforded gorgeous views of a majestically mountainous and deserted landscape. One really needs to recalibrate one’s preconception that Japan is just heaving with people, all reading cartoon mags and playing tamagochi. We also travelled to Kamikochi and went for a three hour hike up the paths following the Azusa River deep into the mountains: although both Karen and I were suffering from “Fuji legs” (Son was showing off, jumping from rock to rock. Oh to be 12), it was a beautiful walk, one that the Japanese are rightly proud of. The river is a fast flowing beast, discarding rocks and stones on the way down. It was crystal clear and freezing. As at Fuji we encountered many a local off for a hike in the mountains, all kitted out to the nines. The sun was out and it glinted off the river, providing dappled light in the woods alongside the mountains that rose steeply from the narrow valley. We rounded off the day with a (now) obligatory soak in the hot springs at the ryokan and some magnificent beef.

Which brings me onto the point of the post: the bemusing approach the Japanese take to their environment. It is clearly big news, given Fukushima and most locals I spoke to were keen to ween themselves off the nuclear curse (although it will take some doing: it is astonishingly hot and humid, and the modern Japanese shopper has little time for a shop that has no aircon). On the one hand, the Japanese venerate their surroundings like no other: as I said, Mount Fuji has its own religion and Shinto is at least partly based on a communion with nature. On the other, they are quite happy to scar their beautiful valleys with concrete slabs, all in the name of infrastructure stimulus, and they throw up huge golf driving range nets that quite dwarf their surroundings (planning, anyone?). Maybe the contradiction arises from the fact that I am looking at it from the lens of my own experience, that of the British obsession with conservation. Off to Hiroshima tomorrow.

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Life on a (Japanese) Train

Yesterday we had a very agreeable day travelling up to Takayama, a neat old town famous for its grid streets and hot springs as a stop off before getting to Kyoto, the final point of our Japanese adventure. This entailed driving to Mishima and getting the famous bullet train to Nagoya, where we would change and catch the mere “express train” to Takayama.

As you will all now be aware, I am a bit of a train nut and I was really looking forward to seeing the Japanese system – it would be impossible not to compare it to the Trans Siberian. (The Japanese have a word for a train buff – tetsu-chan – loosely translated as “Ironboy”, sadly very appropriate for me after going up and down Fuji and sitting/sleeping on floors for three days). The journey time (two legs each of two hours) was quite wimpy compared with my Russian trek, but it was more than enough time both to assess the trains and also to see something of the Japanese interior. The first thing to note is that the bullet trains are bloomin’ bullety: standing on the platform at Mishima at least 5 bullets whistled past, all 16 carriages through in an instant. The second thing to note was that the whole operation was delightfully precise. Shoko, our guide, plonked us on a little square painted in the platform, saying that would be where the door for carriage 10 would be. And so it turned out. You got the feeling that the driver would fall on his throttle bar if this had not been the case. To my great relief it turns out that Japanese trains have seats, you don’t have to sit on the floor.

As we left Mishima the aforementioned driver put his foot down and we were whisked up to a cool 270kph in no time at all, with barely a murmur from the track. You could have built a house of cards on the airline table in front of you, it was an incredible feeling. The trains are wide (almost as wide as Russian ones) and very comfy – sadly no sign of a restaurant car where I could have treated the staff to endless cognacs, nor any bossy provodnitsii, the ladies who lorded it in each Russian carriage. Mind you, the Japanese railway has a similar attachment to uniforms: the conductor was wearing a delightful cream double breasted suit with multiple pieces of gleaming gold insignia, with the swankiest pair of beige mock crock moccasins you have ever seen (mind you, have you ever seen a pair?). The outfit was rounded off with a military style peaked cap and issue faux leather briefcase similarly heaving with matching gold badges.

Actually the express train was more comfortable, with huge windows: you felt like you were in a conservatory with at least two feet of legroom. What of the Japanese countryside between Nagoya and Takayama? In a word, breathtaking. With so many people based in the three big sea side cities of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kawasaki, you forget about the mountainous hinterland, with steep slopes leading down to rivers that bear an astonishing resemblance to their Scottish salmon counterparts, interspersed with small hamlets on the tiny areas of flat land, tending their rice paddies as the English would their lawns.

Land of the Rising Sun

Apologies for being on radio silence. We have had a couple of action packed days out in the back of beyond, without access to wifi. I am now back in the wonderful Yoshimatsu ryokan, the aforementioned English country pub but with judo mats. Wow. Not an English pub at all, but a serious upmarket spa. Indeed, these sort of places probably hold the copyright for the sort of posh establishments you see dotted around in the West – all soft music, dressing gowns and water features. We have our own hot bath on a private balcony, shielded and fanned by acers. I am sitting here writing this to you sitting in a kimono next to the central pond, cooled by a gentle breeze off Lake Ashi. I was thinking James Bond in Dr No. Karen says lobster in fancy dress.

We got here the night before last, and were treated to two ritualistic Japanese meals for dinner and then breakfast the next day, punctuated by frantic attempts by yours truly to find a remotely comfortable position at the floor table, amid much Son giggling (inheritance, anyone?). I’d love to detail the menu but it was all in Japanese, and we weren’t terribly conclusive on what we had just ate (“I think it’s sort of dumplingly”). Some marvellous stuff though, and plenty of it. It was all so beautifully presented, too. After a great night on futons, we departed for our Mount Fuji adventure…

The Mountain is a little like Newcastle United, in that it has its very own religion. It is almost 13,000ft high and sits on its own, usually topped by a cone of snow (everybody knows the traditional Japanese pictures). Our plan was to climb for four hours, stay in a hut until the wee small hours and then strike for the summit for dawn. There were an amazing amount of people setting out to do the climb, and the average age seemed to be 103. There must be something in this dumplingly stuff. Most were kitted out very well, although some (the youngsters, or Americans) were staggeringly under prepared, lulled into a false sense of security by the existence of a path. They have those at the mall, right? We had the services of Shoji, a local guide who was able to tell us about the Mountain customs and the done thing at the huts. This was another occasion when loads of other people purloined him. Sigh. We arrived at Hut number One at the Eighth Station for tea and a spot of shuteye before the final push. The absence of chairs whilst eating induced more filial amusement.

It was then that the Mountain showed its true colours: having been basically benign all the way up, it now started to howl a gale and chuck it down. The wonderful Shoji (hire him, he’s superb – FYG Mountain Guides) frantically scanned the weather data (ace connectivity up there…) and continually adjusted plans throughout the night, leaving us to sleep on oblivious. He eventually woke us at 3am, telling us that the summit was going to be shrouded, and we could get the sunrise lower down. There were 20 other tours going up the Mountain that night, and all but one (us) sacked it. So, we donned our storm gear, turned on our head torches and headed into freezing rain, fog and extraordinarily powerful gusts of wind. Fuji gets steeper as it gets higher, and the broad motorways of lower down turn into pretty tricky slithery scrambles up volcanic rock buffeted by some scary gusts, all in thinning air. We came on sunrise just before the cloud (awesome Shoji) and the views were spectacular (see the picture). We also came across some people in the mist that were pretty done in – there’s no easy way down from there. We made it to a misty summit (2km all the way around the (still active) crater), and then started our descent, using a different path which was wider and covered in a sort of volcanic scree. Karen decides to run down the mountain, followed by a breathless guide (and even more breathless husband). The looks on the OAP tours still making their way down the Mountain having aborted their attempt at the summit as we passed were priceless.

Back in our ryokan, we now move to Kyoto and surrounding areas tomorrow. Keep tuned.

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The Tokyo Verdict

It is official: after a full two days in Tokyo, I am the world’s foremost expert on the place, and am happy to pronounce unimpeachable judgement. OK, maybe not, but I’ve enough under my belt to give a first impression its best shot. We spent another day in the charming company of Shoko, our guide. It proved again how valuable having such help can be: with none of the language (written or spoken), she has been able to make sense of things and also add a little context. Indeed on one occasion she came to the rescue of another foreign party as they grappled with the conventions of our sushi bar (more on that later). Today we went to the gorgeous Hamarikyu Japanese Gardens, saw the amazing Meiji Shrine, took on the panoramic views of the city from the City View at Roppongi Hills and then onto two extraordinary shopping experiences at Takeshitadori Street and the Akihabara District.

The Japanese Gardens were serene: built as a respite for a Shogon from his 3,000 concubines (!), it represents a magnificent Japanese version of a chap’s garden shed. They don’t do synchronicity or many flowers, but it was restful, airy and shady. We even had traditional tea sitting on what appeared to be judo mats – cue much giggling from my wife as I tried to sit crosslegged for more than a few seconds. Cue also resolution to take up yoga. The view from Roppongi Hills was truly staggering, and it brought home my first firm conclusion of the day: Tokyo is massive. One tends to think of this city as a dry, financial place that is suffering from a lost economic decade. Not a bit of it. It is one teeming, compliant, happy place. We had lunch at a sushi bar for locals, which was delicious. Not one to separate myself too often from steak and chips, I let more of the slippery little fellas from nearby Tokyo Bay slip down my gullet in one hour than would usually be the case in a month. Conclusion number two: it is the most local global city I have ever been to. For whatever reason there are astonishing few foreigners here, allowing you instant immersion in this vibrant world. Maybe it’s the images of Alec Guinness blowing up railways bridges etc, but the Japanese have perhaps a reputation for efficiency, shall we say, not hospitality or colour. How wrong we are.

Conclusion number three: don’t believe a word of a consumer drought. Whilst financial commentators will rightly concentrate on things that change and focus on whether Shinzo Abe can “pull Japan out of the mire and get them spending again” it sometimes masks perhaps greater truths about the things that stay the same. We went to down Takeshitadori Street (pictured) which can best be described as one long teenage girl’s bedroom (I know, I have two), full of (mostly) girls getting excited over the most extraordinary glittery, feathery pap. Most of them were also wearing said pap, looking like weird living dolls: I will never pass comment on my daughters’ sartorial standards ever again. In the Akihabara District there are over 500 gadget shops. I know. I nearly passed out with excitement. Having been given a stern marital limitation of one shop, Shoko takes me diplomatically to the biggest: think Hamleys, Boots and PC World (x6) together under one roof, on 8 floors. We go to the gaming section, where Son picks his way through various versions of killing games (a nono in our house), whilst Wife takes refuge, perching on the edge of a table between two boys playing power rangers. There must have been hundreds of shoppers in this one store, and the noise is deafening. Conclusion number three: Tokyoans love their shopping.

We are off to the country to see more of this extraordinary place tomorrow, staying in traditional ryokans, the equivalent of the country pub except with judo mats. Hmm. Will report back.

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The Nature of the Collective

I’ve just spent my first full day in the glorious, huge city of Tokyo. As mentioned in the last post, I have been joined after two long weeks by my wife (happy, happy. Whole again). Also making the trip is our young son, 12 years old but who I swear has grown up a year in the last fortnight. His knowledge of historical Japan is much better than mine, gleaned from the wonderful Young Samurai series of books. We spend the early morning connection to our hotel catching up on the little ditties that fall between the cracks of the blog, email, snapchat and instagram. Would I have preferred Karen to be with me in Russia? At one level, of course: she is my best friend, as well as my wife. However, my ambition was to do Russia the Russian way, with Red Army surplus hotel furniture, sweaty waiting rooms (sweaty everywhere, frankly) and kooky towns full of geeks. This was not Her Majesty’s territory….

So, onto Japan. Having meandered through much of Russia with not so much as a map, we have taken a far more active approach to our sightseeing, using the services of the delightful Shoko, our charming and knowledgeable guide. We visit the Imperial Palace Plaza, go to the Asakusa Kannon Temple and Bazaar, and finish the day off with a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum. Through much of the day it strikes me how much Japan shares with England: a monarchy gripped by issues of primogeniture, a wedding reception with the men in pukka morning suits, a feudal inheritance full of the tales of nip and tuck between absolute monarchy and overmighty barons. Oh, and rather too much debt to GDP.

Which brings me to the subject of this post: the fascinating differences between two societies that espouse the collective way. Wandering through Tokyo, you are showered with instances of gleeful, anxious compliance, from the 48 doorman that ensure I do not stumble on my way out of the hotel (never a given, frankly) to the taxi driver standing to attention waiting for his payload and the forlorn traffic cop waving his light sabre to warn drivers of an obstruction ahead in torrential rain. This is a society that takes personal pride in duty well done, a collective from below. On the other hand you have (as I have said before) commune-ism in Russia, which is very different: if shame seems to hover close to the surface in Japan, arbitrary state intervention casts the same shadow in Russia. Where Japanese pride is taken in conformity, the opposite is true in Russia where opportunities arise infrequently and rules can change, necessitating a defensive huddle. In short, a collective from above.

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First Day in Japan

I arrived in Tokyo last night, 10 minutes before I left Vladivostok. All this time zone stuff is a bit difficult to cope with. I flew Aeroflot, boy what a change. My central point all through my Russian tour is the degree to which things haven’t really changed, but Aeroflot is one welcome exception. 30 years ago I flew from Moscow down to Stavropol in the south, and the flight was terrifying and disgusting in equal measure. Well, here we are, flying in an Airbus A320 (phew), two very charming air hostesses, steak and a decent snifter of an Italian chianti. I could get used to this.

I mentioned in my last post how perhaps the essence of travel was differentness: I should add variety. The contrast between the Wild West of Vladivostok’s potholed stock car racing (aka the rush hour) and the smooth hum from the Tokyo tarmac as my taxi driver, clad in white gloves, whisked me to our hotel was massive. I say our hotel, as I am going to be joined by my wife and son (our 2 daughters are in South Africa on a sports tour), which makes me very happy. This being the leg organised by Her Majesty, everything is spot on pucker: I have gone from not being able to put loo paper in the train loo (I know, a little unsavoury) to having one that automatically raises the loo seat as I approach. Only the first seat mind, and not the second: I suspect my advancing years mean a catastrophically lower hormonal signature. Heho.

Japan, although firmly in the Developed firmament, is still thoroughly different. It feels like New York only much bigger and infinitely cleaner. I arrive as the evening is getting going: much laughing and joshing in street cafes, all in 90% humidity and 27 degrees C. Waking up the next morning, I am determined to make the most of the day: however, all I seem to do is lurch from one apology to another as I transgress in so many different ways: for instance, given a wet towel at a restaurant, I smear it over my florrid face, only to see reactions akin to those witnessing some mooning from the pavilion at Lords. I resolve to mug up on the customs.

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Final Russian Thoughts

I am now sitting in the Departures Lounge of Vladivostok Airport (after a completely hair-raising trip through traffic that can only be described as Delhi-like) and have a few minutes to pen some thoughts on what has been a quite extraordinary trip. If truly rewarding travel is about anything, it is differentness: it is so easy to live in a first world bubble, even if you actually cover huge distances – the travel “product” is a global one, which is a shame in many ways, even if it plays to the vast majority of travellers for whom “chardonnay” needs to be understood wherever they go. Sitting among the exhausted tartars, the soldiers going on leave, the paralytic hostesses and the babuskas with more gold in their mouth than the Bank of England has in their vaults, it is possible to see another world.

And what a world it is. Earthy, uncompromising, honest, Russia is more at peace with itself than I had anticipated. In much the same way that Kruschev’s “Secret Speech” didn’t really bury the legacy of Stalin, the end of the Soviet era hasn’t changed things very much: it has struck me how similar things are since I studied in the Soviet Union 30 years ago, not how different. And whilst in the West we may despair of an economy too dependent on commodities, we can’t really talk when the only avenue open to wealth to seemingly educated Englishmen is to pile into property.

A word on the women: dangerous territory, I know. I could not quite put my finger on it for a while, but the reason why they look different to Western women in general is that they dress for men, not for each other: this is a world where male qualities are still relevant, and it is easy to see why. Violence is closer to the surface here, so sanctuary is important. Equally, business is done according to basic rules of power among networks of men, so they still represent important avenues for advancement. No “leaning in” here. Of course, there are so many things that whiff a bit as a result of this, but you cannot deny that one small consequence is that people are happier being their sex, as opposed to the timid androgyny of the Developed World.

Anyway, I must catch a plane. Tokyo here I come, where I will be reunited with my wife and son. I can’t wait!

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Vladivostok

I arrived in Vladivostok last night: I was expecting to see the Pacific coming in from the left (i.e. the East) of the train, but in fact the first salt water appeared to the West in the form of Amur Bay. All along the Bay there were people on the beach, enjoying the beautiful evening.

I hadn’t appreciated the degree to which Vladivostok sits at the end of an extended “finger” into China – the train basically goes due South for the last few hundred klicks, with the Chinese border only 10km to the West at some points. In the old days this journey would only occur at night to keep prying eyes from sensitive areas – given that they shared the same colour (red) we tend to think China and the USSR were bosom buddies – not a bit of it.

All the guides are full of the idea that Vladivostok is like San Francisco: yeh yeh, I thought. Wow, how I was wrong. In line with the general (and now thoroughly disabused) notion that Russia is gently decaying, I had this image of Vladivostok as yesterday’s naval port, almost waiting to be taken back by the Chinese (they only lost it in the nineteenth century). Well, it’s thriving: I did see the odd rusting naval vessel, but I saw plenty that weren’t, bristling with all sorts of wizardry (you’ll appreciate no photographs were taken: I have no wish to see the inside of a Russian police station).

It really reminds me of San Francisco, without the coffee (sadly). On my (now customary) walkabout, both the architecture and the roads seemingly sprayed up rolling hillsides speak of San Fran, and even the predilection for muscular 4×4 pickups is the same: they have a real fondness for imported Japanese right hand drive cars, which jars a bit.

Even the climate is similar: early 20s, a light Pacific breeze etc. OK, if you venture up from the centre you will come across a soviet apartment block which would never do Stateside, and the heroic monuments both to the “heroes” (i.e. victors) of the Russian civil war (the town was the last finally to submit to Bolshevik rule in 1922) and the drowned merchantmen of the Great Patriotic War would sit ill with the US West Coast cool. A great place to visit.

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The Last Leg

I am now on the last leg of my journey, from Ulan Ude to Vladivostosk, a cool 4000-odd km. It is taking three days to do it, so I am really getting into the rhythm of train life. At this stage it is worth noting that I am doing it as a bit of a ponce in first class, with a cabin to myself. At one level this is great, as I can spread out a bit and generally have things as I wish. However, part of the joy of this trip has been to meet people, and there’s no better way (I suppose) than to go third class, with 5 other people in your cabin. Mind you, there is a really nice German crowd who are my age (i.e old) doing it this way, and their co-cabiners are a group of Russian soldiers who just talked all night. My friends look pretty crabby this morning.

The weather yesterday was truly stunning and I managed to get some decent photographs of the Shilka River (pictured) which looks huge to me, but is only a tributary of the mighty Amur. It is difficult to describe the thought processes as these extraordinary views come and go – you haven’t savoured one properly before another twist of the track brings another. Even though I have got my decent camera it still doesn’t quite “can” it, somehow. My only hope is that playing back these photographs and video at a later date will fire off some connectors (if they haven’t been killed off by the Russian beer). Still, we are lucky these days, as in Soviet times they would fasten all the blinds on this leg as it was considered a sensitive area, being only 50km north of China.

I now consider myself something of an expert on the different trains. I am now on Train No.2, one of the proper Trans Siberian trains that does the whole journey in one go. It is very smart: quite extraordinarily the staff don’t feel the need to get paralytic at my expense and most things on the menu are actually available (except orange juice, something consistently like the proverbial rocking horse poo all way down the line). I am in “Business Class” and I have the carriage to myself, my provodnitsa explaining all the stops to me as we go, me understanding everything(!). I’m glad I went on the other trains, though, as I really felt that I got to know ordinary Russians and something about their lives.

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Ulan Ude

I arrived in Ulan Ude on the overnight train from Irkutsk. Whilst I got some lovely evening views of Lake Baikal as we went round it (Ulan Ude lies to the south of the Lake), it would have been better to have completed this part of the trip in the day – worth thinking about if you intend to do this. The consolation was that we came into Ulan Ude alongside another majestic Siberian river, the Selenga, at dawn and I got a couple of decent pictures with the proper camera (I invested a fiver in a little doofer that clicks into the iPad and allows for a USB connection – really good), one of which I have attached to this post.

My hotel (the Saagin Morin) here in Ulan is a classic piece of Soviet architecture which looks a bit forbidding on the outside, but really friendly and efficient on the inside. They do brilliant coffees, which was a bit of a life saver as I hadn’t slept at all well on a hot train but did not want to waste the day catching up on my sleep, so quality caffeine was the order of the day. I decided to struggle on through to mid afternoon and then crash, as my next train is 02:45 tomorrow morning. My heart leapt when I heard that there was a swimming pool, so dashed down with my togs, only to find what can only be described as a birthing pool. I know I have developed a bit of a tummy with all this sitting around, but that’s ridiculous. Heho.

Ulan Ude feels really Mongolian. Due to its armaments industries it was not open to tourists for a long time, it has an oddly dual feel. On the one hand there is the obligatory Russian stuff (big square for people in funny hats to get all excited in October, huge and crumbling government buildings and a statue of Lenin’s head, the biggest in the world I’m told), but on the other an alternative centre that reflects its Buryat Mongol heritage, which is lovely. The weather is really pleasant (21 ish C and sunny), so I decide to take a big wander. It feels less prosperous than, say, Novosirbirsk but no less thriving. It’s very dusty and much of the newer buildings look a bit thrown up, although there are plenty of the older wooden structures that look far more suited to the conditions. I am told it gets bally freezing here in the winter, and you get the feeling that people were out enjoying the warmth with that in mind. It will be interesting to see how such a place as Ulan Ude develops – it does feel a world away from somewhere like Yekaterinburg (which of course it is).

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