I arrive in Kyoto by shinkansen in the early afternoon. Japan is famous for many things, but up till now, I'd heard little mention of the summer weather. Europeans desiring guaranteed sunshine flock to Spain, Florida or the Caribbean, but I'd never previously considered August in Kyoto. When I step off the train, it's 39 degrees centigrade, with humidity at 90+ percent. The winds are even hotter.
Not for the first time, I'm pinching myself that I'm here at all. I've already spent a week in Tokyo, where I've posed with Hachikō, watched the tuna auctions at Tsukiji and visited the magnificent Meiji shrine near Harajuku. One bullet train journey later and I'm creeping through the whispering bamboo forest at Arashiyama. In two days time, I'll be leading a procession of deer to the largest Buddha in the world. It's every bit as bizarre and magical as I'd hoped.
I won't get ahead of myself. I get off the plane and am instantly bewildered by the choice of drinks in the airport (a bottle of Pocari Sweat for you, sir?) I find myself making notes about the tiny things that intrigue me. Within hours, my notepad is full and I am scribbling in the margins.
Tokyo is a rush of colour, but its inhabitants are a monochrome palette. From early in the morning till late in the evening, weary salarymen are the city's stock in trade. In their white shirts and black trousers, each one is barely distinguishable from the next as they flood across the street at Daimon. I try to follow them, and immediately learn that crossing signals are observed impeccably by pedestrians, but drivers treat them only as gentle suggestions.
Past the statue of Hachikō, the bright billboards and electronic screens at Shibuya turn night into glorious day. Here, where the language barrier makes subtlety of meaning impossible, advertising is stripped down with amusing results. On one wall, a cat recommends a particular brand of washing powder. On another, I am offered a product made from placenta that will make my skin sparkle like snow.
The Japanese metro systems are clean, efficient and easy to understand once you have grasped that certain lines are owned by different companies. You might make the mistake of buying a ticket for the wrong line once, but you'll learn quickly. Compared to England, the price of everything, from food to travel, seems ridiculously cheap. In no time at all, I'm eating lotus root tempura and drinking more gekkeikan than is good for me. In one location, they stand the glass in a wooden box, and fill both to the point of overflowing.
Taking advantage of my distorted sleep pattern on arrival, I head to Tsukiji fish market on day one, only to find that arriving at 5am means that I am too late to join the organised tours. Three a.m., I'm told. Three a.m., where I queue a day later in a sweaty box room with fifty other curious-and-slightly-crazy insomniacs, all for the joy of watching gruff men cut the heads off flash-frozen fish with a bandsaw.
There is something quite horrific and yet still deeply compelling about Tsukiji, and I fear that words may never quite do it justice. The tuna are laid out in slick rows, looking more like munitions than creatures that were alive mere hours before. Their tails are carved open with crowbars so that buyers can sample the product ahead of the auctions. Tuna is big business here, and individual fish can cost the equivalent of thousands of pounds.
Outside, you are led across a courtyard which is a hive of trucks, forklifts and other industrial vehicles which sweep around you in a mesmerising mandala. There seems to be little in the way of earmarked paths, and people, bicycles and other vehicles compete with one another for first access to available space. I am left amazed that serious injuries are not a daily occurrence. On my near side, a veritable mountain of empty boxes is bulldozed into a rubbish pile.
If it seems for one moment that I regret my trip to Tsukiji, I can only say that it is something that has to be seen to be believed. I recommend it both as a cultural experience and so that you can see how much effort really goes into getting food onto your plate.
On the way out, numerous market stalls are selling
products fresh off the boat. In the spirit of adventure, I buy a sea urchin off the griddle. The dark spikes are rended by a single slash of the fishmonger's knife, and I am into the flesh, which is creamy, fishy and fruity all at once. As with the market itself, they're an acquired taste, but I suggest that you give them a go.
The other great thing that I got from the market was a new idea for a writing project - but I'll let you in on that another day.
In part two of this travelogue, I'll share with you the joys of chirruping cicadas, Shinto rituals and a fifty-foot Elmo. Sayonara for now!