Tuesday, 18 August 2015

The Warm Winds of Kyoto - Part Two

Cicadas, everywhere, wherever there are trees.  The first time I hear them, walking from Daimon station to my hotel, I think that it's the sound of industrial machinery somewhere in the distance.  These fearsome little bugs whine, whoop and wail throughout my adventures, providing me with a looping soundtrack that I miss immediately upon my return to England.  I'm conscious of the fact that my photos cannot capture their roaring vigour, so when the noise is at its loudest, I try to take video instead.  Unfortunately, I can't explain to people what they are listening to, as the cicadas completely drown out my attempt at commentary.

Smack in the middle of one of Tokyo's most vibrant districts, the Meiji Shrine typifies everything that I love about Japan's iconic monuments.  The gorgeously constructed wooden gates (known as torii), the wide, sweeping pathways, and the ultimate stillness of the shrine itself, where even the aforementioned cicadas whisper rather than sing.  Shinto is an ancient religion that reveres the spirits (or kami) which live in natural places.

There can be fewer places more in tune with Japan's beating heart than Meiji itself.  Named for the Emperor that prompted Japan's restoration at the end of the eighteenth century, the outer precinct houses a collection of murals, and the pathways are lined with barrels of wine and sake which have been donated to the shrine.  You can get married here if you wish.


The inner precinct houses a treasure museum, and visitors are encouraged to buy a prayer board, which is about the size of an airline luggage tag.  The expectation is that you write your wish upon the board and tie it to the ropes strung between the trees.  I quickly survey what visitors are wishing for - health, love, money, Christiano Ronaldo to join Arsenal.  Each of us gets what we want from the process.

A minute's walk from the entrance to the shrine, a procession of smiling teenagers leads us to the top of Takeshita Dori, and then we are down into the colourful madness of Harajuku.  The area is a pedestrian expanse of small independent shops selling all sorts of tourist nik-naks and branded clothing.  In the busy times, simply standing still or lifting your arms in the middle of the street is impossible.

It struck me here that city living in Japan would not suit someone with social phobias.  Nearly 14 million people live in the city of Tokyo, but another 20 million more live in the metropolitan surrounds.  The sheer density of people here is matched only by their friendliness and curiosity.  I slip through the crowds, and badly in need of a way to quench my thirst, I opt for the first cafe I find.  It is a Spongebob Squarepants cafe, complete with bright yellow plastic furniture.  Embracing the surreal nature of the moment, I order a mango frappe.

Another thing that I noted here is the frequently bizarre nature of English slogans, which are everywhere in Harajuku.  So many times, I see random phrases on shirts or as the name of shops.  Who decides to call their fancy clothing boutique 'Store My Ducks', or wear a t-shirt that says, 'Born free, eat my cool'?  If I ever want to make a shitpile of money in Japan, I'm going to write an algorithm that cribs random phrases off the internet and prints them onto t-shirts.  Unless someone else has already had that exact idea, which is a distinct possibility.

Shortly after leaving Tokyo, I spend a short time in Osaka, where I visit Universal Studios.  I freely admit that I'm not really a theme park person, being neither a fan of thrill rides or of long queues, both of which predominate here and at the Disney Parks in Maihama.  The Universal Park does have a fairly spectacular parade to end the day, which culminates in this 'last thing you'll ever see' shot of a fifty-foot Elmo float descending onto me.

I've heard it said that Japan is an expensive country, but that didn't fit with my experience at all.  While I was there, a debate was raging on the news about the 1000 yen/hour minimum wage (about £5/hr) and more than once, I was able to eat a sound three-course meal with sake for under £20 a head.  Try doing that in central London!  Next time, I'll talk some more about food and souvenirs, about my faltering attempts to master pachinko and about a too-successful visit to Akihabara, where a stint on claw machines nets us enough plush toys to exceed our baggage allowance.

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