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Land of the rising sun

After a ten hour flight we arrived in Japan; my first visit to The Land of the Rising Sun! A fascinating cruise was the second part of the trip but our base initially as it most certainly HAS to be was the capital, Tokyo, home to more than twelve million people.

At first glance the city is like many others; choking traffic, rampantly polluted, masses and masses of shops, restaurants, endless fast food outlets, heaving crowds and perhaps more than many cities, garish neon. Once you get away from the main streets though you will see the dramatic contrast between the 21st Century hi-tech bustle of city life and the ancient culture of Japan. There are small wooden houses, some of them traditional Ryokan hotels with their own indoor public bath – bathing is one of the essential Japanese rituals – neatly clipped bonsai trees, ancient temples and shrines – a world away from the hectic city life.

To help me get my bearings in this vast arena I set off first to ride the lifts of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Its observation room on the 45th floor is entirely circled in glass. One of the first things that caught my eye was a surprisingly large area of green amongst the many buildings. The park has over 365 different species of tree and houses one of the “must sees” the Meiji Shrine, which was built in 1920 in honour of the Emperor Meiji. I was told it was destroyed by fire at the end of World War II but rebuilt in 1958 and its entrance gates were made from trees 1,700 years old, which came from Taiwan. It’s all a lovely cool area which is used by city dwellers and visitors as a place of recreation and relaxation.

Religion is an integral ingredient in Japanese life – there is a festival almost every day – they practice Shintoism in shrines and Buddhism in temples. The oldest temple, the Sensoji Temple was built in 645. You approach it along Nakamise, a street jam-packed with small shops and stalls selling intriguing face masks, sweets and traditional local food. At the end of it I was attracted to a huge bronze burner in the entrance to the Temple. Smoking incense was bellowing out and there was a continually moving crowd some 3 or 4 deep around it – everyone wanting to inhale the smoke said to cure all ills. As I had a particularly nasty cold when my turn came I took a good deep sniff!

From the oldest shopping street we went on to the modern Omotesando Boulevard – a beautiful tree lined street often referred to as the Japanese Champs Elysees. The shops here reflect the Japanese love of designer labels and, boy, do they love them – every name from Chanel to Louis Vuitton and Gucci to Gap. And do you know I could easily have just sat and watched the modern clad women and young girls who were a startling spectacle – the young particularly – forever on their mobile phones and taking photographs. Oh yes, it had to be all the up to the minute gear in every department!

Kappabashi Street is another shopping street worth seeing – dozens of stores selling everything needed by the restaurant trade, a very important one in Japan – dishes, pots, pans and every type of cooking utensil imaginable. No fresh food sold here – just plastic and wax food samples set on plates. These are used in restaurants for non-Japanese speaking customers to point out their choice of meal!

There are more restaurants in Tokyo than in any city in the world – around 100,000 compared to about 6,000 in London! Fish is high on the list of food priorities in Japan, particularly tuna, which features on many menus. One of the largest fish markets in the world, the Tsukiji market, handles more than 400 different types of seafood and imports fish from 60 countries on 6 continents. The market opens at 3am as the fish begins to appear. We arrived at 6.30am and had to concentrate very hard on where we were walking as hundreds of fisherfolk with umpteen hundred trolleys – some motorised – careered around us at the rate of knots and wheeled their way down the crowded isles. By the way, we looked very glam with plastic bags over our shoes as the floor gets smelly and slimy!

On our last day in Tokyo we just had to indulge in one of my favourite pastimes – shopping. The Ginza is the most exclusive and expensive shopping area in Tokyo. It is also known for having the most expensive real estate on earth. The streets are lined with neon signs, department stores, boutiques, bars and restaurants. Mitsukoshi is one of the most famous department stores there – several stories high and offering an endless selection of top-notch goods. As you enter the store a member of staff bows and quietly calls “welcome” and then as you leave bows and says “thank you”. All this an example of the ultra-politeness which is second nature to the Japanese. It’s a society that is full of social conventions and rules of behaviour when dining, taking tea, generally going about daily life. Allowances are made for visitors but I found it totally fascinating to observe many of these rituals and dignified polite ways.

Before you leave the Ginza area you should see The Imperial Palace, the home of the Emperor. It’s an example of the close link between modern living and the past!

I was fortunate to stay at The Four Seasons Hotel in one of the many mini cities within Tokyo. The hotel is set in lovely gardens – an oasis of peace and calm with wonderful service and food – a place marvellous to get home to at the end of a day. It has some traditional touches, for instance in my room I had a Japanese-style wooden bath tub with a small wooden bucket and ladle to pour water all over myself.

At the budget end of the market there are what they call capsule hotels which I noticed the odd backpacker was using. These were introduced in the 1970s and built for office workers (predominantly a men-only preserve) who were either lost or too drunk to find their way home! The beds are shaped like long boxes, the width and length of an average person, layered on top of one another but with clean sheets and a television. This hotel was one of the many different things I saw in the totally different destination.

Time to move on though, to start the second leg of my Japanese journey.

We drove to the port of Yokohama with its modern skyline resembling, rather surprisingly, some of the city skylines in the US. It was there that we boarded the luxurious medium size cruise ship, The Crystal Harmony. I have to say I have seen a fair number of cruise terminals but this one has to be one of the most appealing, built to look like a ship.

After a night at sea we sailed into the port of Kobe to a warm reception from a uniformed brass band resplendent in red and white, the colours of the Japanese flag. We hardly noticed the grey skies and rain because we were excited at the prospect of experiencing Japan’s most famous mode of transport – the Shinkansen – better known as the Bullet Train. It is reputedly the fastest and safest train in the world. When you buy your ticket it has on it your seat number; no pushing and shoving for an unknown seat here. A barrier along the platform keeps passengers away from the railway line – they are very safety conscious in Japan – and on that barrier at intervals are the seat numbers, so you know just where to stand to await the arrival of the train. As the silver train snakes its way into the station and comes to a stop the barrier in front of you clicks open and you calmly step aboard, the platform and train is on the same level – wonderful, no “mind the gap”.

The Shinkansen lives up to its reputation. It is sleek, sophisticated and spacious. It’s a smooth journey even though unbelievably you are travelling up to 170 miles an hour. The food is good, announcements are in both Japanese and English (language can be a problem in some Japanese situations). It’s clean and runs to the second! Now there’s a lesson to be learnt.

We disembarked in Kyoto where we seemed to go back in time. It has no less than 1,600 temples, 400 shrines, gardens, museums and palaces and 17 designated World Heritage sites. The Kiyomizu-dera is one of Kyoto’s oldest and most famous landmarks dating back to 798, and apart from its views of a wonderful wooded gorge, in true Japanese style it is surrounded by charms and fortune- telling stalls. The Nijo Castle was worth a visit I must say. It was built in the 17th Century by one of Japan’s most powerful shoguns (the shoguns ruled Japan for a total of 700 years between the 13th and 19th Centuries) and is filled with many fine works of art. It is where I had my first glimpse of Japan’s famous cherry blossom and for this it’s a bit like catching the right time to see the leaves turn in the Fall in New England. It’s a bit of a gamble time-wise but wonderful when you see it.

The next day we had the pleasure of sailing on the Sea of Japan, otherwise known as the Inland Sea. I must admit it was welcome after all the sightseeing. We had a chance to enjoy the ship’s facilities. It has 2 swimming pools, a fully equipped gym if you feel energetic or a Feng-Shui spa if you just want to relax. There are 3 excellent restaurants, including a Japanese one, a vast library of DVDs, and entertainment in the theatre every evening. As you would expect there are also good shops on board and no shortage of Internet access and communications facilities as there are on many cruise ships these days.

Hiroshima – a name everyone knows for the wrong reasons – was our next port of call. We disembarked with a certain amount of trepidation and set off for The Peace Memorial Park which attracts a constant stream of visitors from all over the world. I stood at the exact spot where the first atomic bomb fell on 6th August 1945. The Atomic Bomb Dome, a World Heritage site, testifies to the horror of the devastation. In the 60s there was a move to demolish it but after a petition raised by the children of the city it remains as a stark reminder of this terrible tragedy. A flame burns as a memorial and will be extinguished only when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed. Another poignant site is at the Children’s Peace Memorial. There was a 2-year-old girl living close to where the bomb fell. At the age of 10 she developed leukaemia. According to Japanese folklore the crane is the symbol of long life so she began to fold paper into the shape of cranes. She believed that if she made 1,000 of these paper birds she would recover. She reached only 644 before she died at the age of 12. Children at her school made the remaining 356, which were buried with her. The story inspired children from all over the world to continue making paper cranes. So now they have glass cases, which they regularly have to empty, as the garlands of cranes continue to arrive from many parts of the world.

We saw a collection of exhibits in the Peace Museum. Here you realise the scale of the damage. We saw remnants of people’s clothes which had been found, heard stories of mothers searching for children, or husbands and wives searching for each other or any members of their family. People just went around as if in a wilderness searching through the debris looking for something, which would say where their family had been on that fateful day. Perhaps the most poignant, a watch picked from the ashes which had stopped at 8.15 – the time of the blast. Also a wooden shoe, rather like a flip-flop. It had belonged to a girl and the thong was made from the same material as her mother’s kimono. When the mother found it she knew what had happened to her daughter. The whole experience of our visit was so sobering and we all felt totally drained.

Thankfully Hiroshima has been reborn. It is modern and vibrant with trams, tall buildings and a bustling busy life. It has all the attributes of a twenty-first century global city.

Another warm port welcome awaited us the next morning at Kagoshima which used to be called Satsuma. The city is often compared with Naples with its mild climate, palm tree lined streets, relatively hot tempered inhabitants and its own Vesuvius, the most active volcano in Japan, Sakurajima. It erupted no less than 59 times a couple of years ago! It is not unusual to see umbrellas open and no rain in sight, as the dust begins to fall! However, volcanoes do have their compensations – an abundance of hot springs for bathing.

Along the coast at Ibusuki the heat from the volcano is put to work in another way. The black sand is heated and I had the most extraordinary experience of being wrapped in a cotton robe and buried in the really hot sand. Only my face was on view! But I am sure it was all therapeutic.

Refreshed and back on the ship, The Crystal Harmony sailed on to Shanghai where we disembarked and flew back to England. On the flight home I was left to dwell on the fascinating combination of ancient customs and cultures with modern day living that I had encountered in Japan.

* pictures supplied by AA World Travel

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