How wise is it, I wonder, to come to Japan with temperatures soaring at 33 C and humidity at saturation point? Especially as I have two days to kill before the weekend when Ross and I plan an excursion.
My main reason for the trip is to stock up on the Japanese tableware I have been collecting, piecemeal. So the first port of call on a rainy morning – yes the weather suddenly changed! – is to the Tsukiji fish market, where in amongst the malodorous stalls piled high with gleaming white and pink fish, crustaceans, seaweeds of all varieties, dried tuna flakes for dashi, and an array of perfect fruits and vegetables (the Japanese are very fussy eaters) I might find nestled the stall where I bought my last load of plates.
Tsukiji is being bulldozed to make way for the Olympics; it seems a terrible shame as this is one of the world’s great markets. But the traders are completely overwhelmed with tourists – mostly Japanese in fact – and it makes it hard for them to operate efficiently. You have to keep your wits about you as carts and forklifts scythe through the crowds and show no sign of stopping. I wend my way to the site of my shop, only to find it has gone; in its place is a building site. Luckily after making three circumnavigations of the market, I find it, or a clone, in a different area. Mission accomplished.
In the afternoon, despite the searing heat (rain has gone), I decide to visit the Imperial East Garden, the only part of the Palace open to the public. It is slightly disappointing, only one area of formal planting, and no flowers, but nevertheless it’s nice to amble around in the open air. In the evening we dine out at Nobu – the tasting menu is simply delicious.
The Japanese are assiduously polite even in the major department stores. I am told I have to visit at least one, so find myself in Uniqlo, the largest in the world (in order to buy Ross a cheap pair of shorts – dayglo blue as you can see in the photos!), and then wander down the street – it must be 37C – to Tokyo’s oldest, at Ginza crossing, Mitsukoshi, whose depachika or food hall is non-pareil. After being reprimanded for trying to take photos (one or two slip through!) I buy myself an exquisite bento box for lunch for £5. At every turn there is a shop assistant bowing and greeting me. The same goes for restaurants, where your arrival and departure are heralded by a large shout from all the staff, waiters and cooks alike. And as for air hostesses, they kneel at your feet and there is tremendous bowing and bobbing the whole flight. Mind you most travellers in business class in Japan are men, so why am I not surprised?
I am afraid I am a bit of a coward when it comes to transport, so take taxis. This anxiety is proved not to be misplaced when Ross and I get hopelessly lost on Saturday – but more of that later. I am most impressed that Tokyo taxi drivers now seem to speak more English, several engage me in small talk, and I have a long, long conversation with one, who spoke excellent English. He had lived in Düsseldorf for a year. How did you like it, I ask. ‘Dericious beer!’ What about the food? Too heavy for Japanese surely? Oh no, he liked the potatoes, but not the sauerkraut. He likes Uniqlo too, but says it’s good I am arriving early as the Chinese buy the place out by lunchtime. He also observes that because it is so cheap, ‘everyone looks the same’. How M&S!
On Saturday we decide to go and see the Great Buddha, completed in 1252, at Kamakura. This is a tube and train journey away. Getting there wasn’t too bad, after several stops and starts we find ourselves on the right train and get seats. Everyone is off to the seaside, kids with buckets and spades (even paddling pools!), adults with beach bags and bulging carriers of snacks and dunkin’ donuts. There are even several girls dressed in the traditional kimono, off for a day out somewhere, with fake flowers in their hair, and either pink lace or hello kitties adorning their bags. Dress sense is very kitsch here.
We have identified a hiking trail, supposedly 3 km through the woods, taking us via several of the local shrines which Kamakura is famous for. It’s a great relief to be out of the hot sun as it now midday. The path climbs steeply up on to a ridge, trailing over tree roots and sandstone rocks, quite a challenge for me in my Clarks sandals and no stick. The guidebook was very quiet about all this. But it is shady and breezy on the ridge, and we barely see a soul. To get to the Buddha, we cut through the back residential streets, lined with immaculate little houses, with sculpted cypresses and pine trees, mini Zen gardens and washing all hung up just-so. Even the rubbish bins are collapsible so that they don’t sully the streets unnecessarily.
Only when we get to the Buddha are we back in mass tourism. We agree that the shrines themselves are not that interesting but the journey has been worthwhile. After a quick sushi lunch and a well-earned beer, we jump on the train back to Tokyo. It is very hot and we doze off. I awake and realise we should be approaching our interchange with the underground. None of the station names seem familiar. Ross says it’s a stopping train, which explains the discrepancy, but I am not so sure. I study the place names with the tube map which I have wrested from his control. We are on the wrong side of Tokyo! Leap out of train, work out how to pay the excess fare with the help of a kindly young man, and somehow manage to find our way back to our starting point on the metro.
We finish the day off with a wonderful meal in a traditional little Izakaya restaurant, sitting at the bar, eating tofu, yakitori skewers and tempura, washed down with sake. By the time we got back to the hotel that evening we had walked over 12 kms! No wonder my back and hip were aching!