Dateline: Japan, 2006. Following on from our previous tours of the country in 2002 and 2004, The Belated Birthday Girl and I revisited Japan this August, in a round trip that took in Asakusa, Niigata, Ogi, Sapporo, Toyako Onsen and Narita. Six different cities, and a total of ten places where we slept during our two weeks over there. Here's what they were like - be advised that the Ogi leg of the tour is covered in more detail in the Earth Celebration review.
Just our luck, of course, that our 2006 Japan holiday started on August 11th: the day after the biggest security clampdown in British aviation history. In fact, the delays at Heathrow weren't as bad as originally feared, but while we were in the queue for security a thought struck me. If terrorists really wanted to get the public's support in August 2006, they should have given up on the idea of smuggling explosive liquids onto planes, and considered smuggling, well, snakes. (Don't worry if you don't get it, it's a joke that stopped being funny in late August.)
Anyway, our flight to Tokyo Narita was pleasant enough, even though (as is usually the case with me on long haul flights these days) I didn't get a great deal of sleep, thus ruining the structural conceit of this piece. Luckily Japan Airlines have upgraded their inflight entertainment in the two years since we last used them: the movies and music are all on demand now, and it's even possible to build your own customised playlist for the latter. I had the most fun with the Berlitz Word Traveller game, which gives you a crash course in Japanese interspersed with the tackiest end-of-level puzzles you can imagine. (The Belated Birthday Girl doesn't need this sort of thing, of course, and chose instead to watch the original version of Godzilla with no subtitles.) After all the terrorism panic, it turned out that the only delay to the flight came from trying to fly round a thunderstorm at the Narita end.
Asakusa is one of the more laid-back districts of Tokyo, which is partly why we chose it. The Shigetsu is a perfectly acceptable Japanese inn in the middle of the town, although the promised top floor bathing isn't as impressive as the website claims. It's beautifully located for Asakusa's key attraction - the Senso-ji temple - and is also a short walk away from Gallery ef, which contains one of the few bars in the whole of Japan that welcomes tourists walking in off the street. Unfortunately, we chose to visit Asakusa during Obon, the four day festival of the dead when many Japanese travel home to pray for their ancestors. As a result, a lot of the shops in town were shut, though a couple of the famous vendors of fake plastic food for restaurants were still about and grateful for our custom.
Dead relatives or no dead relatives, this was still Tokyo, and you didn't have to travel too far into the city to find the expected level of hyperactivity. Not that I'm suggesting that our prime agenda was shopping, but there was a lot of retail therapy during our three days in town - the wild tourist trap of Takeshita Dori, whose crazy punk fashion shops have realised what's going on and now ban cameras: the classy overpriced sprawl of Omotesando Hills (where Del Rey will sell you a single chocolate for around four quid): and the enormous Roppongi Hills development, which was little more than an itch in property magnate Mori Minoru's balls when we were last in Tokyo in 2002. Roppongi Hills is the sort of place you could spend an entire holiday in: tons of shops and restaurants, a sky tower with fantastic views (cunningly arranged so you have to visit a modern art museum before you can see the sights), and a Toho Cinemas multiplex. The latter provided us with the particular delight of Nihon Chinbotsu (or Japan Sinks), a CGI-drenched disaster epic showing an endless array of Japanese landmarks getting twatted by epileptic tectonic plates and tidal waves. (A parody version has subsequently been released, directed by Minoru Kawasaki, previously better known for man-in-animal-suit comedies like The Calamari Wrestler, Kani Goalkeeper and Executive Koala. It's called Nihon Igai Zenbu Chinbotsu, or Everyone But Japan Sinks.)
Nihon Chinbotsu probably won't make it to Western cinemas any time soon, unlike the hugely popular animated works of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. Fans of their work are advised to check out the Ghibli Museum for the most concentrated fix possible of their fertile imagination. (Be sure to prepare first, though: you'll need to make an advance booking several weeks ahead, and bring photo id. If you're based in London, MyBus Travel should be able to sort you out.) Miyazaki's mission statement for the museum is carefully documented in its guidebook, and the various rooms do just what he wanted. A display of old zoetropes is utterly breathtaking and gets across the magic, not only of animation, but also of the physical process of film projection. A huge collection of storyboards and sketches show the intense preparation that goes into the look of a Ghibli film. For the kids, there's a glorious room where they can romp inside a giant Catbus. There's also a cinema, showing shorts made by Miyazaki himself that he promises won't be seen outside of the building. Amusingly, when we visited there was also a guest exhibition from Ghibli's good friends at Aardman Animations, who probably wish they had a building as lovingly dedicated to their own work. (Preferably a fireproof one.)
3. P&A Plaza, Shibuya
I've been warned I need to be discreet about this one. Because the P&A Plaza is the sort of hotel that charges by the hour, if you know what I mean. The 'love hotel' is a fine modern Japanese tradition, a natural consequence of everyone being crammed into the smallest living space possible: sometimes couples just need to get away from the kids and check into a hotel for what's euphemistically called a 'rest'. The experience is, of course, also open to couples who have spent the afternoon out shopping in Shibuya and just fancy a giggle. It's interesting to compare the approaches of our three main guidebooks to the concept - Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are somewhat sniggery about the whole idea, and only talk about love hotels in terms of cheap overnight accommodation. Time Out, on the other hand, assumes its readers actually want to use love hotels for their true purpose, and is the only guide to give maps and details for several of Tokyo's main establishments.
Our first choice from Time Out, Villa Giulia, looked impressive from the outside - a huge gaudy pink birthday cake of a building - and gave us our first insight into the total lack of human contact that the Japanese require when conducting a transaction as delicate as this. The lobby is completely unmanned, and the way you choose your room is by looking at a series of pictures on a lightbox - if the picture is lit up, the room's available for your use, and you're allocated a keycard automatically. Sadly, Giulia's available rooms were either of the standard of a British seaside B&B or festooned with bondage equipment, neither of which appealed. P&A Plaza, on the other hand, turned out to be everything we'd hoped for. A clean, well-appointed room (the more expensive ones have giant home cinema systems and 5.1 sound), a minibar stocked with pot noodles and dildos (click above picture for engorged proof), a somewhat disturbing costume rental shop (with, I hope, a really good laundry attached), and a rather swish jacuzzi bath. The only human contact (apart from the obvious) comes at the end of your two hour rest, when you phone down to reception to request checkout - after that, payment's done anonymously via a pneumatic tube. It's a Japanese tradition well worth exploring for yourself.
Literally 'cute hotel' or 'scary hotel', depending on how you mispronounce the name. The Kawai has the feel of a hotel for the travelling salaryman rather than the tourist (exhibit A: a male-only public bath, exhibit B: pay-per-view porn on TV). But it's perfectly acceptable as far as its facilities go, is located just a couple of minutes walk from the JR station, and can be easily booked through the good people at Welcome Inns. Once you're in the hotel, though, you discover the guidebooks aren't lying when they say the main reason people visit Niigata is as a stopover point on their way to somewhere else (which is exactly what we were doing). Your options are pretty much limited to starting at the station and following the main road north - across the Bandai Bridge where several TV masts dot the skyline, through the various shopping and restaurant districts, up to the rather cool Next 21 skyscraper. Take the glass elevator as high as you can go, then take an escalator up one more floor to visit a carefully hidden observation deck with splendid views across the whole of the city. If you're only there one night, as we were, that walk and a meal will probably be all you can fit in.
Sado was the centrepiece of our visit this year, and most of our time was spent doing Earth Celebration-type things. Our base for the four nights was Hotel Kihachiya, booked through an organisation new to us - Japanese Guest Houses - who turned out to be incredibly efficient and helpful, with tons of free advice included with their booking. The Kihachiya was fine for our purposes - a bit run down on the outside, with interior walls a little too crumbly for their own good, but splendidly located for all the festival fun (although the 10.30pm curfew should be noted by anyone hoping to catch any of the EC late night events). Kihachiya was notable for its excellent Japanese breakfasts, where I discovered for the first time that I actually rather like the gaijin-unfriendly fermented bean stuff they call natto. The BBG hates it with a passion, but I happen to enjoy the way it sucks all the moisture out of your mouth when you eat it, so there.
In the Ogi port area, you can't avoid a trip round the bay in one of the wooden tub boats rowed by a woman in traditional costume (as a connoisseur of the most repellent sights on the internet, I'm trying to avoid the word 'tubgirl' here). It's a fun ride, with the odd heart-stopping moment if the boatwoman decides to take your cameraphone out of your hand and pass it on to a colleague in another boat to take your photo. Inevitably, there's an official photographer around too, which is why we're now the proud owners of a plastic plate featuring a picture of us in a tub.
A short bus ride down the road from Ogi is the Hokusetsu sake brewery in Akadomari. They run brewery tours a couple of times a day, and of course let you try some sake for free at the end - or, alternatively, you can buy some of the very nice beer they make for Nobu restaurants. (Restaurant co-owner Robert de Niro apparently loves Hokusetsu sake, and his face can be seen on promotional photos and even the odd bottle label, invariably looking pissed.) The tour is entirely in Japanese, so do what I did and go along with a Japanese-speaking girlfriend, or meet up with some Australian expats on the tour who can also provide a translation. The language barrier won't stop you from being astonished at the final stop of the tour - the ultra-cold room where the sake is stored, and has loud new age music played at it continuously, as this apparently makes it taste better.
Ogi and Sapporo are quite a distance apart - our journey from one to the other took around twelve hours, and featured two buses, a jetfoil, another two buses, a plane and a train. At least the train journey was definitively the last stage of the journey, as our hotel was actually inside Sapporo station - or, more accurately, in the high-rise tower above it. That's a picture of the view from our 30th floor room at the very top of the page. The JR Tower was our one Western extravagance in the middle of two weeks of tatami mats: aside from a rare couple of nights in proper beds, we also had widescreen telly, a killer restaurant, and the rather terrific hotel spa. Useful tip regarding the latter: checkout time at the hotel may be 11am, but residency entitles you to a cheap visit to the spa any time up till 2pm on that day. For your money, you get three pools to lounge around in (from a 42°C scorcher to a 16°C ballshriveller), a couple of sauna rooms, and a relaxation room where you can lie around in a bathrobe drinking cold water and looking out the window at yet another glorious highrise view. The only downside is that the bubble pool, along with my experience at P&A, has convinced me that jacuzzis are a bad thing: when those water jets are aimed at your scrotum, it feels like an army of pixies are kicking you in the balls.
And as if the hotel wasn't fine enough, the huge building it's part of also includes several shopping malls as well as the station: you could easily spend a couple of days without ever experiencing the world outside. The swish Sapporo Cinema Frontier was part of the complex, and we took the opportunity to see the new Studio Ghibli film, an adaptation of Ursula le Guin's Tales From Earthsea (Japanese title Gedo Senki). Controversially, because Hayao Miyazaki was still working on Howl's Moving Castle at the time production started, the producers gave up on him and handed over the reins to his son Goro Miyazaki. Even allowing for the confusion arising from watching a Japanese film without understanding the language, it has to be said that Goro is no Hayao. The backgrounds and sound design are up to the usual high Ghibli standard, but the animation is as bad as a TV cartoon in many scenes, and looks incredibly rushed. Also (though this may be a fault of the original source material), it all feels very po-faced: even Hayao Miyazaki's more serious works have a delicate sense of fun running through them, and that's severely lacking here. Ghibli's distribution deal with Disney means that Tales From Earthsea will get a Western release eventually, but to be honest Nihon Chinbotsu deserves it more. Still, nice theme song.
To most people, of course, Sapporo means beer. (I prefer Asahi myself, but that's another story.) The common mistake tourists make is to get the bus from the centre of town and get off at the Sapporo Factory, only to find that it's been gutted and replaced by yet another mall. No, what you want is Sapporo Beer Museum - which, to be fair, no longer brews any beer either, but at least has two major attractions for your typical beer fan: the Sapporo Biergarten restaurant, and an exhibition hall. The restaurant specialises in jingisukan which is, as the name implies once you've mispronounced it a few times, Mongolian barbecued lamb that you cook on a hotplate on your table (hence the apron in the picture above). Not much fun for any vegetarians who have to sit downwind of you, but I rather liked it. The exhibition is entirely in Japanese, but you can grasp a reasonable sense of the history behind the brewery, and the collections of vintage advertising material (including TV ads and posters) don't need much translation anyway. You get one free glass of beer at the end of the tour, and by chance we happened to be there in time to get a preview swig of Sapporo's new malt beer, which wouldn't be in the shops for another week yet. It's rather nice. (Sorry for the lack of detail, this is why I get her to do the food and drink bits.) In the souvenir shop afterwards, look out for the boiled sweets in bizarre flavours from the restaurant menu - jingisukan, soup curry, ramen and baked potato. They're undeniably strange, but edible. Honestly.
After the hustle and bustle of Sapporo, Toyako Onsen is very much a shift down by a couple of gears. The 'onsen' part of the name indicates it's a spa town: pretty much everything worth doing there is related to either the volcanoes that the town is built on, or the hot water that comes off them. The latter is a major selling point for the Kawanami, a friendly, English-speaking, lakeside ryokan that has a very nice set of baths attached to it, including an outdoor one that I'm hoping couldn't be seen by passing motorists. If you're visiting for the fireworks that take place nightly over the summer months, the Kawanami claims that you should be able to see them from the outdoor bath, but I'm not entirely convinced that you'd get a decent view. Your best bet is to either nip over the road and stand by the lake, or walk into the centre of town where you can also catch the nightly circle dance in the hour before the fireworks start. They're launched from a boat that travels from the main harbour to the Kawanami over twenty minutes, so you should get a decent view at either end.
If you're a big fan of volcanoes like The BBG is, then there are two places in Toyako Onsen you absolutely have to visit. One is the Volcano Science Museum, which began life as a general celebration of volcanoes, then changed its focus dramatically when the nearby Mount Usu blew its top in the spring of 2000. A short film (available in both Japanese and English versions, though the Japanese one has better use of the subwoofer) tells the story of how seismologists detected the eruption in advance, and managed to evacuate Toyako Onsen in time so that not a single life was lost when it happened. Amusingly, as you're looking at pictures and exhibits showing the huge amount of property damage that took place, the PA system is playing Muzak versions of Danny Boy and Moon River to prevent you from getting too worried.
The other place you need to track down is Showashinzan, a volcano that literally emerged from out of the ground between 1943 and 1945 - and whose existence the Japanese government tried to keep secret, thinking it was either a security risk or a bad omen for the war. The hero of this story is the local postmaster Masao Mimatsu, who plotted the volcano's growth over the two years by tracing its outline on his paper windows, and then bought up all the land it was on to stop unscrupulous developers turning it into just another tourist trap. Sadly, since his death that's pretty much what it has become, and it's probably significant that the small museum dedicated to his work is quietly hidden around the back of the souvenir shops selling Hokkaido Spider-Man stationery and bear pelts. Still, the cable car to the top of Mount Usu gives you a spectacular view of both Showashinzan and the lake.
This was the leg of the journey where we'd decided that overnight travel was called for, even though it'd involve being on a train for 14 hours, two hours longer than the flight from Narita to London. We were joining the train at Toya station at 7.30pm: the thing we weren't expecting was that as Toya was such a small town, and it was a Friday night, the whole place would start shutting down around five. We had to rush to get our bags out of the bus station before they locked them in for the weekend, and ended up having to sit around Toya station for an hour and a half as they turned off things around us - including the train indicators, scarily enough. Still, when the Japanese say in a timetable that a train's going to be on a platform at 7.30pm, they bloody mean it, so we got on the train with no particular hassle.
Japanese sleepers are fun, on the whole. The cabins (see picture above) are very cosy, with a bed on each side and the minimum of storage space. There's a dining car serving respectable food, a TV lounge, washbasins and loos at the end of each carriage, and even a shower cubicle (though I think that's for first class passengers only). My main problem is with the beds, which are even narrower than the ones in the student flats we use in Edinburgh each summer, and that's saying something. If you want to try anything more ambitious than simply lying on your back and sleeping, it requires a Hays Code-style foot on the floor and continuous manipulation of the bed's guard rail. And when you finally try to sleep afterwards, the wonky suspension, bumpy track and high speed reached in the overnight part of the journey combine to make you feel like you're being bummed by The Invisible Man for eight hours straight. But apart from that, yeah, it's fun.
From Ueno we moved off to Narita town, not to be confused with Narita Airport - we expected people to be physically restraining us from getting off the train with our bags saying "no, no, the airport's the next stop." But they didn't. There's not much to be said for the town, as like Niigata it's primarily a stopover location: particularly for airline crews, who can pick up discounts in some of the restaurants on Omotesando just by wearing the uniform. The Wakamatsu Honten was another booking through Japanese Guest Houses, and they did us proud with this one - I don't know if we just got lucky with a cancellation, but we ended up with the biggest room of the holiday. Most of the places we've stayed have been 8 tatami mats in size: this was a suite with an 8 and a 12 separated by a sliding partition. Add to that another splendid bath (made slightly nervewracking by my having to share it with an office party of 20 or so non-English speaking guys) and a truly spectacular couple of meals served in the room, and there's no reason why you'd need to leave the place at all. But if you do, the enormous Shinsho-ji temple complex is directly over the road, and the restaurant and bar run of Omotesando is just down the way: although we decided against the latter, just in case we spotted the crew for our next day's flight getting pissed in one of the bars.
I can only assume the crew of JL401 were better behaved than that, as the flight back to London was just fine. The Belated Birthday Girl had a minor upset when a melon pastry she'd been given was cruelly ripped out of her hands, and replaced by a salad roll as part of her Asian vegetarian meal: but other than that, things went pretty much as they did on the flight out, except we got to carry things onto the plane this time. I spent a bit more time with the inflight entertainment system - learning Japanese numbers with the Word Traveller game and then watching the pre-credits sequence of Mission Impossible 3 in the Japanese dub to make sure I'd got them right, listening to an enjoyable hour-long selection of calypso tunes, and watching two of the older movies in JAL's collection - The Untouchables and Escape From Alcatraz.
As ever, there was the usual dislocation you experience when returning back home after a couple of weeks away, even more so this time because it was Sunday afternoon on a Bank Holiday weekend. Arrivals at Heathrow was rammed with people looking for their loved ones, while the streets of West London were rammed with wasted-looking young people looking for the Notting Hill carnival. Still, we made it home, had a quiet night in with all the DVDs we'd bought, and went to bed around eleven, utterly knackered. When I woke up in the middle of the night, I literally couldn't remember which country I was in, and it took me a good couple of minutes to realise I was actually in my own bedroom. For some reason I can't explain, I kinda like that feeling. Being a monkey, and all.
* 2.79 Tonnes of CO2 emitted during London-Tokyo return flight, offset by £20.94 donation to Climate Care