Geeks, Wisemen & The Hottest Toilets In Town - Impressions Of Tokyo
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
Tick, tock, tick tock. I stared at the digital clock and felt an overwhelming desire to cry.
I was transfixed, for this was no ordinary clock, and the digits in front of me were positively heart-breaking for anyone with a sense of humanity.
Twenty six thousand nine hundred and one. My camera lens snapped shut as I captured the moment for posterity, the number of days since America dropped its A Bomb on Hiroshima, August 6th 1945 and within a matter of months 140,000 people would be dead, with another 200,000 mentally scarred for life by the experience.
I stood motionless in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, opened on August 4th 1955 so that people like me would never forget man’s inhumanity to man, and the failure of proud, power hungry men to broker a peace deal that might have prevented one of the greatest tragedies of the Second World War.
Japan is a country of ancient and modern stories with Hiroshima and Nagasaki among its most complicated chapters.
My journey to the Land of the Rising Sun had begun two weeks earlier as I joined Saga Tours to explore this fascinating South East Asian country, just 16 hours from Leeds but a lifetime away from the culture of Wetherspoons, York, Kings, Queens castles and pints of Black Sheep.
I had been repeatedly told to prepare myself for a culture shock, not the type I had encountered in the Philippines where stomach-turning ‘balut’ - half-developed bird embryos - were served as a midday street snack, but hi-tech overload, ancient cultures and a continent almost obsessed with cleanliness and respect for the individual.
“I’m just going to pay a call before we leave for the hotel,” I informed our waiting guide at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport, Yasuko. She gave me a knowing nod but little did I know that I would need a training course before engaging in mid-afternoon ablutions.
Toilets in Japan are worthy of mention if only for their heated seats! However, it doesn’t stop there for each comes equipped with a series of buttons that can fire water in every conceivable direction, wash the pan, your bits and bats, give you a nice jet of scent and make you feel like a pampered Hollywood star, who has just had a top-of-the-range colonic irrigation! The average Armitage Shanks urinal had just been beaten into sixth place by this Olympic titan of the toilets.
I returned from the gents with a knowing smile; my innocence of Japanese ablutions had gone. I was no longer a toilet virgin in this land of 100,000 temples, and I was ready for more and eager to be off knowing that I had the cleanest crutch in Christendom!
“Go”. I ran like crazy and sat down in the middle of the complex network of zebra crossings. I had counted five black and white pathways but felt sure there must have been more. There were just 11 seconds on the green man in which to get a photo but, within moments I would be surrounded by hundreds of people on what is probably one of the busiest pedestrian walkways in the world.
Tokyo’s Shibuya Crossing is a ‘must see’ and much of its value is not only in taking a photo of yourself, but sitting on the first floor of Starbuck’s – one of the best vantage points – and witnessing dozens of individuals doing star jumps at its centre, before dashing away in fear of being mowed down by revving traffic eager to be on its way.
We were staying at the stunning Grand Nikko Hotel in the Daiba entertainment district – Odaiba to the ultra-polite Japanese – separated from mainland Tokyo and its 13m population by the Rainbow Bridge, but seemingly connected by every conceivable type of high-quality public transport you can imagine, from taxi to monorail; a perfect home for the 2020 Olympics. It was our ‘free time’ and we had ventured onto Tokyo’s speckless underground system.
The metro and its plethora of vending machines, have useful digital translation modes and, where there isn’t, simple to understand numbering systems enable you to self-navigate this city, where English, compared to many European countries, is at a respectable minimum, hence why Saga always uses local guides on its tours for the 50+.
Minutes later we were outside and a man was racing after me calling, politely, “no sir, no sir.” I was momentarily confused until I realised that he wanted me to delete the two minute video I had just filmed in his shop. We were in Electric Town in the Akiba district of Tokyo, known euphemistically as ‘geek’ street, and widely regarded as the centre of pop culture and self-proclaimed home to Boys’ Toys!
I had just violated the unspoken code…..no filming. There is an over-riding fear that ideas might be stolen and smuggled back to China for illicit copying. I smiled, deleted and he left placated. No harm done.
Then, for just a short moment, I stared in near disbelief. A carrier bag wafted past me in the afternoon breeze. It was the first bit of unshackled litter I had seen since arriving. There are few public bins in Japan because people take their litter home; it is culturally unacceptable to discard rubbish onto the streets and, as if it were an extension to the ethos, millions of Japanese spend their entire days pounding the pavements in pollution masks, even though the air seems cleaner than average.
I watched the carrier bag bounce down the street and thought no more of it…………..not at that point anyway.
Tokyo was an overload to my senses, hi-tech, clean, and safe, very safe with a real feeling of ‘this is how a first world country should be run’.
“Do you have much in the way of a welfare system?” I quizzed our guide. “Yes, but very few people use it,” she said. “My mother, for example, lives with me and my husband so we look after her.” She didn’t need to explain further; to take money that you did not need would be deemed shameful in Japanese society. People just didn’t do that. A sense of entitlement, what was that?
Minutes later Yasuko returned to our conversation as if she had been digesting my question. “We do not have very poor people in Japan,” she added, “and neither do we have very rich. Society is quite even and the big corporations accept the fact that they pay most of the tax.”
In return large companies still get a lifetime of loyalty from millions of Japanese whilst ‘new starts’ – those joining a company for the first time – can often be seen in identical jacket, shirt and tie uniforms as they parade in the street together, on day one of a career that may well take them to retirement without so much as a thought of moving to another firm.
Strolling through Electric Town I was intrigued by the city’s Manga and Anime cartoon culture…………………
…………..millions of comics are sold every year – and the vending machines……. oh the vending machines! Big and beautiful with more drinks to dispense than a Schweppes factory, some even have video screens that allow you to watch your drink being made so that you know exactly when it is ready.
Like their Japanese masters, such machines are clean and precise! And they ALL work because the Japanese eschew that British pastime – vandalism – preferring to leave their walls graffiti free and their vending machines in perfect working order!
But much as Japan is about the modern, it also a country with an ancient past. There is the Imperial Palace and its Nijubashi Bridge in the heart of Tokyo…………..
………………… and the ancient Sensō-ji s Buddhist temple located in Asakusa, Tokyo's oldest temple, and one of its most significant.
It is surrounded by lots of traditional shops and words of wisdom in Japanese script. “I wonder what that says?” I mused in a less than hushed tone. A Japanese man standing close by offered his help in American tinged English. “When you change yourself you start to change the world,” he said before smiling and walking on.
Somehow those words entered my psyche and wouldn’t go away, repeating themselves on an invisible loop in my head. I never gave it another thought until I was in the Ginza shopping district later on in the trip.
I was eating my lunch freshly prepared in a stand-up-and-eat noodle bar, when I noticed, once more, an interloper passing before me.
This time it was a large piece of tissue dancing playfully in the afternoon breeze. I stared at the offender and, as I did so, the wise words from the Sensō-ji Temple came to mind: “When you change yourself, you start to change the world.”
Putting any sense of embarrassment or reticence to one side, I walked over to the tissue, now lying dormant on the ground, picked it up and put it in my pocket. I could hear the silent cheers of millions of Japanese, applauding their new convert.
The world – and one more person in it – had just begun to change for the better, and it had taken the wisdom of a long-since dead monk, the sadness of Hiroshima and the most wonderful trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, to act as the catalyst for my positive change within. I was on the road to enlightenment.
Land of the Rising Sun Tour. Saga Holidays.
Prices start from £3699pp. Flights available from both London Heathrow and Manchester with departures throughout 2019 and 2020.
Exploring high-tech Tokyo, ancient Kyoto the historic village of Shirakawago, serene temples, shrines, castles and more as you learn about the fascinating cultures and traditions of Japan.
Includes VIP door-to-door travel service from home to airport and back from anywhere on the UK mainland. Also includes 10 nights in hotels and two in-flight with 13 meals: 10 breakfasts / and three dinners. Return flights & transfers included; Saga tour manager; Porterage at all hotels. Optional travel insurance plus excursions and visits. Hiroshima is an optional extra and includes a journey on the famous Bullet Train.
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Geeks, Wisemen & The Hottest Toilets In Town - Impressions Of Tokyo, 2nd May 2019, 16:39 PM