Bangkok is many things. At the moment it’s very, very hot (to the point where I would ideally sit here and write this naked, but somehow my Britishness won’t allow it.) It’s dirty. It’s chaotic. People are moving in every direction at speed, by every means of transport. It’s noisy. It’s colourful. It’s insane in a manic, beguiling, laughable way.
I am not sure I can think of a place that contrasts so sharply with this than Japan. They’re both bloody wonderful, but the juxtaposition has my head all awhirl, and I’ve returned wondering if Japan actually happened at all. In case it did, here’s my memoirs of it.
Crossing the threshold
Imagine exiting Primark on a Saturday afternoon during the school holidays, and entering a Gucci store. In one you were peering down a long queue for something you didn’t really want anyway (check-in to the most turbulent flight of my life), but it’s cheap. In the other you find sleek lines, space, shine and style. Promise that is just the other side of accessible. This is what it’s like leaving Don Muang and entering Narita.
We await the airport express into the city. The platform is dotted with gorgeous Japanese women in ultra-cool outfits, giggling over Whatsapp conversations. The train arrives bang on time. There are bags of space. The temperature is just right.
We speed onwards, I press my nose up against the glass and peer into the darkened city passing by. There are endless buildings almost touching, mid rise, dull yellow rectangles for windows. A vague familiarity plays at my senses. This might be the result of seeing Akira as a child, which so vividly depicts Tokyo.
Such a startling creation stays with you, clearly.
Getting lost, getting merry
Emerging from the subway we’re confronted with strangely archaic looking, shining black taxis shooting past illuminated billboards with manga characters gazing out of them. There’s a chilly wind and couples wrapped in oversized coats stride the streets.
Maybe it’s too dazzling, we get lost looking for our hotel and have to ask a middle aged policeman for help. He seems delighted at being asked and efficiently directs us (despite speaking no English) with multiple enthusiastic ‘hais’ that we’ll get to know so well on this trip.
We drop into a Family Mart and a jingoistic little ditty plays as we enter and leave, as if our quest for rice crackers is an admirable achievement.
Our travelling companion Bart has a contact in Yokahama, Ollie, who helps us find a spot for dinner. We enter the small lobby of a building and take a lift to the third floor, where we emerge into a smoky stairwell. There’s dark wood and dim lights and the precise stroke of kanji and it feels just like I expected it to. The waitress plonks bowls of raw white cabbage on the table, which seems odd at first but there’s a sesame oil dip drizzled over it and it tastes delicious.
Ollie gives a basic intro to Japanese customs. ‘Never speak on your phone on public transport’ he tells us, and Bart is quiet for a moment, recalling the phone conversation he had on the airport express into town. Ollie also teaches us important words like ‘nihonshu’ (sake), and draught beer (namma). We polish off a bottle of nihonshu Dassai. It’s crisp and refreshing and produces a tingly, excitable kind of tipsiness.
Ollie was here when the Great East Japan earthquake hit in 2011. He describes being on the top of a building that was rocking beneath his feet as he tried to keep it together for the sake of his terrified students. He recalls being with them as they watched the Tsunami hit their hometown on TV. It’s a strangely ominous tale, as, tragically, six days later a magnitude 7.3 earthquake will strike Kyushu.
Pavements, parks and piss alleys
Sutton Place Hotel is cosy and clean and the rooms are teeny tiny like they’ve been made for gnomes. It’s not a bad thing, the hard mattresses and solid pillows induce a heavy sleep like I haven’t experienced for months in the crushing humidity of Bangkok.
We walk through Ueno Park where we’ve just missed Sakura, but still catch a mild breeze, Zojoji temple, and some coffee. Gigantic crows drift through the treetops, with exaggerated features – large beaks, gleaming wings. Binny dubs them ‘king crowbras’.
We sit and watch small dogs in jackets cavorting on the paths. Two identical little Japanese girls skip past, hand in hand, pretty as dolls. This cuteness seems to be a theme. The buses and cars are tiny with rounded edges, like Tonka toys. Posters are adorned with smiling shiba inus and friendly cartoon characters. They even manage to make a puff of cigarette smoke look cute and appealing.
We wander quiet backstreets, skipping from temple to temple, admiring the serenity and neatness of everything. We get to Yanaka and poke about the shops – here’s one selling only cat themed goods, here’s one selling beautiful ceramics.
We head to Shinjuku where the streets are more crowded, the buildings taller, the lights brighter. We ascend the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building to take in the views, then descend for dinner. We manage to find the area sometimes termed ‘piss alley’, a series of atmospheric, narrow backstreets where steam and cigarette smoke billows from open fronted izakayas.
We trundle into a barbecue restaurant and drip fat all over the coals which erupt into an eyebrow-singeing bonfire. A Japanese couple on the table beside us watch in bemusement/vague horror. Eventually the waiter spots the blaze and gives a full length demonstration of how the ice cubes and tongs he left on the table were to avoid this very situation (not to put in our beer. Oops).
We stop by a pachinko arcade. This turns out to be a surreal experience, the noise from the machines is deafening, most of the patrons are wearing suits and mesmerised by their task, oblivious to our presence. It’s bright and loud and very much like an alternative reality. Whilst this escapism is unsurprising given the gruelling working hours in Japan, it still feels pretty dystopian and we don’t hang around for long.
Instead we head to Vagabond bar, a cosy bohemian haunt with nude paintings on the walls and a female jazz pianist singing like an angel. We knock back some homemade umeshu then hit the train home at midnight. There are a large number of suited office workers travelling with us. One lady with flushed cheeks has fallen asleep with her forehead leaning against the tube doors. This seems dangerous but she awakes at the precise second the train reaches her stop and stumbles out into the night, seemingly a perfect embodiment of the rhythm of this mysterious city.