Some observations of a sightseer

“Oh look,” I said to children as we were crossing a road. “There’s a shrine or something. Lets’s go and have a look.”

“Not another shrine!” said daughter. “Do we have to?” asked son.

“Yes,” I said. “There’s loads of shrines in Japan but I like them and we need to see them.”

When, 20 minutes later, I said, “Right, come on then, let’s go,” I was greeted by “Nooooo!” and “Can’t we stay here just a bit longer?” And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the magic of the Japanese Shinto shrine. Or possibly Buddhist. In truth I couldn’t tell you. Son has informed me that Shinto is the official religion of Japan but other, more reliable, sources have taught me about the interweaving of the two religions in Japan. I should probably be more interested in the backdrop and history of each shrine but in all honesty I just like the prettiness, the tranquillity, the design and layout.

Hato no Mori Hachiman shrine

In the same way that European cathedrals fill me – someone utterly without religion – with admiration for the dreams but incomprehension of the faith of those who built them, so these shrines fill me with respect for those who understand the importance and power of serenity and nature.

This particular shrine seemed to be modelled on what we think, judging from the unfathomable signs, was an ancient disciples’ route to somewhere religiously important. (Some quick research confirms it is a replica of Mount Fuji…) It was one of those pretty little spaces found plumb in the middle of a dusty, built-up concrete area of the city; a warren of little paths and rocky stones, lined by beautifully maintained plants and miniature trees, led up to a “peak”, on which sat a small wooden shrine.

The children clambered up and down the paths, waving at me from the peak, bowing at the shrine. Only a slide could have made them happier.

An oasis of calm in a crazy city

I do love these peaceful spaces, large and small, which are an attractive respite in what is otherwise a pretty utilitarian and brusquely designed city. Forget the image of a wee traditional cottage with oriental, curved, tiled roof. You can find those buildings throughout the country, I’m sure, but much of Tokyo’s modern architecture is as boxy and unattractive as any 1970s monstrosity you’ll find in Britain.

The glassy skyscrapers, temples to business and capitalism, are obviously more design-led, architects’ love songs to their own egos. But the common-or-garden apartment blocks are angular and colourless. As is much of the landscape I have so far seen from the trains. I’m pretty certain Japan has ruggedly mountainous regions that would satisfy my aesthetic snobbery, but much of the land in the prefectures we’ve travelled through has been a quilt of greyish brown patches, pinned down by multitudes of pylons; and towns that are blankets of ugly box houses with barely a breath of space between them.

The severe landscape (overlooked by Mt Fuji)

And so the elegant devotional gardens, with their carefully thought out planting, and their beautifully shaped shrines, are all the more charming and soothing to the soul.

We went to the zoo, of course. Can’t expect to inflict a plague of shrines on the children and not reward them with a zoo trip.

Struggling to think of what to say about Ueno zoo. It was a zoo like any other, I guess, with creatures I assume were well cared for. I just have a bit of a problem with the modern zoo. I do consider them crucial as a means to educate and elucidate the masses who don’t otherwise know or come into contact with this planet’s beautifully varied wildlife.

And they are also useful in protecting and propagating endangered species. But when the need to make money and the desire to entertain supersede these noble aims, the animals really do suffer.

The bears, a tiger and an elephant paced back and forth, back and forth, bored, unstimulated and desperate for freedom. This is not achieving anything, either for the animal or for the humans observing it.

An inmate of Ueno Zoo

On the other hand, in the Galapagos Tortoise enclosure, the keeper stroked the delightedly relaxed tortoise’s neck. As soon as the keeper had entered its… cell? Cage?… the tortoise popped up his head, knowing what was coming. It was a nice interaction to see: evidence of the keeper’s care and understanding, and the tortoise’s contentment.

But none of this is ideal. The animals need to be in as natural an environment as possible, stimulated and untroubled. But people, ignorant, uneducated people, need to be able to get close to these animals to understand them, and to elicit some sense of responsibility.

My observations: polar bears are beautiful, seals are huge, flamingoes are noisy, lions couldn’t give a shit. Also, Japanese maps don’t always have North facing North.

You have no idea how much we take for granted that when we look at a map, North is pointing up. Think about it. But this isn’t always the case on a Japanese map. Walking through the vast Shinjuku Gyoen park, and having to occasionally consult a map at various points on our journey, it was disconcertingly confusing to find that North would vary the direction it was pointing. So walking clockwise around the park you would assume that the “you are here” point would have also moved some degree clockwise. Oh no. That would be too simple. The Japanese park map designers want to keep you on your toes, exercise your sleepy brain that has become too relaxed while on your perambulations.

“You are here” is suddenly, inexplicably, over there. I’m wise to this deception now. Frankly, I think I’m going to consider British maps a bit staid and unadventurous from now on.

Kyudo-ka in competition. Not a cigarette to be seen.

Four more observations:
1) Japanese lorries are blindingly, shinily clean. How? Does a team of lorry cleaners wash each one down at night? This is so unusual to the British eye, it’s really very noticeable;
2) There is a job for everyone, and everyone for a job. I don’t know what unemployment figures are like in Japan but they must be negligible. When a lorry reverses, a man walks along behind it blowing a whistle to warn people, despite the fact the lorry is also beeping. When cars have to cross a pavement to enter a car park, two people alternately halt the pedestrians and cars to make sure no-one is hurt and everyone gets a turn having right of way. When you go to a museum, one person will assist you in buying a ticket from the machine, then another person will take the ticket from you, five steps further on. I can’t work out whether this over-employment is the reason for Japan’s economic crash a few years ago or the reason it is gradually recovering;
3) Many Japanese women have a tottering walk that trips along on tips of toes, and which I wonder whether comes from the tiny-stepped geisha walk (which itself is apparently due to the unforgiving clothes they wear). Is it conscious? Is it fashionable? Is it with reference to the geishas at all? Or are Japanese women’s shoes just really uncomfortable?

Having said that, I have seen this same, tripping, small-stepped walk in men, usually men who are performing a task that could be seen as servile, like café workers or parcel delivery drivers. It’s fascinating.
4) Son and I found ourselves walking behind a group of what we assumed were disciples of some martial art or another. A quick Google of their unusual outfits revealed they must be Kyudo-ka, followers of what is apparently “the purest of all the martial ways”. The essence of modern kyudo – which translates as “the way of the bow” – is the pursuit of truth, goodness and beauty. We couldn’t help sniggering when they stopped at a designated smoking area to have a quick fag.

The sight of these martial “artists” prompted son to deliver one of his many monologues, this time on the subject of Brazilian jujitsu. “Brazilian jujitsu?” I said. “Is that jujitsu without the pubic hair?” Son didn’t know.