Reflections on Japan

The West still looks at Japan in infantile ways. It’s all a bit Early Internet, of an era when user-generated content was viral and heady: look at what those crazy Japanese do. But the wackiness fades quickly and, embarrassed at my inarticulate arigatou gozaimasu arrogance, I find the mistranslations more generous than hilarious, although some are still charming. 

Yes, there’s a street that sells wax food, but it’s knowing – the retailers know it’s a tourist attraction now, so they also sell nigiri keyrings and iPhone cases with tempura protuberances. I head to the Ghibli museum sceptical, fearing queue-for-a-photo-with-Totoro pandering, but the place is detailed and charming. Fragments of Japanese mythology, coal dust, tatami.

We eat well, five-figure blowout and starchy backstreet okonomiyaki alike. My fingers stain with soy and umami, although I draw the line at the fish eyes. We make makizushi and you know, it’s pretty easy. Like brushing a cat, you need more force than you’d think. Mix the rice with a slicing motion, and wipe the knife with each cut. I learn I prefer red miso to white, and that Japanese desserts aren’t for me: too little sweetness and crunch, too much paste. At the tiny Ginza sushi bar I simper as wasabi steam rises in my nose, but the guy has a damn Michelin star so I’m hardly about to disagree with him.

There is something about Zen, isn't there? Simplification, purity, doing one thing well: I can see why artists like it. Rituals abound. The tea ceremony is exactly ceremonial, all genuflection and cleaning and not much tea. Do you bow at the temples? I'm not a religious man, and decide it could be insulting to pretend otherwise. But enough people are doing the suggested motions, tossing loose yen into the grate, clapping twice, purifying the air with the bell. What's the difference between a shrine and a temple anyway?

Very little appears to happen by accident. The tarmac is immaculate, emblazened with sturdy ideograms, begging for the glide of streamlined bicycles and heavy suitcases. No lawn is unedged. The Japanese clearly love infrastructure: even the most trivial roadworks employ glowsticked security guards. While we Brits love engineering as historical badge of honour – the first railways, mate! Victorian sewers! – we’ve no interest in doing that kind of thing any more. Tokyo shrugs and lays another kilometre of seductive tarmac.

We buy niknaks that fit our too-small suitcases: stickers, biscuits shaped like pigs, useless soy saucers that fall into the “believe to be beautiful” category. Japan’s precision is infectious, but I know within three months I’ll be my old mess, sticky tape, beer caps and neuroses. I'm not sharp enough for this lifestyle, but that's okay: it's not mine.

Service is deferential and sexless, excepting perhaps Shinjuku's more lurid alleys. My wife’s game attempts to speak Japanese receive gratifying forgiveness. (I’m in France next month, so I enjoy this compassion while I can.) We drink with an ex-pat friend at an Okinawan bar, at which we're offered pickled snake juice, a staff-uniform kimono, and countless cups of sake. We roll out at 1am, the owners pressing business cards into our hands and waving us down the street. At 100 metres we sneak a backward look and, sure enough, they're still waving.

As a tourist, tourists are agonising. We’ve missed the best of the blossom season, but a few late bloomers linger in the parks, smartphonistas crammed in anticipation of Instagram hearts. It seems Chinese tourists are the new American tourists, barking at us to vacate their viewfinders, dressing in tacky polyester kimonos at the shrines, brandishing selfie sticks. I’m cool with selfie culture, but I'm no fan of the me-plus-landmark photo, a pic taken purely for documentation, to confirm presence, rather than for any recognition of beauty.

In our brief countryside stopover, the birds are different. Even the oblate sparrows, probably pests here, are captivating. I spy a yellow wagtail on a power line. I don't know birds, but it was yellow and wagged its tail. Our ryokan’s alpine tranquility is punctured by lingering jetlag and a pillow made of rock. I fidget half asleep, haunted by Suntory Boss's monochromatic face.

Finally, one last night in Toyko. Megacities are really about night-time: the 34th storey views, red eyes blinking on skyscraper shoulders, and advertisements blooming on the horizon like frozen fireworks. The photos never come out right, but I turn the lights off and press my face to the glass. In a gridless city everything below is Escher. I’m paying for the distance, for the vantage that helps me understand a city without having to be a part of it. Even this far up I can hear trains. Yoyogi Park is a blanket of darkness amid the light, and if I hold my gaze, the city really does twinkle.