The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville

ver the course of the last fifteen years, since our youngest son moved to work in the Far East, we have made an annual trip to visit him and have become fairly frequent visitors to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan. Three years ago he changed jobs and his new employer asked him to work in London for two years, before returning to Hong Kong, but this arrangement was subsequently changed in that, having finished his two years in London, they then asked him to spend twelve months working in Tokyo before returning to Hong Kong. As we had never visited Japan the opportunity to visit and stay with him and his wife was too good to miss.

Japan is an Archipelago of nearly 7000 islands but in reality most people only think of the four main Islands, Honshu the largest with Hokkaido to the North and Shikoku and Kyushu being located to the South and South West of Honshu respectively. The area of Japan is approximately one and a half times the size of Great Britain but has a population which is roughly double, of 127 million. Over 70% of the country is heavily forested, mountainous and unsuitable for agricultural, industrial or residential purposes. As a result the flatter areas of land are very heavily populated.

The country is located in a volcanic zone with 108 active volcanoes. It is also vulnerable to tsunami and following the Tohoku earthquake in 2011, the world’s 5th largest in modern history, the resultant tsunami unleashed waves of up to 40 metres causing extensive damage.

Tokyo, the capital, is located on the Southern coast of Central Honshu. It has a population of 13 million but the Greater Tokyo area is the world’s largest metropolitan area with 35 million people. Over 99% of the population speak Japanese as their first language. Little English is spoken. For foreigners the written language is difficult to understand and as a result the country can be quite a difficult and foreign place to visit and travel. Despite such difficulties the overall first impression gained is of unusual cleanliness everywhere and the friendliness and politeness of the people with which you are received.

We flew direct from Heathrow to Haneda, the smaller of Tokyo’s two International Airports, where we were met by our son and daughter in law and taken to the apartment that they are renting for the year. Interestingly, as is quite common in Japan, the apartment was unfurnished and they have also rented most of their furniture for a 12 month period. The first couple of days were spent in leisurely fashion bearing in mind that it was necessary for us to try to adjust to an 8 hour time difference.

On the first Saturday we caught the ‘Bullet Train’ for a 90 minute ride north to Nagano for a 3 day visit. The area is famous for hot springs and also for skiing in winter. We have experienced such trains before, both in China and Taiwan, but were still amazed by the quietness and smoothness as we sped through the countryside at some 200mph.  Our son hired a car for the weekend which gave us the opportunity to visit some of the interesting little towns surrounding the city which are largely geared for local, not foreign, tourism. It also gave us the opportunity to experience Japanese restaurants where English translations of the menu were certainly a rarity. There were often pictures of the dishes and it was certainly possible to guess what might be on the top of the bowl but more difficult to discern what might be underneath that layer. We also had the opportunity to taste Sushi (raw fish with rice) and Sashimi (just the raw fish) –delicious!! Seating in the restaurants was also interesting in that generally at least 50% was on cushions and mats around low tables.  Certainly a no no for us. One overriding memory of the area was the quality of the fruit which was being harvested at that time. There were apples the size of  small melons and unseeded grapes that were more like small plums, all of very high quality.

Christmas & New Year 2015/6

A Visit to Japan - A New Experience

The following week was spent in Tokyo where there are some areas that are frequented by foreign tourists, such as the grounds of the Imperial Palace, the Tokyo and Skytree towers,  the Temple at Asakusa and possibly the fish market but in the main it is a very large commercial, working city where local people live their normal lives.  In that respect there were similarities to London especially the cost of taxis, housing and possibly the overall cost of living.  Although the country has suffered a 25 year period of stagnation and deflation since the housing bubble burst in the late eighties there was little sign of poverty and certainly no beggars on the streets. The overall sense of cleanliness and politeness was paramount and when buying anything in a shop it was individually wrapped and presented to you with a bow. In all the time we spent there we never experienced a traffic jam although stops at the numerous traffic lights were frequent. Travel on the underground metro was also an interesting experience with the map of the system being more like a very complex maze and making the London map seem fairly simple. It was possible for some stations to have perhaps 5 connecting underground lines as a result of which it was a real challenge to find the way to the correct line, let alone then get on the train going in the right direction.

The following Saturday saw us on the ‘Bullet Train’ once again, this time for the two and a half hour ride to Kyoto, the old capital. The staff of the train were very smart and when passing along the 16 carriage train would pause at the end of each carriage, turn and bow from the waist to the passengers in the carriage.  If only!! The cleanliness of the train was again very apparent. There was a litter receptacle at the end of each carriage but when getting off the train a member of the station staff would be standing by each carriage with a sack for passengers to deposit any rubbish that they had taken off the train.

We stayed in Kyoto for 2 days, where we visited a number of the ancient temples and wandered through the extensive fish market and covered shopping arcades. It is an attractive city and geared much more towards visits from foreign tourists than other parts of Japan. One attractive feature was the number of young ladies who had hired a kimono for the day and wandered around the city in traditional dress.

Our son had taken a week’s holiday and again hired a car which enabled us to travel to Nara, an even older capital where we visited the temple of the Great Buddha and also the extensive Park which is the home to numerous very tame deer. From Nara we travelled through the heavily populated Osaka region (we have to admit that we were thankful that our son was driving using his i-phone as a Sat Nav rather than us) before crossing over the bridges to reach the Island of Shikoku, where we stayed in Tokushima for two nights.

Shikoku is a much less heavily populated island than Honshu and as a result has a rather more relaxed atmosphere. While there we drove down to the south of the Island and spent a very pleasant few hours driving along the shores of the pacific. We then headed back to Honshu, this time crossing the Great Seto Bridge, a double decker construction with road on top and rail underneath. The bridge does in fact consist of 6 major bridges and 5 viaducts which connect small islands and in total stretches for a distance of 9.3km. Having reached Honshu again we then stayed in Kurashiki, a small town which was again much better geared to visits by foreign tourists.

The next day again saw us on an expressway, when we travelled through numerous tunnels down to Hiroshima. If the Hindhead tunnel took a number of years to complete we hate to think how long this road must have taken to build!!  Hiroshima is of course well known for the fact that it was decimated by the dropping of the first atomic bomb at the end of the 2nd world war. Whilst there we visited the Memorial Museum and wandered through the Peace Park which for us was a very moving experience. We learned that at the time the bomb was dropped Hiroshima had a population of 350,000 of which 140,000 were killed, but that it now has a population of 1.15 million. The Museum highlighted the fact that, amongst those killed were many children who were out in the open having been taken out of school to demolish buildings in order to construct fire breaks in readiness for the expected bombing of the city by the allies. It is difficult to come to terms with such loss of life, but then we also learned that Tokyo had been the target of traditional bombing raids and that in one night 20,000 had been killed in that city. It just brings the horrors that occur in any war much more to the front of your thoughts.

From Hiroshima we again took the ‘Bullet Train’ back to Tokyo, this time for a 4 hour ride. Another couple of days in Tokyo during which we took a boat ride on the river and also met up with a catholic sister who had been based at Burnham Abbey before returning to Japan and was known to a mutual friend of ours.

As our son is now returning to Hong Kong it is unlikely that we will ever visit Japan again. It is however a fascinating country and we are pleased that we made the effort to visit although, as pointed out earlier, it could be a difficult and in many ways foreign country for visitors to come to terms with. We are only thankful that we were mostly accompanied by our son and daughter in law, both of whom have been learning Japanese and as fluent Mandarin speakers are able to make fairly good guesses at the meaning of written Japanese characters.

David Cavey