Mark Gatiss’ train trip through Japan
I’ve always wanted to visit Japan, though I can’t quite explain why. Somewhere in the mix of childhood influences ranging from You Only Live Twice and Shogun, to Tenko and those Clive James shows, came an impression of a complex, frenzied, contradictory and quietly beautiful culture that fascinated me. There’s one thing all the guidebooks agree on, though: don’t go in August. Go in springtime, when the cherry blossom blooms. Or in autumn, when the copious greenery turns a blazing copper. But avoid hot and humid August. So, on 9 August last year, my friend Emma and I depart.
Tokyo, when we get there, has caught the tail end of a super-typhoon. After a long flight, it’s genuinely refreshing to walk through the sweeping curtains of rain. Itchy-eyed and numbed with jet lag, we nevertheless manage to shuffle around the excellent Tokyo National Museum, everything feeling slightly unreal and accompanied by a constant clip-clop refrain as though someone were following us around with a glockenspiel. It turns out to be a young couple in exquisite his & hers kimonos and those dazzlingly white, slightly sinister bifurcated socks, their chunky wooden sandals beating the distinctive tattoo as they traipse around.
Struggling to stay awake, we find a nice little place to eat. There’s much pointing and laughter as we negotiate our way around the menus, but the waiters are kind and helpful. Though we’re screened from our fellow diners by laminated curtains, the smoke from their scandalous-seeming cigarettes drifts through on to our delicious raw quail. It’s quite nostalgic. We drive back through a violent storm, Tokyo now bursting into blurry neon life: the cab driver in white gloves, the car with whispering automatic doors, like something from the future as envisioned in the 1970s.
The next day, after a fantastic sleep, there’s an apologetic waitress at breakfast: “Sorry for keeping you waiting.” She bows and smiles and smiles and bows, though she hasn’t kept us waiting at all. We go down on to the amazingly clean, efficient tube system, which is fairly quiet during this holiday period, with none of the fabled pushing and shoving. First stop: the famous Tsukiji fish market; a strange mix of working atmosphere and tourist attraction. Octopus suckers writhe in smashed ice. Men with hooks slice at giant frozen tuna, like medieval artisans carving pink alabaster pillars. Tuna flakes skitter to the floor, though whether they’re thrown away or headed for Sainsbury’s, it’s impossible to know.
Next, we visit the first of many (many) shrines. One was erected to the memory of the great reforming Emperor Meiji, with beautifully laid-out forest trails leading to purification areas and little booths where you can make a wish for the spirits to answer. It soon becomes clear that all the shrines have these, like concessions in a department store, flogging benedictions. Is it any different, though, I wonder, to the little shops in cathedrals selling CDs of plainsong? The rituals involve washing both hands and the mouth, then writing down a wish that is hung up on a wooden plaque. There is something a bit relentless about the commercialisation of this, and about the sheer number of shrines you traipse through.
One fascinating aspect of the Meiji temple are the strange indentations that cover the great wooden pillars and doors. With more than 3 million visitors a year, it can get very busy. Pilgrims have taken simply to hurling coins towards the shrine from a great distance, pockmarking the woodwork. They do offer, though, oases of calm in the sometimes overwhelming bustle. Most have been lovingly rebuilt after total destruction during the war.
We plunge back into a crazier, ultra-fashionable, teen-centred Tokyo – though, as always in a strange city, I fear that I’m actually standing in the middle of the equivalent of London’s Camden Town. Fashions are mysterious and charming. Many women wear a sun-shunning outfit of broad-brimmed hat, long gloves and pretty lacy parasol of dusty pink or grey. They look like Victorian ghosts in surgical masks, keeping to the hard shadows or cycling past on the thronged pavement.
Next day we leave for Hiroshima and our first experience of the bullet train. It is filled with impossibly cute children and super-efficient staff who bow as they enter and leave each carriage: the levels of courtesy and friendliness are so staggeringly different from Britain, it’s shaming.
Hiroshima is a quietly devastating place. Now a bustling modern city, it’s nevertheless entirely defined by the events of 6 August 1945, and signs everywhere show what used to stand or how far you are from the “hypocentre” of the atomic explosion. The shattered dome above which the A-bomb detonated stands within the Peace Park, where the accompanying museum pulls no punches. Inside are displays of melted spectacles, watches all stopped at 8.15am, burned and bloodied children’s clothing, dropped-out hair, fingernails. We emerge, humbled and moved, into a balmy red evening, scores of people sitting in quiet contemplation.
Later, down a back street, we find a tiny place for dinner. It has linen curtains and fat lanterns outside, and an atmosphere of slightly seedy congeniality with more, nicely rowdy smokers within. I jab a finger at the all-Japanese menu in the hope of ordering beer. Two tumblers of pale liquid arrive. “It looks like whisky!” I laugh. It is whisky. But, again, the staff are incredibly helpful, beaming, fun. We get by with a little Japanese and a little English, and enjoy huge grilled peppers with fish flakes on top and delicious sea bass with sticky rice.
Above all, it’s the people who make Japan. I’ve never been met with such extraordinary kindness, courtesy and friendliness. There’s far more English spoken than people lead you to think, and signage is bilingual – especially on the trains. I plan to return – in the spring, of course, or the autumn – as soon as I can. If this sounds evangelical, it is. Even in sultry August, Japan is a wonder. Go.