Made in Japan

(2010, A Train Odyssey)

Japan is the most alluring of worlds. Old meets new without obvious disdain, and there is no shyness for attire or appearance, as long as it is tempered by ritual modesty. I spent only 10 days in Japan, travelling with friends between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Naoshima and Kinosaki Onsen; this hardly seems to scratch the surface of what must be the most intriguing and fascinating place I have ever been.

We watch in reverence as Narcissus is turned to a flower... A flower?!!

Highway Star

Planes, trains and automobiles...

Tokyo sprawls like a three dimensional jigsaw puzzle, improvised out of an explosion of irregular boxes, its edge pieces apparently lost somewhere in time. It's tower-like centre rises out of an almost relentless sea of grey suburban housing, punctuated by a little half-hearted agriculture here and there. The Narita airport Express wends through a bland suburban jungle of dull concrete as it enters Tokyo. Apart from a small bamboo forest at the start of the journey, the landscape seems colourless and disappointing after a 10 hour flight, like the faded winter greens you see in a Norwegian winter, or a poorly developed photograph -- certainly not the brilliant emerald hills of the `green and pleasant' UK. It says `drab', but as first impressions go, this couldn't be more wrong.

Hundreds and thousands of small, low-rise houses sprinkled across the land, some of them look almost English in style except for occasional Japanese roofing decorations. They nestle between the vast elevated railways. I look for main road arteries feeding this jungle of housing, but I see only narrow twisty passages in between the battery of boxlike accommodation. There is no mistaking this for America, or any other country I have visited thus far. It's all for the trains, not the cars. Trains rule in Japan: trains and vending machines.

The houses exhibit a diverse collage of building materials from the super-modern to the oldest plates of corrugated iron. As we speed past the expanse of `little boxes' (no photograph could capture the sheer density and expanse of it), I boggle at how it might be feasible to deliver water and electricity to this endless human macrochip.

All Change! Tokyo

Train stations are a good place to learn a little about Japanese pronunciation. Everyone we met in Japan spoke very clearly, so that one could make out word boundaries, and the stations like to recite lists over their tannoy. In these lists one finds many similar names, following the same linguistic pattern, e.g. Hiroshi-maaaa, Naoshi-maaaa, and Shinkan-sennn, Yamanote-sennn. Clues about Japanese language.

Can someone keep it down in here?
More than twice the entire population of Norway passes through
Tokyo station every day...

The sen are the train lines. The Shin-kan-sen (or just Shinkansen) is the high speed `bullet train' or `New Main Line', that maintains an average speed of some 275 kilometers per hour, and up-to-the-second accuracy. In spite of major Earthquakes there have been no accidents on this line during its 40 year history and only a single derailment without casualties. The train is apparently capable of braking from 300 kilometres per hour to nothing in seconds during an emergency, using air-brakes, and engine breaking.

The station (and also the city beyond) chirps with a collage of sounds, usually using bird noises in various stages of agitation to signal road crossings or train arrivals. Like everything here, there is an extraordinary attention to detail. Why pick an ordinary repetitive sound when a carefully crafted, specially thought-out sound would do instead? It's a chance to make art. Tokyo station uses these little jingles to signal events and alarms -- not simply annoying repetitive noises, announcements are usually preceded by a jingle that is different each time (harder to ignore that way, and less annoying). Many of them sounded like something improvised by Rick Wakeman while waiting for a train, or possibly a rogue organist who escaped from the circus.

My engineering brain assumes (with some gratitude) that -- given the sheer number of trains and announcements that take place during a day -- the variety of jingles is a weapon against the possible insanity that would ensue from bare repetition of a simple "bell sound", bereft of any variation. This is one of the ways that a city like Tokyo deals with information overload. More countries could think as pro-actively as the Japanese seem to do in all their functional design. The Japanese think ahead, and they don't seem to cut corners.

As the Shinkansen rolls in from its country spanning trip, it has only 15 minutes during which to be evacuated, cleaned, have its seating turned 180 degrees and repopulate. It leaves the station again on the stroke of the clock to the waves of the train staff. The punctuality of the this New Main Line super-express train is measured in seconds, not minutes, and is obviously a major source of pride.

As the train approaches, people line up at clearly marked locations on the platform, labelled with the location of the wagons and seating, which cars are smoking, non-smoking, reserved, non-reserved. Passengers stand back to leave clearance for an army of pink clad women in identical uniforms and sports shoes, to enter the train and transform it for the return journey. They greet the exiting passengers with a bow and wave the new ones on their way, as the train leaves.

Travelling out on the other side of the city from Tokyo station, a few lofty skyscrapers fizzle out into more of the drab suburbia I saw on the inward journey to town. I have not yet seen much of the city. It still seems endless. Finally, some miles out, a silver shaft of water, a river or perhaps a canal, breaks open the city, creating a welcome pause and a little space for some children to play sports on its banks.

A few smart high-rises spring up but it's back to the sprawl. The Old and the New brush shoulders with a casual disregard for style here in the suburbs. A few blossom trees poke through the tiny gardens of bleak housing. Without these pink flashes of blossom, there would be only electricity pylons for trees.

As the train speeds towards Kyoto, finally a ridge of hills intervenes and blocks the houses as if in protest against the advance of the city, but a trickle leaks through to the other side, more diluted now. Then it goes dark. Tunnels. Lots of tunnels.

Child in Time

Japan is probably the most alien country I have ever visited, and yet sitting in the hotel, it seems as plain as a rich tea biscuit. Travelling with friends takes the edge off the strangeness, but there is also a familiarity to the Japanese ways. On more than one occasion, I found myself comparing Japan to Britain, as if it they were alternative universes of one another somehow. As a British person I could see several subtle parallels from tea drinking to ritual courtesies that look superficially different but have a familiar feel. Programmed well-being, but fuelled by a child-like optimism. Live well within clear but not smothering boundaries. We are gradually forgetting how to do this in the West.

I find people here beautiful. It's not just the way they look. There is clearly a great variety of genes in play, all of which bring attractive qualities; you can see strong features that mix traits from several countries of the neighbouring regions and even farther afield. Beyond that, Japanese people seem ageless. They look after themselves, but there is more.

Could it be that there is less fretting over the fictitious boundary between childhood and adulthood here? People young and old share the same styles. No one cuts their hair short to `look their age'. No one seems to be striving for adulthood, abandoning playfulness for painfully sensible norms. Here the norm seems to be just look as good as you can.

Everyone is astonishingly well dressed and well groomed. People don't seem to own clothes, just `outfits'. Not a hair is out of place. Personal grooming is a serious issue. Most Japanese wear outfits with real shoes, not tatty running togs and sneakers for comfort. I have seen girls sprint down an escalator in 3 inch heels, letting nothing stand in the way of fashion. That takes dedication.

It is close to impossible to guess someone's age from a distance. People are rarely overweight, it seems. Perhaps hair colour lasts longer? Women who dye their hair can, of course, conceal age for longer, but their hair seems to retain its structure and thickness, and their physiques don't crinkle and bloat as we tend to. I could be imagining these things, but no one can deny that the Japanese look really good.

In an older wartime generation have I seen Japanese feigning the silly US wartime haircuts of my parent's generation. All countries seemed to latch onto these from what I have seen: hair tortured and distorted with rollers and curling tongs. Good lord, what were they thinking?

Voices too seem to be used as a tool for conveying sense. Everyone has seen macho aggressive Japanese voices in warrior films, but there was little of that to be found where we went. The female range of voices is more interesting though. From more Western-kind casual voices in the city, some women still affect a high pitched girlish falsetto here, perhaps as a kickback to earlier times or even Geisha traditions? All these things make "age" something different to what we are used to.


Kyoto is approaching the end of the Cherry Blossom season. I meet up with some travelling friends here. Kyoto used to be the capital of Japan and is filled with beautiful temples, and gardens. We spend a few days here to absorb some of the atmosphere of the Cherry blossom season.

Gardens are popular too in Kyoto:

During the Cherry Blossom season people sit out at night and enjoy picnics under the blossoms.

In Kyoto, we visit a little tourist performance: a traditional Japanese tea ceremony of, fresh, bitter green tea with a sweet bean-curd condiment, served by Geisha. The arrangement is followed by a traditional Geisha `dance' performance of music and story telling, of carefully choreographed pale-faces in traditional dress. The style is subdued and unique, but the precision of the dance is no less impressive -- somewhere between a dance troupe and a military tattoo. Twenty or thirty, identically dressed women move like robots to pipes, twanging strings and the beat of drums, striking poses with fans of their kimonos. This is not so much dance as `vogue', Japanese style.

A more informal tea ceremony at a garden cafe:


Everywhere you go, the ground is spotless and not detail is wanting of maintenance. If you want clean, forget Scandinavia, forget Germany, come to Japan. No one seems to be taking liberties at anyone else's expense in Japan, and rules seem to be obeyed with genuine grace. Can this really be true, or is this the blindness of a tourist visitor seeing greener grass? But it is not an illusion. There is no road marking that needs painting, no sign that needs touching up, because as night falls, someone is out there fixing and painting. Preventative maintenance is on the menu here and it's working. Fix it before the horse has bolted.

Perhaps this is the reason: shoes must be removed before stepping onto a raised floor, or mat. There is a strict segregation of the levels of cleanliness in Japan. Shoes are changed when entering a building, when going up a level, and when entering a bathroom.

It was more than a challenge to squeeze my enormous feet into the standard sizes.

Kyoto is a varied and friendly city. We stay at the Three Sisters Inn, and are treated to the lovely hospitality of three sisters and their daughter who run this cosmopolitan inn, close to the University. Many famous travellers have stayed at this inn in the past. Photographs on the walls show the sisters in black'n'white together with world leaders and film stars. The rooms are simple spaces with thin futons lain on the floor. Kyoto is a tourist trail, but there seems to be genuine friendliness here.

North of Kyoto is a Bamboo forest and gardens, fat chutes of bamboo that weave intricate angular patterns which an almost mystical aura.

Beyond the bamboo forest is a hilltop garden, with a view of the city. Gardens seem to use mosses, not grass for their green carpeting.

Smoke on the Water

Away from Kyoto now, elsewhere. It is dark. We are in a traditional Japanese house with wooden frame and paper dividing walls. Entering through the main door, you take off your shoes to climb onto the raised floor to the left. As your eyes adjust, you see a black carpet in the dark space, that shimmers slightly like water. There is a slight sound of running liquid. A large pool fills the room, perhaps 10cm deep, with a narrow walkway around the edge. Then as your eyes adjust further, you seen that the black bottom of the pool sparkles with scattered red, green and yellow lights. Closer inspection reveals that they are randomly strewn digital counters, each counting time from 1 to 9 in a cycle, each at a random speed. This is the Sea of Time.

We are at the Benesse Art Site on Naoshima, an island just South of Osaka, with a regular ferry connection to the mainland. Heavy rain splatters down onto Ando's concrete hotel -- a sculpture of its own right in the blooming hillside. It might be made of reinforced concrete, that most-human of inventions, but it looks as though it belongs to Nature itself.

I can think of no more beautiful hotel than this building, in this place. It sits like a breath of Scandinavia in the midst of the hills, with its Chopsticks 1-6 water-wind sculpture, resting amongst a chorus of different trees in the hills around it.

It's as though the architect tried to show Nature what it could do if its really put its mind to it. Curiously amongst the few blossoms on the Island, there are colours that evoke autumn on display in the surrounding bush. Beyond, the sea is shrouded in a dull mist, pierced only by the lights of passing ferries and tankers that tell of an industrial world not far out to sea. A lone head of a cyclist bobs up above the rise of a grassy ridge, as he comes up the winding path from the Art House exhibition.

This island is a giant art exhibit. It consists of `renovated' or decorated buildings and a variety of museums. Perhaps the most impressive is the museum built specially to house 4 Monet paintings, doing them honour with powerful minimalist design.

And fire in the sky

Returning to the disputed capital Tokyo, we take up residence on the 34th floor of the Conrad hotel. If Japan is other-wordly, Tokyo is a satellite of its own. Like any capital city, neither pictures nor words can do Tokyo justice. At night it slumbers, during the day it teems with a jungle of diversity. From fashion districts, with its funky famous Prada building, to side alleys in Shinjuku than make you feel like you walked into the Blade Runner movie. Like every capital city, it is all the things you expect, not at all as you expected to find them. And then it goes mad. In Shinjuku district, I feel as though I have walked onto the set of Blade Runner, and expect to see huge flames vent from the sides of the buildings.

I want to chase after robots here, but we find only food bars and pedestrians -- a sea of people compressed into a bursty data-stream, softly spoken but charged with purpose.

In the evening, from the bar on the 28th floor of the Conrad, I order a 0028 Vodka Martini, James Bond style, and look out to the river below and the park. Mist on the water and fire in the sky. The city seems to be burning with a straight line of flickering flames that hover mystically above the water. But something about the scale is not right. Not some stupid with a flare gun this time, just the reflection from the fireplace in the window. Better explore the gardens tomorrow...

The Mule

Japan has a fascinating spiritual mythology, combining Buddhism (ancestor worship) with the Japanese Shinto tradition. I love the Japanese mythological heritage, with its ghosts and spirits and other embodiments of the forces of nature, e.g. as featured in Japanese animations such as Princess Mononoke. The temples provide a spectacular expression of the culture.

Cats are important in Japan too. Everywhere you go you will find the lucky beckoning cat Maneki Neko which is supposed to have saved a travelling lord from a sticky end at the point of a lightening strike. Hello Kitty, is a more modern incarnation of the Japanese cat obsession.

These images demonstrate again and again how there is no association between storytelling, fantasy and children as in the West, It reminds me of the words of C.S. Lewis: "When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up." There is no doubt here, however, that Japanese culture reveres youth somehow. Androgenous, ageless youth appears everywhere in the preferred imagery of media advertising.

From mythical animals to denizens of the sea. In Osaka we visit the multi-story aquarium. The largest of the tanks was four stories, containing an impressively large Whale Shark as well as an array of rays.

I liked Osaka's laid back feel, although I can't put my finger on what is different about it. Although only there for a short visit, I had an unconscious feeling that it was a more relaxed place than Tokyo. Within moments of arriving at the train station, and probably fumbling around looking for a way out, we were stopped by locals offering assistance.

After the aquarium, we wander around the centre of town, and take lunch at the Garb restaurant, wandering around some kind of fashion district. It is a pleasant `alternative trendy' lunch bar or cafe. It is remarkable how standard `alternative cool' is around the world. It has a very western feel, nestling behind a white garden fence in a fashionable district. The staff put on a brave western face, with tattooed cool defiance, but you don't have to thank them very hard before it all melts into bowing and traditional pleasantries. It makes me wonder what a Japanese Dominatrix would have to deal with.

Okonomiyaki is a kind of pancake from Hiroshima, filled with `bubble'n'squeak' and varieties of ingredients. An egg on top and noodles. Something like HP sauce. I first experienced this is a park in Kyoto, under the Cherry Blossom celebrations. In Osaka, it made a welcome break from food filled with gratuitous octopus. If I never see another Octopus or squid on my plate it will be too soon.

I am a dessert freak. I don't put sugar in drinks, but I always want a taste of something sweet with my coffee. Starbucks has arrived in Tokyo, and the coffee here is definitely above average for countries around the world. More interestingly, cakes are not too sweet. I feel as though I am being treated to the perfect amount of sugar rather than a vulgar display of sickly excess that I would expect in the UK or the US.

Do androids dream of molecular tapas?

In Tokyo, our finest meal was on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Hotel, at the Molecular Tapas bar. A taster menu of delicacies concocted from local ingredients, and turned into art by two incredible `food technicians'. The dinner froths with astounding creations and constructions, not only in the mixture of flavours but in the creative chemistry behind them. Drops of one liquid into another from super-sized syringes show how liquids can be enclosed in their own yolk-like membrane. Meringue balls filled with fluid dipped in liquid nitrogen hold their form just long enough to explode on contact with your tongue. The Chefs prepare the food before us, and even show some of their special tricks. Twelve plates of adventure.

From the top of a skyscraper, everything about Tokyo looks different. From the stark reality of being dwarfed by your surroundings, a mere speck amongst monstrous power, you rise up to the clouds and look down. Locked into this bubble of luxury, I am struck by a view that could have inspired Isaac Asimov's fabled city planet of Trantor. At this scale, the bustle of the city is lost to sheer enormity. Behind the glass and a veil of Jazz, the cloak of evening, the sounds of the world below are edited out, leaving only the graceful passage of trains snaking along trajectories, and the flashing of red beacons atop the city's sky-scrapers. Man built this, but it seems utterly inconceivable; we are only visitors in this realm. This was surely the work of a greater power.

Trumpeted Jazz in the bar is an effective cliche to the view beyond. It accentuates the melancholy vastness of the city at night. The almost soundless expanse beyond the window seems to whisper: you are alone up there, amongst all this. The cogs of the metropolis are halted, the streets closed for business. Only an occasional wink from a helicopter beacon and a minimal flow of automobile traffic indicate the vital signs of this slumbering leviathan.

Strange Kind of Woman

In Tokyo the girls dress to impress, and they dress to scare the feint hearted. You might need to adjust your glasses for chromatic aberration, or tighten your burka against blindness from staring after the vanishing mini-skirts.

See a skinny, long-haired model in tights and heels, with shiny long hair and expensive accessories (with multiple teddy bears tied to the straps)? It could as easily be a 40 year old as as 14 year old. The shapes and styles are more constant. My woman from Tokyo...

If girls are fashion models and runway denizens, then the boys are undergoing some kind of glam-revival. Every fake-shabby hair thread has been dutifully placed according to millimetre tolerances of some master plan. Of that there is little doubt. Image and grooming are clearly of central importance here. Manga comic book styles seem to have entered the culture of real life too.

Kids mostly seem to hand out to take pictures of each other, using the victory V rabbit ears in all pictures.

Perhaps modern hairstyles have reinvented Japan. In more traditional films and settings, hairstyles are more pulled back revealing the angular faces beneath. The different is striking. The modern styles are "cute" now, contrasting with the traditional pulled back hairstyles that remind of the super-DIY-facelift pony tails you see in Scandinavia.

I have to say I love the playfulness of it, but I can imagine being reined in by some militant-green killjoy feminist from back home, chiding me for enjoying something so obviously `morally oppressed' and against everything a confused generation in the '70s fought for. I am not sure exactly what to think about feminism in Japan. It is too short and superficial a visit to draw any conclusions about that. I only think: why would anyone want to wipe out such wonderful colour from society? Roles and images are important, as long as they don't conceal inequality of rights. Why wish for a grey smudge when you can have a rainbow?

I find it hard also to reconcile what I see around me with the view of Japan that is exported in television and film -- of an aggressively crazy culture with lots of shouting and mad game playing. This view could not be farther from the truth, it seems. Everyone I met in Japan was softly spoken, generous and warm. The most violent thing would be the expression "Hai!" which seems to mean everything from yes, okay, there-you-go, to hello and `right you are'. Train attendants bow when entering and leaving the cars. The ritual of respect is abundant and genuinely charming. Nor does it seem to be about one group of people over and above others. It is more about context and situation, who is serving whom.

An American couple we met told us they had visited Japan 30 years previously and every supermarket roof-top was a playground for kids. Today they are not, because young people are choosing not to have children. They are remaining single and living their own lives for the time being.


Domo arigato, Mr Roboto. Vending machines are everywhere, lurking in wait, selling drinks in every conceivable location and selling tickets for everything imaginable. Side streets of densely built Tokyo (where people would likely be mugged or murdered elsewhere in the world) are common locations for drinks machines here. Like trains, vending machines can be relied upon to deliver what you need when and where you need it. Simply insert any denomination of coin or note, get change and your drink at a fair price.

One wonders how these free standing, weather proof automata might fare in a European or American city, and who would ultimately collect the money from them.

Information abounds, usually in English and Japanese and using old Chinese characters. I have yet to understand the use of alphabets in Japan. There seem to be three versions of every name on the subway: Kanji, Chinese-like characters and English transliterations.

Maps are also common, showing you where you are. Exits from train stations are numbered and labelled clearly. This is in contrast to the streets however, which are not well labelled at all, and buildings are not numbered in order of location, but in according to the chronology of construction (according to one guide book). Information is how you scale a system (like a city) -- it's good Knowledge Management. And if the printed matter doesn't help, there is usually someone attending to ask.

Circular conveyer belts, like airport baggage systems, deliver plates of Sushi to diners at Sushi bars, and then hand-held scanners count piles of colour coded plates to calculate the bill.

My Toyota was recalled by the factory!

From Kyoto, travel through a mountain pass, steep river valley, perhaps glacial. The houses give way to farms, and as we move out of the urban yolk, we enter a more familiar kind of suburbia, filled with a more familiar provincial world, as un-stylish as in any other country of the world, filled with shopping centres, car parking, piles of tires, messy gardens, rusting barns and dead tractors. Now I know where I am. Where is my beautiful house...?

Farther still on the north of the island is Kinosaki Onsen, a small village in the mountains, with hot springs. The water, which smells slightly sulphurous, must hold a temperature around 40-50 degrees C.

The dialogue between Japan and Nature is evident elsewhere too. In the Japanese gardens, one does not attempt to steamroller Nature into compliance, but rather in the manner of a sculptor, groom the existing scene to reveal and enhance its existing beauty. There is no doubt that they could bend Nature to their will if they wanted to, but that is not necessary. Instead they bow and respect its right to exist, as long as Nature too follows a respectful line.

Space Truckin'

Japan is a treasure trove of beautiful architecture, both in traditional buildings and modern skyscrapers. Tokyo has its version of the London Gurkin (almost certainly older than the London building). In Roppongi, there is a version of the Eiffel Tower in red and white stripes. Along the train tracks from Tokyo to Kyoto there are plenty of imaginative constructions. Some of the best views can be found in Tokyo, around the Miraikan.

Philip Stark's Flamme D'Or lies some distance away down-river

The Miraikan is the science museum. Impressively, it is full of not only cool technology, but also volunteers (senior citizens) who come to teach kids about science.

There are fully equipped class rooms in the middle of the museum. Japan is clearly proud of its scientific and engineering prowess. I like the way the museum first poses questions, challenging you to think, before providing plausible answers and even games to play. On my visit, the games included a house of horrors, exploring and explaining the science of fright and offering plausible explanations for apparent supernatural phenomena. Another game was a huge Heath-Robinson contraption with travelling billiard balls simulating packet transfer across the Internet.

With characteristic Japanese modesty, the museum does not proclaim that Japan is world-leading, the greatest, the Best. Rather they say: "Japanese technology is considered to be at the top world-class level".

An early attempt at creating a satellite receiver?

In Roppongi, we visit the Mori museum, up on the 53rd floor. It houses art of many sorts, from intricate paper trees formed from cutting and folding paper inside shopping bags (the effect is like a ship in a bottle where the ship was made from the bottle itself), to a quirky rhythmical contraption made from an old car, several bits of furniture and sound equipment, where the motorized windscreen wipers and lights move and flash in time to a thumping rhythm.

I really want to know how they got the car onto the 53rd floor.

Applause and Encore

There is too much to say, even after only a short visit, and there is surely so much more to learn. We have seen incredible things, experienced great kindness, helpfulness, and pride -- but surely we have only scratched the surface.

The short of it is that I liked Japan and its culture. Norway has its outstanding natural beauty, but no one is going to leave Norway with stories about how interesting and wonderful the Norwegian people were. Japan's greatest asset is its people and its culture. I don't know of anywhere else like it.

I feel as though I have learnt a little about Japan, but how do you take a snapshot of a place or a culture at a moment in time, and judge it? Do we know what direction it is going, or where it has come from? Are we seeing it on a good day or a bad one? What of the dark side the brings the good? I don't know how to answer this question. I can only say this: the breadth of human nature is quite constant across our planet. It is how we express it outwardly that varies, both in speech and mannerisms, in conventions and in culture. What stands out for me is the rich variety of Japan's culture, with a keen and respectful sense of aesthetics firmly rooted in practical engineering.

I wish my friend Noriko Sakurai has still been alive to share my reflections with. She died suddenly before I was able to visit Japan and her city Shinjuku for the first time. I wonder if she would think I `got it' or perhaps I am missing the point completely. Either way, she epitomized all of the good qualities I have seen in this magnificent country. Japan might be the most alien world I have visited so far, but I love it! Arigato gozaieemaas'ta! Encore!

Black Night

Leaving Narita airport, we were fortunate to catch one of the last planes out of Tokyo. The Icelandic volcanic eruption has halted air travel shortly after we land in Munich, forcing us to crawl our way across Europe by train and bus, and abandoning luggage in an ever growing mountain at the airport. One week later, we are home with luggage intact.