A Sweet Lolita, one of the many types of Lolita, shops in a dedicated store in downtown Tokyo. There are also Gothic, Classic and Punk varieties to name but a few.
Japan – Long Read

Nothing is ever what it seems

Photo by Ton Koene

Japan – Long Read Nothing is ever what it seems

Hello Tokyo and Kyoto, only a two-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride apart, and the Yin and Yang of Japan. One, with 35million people, is the largest metropolitan area in the world. The other boasts an astonishing 17 Unesco monuments, taking you right back to the time of the samurai. In both cities, however, nothing is ever really what it seems.

Jurriaan Teulings
Jurriaan Teulings Travel Writer

Japan is undoubtedly a land of paradoxes. It’s a land where the traditions of local culture are endlessly rehearsed and repeated, and meticulously perfected to the most minute detail. Yet at the same time there is a constant push-and-pull relationship between ritual and innovation. Just as subtlety intermingles the outrageous, and the serene flirts with chaos.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in the Akasaka district of Tokyo embodies this paradoxical spirit. When this five-star luxury property first opened its doors, the press release was a veritable laundry list of superlatives: Rolls Royces, Rolexes, skyscraping heights, supersonic elevators, and wallet-busting rack rates. But perhaps most captivating of all was its 200-year-old traditional teahouse perched high above the gridded rows of concrete and glass down below.

The Ritz’s teahouse was scooped up from its native environs in a far-flung corner of Japan, and plunked atop the tallest, most luxurious skyscraper in Tokyo. And although it may at first feel as though the authenticity of the experience has been stripped away due to its unusual positioning, there’s something quite magical about indulging in one of Japan’s most coveted traditions amid modern surrounds.

In Tokyo the serenely austere design of a teahouse – be it up in the air or firmly on the ground – is never far removed from something rife in contrast. On the other side of the city is the buzzing Akihabara district. Here, among the endless clutter of technology superstores, traditional geisha garb has been replaced by a French maid’s uniform.

A staple of local otaku (geek) culture

Maid cafés – one of the city’s most beloved crazes – have become a staple of local otaku (geek) culture. Young women, donning all sorts for servile attire, wait on customers with very particular demands. You can order a beer with a side of ‘smile’ from your hostess. You can even ask your waitress to act like your younger sister (which is, interestingly one of the most popular demands).

Those seeking the opposite end of spectrum – light years away of the blaring mayhem of neon and meowing robot cats – should head to Asakusa. But this rare remnant of the “Tokyo of yore” boasts a chaos of its own; the matsuri (festival). The greatest and most important matsuri of all is Sanja Matsuri, around Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Known as one of the city’s wildest festivals, it takes place at the end of spring and lasts four days. But Senso-ji is also a year-round attraction. Western tourists are just a recent addition to a constant procession of pilgrims that have come to visit the holy site throughout the centuries.

Nakamise-dori, commercial arcade of countless stalls and hawkers that crowd the way to the entrance, has always been around since Edo times. The only difference today is that the traditional assortment of sweet rice snacks, kimonos and wooden sandals has expanded to include all kinds of knickknackery (Hello Kitty!). Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion to whom this temple is dedicated, now appears on key rings.

Asakusa is considered the center of shitamachi – or ‘low town’ – and sits along the banks of the Sumida river. In a city where millions commute via subway, this urban waterway offers an attractive and relaxing alternative: the Suijo-water bus. From Asakusa it is a scenic ride of about half an hour to Hama-rikyu gardens. While savoring wild teas at one of the garden’s teahouses (firmly on the ground, at a quiet pond, where it belongs) it is hard to imagine that you are smack in the middle of the largest metropolitan area in the world, where 35 million people live, work and play.

The largest market in the world

And those millions love their seafood. Just up the road from Hama-rikyu is Tsukiji Market, Japan’s veritable sushi kitchen, and the largest market in the world. Every day, more than 2,000 tons of fish and other marine creatures are processed and distributed across the country and bound. If it has fins, tentacles, or dwells in a clam, you’ll find it at Tsukiji. Many visitors to the city put their jet-lagged biorhythms to good use by showing up before 5am, just in time to queue for tickets to the tuna auction. After watching middlemen bid on the copious catches, the tourists scurry off to savor the freshest slices of raw fish at the clusters of tiny sushi restaurants nearby.

The only thing that earns more camera snaps than the tuna at Tsukiji is the Japanese teenager. To be more specific, the adolescent who hangs out in the hip Harajuku district. Here, “goth loli” girls and young rockabillies with greased quaffs seem commonplace amid extravagantly bespectacled ““Elton Johns” and bemohawked punks. Set in the heart of this fashion playground is Meiji Jingu, the elegant Shinto shrine dedicated to the 19th century Emperor Meiji and his wife. This should come as no surprise, of course, as only in Tokyo can exaggerated flourishes of self-expression exist beside the contemplative tranquility of a temple complex.

Tokyo is not the best place to get acquainted with traditional Japan, if only for the fact that the city was largely destroyed – not once, but twice – in the last century. First there was the cataclysmic earthquake of 1923, then came the Allied bombings of World War II. Kyoto, a two-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride away, has had a much different fate. With more than 2,000 temples and an astonishing 17 Unesco World Heritage sites, the former imperial capital of Japan is one of the richest cultural cities in the world.

It hasn’t changed since the time of the samurai

Gion is Kyoto’s timeless entertainment district. The cobbled streets are lined with machinya – traditional wooden houses – that spark to life as the sun sets over the temple-clad hills. Time seems to stand still in the warm glow of the street lanterns, though geiko (as geishas are called in the local dialect) are much more of an anomaly today than they were a century ago. Even so, the odd geiko can still be glimpsed on her way to an appointment at one of the secreted ochaya; teahouses that aren’t so much about tea as they are about the refined entertainment.

The most famous ochaya is the 300-year-old Ichiriki Ochaya, an exclusive establishment that, according to legend, hasn’t changed since the time of the samurai. These days it is wealthy businessmen that frequent Ichiriki; only the right connections will get you in, and very few foreigners have ever been granted the honor.

Much more accessible than the elusive geiko culture of the ochaya are the city’s myriad gardens, temples and palaces. In fact, there is so much to see that it requires a bit of planning, given the relatively short period of time most visitors have to spend. It can feel rather daunting to grasp 1,000 vibrant years of history in a few days, but that shouldn’t – and doesn’t – stop anyone from trying.

A good start is a visit to the Zen gardens of Ryoanji, whose deceptive simplicity hides a complexity that subconsciously evokes a feeling of calm and well-being. In fact, It took a team of scientists to properly demonstrate the garden’s mathematics. In an article published by Nature, they analyzed the rock garden and found that along a central line of sight the appealing shape of a branched tree emerges in relief. If one of the rocks is moved, the magic disappears.

Less abstract is the beauty of the 1,001 statues of the Sanjusangen-do temple which, like Senso-ji in Tokyo, is dedicated to Kannon, this time in a 1,000-armed incarnation. Not to be missed are the splendid gardens of the imperial palace (the palace itself is not open to the public) and the Golden Pavilion, after which more than 2,000 places of interest remain. Even the most dedicated garden and temple aficionado could spend years visiting the sights of Kyoto without seeing the same site twice.

Its small-town feel can be misleading

Granted, Kyoto is bite-sized in comparison to the megalopolis of Tokyo. But with 1.5 million inhabitants, its small-town feel can be misleading. To properly unwind and digest the many centuries of wonder, it’s best to escape urban vibe and head for the spiritual mountain retreat of Koya-san. It is only half a day trip away from the big-city buzz of Kyoto and many visitors come to stay in one of the numerous monasteries.

Here, Buddhist monks encourage them to join their daily meditation routines, in incense-filled sanctuaries – a truly unforgettable experience of uneventful bliss, and an excellent opportunity to reflect on the wondrous ease with which Japan allows you to pulse between the future and the past while keeping you keenly aware of the present.

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