Photo Diary - A Week in Japan

The many interleaved histories and global influences which stem from Asia have fuelled my imagination for a long time. From a western perspective, the societal norms, architecture, language and food seem to come from such unfamiliar roots, that it's easy to be drawn in by the thrill of new things you might discover if you travel east.

Until the very end of 2015, the only Asian country I'd visited was the Maldives; a place which is totally unique in its own way, but which hardly felt connected to the grander culture that characterises the rest of the continent. It was this year that I'd started my first job after graduating, and following just a few months of work I was already in the mood to take a trip abroad.

With a desire to try somewhere completely new, I set my sights on the Far East and spent a day or two doing some open-ended research. I eventually settled on a flight leaving in late December for Tokyo, Japan - a place whose cultural and commercial symbolism has permeated further west than perhaps anywhere else in modern Asia.




Despite the thousands of miles between London and my destination, I ended up timing my trip to last little more than a week. While I could have occupied myself for the whole of this fleeting visit without ever leaving Tokyo, I'd also come up with a brief list of places further away, which I hoped would add a bit of variation.

I jumped on the plane at Heathrow, and, following a quick stop in Amsterdam, spent at least eleven long hours in the air. Even though the second portion of the trip was overnight, any darkness was short-lived thanks to our speed as we cruised towards the land of the rising Sun. I can't remember what the local time was when I finally stepped off at the other end, but my internal clock was so far off by this point that it hardly mattered!




Of the two major airports serving Tokyo, I'd landed in Narita. This actually placed me outside the city limits by a fairly large distance. I saw this as an advantage more that anything else, as it gave me two valuable things - first, a gentle introduction to Japanese public transport before negotiating the city's underground system, and second, a chance to sit for an hour and watch some of the country's more rural scenery slide by.

Finding our way around is something that makes many foreign visitors apprehensive in a place like this, with its alien-sounding names and its alphabet whose symbols are totally disconnected from what we've grown up with. I'd had similar worries about ending up stuck in the train station of some suburb whose signs were unreadable and whose people I had no hope of communicating with - in reality though, most public places gave just enough information in English to prompt me in the right direction.




Emerging from the station into the urban landscape of Tokyo, I was immediately struck by the scale of the place I had arrived in. Having never lived in a major city, and only recently moved within an hour of London back home, the pace and purpose of the busy streets here gave me plenty of new things to take in. The majority of the signs, billboards and neon building fa├žades were of course written in a combination of the Japanese scripts, which I knew nothing about at the time. This separation seemed to distill the action into a more abstract, almost cinematic experience.

The late afternoon air was certainly cold, but the concrete surroundings and general compactness made the climate feel more pleasant than I'd expected during the depths of winter. It was only a short walk to my hotel and I was glad to arrive, check in, and slump onto the bed for a nap, as my internal timing was still telling me I should be fast asleep in the early hours of the morning.




The next few days of exploration showed me a city far more vast and remarkable than I'd been expecting. I was given a literal sense of Tokyo's scale when I took the lift to the open-air viewing deck at the top of one of the Shinjuku district's skyscrapers, and was finally able to look out at the horizon beyond the tall skyline. The shining glass and angular, sunlit forms of the huge buildings stretched beyond where the eye could see, stopping only to the south-east where they abruptly met the shoreline of Tokyo Bay.

In a place like London or New York, a similar viewpoint somewhat shrinks the city, as it allows you to see beyond the structures dominating the view at ground level, and out to the suburbs. Here though, it looked as if everything had just sprung up from the Earth and continued to spread like an artificial forest.




Despite Tokyo's dense population and extensive modernism, it was nice to see that nature and tradition had not been shut out completely. I would often come across compact temples and shrines which were set back from the road in their own alcoves, interrupting the neat lines of houses either side. Their entrances were normally bordered by simple Torii gates made of stone or wood, and within would be a small bowl of water where visitors could wash their hands before proceeding to the miniature wooden altar itself. Any surrounding space was often filled with immaculate gardens or trimmed trees; a detail which showed that the whole thing obviously received regular attention, and was well cared for.

There were many more extensive sanctuaries across the city too, with some beautiful examples of sculpted gardens whose designs stem from important eras in Japan's history.




When I finally left Tokyo, my next destination was Nara - an even older town which actually held the title of Japan's capital in the eighth century. Situated over three hundred miles south-west, there was only one real choice when it came to land-based travel: the high speed train. This would take me through to Kyoto where I'd make a transfer before my arrival into Nara, but it was still the quickest option by a long way.

The train's speed ramped up gradually as we pulled out towards Tokyo's boundaries, and it wasn't long before we were hurtling at hundreds of kilometres per hour through the countryside and surrounding mountains. The journey was totally smooth with everything timed perfectly; the only slight downside was the shortage of seats, which I was made aware of when I turned up at the station and discovered that it's normal practice to book in advance. Still, my suitcase made a good enough substitute, and coupled with the bento meal I'd bought before departure, the journey was ultimately exciting and stress-free.




My accommodation in Nara turned out to be a perfect choice, while also being the polar opposite of my high-rise hotel room in Tokyo. Guesthouse Nara Backpackers was as authentically Japanese as I could have hoped for, even to the extent that I'd be sleeping on the wooden floor using nothing but a thin, roll-up 'mattress'.

The hostel was located on a quiet side-street in an already peaceful part of town. After meeting the owner, taking my shoes off, and ducking through the low door, I found myself standing in its dimly lit communal area. The place was minimally furnished with a few carpets surrounding a small central table, where a couple of other guests were kneeling. In one direction, the wall had been replaced with a large glass panel, behind which a little section of garden was framed like a museum exhibit.

The rest of the building followed a similar theme, with twisting, uneven corridors leading to the guest rooms whose walls consisted of thin, sliding wooden sections panelled with paper squares. I discovered that I could push an entire wall of my room to one side and step straight from the building into a tiny, personal outdoor area.




Nara's history as a place of importance can be seen through some of the landmarks that it hosts, and few are more revealing than the Todai-ji temple. This huge monument's multi-layered roof towers over an open lawn in Nara Park, which itself was less than five minutes from where I was staying. I'd seen plenty of larger buildings in Tokyo, but the millennia of history and the much simpler construction of this one made its scale seem far more impressive.

I could smell incense blowing towards me on the breeze as I walked along the wide path towards the temple's entrance. After climbing to the top of the few steps in front of the looming structure, I was encouraged to light a stick myself and place it with the array of others in the burner before heading through.

The temple's air of imposing size continued within, where I was greeted by the colossal bronze Buddha statue housed in its main hall. It was possible to walk round and see this 16-metre high metal sculpture from all perspectives, none of which really allowed me to capture the true scale in a photograph.

When I was done looking around inside, I spent a further few hours exploring the surrounding parkland. There were plenty of emblematic artefacts scattered around here which related to the main temple, the most unique of which wasn't even man-made. Deer are free to roam around the area and mix with the visitors thanks to their symbolic importance, and they have obviously been doing this for quite a long time. It was common to come across groups of them, at which point a set routine was normally followed, assuming you could offer them a reward.

After slowly bowing, you must wait for the deer to respond with a dip of their own head before feeding them a little something. They would continue prompting you again and again by lowering their heads expectantly - if you didn't deliver, they would just wander off along the path until they found someone else to try their well-worn trick on.



Once I'd had a couple of days to take in the beautifully preserved history of Nara, it was time to return to the station for another high-speed journey. This time I was travelling in the opposite direction, heading back to Tokyo, where I'd only have a couple more hours before making my way over to Haneda airport. My return flight would take a little less planning, as my point of departure was situated much closer to the city centre than Narita.

I'd barely adjusted to the local time before I had to make my way home, and of course I wanted to stay longer and experience more of the country I'd only had a brief glimpse of so far on this trip. A few days later, I was back in work and already thinking about where I could go next; perhaps it would make sense to visit Japan again, this time to see how it looks in the summer? Or maybe I should go somewhere further south like the popular cities, beaches and bays of Vietnam or Thailand? Despite its brevity, my first week in continental Asia had definitely left my mind ticking over, thinking and wondering about the other Far Eastern countries I had yet to explore.