Weeknote 0023

Busy alley in Ueno

  • It’s a travel-writing cliché to call somewhere a place of contrasts, so let’s get that out of the way. Tokyo is a place of contrasts, didn’t you know? It has a rich history and tradition, cheek-by-jowl with modernity. There, that’s done. The same also applies to Nikko, Matsumoto, Kanazawa, Osaka, and Saigon, plus everywhere I have or will be passing through in between. The slight variation on this is Hiroshima: still a contrast, but between peril and peace. But more on that next week.
    • I’m resisting writing a day-by-day travelogue. It’d be as boring as listening to someone recount a dream. But then, I tend to forget the specifics of my travels. So this time, I carried a small notebook as a journal, and I’ll pull out just the learnings for the weeknotes. A contrast, then, between tradition and modernity.
    • I last visited Japan in 2019 when I was feeling pretty low. Despite that, I loved it and wanted to return in better spirits. This time around, I planned to spend less time in Tokyo and more in Osaka, along with some new places along the way. During my last visit, I had covered Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, so this time I wanted to explore more widely. However, it was difficult to decide on which places to leave out.
  • Time spent in Tokyo was dedicated to ticking off some of the things I hadn’t had time for previously, such as visiting the National Museum. However, I also revisited the Tamiya store, on behalf of my eight-year-old self, and Loft in search of stationery. God, I love Japanese stationery. I was particularly keen to hit the Hightide store as I already have a lot of stuff from them, but it’s amazingly expensive in the UK.
    Lights of Shibuya
  • Tokyo’s Metropolitan Government Building is one hell of a statement. Its presence exudes strength, its light and immaculate interior suggest attention to detail, while its free-to-enter observation floor speaks to openness and civic pride. You get the sense that Tokyo, from a local government perspective, is keen to show off itself.
  • Headed up to Nikko, which, as a world heritage site, had a lot of promise. Stayed in a lovely hotel, but the shrines have fallen victim to their own notoriety. It was mobbed. Nikko the town is sleepy, perhaps not fully recovering from Covid interrupting the flow of tourists. Nearby, I’d found a peculiar and near-deserted theme park of sorts containing 1:25-scale models of famous buildings. Not just Tokyo’s famous towers but also those of Manhattan and many others you’d recognise. It straddled the line between glorious and terrible. I had low expectations but came away fond of the weird little place.
    Tobu World Square
  • Many (most?) Japanese railway stations have their own ink stamp: collecting them is a thing, and that piqued my interest. They’re often not easy to find, which gives a sense of achievement. Each has a design relevant to the station or its locality. My journal started becoming a mix of notes and stamps.
  • Matsumoto came as a surprise. It has slivers of a more boho culture than I expected: little stores and coffee bars lining the street that leads from the station to its Museum of Art. Here, a collection of works from Yayoi Kusama, the city’s most famous daughter, is proudly displayed. It was delightfully a quiet and relaxed venue for the artist’s own collection that she’d decided to display not in New York or Tokyo, but in the more modest place of her birth.
    Kurobe Dam
  • Somehow, while planning the trip, I’d discovered what’s known as the Alpine Route: a charming series of interconnected transport through the Hida mountains.
    • It’s usually worthwhile pursuing any outing that includes a cable-car or ropeway. I’ve applied this thinking across four continents. It works.
    • The Alpine Route is not widely marketed to international tourists and so it took some work to find out about it and make bookings. I think I started by using Google Earth to figure it all out, which wasn’t easy since some of it is underground.
    • Much of the route was built in the late 1950s to construct the Kurobe Dam, walking over which forms part of the route. Heading south-east to north-west, a local bus takes visitors to the start of a 6km underground electric bus route that reaches the dam itself. On the other side, an underground funicular, a ropeway, and an underground trolleybus bring tourists to the snow-capped top. Then a highland coach, another funicular, and a quirky Wes-Anderson-esque train come down the other side.
    • I’m so glad I found it; it was a memorable and relaxing day of surprisingly easy tourism. The laziest way to cross a mountain range.
      Alpine Route
  • More of this next carry-on week. Such wide travels in a short time are possible thanks to the Shinkansen: the planet’s finest high-speed railway network. The thing that always strikes me is how unremarkable it is to travel this way, except when you look out at the scenery screaming past at 180mph. The Shinkansen is so quick and effortless between cities that it makes all other transport feel pedestrian. A marvel.