Postcard from Japan: Expect the unexpected in mindblowing megalopolis
Sept. 21, 2019
Culture shock is the phrase often used to describe the experience of visiting Japan for the first time but there couldn’t really be any shock considering I’d been braced for months since being told I’d be coming out here to report on Scotland at this year’s groundbreaking Rugby World Cup.
Once plunged into the thick of this strange and pulsating new world it was more a dawning sense that it was all now actually happening for real.
These postcards won’t be a considered insight into Japanese life and culture, more a sharing of the experience beyond the primary focus of reporting on the rugby.
As a working trip, my experience of Tokyo so far has been on the hoof and in the raw (and by that I don’t just mean the food!), which in many ways is a good way to get a feel for this hyper-amplified hive of urban human living. It is a constant barrage on the senses – always a bit bewildering but never dull.
Further up on the 16th floor of the hotel, the view was far more spectacular. More of that in a bit (warning, may contain nudity).
In most other cities Gotanda would be considered a buzzing hotspot but compared to more downtown Tokyo it seemed sleepy and functional.
Although, always expect the unexpected in Tokyo, and after dinner with a couple of other journalists on my first proper night after sleeping off the jetlag, walking back to the hotel I was bombarded by young Japanese women trying to tempt me into a slew of rather sleazy and creepy strip bars you would never have known were there a couple of hours before. Surbiton becomes Soho at sundown!
Another unexpected feature in Tokyo, and a prime example of how it can all be completely flipped on its head from back home is that, in many parts of the city, smoking is banned outside, in the open air, but not inside. Some bars allow smoking freely or have smoking booths, which appear in most public buildings.
If you’re thinking one of those fug-filled bus shelter affairs you sometimes see at airports, the kind of places that might even make Dot Cotton consider the patches, think again. Your clean living correspondent popped his head inside one in the name of research and was amazed to find the air as clear as it was outside due to a filtration system that showcases that technological wizardry for which the Japanese are famed. We should maybe let them stick to making our mobile phones rather than encouraging a return to the days of inside smoking, though.
On Thursday, a gang of the Scottish press hit the bright lights for the first time since arrival, to the iconic Shibuya district, which is like Times Square and Piccadilly Circus combined, times by a factor of ten. The famous Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest pedestrian passage, is an intersecting scramble of zebras which can see 2,500 people zig-zagging their way over at one green man and an average of 2.4 million people in one day. It was duly ticked off without so much as a shoulder brush. Crossing at the Foot of Leith Walk can be a more fraught experience.
The real reason I’m here is almost upon us now as Scotland’s first game fast approaches but I suppose I can’t go without mentioning my sudden immersion into Japanese spa culture.
It wasn’t the getting naked aspect (no dookers allowed) that had put me off until three days in. My junior rugby days were at a time when you’d still get communal baths and I was fairly sure the ones here wouldn’t be a toxic stew of adolescent male sweat, bloodied bandages, snotters and Fosters lager. It was more the fear of breaching the precise and detailed etiquette that goes along with this sacred ritual.
Strictly gender segregated, in Japanese hotels men and women are given different coloured key cards set for the appropriate spa to avoid any Carry On Bathing style mishaps. There is a specific pre- and post-bathing process, no tattoos, no drunks. I took it as read, no bombing or heavy petting!
In the end, it was fine. Sitting in that open air hot springs bath with the stunning Tokyo skyline sprawled in front of me was the most serene 45 minutes I’d had in months of build-up, reporting, previewing and planning this great adventure into the unknown. I spa at least once a day now, not a phrase I thought I’d say a week ago.
Being Scottish is reason enough to will Gregor Townsend and his squad into the quarter-finals. The chance to return and scratch another minute part of the surface of this mindblowing megalopolis would put the cherry blossom on the cake.