Architecture, Culture and Cuisine

Alighting a lift in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, 202 metres above street level, offers a staggering perspective of the city’s massive scale. Calling Tokyo ‘sprawling’ does it a disservice. On one side, the high-rise building stretches to Mount Fuji – a high-speed train journey of over 45 minutes outside the city – and beyond. Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolitan area, with a population of over 38 million – nearly 70% of South Africa’s entire population, in a single city. 

The country is a strange combination of ancient & modern, closed & friendly and as frustrating as it can be, enchanting. While Toyko is a hub for fashion, technology and culture, it’s also home to 1300-year-old temples which rest in the shadow of the expensive skyscrapers which punctuate its skyline. 

500km from Tokyo is Kyoto, accessible via ruthlessly efficient high-speed Shinkansen train in under three hours, and the country’s heart – the name ‘Kyoto’ means ‘Capital City’. For thousands of years, Kyoto was the country’s seat of government, arts and learning. Though very much a modern-day first-world city, Kyoto retains many links with its past, including several mesmerisingly-beautiful temples, the impressive but mournful Fushimi Inari shrine, comprising over 10 000 red and black torii gates dedicated to lost loved ones, and the world-famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, where green bamboo stalks stretch far into the sky, forming a calming canopy.

Nearby is Osaka – another quick train journey away – and a prime example of Japan’s ability to place the modern alongside the ancient. The contrast of the Osaka Castle – built in 1583 – set against the backdrop of contemporary office towers is an astonishing one. The city is built over many waterways which run in and out of it from the Bay of Osaka, with the several thousand bridges which once allowed its residents to traverse them earning the city the nickname ‘Venice of the East’. Dotonbori is the bustling heart of the city, having been the entertainment capital since the 1600s. After being almost destroyed by bombing during WWII, the area was reborn as a popular dining and nightlife location, crammed with neon signage that rewards a night-time visit to see the ever-shifting patterns reflected on the surface of the canal. It’s in Dotonbori that you’ll find signature foods like Kushikatsu (deep fried pork on a stick), and Okonomiyaki (a savoury pancake garnished with shaved bonito flakes).

Food is hugely significant in Japan, with chefs undergoing years of training before being ‘allowed’ to serve customers. Sushi chefs train for five years under an Itamae (sushi master) before they’re allowed to prepare sushi rice, with the journey to Itamae taking as many as a further 15 years. Forget what you think you know about sushi when dining anywhere in Japan – staples are what westerners know as sashimi, nigiri and tempura, with requests for avocado-bedecked California Rolls or sweet chilli anything likely to lead to you being politely shown the door. 

That politeness is inherent in Japanese culture and permeates every interaction. While many Japanese people are capable of speaking reasonable English, many won’t talk to foreigners in the language for fear of shaming themselves by making a mistake. That aside, locals are likely to go out of their way to assist lost-looking tourists in a game of mime, or by asking around for someone nearby who is willing to brave an English exchange. The handling of cash is governed by etiquette, too. When paying for anything in a shop in cash (amazingly, incredibly few Japanese retailers accept credit cards), the bills and coins are placed in a shallow container alongside the till, with the cashier then processing the transaction and placing any change back on the container for the buyer to reclaim – money never changes hands directly. There are scores of rules around dining, too – including never poking at your food with chopsticks or waving them around. Sake is also always poured for you – it’s considered impolite to pour some for yourself unless you’re dining alone.

While Tokyo often tops lists of the world’s most expensive cities, it’s possible to eat cheaply – and well – from the multiple convenience stores on every street, or by enjoying tapas-style food at Izakaya restaurants, where grilled chicken skewers are a cheap and convenient staple. Pre-ordered and paid tourist rail passes give visitors access to most of the rail networks in Tokyo – and many Shinkansen trips – making getting around relatively cost-effective, too.

Japan isn’t the world’s most perfect place – but for South Africans wanting a glimpse of an alien culture that caters for gaijin (foreigners) to a point, it’s a beautiful and accessible destination worth adding to your travel bucket list.

Text: Trevor Crighton Images : © Trevor Crighton/Adobe Stock Photos