The Sights & Smells of Japanese Life

"I feel sick," Simon said, legs outstretched inspecting the plastic, smurf-blue slippers he had on his feet.

"All I can think about is someone's cheesy horrible feet inside these things, before I had to put mine in. Look at them; they're disgusting, absolutely foul!"  

Said slippers and a light grey yokatta (kind of Japanese dressing gown) were provided to be worn whilst walking to the bathroom, on the overnight ferry. Simon was not impressed.

Many things phased my fiancé Simon during our week long trip in Honshu. Some of the weirdness has started to blend into the background for me, having been here four months. I'm no expert, but it was still interesting to go travelling with someone who had only just arrived in Japan.

Himeji Castle, Hyogo Prefecture, Honshu Island, Japan

We were taking the night ferry from Mojiko, in Fukuoka Prefecture to Osaka, Honshu. It's much faster by Shinkansen, but so expensive that we decided to take the cheaper and more leisurely option. As the ferry travels during the night, it cuts out hotel costs and means you don't lose any days to travel.

Much like a capsule hotel, the ferry utilises all available space, cramming beds under beds, in tiny little cubby holes. A thin layer of wood and an inch thick 'mattress' separate you from the sleeper in the capsule below. There is only space for one person in each compartment, which made me wonder - don't Japanese couples want to sleep together?

Who needs privacy anyway?

There was plenty of companionship in the bathroom though. Onsens (public baths) are one of the first things people tell you about when you arrive in Japan. Generally situated around natural hot springs, they are clean and beautiful places, where people go to relax. I was always dubious about the idea of going naked in the company of strangers. Four months on, this had changed little. However, as there was not one shower cubicle on the ferry, my first onsen experience was alone on a relatively dingy ferry. At 6.00am I dragged myself up, hoping for a quiet bathroom, and was delighted to find only one other woman there. 'Oh Simon, it was so easy, I don't know what all the fuss was about.' Three days into his trip to Japan, there was no way I could persuade him about that aspect of Japanese life.

At 8am, we stepped out into the cool winter sun, at Osaka. This concrete jungle of a city is not known for its beauty, but with the sun catching the fluorescent lights and banners of narrow side streets and glass buildings, it definitely had an appeal. The streets were friendly and busy, bustling and fun, alive with virile youth and cutting edge fashion.

Tokyo Night Train

Late afternoon, we took the subway to Tempozan Village, a run-down seaside district, complete with huge big wheel and tacky souvenirs. We were there to see the huge aquarium, allegedly the biggest in the world. It was a fantastic place where incredibly cute and lethargic otters float flat on their backs, their mates squashed beside them, and 6ft crabs gleam terrifyingly under blue neon.

On the night train to Tokyo

We took an overnight train to Tokyo that evening, after babbling in broken Japanese to find the platform and arriving an hour early just to make sure. It wasn't as plush as the ferry and Simon had to face his phobia of second hand rubber footwear for the second time. However, we slept comfortably on bunk beds and arrived in Tokyo at 7am, only just late enough for a Starbucks breakfast.

Both being new visitors to Tokyo, our overwhelming memories are of long, long underground passage ways and shopping centres, linking subway station with subway station, for miles and miles. Frequently we would disappear underground to find that we were nowhere near the closest subway, and we would walk indefinitely, in the stifling heat and grime. Months of living near Fukuoka have made no difference to my navigation of the underground city there, so I stood no chance in Tokyo. One homeless man had taken full advantage of the warmth and space underground, his neat clothes rail displaying a proud array of suits, and shielding his sleeping bag and modesty.

In Tokyo we spent one night in a traditional ryokan, a taste of old Japan, in a modern city. Though cheap, it had polite staff, good location, tatami floors, numerous rooms, and the traditional breakfast of fish, rice and a whole manner of unidentifiable vegetables. Of course, it had the obligatory bed slippers, which Simon was able to pass up, in the privacy of our room.

Kyoto Temple

During our days in Tokyo we went to Ueno Park's ornate gardens and overpriced art museums, and Shinjuku and Ginza, where we spent most of our time trawling the streets, people-watching and shopping. In Shinjuku, the sights and fashions instilled a sudden impulse to get our hair cut off. In the Girls and Boys hair salon, a sleek row of chrome stools face a broad pane of glass, separating it from Times Square. From there on the fifth floor, the jagged shapes of buildings and bright lights piercing a dusky sky looked amazing.

After flicking through magazines and pointing at two suitable styles, our hair was washed and we were seated in front of the mirror, exchanging nervous glances. A vice like grip was extended around my chin and cranium, followed by intensive kneading of the various pressure points on my neck and forehead; a free perk of a hair cut here. Grinning like a maniac, it took a while for me to realise I had to state that there was pain in order for it to stop.

For a pretty reasonable price we were both surprised to receive head and shoulder massages, coffee, sweets, an outstanding view of Tokyo, friendly staff willing to explain things slowly and bear with my slow Japanese - as well as nice haircuts.

From the towers of Tokyo to the temples of Kyoto

From the hub of modern Japan, another night train took us wearily to Kyoto. The favourite city of many Japanese, it is Japan's former capital. Kyoto is renowned for its beauty, abundance of temples and shrines, and for being among the few places where you can still see a working Geisha, though we didn't have that pleasure, unfortunately.

We headed to Gion, home of Kodaiji and Chion Temples and a beautiful park, with weeping cherry trees, lanterns and shrines. Kodaiji was the most beautiful building I have seen since coming to Japan, framed by bamboo forests, and gentle hills. Behind it lay a serene zen garden, with lengths of gold and silver reflecting ripples of sunlight over the smooth contours of meticulously arranged pebbles.

The next day we headed back to the epicentre of young Osaka, this time dropping by Little America, where the streets were lined with velour flower prints, duck egg vespers, and hip hop beats. Caught up in the pace and atmosphere, time escaped us amongst clothing rails and little pots of trinkets and badges.

Back on the ferry that evening, we went to bed really early, lethargic from travel and the motion of the boat. Besides which, after a week of achy legs, Simon had to prepare for his ridiculously early morning onsen...