After the hitchhiking miracle and the rooftop piss-up, I explored Hiroshima.
Of course, the main reason I visited Hiroshima was to learn about the city’s destruction in the Second World War. If it’s alright with you, however, I’d rather not go into detail about what I saw in the museums dedicated to both the survivors and victims of the world’s first and second atomic bombings. In the book Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut writes that there is nothing intelligent to be said about a massacre; silence is preferable. I’m going to take his advice on that one. I will say, though, that one thing that stuck with me is the fact that, on plaques to the victims, messages of hope, peace and prosperity are written. There is no anger, no hostility, no promise for justice and vengeance, just a genuine desire for a better world. And I think that’s achingly noble.
I spent a few days eating sushi and smoking cheap ‘Hope’ cigarettes on the hostel balcony, and philosophising to any unfortunate soul that entered my butt-strewn domain. On my last day in the city I visited Miyajima island, where I saw the Great Torii Gate and explored the Itsukushima Shrine. Then I went on a long walk and sat on a rock for a long long time wondering what the fuck I’m going to do with my life and came to no real conclusion because I never do.
I got the ferry back to the mainland and a tram back to my hostel and grabbed my shit. The directions to the night bus for Tokyo read ‘outside the 7 Eleven’ by the train station south exit, which would have fine apart from the fact that there are four bastard 7 Elevens outside the train station, which I had to sprint between in sweaty panic as the clock ticked down to the bus leaving. I was a disgusting wet mess by the time I found the night bus, and it was fortunate that nobody was seated next to me.
After a surprisingly comfortable 12 hours on the night bus, I arrived in the megacity: Tokyo. I had no real plan beyond ‘find a hostel and try not to spunk all my cash’. I was toying with the idea of working in a hostel, if only to save some money and delay the inevitable, painful decision of whether to head home to the UK or continue travelling after Japan. However, working in a hostel requires commitment, and I was too busy with my mind constantly occupied with worries about my future to even begin contemplating finding temporary work. So I spent a week and a half blowing around the sights and sounds of Tokyo.
Tokyo, the Big Sushi, is hectic. I only saw the party side of it, if I’m being honest. After four months travelling I’m tired of temples and deciphering public transport maps and pottering around supermarkets gingerly selecting curious-looking snacks. I passed most days doing a single activity, whether that was heading out for a meal, exploring a museum, or wandering around a pretty park. Long gone are the energetic days at the start of my trip which would see me cramming fifteen activities into one morning. After a long stint travelling, you slow it down. You can’t maintain that weekend break weekend manic energy for very long.
I stayed in Wise Owl Hostel in Shibuya, and passed a week there absorbing culture during the day and getting blackout drunk by night, which seems to be the custom in Tokyo. I visited the Government Building, where you can ascend free of charge to the 45th floor and gaze out over the insane metropolis of Tokyo City. The city reaches the horizon in every direction you gaze, and skyscrapers pop up at 360 degrees. The overwhelming emotion it conjured for me was one of fear, if I’m honest; fear for the future. The sheer rate of expansion and development is staggering. It’s amazing, of course; I just worry where it’s all headed.
I visited a couple of museums during my time in the city, and was thrilled to learn about Samurai culture, and to see the grace and finesse with which they lived their lives, rivalled only by the beauty with which their armour and weapons were crafted. I took a lesson in Japanese handwriting, and loved the calming feel of spreading ink across parchment under the watchful eye of an instructor. I walked the streets of Akihabara and passed beneath the beaming eyes of towering two dimensional characters. I observed the Otaku in the arcades, chain smoking and sipping Red Bull in the blue-lit gloom as they smashed out new records on video games. A hundred ranks of machine gunners and Formula One racers and Mario Karters, all under one roof. The noise in there is deafening. And down in the crowded basement, much quieter, you’ll find the Hentai, thousands of shelves groaning with the weight of millions of DVDs, with genres of cartoon pornography you never knew existed – and never wanted to know, either.
On multiple nights I wandered the streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku with freshly-made friends. We explored alleyways and avenues and drank in izakayas, tiny little pubs with around 6 or 7 chairs inside, all lined up along a short bar piled high with expensive liquors. The Golden Gai area in Shinjuku was fun for an evening or two, and I enjoyed the novelty of the streets packed with tiny bars, bars up hidden stairways, bars down grungy black alleyways, bars glazed with light from paper lanterns and slung with low clouds of cigarette smoke.
In Shibuya on a Saturday night, all the knowledge I thought I’d gathered about Japanese elegance and composure was flung back in my face like a pie hurled by a clown lost in a bath salt-induced rampage. I have never seen so many Japanese youths vomiting. Vomit everywhere, drunken revelry, like Magaluf except if everyone was slim and had silky black hair. I danced ‘twixt the staggering masses, sipping a fizzy sweet can of 9% whatever, observing the wicked old booze strip away a thousand years of finesse and custom. That’s why I like drinking in foreign countries. You can photograph and philosophise, you can question and query, but sometimes it feels like drinking is the most honest thing you can do.
One blurry evening I hit up the Robot Restaurant, which is a massive gaudy tourist attraction but fuck it. It was fantastic fun. Along with a gang from the hostel, I sat and ate popcorn and drank beers watching huge metal robots fight huge metal dinosaurs, all ridden by busty Japanese girls in quirky outfits. Men ran out and danced and fought in anime-punk getup, apocalyptic brawls engulfed the hall, guitarists leapt out from platforms and hung suspended over the crowd. Every colour you’ve ever dreamed of and fifteen thousand more. Machine gun skeletons and sword-toting androids were given the boot by woodland fairies riding slithering lizards. It’s all batshit crazy, it makes no sense at all, but it’s the most fun you can have in Tokyo – sin-free, at least.
I didn’t meet too many people that I really clicked with as I have done at other stages in my journey, but for the last couple of days in Tokyo I hung out with two of the most laid back, original and funny guys I’ve met in a long time. They were Josh, from North Carolina, and Joe, from California. Josh was a skater with black dreads permanently hidden under a beige bucket hat. He makes his money trading stocks – cryptocurrencies – and from that he’s able to travel the world as he pleases. I loved his outlook on life, and his slang. ‘Shit dude, Japan goes hard’, was a regular soundbite. Meanwhile, Joe had saved four years working in retail for the trip and was in Japan for his love of anime, and because he studied Japanese in school. He was a Jehovah’s Witness, and didn’t believe in sex before marriage but still enjoyed a spot of debauchery. He was smart as hell, and we had some great discussions between the three of us.
I found Japan to be a magical place; a place where both the future and the past intertwine effortlessly, coalescing down every street. The kinetic energy generated by this glaring dichotomy runs through the country like electricity. It beams up streetlights in crowded alleyways, crackles around the manicured gardens of ancient temples, soars up skyscraper elevator shafts and thunders back to earth atop vertical screaming rollercoasters. From tea houses to singing toilets, from bamboo forests to sweaty karaoke bars, from the spine-tingling whisper of a calligraphic ink brush to the bursting fizz of a vanquished robot, from the past to the future, back and forth, without any sign of an end in sight.
I can’t say whether Japan has got it right, their cultural evolution, as opposed to the rest of the world. I don’t know what things will be like in a hundred years’ time, and I’m not intelligent enough to make predictions. Human interaction seems to be avoided in some areas, which always makes me uneasy; people are happy to eat alone, public transport is silent, businesspeople sleep in capsule hotels, dating video games offer relationships with a fictional character and locals are uneasy around foreigners at the first meeting. But if you cross over that road you’ll find a society with a giddy sense of humour, endless decency and respect – not just for the individual, but for the greater good and society as a whole – as well as a devout sense of duty and care, all balanced out with an absolute love of getting shitfaced and howling into a karaoke microphone. Like everywhere on this trip, I find it hard to summarise one way or the other. All I can say is that, truly, Japan puts on one hell of a show.