Jaco Van Der Merwe

By Jaco Van Der Merwe

Head of Motoring

No need to be flush in Japan

Saturday Citizen not only explored the complex tapestry that is Tokyo, but also headed out to the countryside.

We all have preconceived perceptions of Japan. Some are reaffirmed when you first set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun, while others turn out to be far less accurate. As you’d expect, things function like clockwork in the island nation.

Technology is next level, animation is huge, cars are small and noodles are plentiful.

On the other hand, sake is actually not the preferred alcoholic beverage; they put actual fruit in Kit Kats and, believe it or not, they braai.

To experience all five of the country’s main islands would be a time-consuming and costly affair. But a visit to Honchu – or the “mainland”, as it’s commonly referred to – can still make for a worthwhile trip.

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The frequency of international flights in and out of capital city Tokyo and its proximity to tourist attractions like Mount Fuji make a shortish trip on a tight budget a viable option for those who have always wanted to tick off this box on their bucket lists.

Saturday Citizen Travel was offered the opportunity to do just that last month.

Japan Mobility Show

In attending the Japan Mobility Show as a guest of Suzuki Auto South Africa, the touring party put a few precious spare days to good use.

We not only explored the complex tapestry that is Tokyo, but also headed out to the countryside en route to the sleepy coastal city Hamamatsu and picturesque mountain retreat Hakone.

In the process, we got to see the capital from the 450-metre viewing deck of the Tokyo Skytree, which at 634m is the world’s tallest broadcasting tower, experience the famous Shibuya Crossing with all its digital billboards lit up at nighttime, and see the impressive Rainbow Bridge light up while on the dinner boat cruise on the Sumida River heading out towards Tokyo harbour.

Shibuya Crossing / Picture: iStock

In Hakone, a boat cruise along the tranquil Lake Ashi was followed by a 2.5 kilometre ride up the Hakone Ropeway, which took us to an altitude of 1 044m. From there we got a bird’s eye view of the glorious volcanic Owakudani Valley, although the active sulphur vents ensure it’s not a complete sensory delight.

Disappointingly, an overcast sky hid what is supposed to be a spectacular view of Mount Fuji. Southwest down the coastline, the Hamamatsu Castle and its rich history dating back almost 500 years provides a great insight into the nation’s rich heritage.

If you do your research, you can find decent hotel rooms in and around Tokyo for about R2 000 a night, while the railway system will get you almost anywhere for peanuts.

Add good food in abundance for a few hundred rands per meal you should be able to plan a much more affordable trip to Japan than many other places in the world.

What will raise the cost of the trip is the expected bloated prices at touristy places, while you might want to limit access to your life savings once the shopping bug bites.

Food in Japan
Picture: iStock

One member of our party had to buy a suitcase to bring back all the gifts she bought.

It goes without saying that if you want things to run as efficiently as they do in Japan, everything needs to be on time.

For proof, look no further than the intricate network of subway trains to see what the concept of time means in the first world.

If your ticket says the train will arrive 11.07am, be ready by 11.06am. Chances that it might be running late are slim.

A handy smartphone app helps you keep track of your train, so you can hold on to your marbles when the stations become like ants’ nests during peak times. In the rare event of a delay, the app posts a warning: “Severe delays, train will be two minutes late.” (“Severe”, nogal – that’s enough to crack up any South African.) In these “extreme” events, operators can provide written proof of the delay for employers, to excuse a worker for showing up late at the office. True story.

While using the tubes and prearranged shuttles for most of our inner-city travels, we took the impressive Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Hamamatsu. It’s pricier than the standard trains, but who would not want to take a train that travels at 300km/h and offers reclining seats with leg rests in first class?

Shinkansen bullet train
Picture: iStock

The 250km stretch took usless than 90 minutes, and that included three stops. Once you start looking for food, you realise why you rarely see obese people in Japan.

A prime example is the shelves of 7-Eleven convenience stores, which are mostly stacked with fresh foods. Processed foods and sweets are kept to a minimum along with regular sugary soft drinks. Instead, a large variety of canned and bottled, hot and cold, teas and coffees are offered. Not only in the shops, but also in what seems like millions of vending machines around town.

There are American alternatives to local cuisine like McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut and Starbucks, but you’ll be doing yourself a disservice if you don’t experience the local delicacies.

They range from fresh raw fish and shell fish, which is called sashimi when not rolled in rice, to steamed fish, pork, lamb, vegetables, rice, noodles and little plates with all sorts of interesting concoctions.

Hardly anything is spiced or flavoured, with the obligatory soy sauce, other dips and wasabi paste fulfilling that purpose.

Of particular interest to the South African party was the braaied Wagyu beef. The cuts were tiny, not more than two millimetres thick, but don’t let facts get in the way of a good Japanese braai story.

One Tokyo establishment put us around four-seater tables for dinner one night, each with its own built-in gas braai in the middle. The guests were each given braai tongs and variety of meats and fish to braai to their own liking along with some local dishes.

Those who couldn’t master chop sticks had the rare luxury of using those braai tongs as utensils. While we were not surprised by the absence of brandy to wash those “steaks” down, we were ill prepared for the size of the whisky culture in Japan.

Borrowing the title from the famous Alphaville song Big In Japan is probably the best way to describe the drink’s popularity. It is everywhere, ranging from the everyday varieties to pricey, aged single malts. What intrigued us even more than the braais and the whiskies – how clean everything is, from the air to the sidewalks. You will not find one piece of litter lying around anywhere.

The irony of that is there are hardly any trash cans in sight. Following a deadly sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway station in 1995, trash cans were taken out of most public places and they still haven’t returned, barring the odd public recycle trash station. People keep the things they want to throw away with them until they do come across trash cans.

Another fascinating thing is their toilets. While a simple chain-handlepush button is utilised to flush the urn in most parts of the world, the art of toiletry has evolved into a complex digitalised system in the Land of the Rising Sun. A control pad on the side of toilet seats regulates the flow of additional water, warms the seat or even activates a bidet function – all too complicated when you stumble through a dark hotel room passage in the middle of the night when nature calls.

But that kind of sums up Japan’s extraordinary ability to leave a lasting impression on any visitor. It’s just that, as a laaitie, I would have guessed mine would be ninja stars and samurai swords. Not freaking higher-grade lavatories and absent garbage bins.

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