Seeing out the decade at the speed of sound

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James Maxwell takes a disorientating New Year’s trip around three of Japan’s biggest cities

A re-routed trip after my Amsterdam transfer was cancelled. 26 hours on three planes, from Glasgow to Dubai (where they have palm-trees in the waiting lounges) Monday morning, to Seoul airport on a baking Tuesday evening and arriving finally in Tokyo’s Narita.

Ninety minutes or more by train to the capital’s (apparently also the world’s) busiest inner-city station, Shinjuku; even approaching midnight the stop is packed, and with an eighteen kilogram suitcase to lift, it’s all human weight and heat.

Fifteen degrees on the 25th. The Japanese don’t pretend that Christmas is a religious festival and just get on with buying things. Shibuya crossing — the most famous four way pedestrian channel on the planet — has shops stacked twelve stories high on each corner. A sushi dinner in the wealthy Ginza district where everything flashes and blinks a bit more than everywhere else; some dry, expensive beers in a mock-Irish pub; and then back to the hotel for a jet-lag-ruined sleep.

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Ueno Park is home to what seems like a substantial portion of Japan’s wandering poor; they just want to talk and don’t ask for money. Most of them are middle-aged or elderly single men made refugees during East Asia’s economic earthquake in the 1990s. Ueno Park also houses the National Gallery of Modern Art, one of many history museums, and Tokyo Zoo. The museum is the only badly-lit and under-whelming thing in the city. A quick visit to the Imperial Palace via the almost incomprehensible underground, and then we gather our things and check out.

Kyoto is like a Japanese Edinburgh: clean, ultra-neat and well-constructed. Its biggest draw, the Kinkaku-ju Temple, is covered in paper-thin gold plates and floats in the middle of a huge green pond. We catch it at dusk so the sun is just bouncing off it into the water. The grounds are filled with hundreds of clipped bonsai and lots of little pebble lanes. It would be easy to waste days there if you had them spare. In Kyoto there are shrines down every second lane and at every third junction and by every fourth store. There are rigid Geisha in Gion, but they cost if you want one. We don’t.

An hour south down the tracks is Osaka, densely populated, with thousands of block-built buildings slotted together Tetris-style and pushed back from the pavements. It’s a coastal town with post-industrial docks and cranes and anchored cargo ships like in The Wire — walking through I kept expecting to see a Sobotoka or McNulty stroll out from behind a can. And, like Baltimore, Osaka feels unsafe. Osaka, in fact, was the only place in Japan I felt unsafe in. Our hotel, the inappropriately named Grande Vista, is caged at the centre of the Dotomori district, where the streets are almost too slim for the taxis to get by, but everything is just about made to fit.

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We eat okonomiyaki, savoury pancakes stuffed with fish, vegetables, and noodles, covered in meat-sauce, cooked in front of you and served plate-less at the bar. No forks, so I stab at it with sticks until it’s chopped enough to pick up. After, there’s an aborted karaoke attempt even though you get all you can get drink for a set price. Born In The USA doesn’t sound right with an audience of one, though. At night in Dotomori, all the shops, clubs, and restaurant are full; people pour out into the alleys to catch a cold breath and face lights bright enough to induce a seizure. Every wall is plastered with screaming fluorescent billboards and slogans written in badly broken English.

From Osaka back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen — bullet train — we pass Mount Fuji. At what feels like the speed of sound, it’s a snow-caked, cloud-obscured, blur of blue and white, but even with a quick glimpse you can gather a small measure of its immense scale.

Our final hotel is on the 25th floor of a business sector skyscraper; we have a view of Rainbow Bridge and the harbour from the window. The Tsukiji fish market — dead on the weekend — claims it sells the freshest sushi in the world, and hauls of giant tuna go for £100, 000. The spikey lobster rolls are worth the yen.

Sensoji Temple in Asakusa on January 3 is a flutter of white and red paper flags — the national colours pinned to the rims of all the huts and stalls — and black and yellow stripes celebrating the new Year of the Tiger. It is also crammed with people making ritual trips to the shrines to pay sacred respects. But our time’s up in Tokyo, so I hop on a bus, exhausted, to get on a plane heading west, this time to Amsterdam.

Pictures by James Maxwell