Travel: Rough Guide - You, too, can be a boiled octopus
Jan Dodd, co-author of `The Rough Guide to Japan', remembers the land of the Tamagotchi
Sunday 07 February 1999
Gold-dusted sushi, mink toilet-seat covers, bottles of whisky at $1,000 (pounds 600) a pop - the worst excesses of Japan's 1980s bubble years may have faded into folklore, but the buildings of that era remain. One of the best I found was a private club in Shirahama, south of Osaka. First the turret of a Scottish castle came into view, then a hint of Loire chateau, followed by a flourish of Spanish hacienda. Inside, Italian and French craftsmen had left the domed lobby resplendent with marble floors and gilded frescos. The crowning glory of this splendid mishmash, however, was the kilted bagpipe player strutting in the forecourt. He answered my greeting in a broad Aussie accent.
Best old Japan
I hurried on to Kyoto, the old imperial capital, in search of a traditional Japan. My romantic vision of geishas and teahouses, temples and cherry blossom, crumbled as the train slunk through industrial suburbs to abandon me in a vast, modern station opposite a decidedly ugly telecom tower. Fortunately it didn't take long to discover the city's bewildering array of temples and shrines, superb gardens and ornate royal palaces. Best of all, though, is Kyoto's "world of shadows" lurking behind the slatted windows of its beautiful old inns, or in the lantern-lit lanes of Pontocho and Gion. It was in these former pleasure quarters that I at last found my geisha, swathed in gorgeous silks on her way to an assignation, though the taxi was a bit of a let-down.
Kyoto is also home to one of the world's most refined cuisines, kaiseki ryori. Originally designed to accompany the tea ceremony, these meals comprise exquisitely crafted seasonal delicacies. At around pounds 50 per head, kaiseki is strictly for special occasions, but for everyday fare it's hard to beat an izakaya, a convivial cross between a pub and a restaurant. They may look nothing from the outside, but duck under the hanging curtain and you'll be greeted with a rousing chorus of "irasshaimase" (welcome). There's usually an array of daily specials or the raw ingredients to choose from and, since you need order only a couple of small dishes at a time, these are great places to experiment. Even with a few drinks, a good feast in an izakaya won't break the bank.
Honshu, Japan's main island, ends in a great, axe-shaped peninsula dominated by Osore-zan, the "terrible mountain". A volcanic wasteland marks where children's spirits are believed to linger on their way to paradise. It's a truly eerie landscape, with its yellow and red-stained soil, multi-coloured pools, and bubbling, malodorous streams. But worse still are the sad little statues of Jizo, the guardian deity of children. Some are wrapped in woollen scarves and bibs, while others clutch plastic windmills which whisper softly to each other in the wind.
For someone deeply opposed to being cold, I was aghast to find myself in midwinter, stripping naked in a flimsy wooden shelter high in the Japan Alps. Scampering along an icy path, I plunged into a shallow rock- pool known as a rotemburo, an outdoor hot-spring bath. I'll never forget the exquisite bliss of sitting up to my neck in near-scalding water watching snow flurries drift by. After a while I achieved the required state of yude-dako, or "boiled octopus", at which point it was actually a pleasure to cool off in the crisp mountain air.
Most unusual bath
Japan is endowed with thousands of hot springs. I've taken baths perched on cliffs, in caves, beside streams, on mountain tops, in mud, in "thousand- person" pools and intimate, family-size tubs. The most unusual, however, were the sand baths of Kyushu in southern Japan. Here, dressed in a cotton robe, I lay face up on a gently steaming beach while an attendant covered me in a hot, heavy cocoon of sand, leaving just my turbaned head beneath a jaunty sun-shade. Being steamed for 10 minutes at 50C left me feeling deliciously light headed.
ANA, British Airways, JAL and Virgin have daily flights from London direct to Tokyo. Regular fares start at just under pounds 500.
Rail offers a series of passes which are good value if you're travelling around. For example, a seven-day pass (Y28,300 or pounds 140) costs less than the round-trip ticket from Tokyo's Narita airport to Kyoto. For most passes you must purchase an exchange certificate before arriving in Japan.
Where to stay
It's better to book your first few nights' accommodation before leaving home, especially in Tokyo. The Japan Inn Group and Welcome Inn Group offer cheaper options from Western-style hotels to family-run inns.
Japanese National Tourist Organisation (tel: 0171-734 9638).
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