Travel: Surprises in a land of temples and tat: Steve Healey found serenity in Japan, where hi-tech trains travel at breakneck speed, joggers obediently run clockwise and traditional life is still as neatly packaged as sushi

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The Independent Travel
I carted a sackful of preconceptions to Japan, but found a country of neat surprises. Tokyo covers more than 800 square miles and is home to 12 million people. It is also waiting for an earthquake - a big one - and gets plenty of jarring reminders. In 1923, one struck Yokohama and left 100,000 dead. That statistic kept turning in my mind so that I could hardly look at a crowd without wanting to do a headcount.

But I looked for smog and didn't see any. I saw nobody squeezed on to a train by white-gloved helpers. And a bottle of Scotch cost a mere pounds 15 - so much for bringing some with me to barter.

In the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, giant video screens line the street. I joined the crowd there on an expedition through this jungle of neon and noise. Shinjuku railway station resembles a small city with shops all around. Two million people wander through it daily.

Around Shinjuku is the red- or rather pink-light district (pornography is pink). Euphemistically called 'soapland', it is permeated with high-pitched voices shrieking from overhead loudspeakers as girls call out their wares from the bars and parlours.

We stayed at a business hotel. It is possible to find a double room for pounds 70 a night, but prices tend to start quite a bit higher. There is the option of a 'capsule hotel' at about half that price, and there are 'love hotels', but you need to check in very late and out very early for the cheap rates: peak times are charged by the hour.

In search of a more traditional view of Japan, we set off for Kyoto. The shinkansen, the bullet train from Tokyo, was impressive. Double-glazed, air-conditioned, double-decked coaches are powered along special tracks by huge, sleek, long- nosed engines at breakneck speed, but my cup of coffee hardly swayed. Some of the technology, though, dates back to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

I had been led to the wide-gauge tracks by a Japanese couple just back from Europe. 'Shinkansen?' I queried. 'Burret train,' they nodded. 'Yes. Bullet train,' I repeated. 'Ah, shinkansen,' they said. We replayed this every few paces as we surged through the crowd towards our goal.

What looked like a washing-line ticketed with tiny flags marked where to stand on the platform. People were queuing at the designated spots. Headlights and a hum heralded the train's arrival. The great white beast glided almost noiselessly into place, its positioning and timing perfect.

Leaving Tokyo, our shinkansen shot through central Honshu, with its mountainous backdrop, and passed industrial Nagoya. We had bought bento boxes for the trip. Brightly coloured small parcels of rice, fish and pickles were arranged with consummate artistry inside. I watched with envy as fellow passengers dextrously tackled their lunch. Each box was accompanied by disposable chopsticks and a sample-sized bottle of soy sauce. From an airline-style seat I thumbed the guidebooks and felt reassured as station stops were announced in English. 'We will shortly arrive in Kyoto,' a velvety voice cooed. Knowing that Japanese Railways wait for no man, we hurtled for the door.

The nation's capital for more than 1,000 years, Kyoto is a bewildering blend of old and new. I juggled my first can of piping-hot coffee from one of the ubiquitous vandal-free vending machines. Over the road, a computer-controlled carousel car park circulated vehicles before waiting customers' eyes. Each car was carried in a metal cradle and then deposited at ground level on to a turntable. The attendant then spun it around ready for the road. Ordered, efficient and very hi-tech.

Yet no more than 100 yards from the buzz of the main street I found peace and tranquility at one of the city's 2,000 temples and shrines. Many are tucked away in the covered shopping streets. I followed crocodiles of clean and harmonious schoolchildren clutching street guides and ticking off sites seen on the history trail.

The importance of group life and conformity is stressed everywhere. The Japanese have a charming little adage that sums this up: 'Deru kui wa utareru', the nail that sticks up gets hammered down. Next to the Imperial Palace, guides waved flags to marshal their parties for group photos. Behind them the joggers in the park were all running around the palace walls clockwise.

I travelled to Japan with more than a little worry about the cost. Would I find myself stranded and unable to pay the bus fare back to the airport? Would a careless coffee or, worse still, a reckless lager, leave me broke? Japan is expensive - I never paid less than pounds 5 for a beer in a bar, and you need to check for cover charges. They can double when somebody starts to sing. (And then double again if that someone happens to be you.)

I found melons, boxed and decorated, on sale for pounds 80 each. And I heard that a night on the town in Pontocho, the narrow winding lane in Kyoto hugging the river, where red lanterns swing and geishas glide by en route to appointments in exclusive teahouses, needs a very flexible friend to meet the bill: more than pounds 500 is reportedly not uncommon.

Kyoto has its own pace. Its suburbs were surprisingly quiet and unhurried, its botanical gardens obediently ablaze as autumnal colours singed the maples and burnished the dense foliage on the surrounding hills. Even cats and dogs respond to the call for order and sit patiently on small mats outside their owners' front doors.

We ate in department stores; top floors are given over to restaurants. Here I practised my pointing so that waiters could identify plastic replicas of lunch displayed in the windows. A teishoku - set lunch - will have a price ticket next to its replica in the window. At around pounds 7 this usually comprises soup, a main dish of meat or fish with boiled rice, and a dessert. Once, I tried one of my dozen or so words of Japanese. A waiter pointed to my tempura and declared: 'Is delicious.' He had hit one of my stock phrases; 'Ah oishii desu,' I agreed. The laughter just ran and ran. I still don't know why.

About an hour by train from the gardens of Kyoto is the even older former capital of Nara. The city's quiet streets lead out to a park where disconsolate deer ambled about. I bought a few special deer biscuits to cheer some up.

Nara is a curious blend of tackiness and tradition. The largest wooden building in the world is here, the Hall of the Great Buddha in the Todaiji temple. In it sits a 50ft bronze statue of Buddha. But around the temples are tourist stores selling gaudy T-shirts and funny hats.

We stayed in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. I left my shoes at the door and was given a robe and some slippers. The rooms, set around a garden, were small, with sliding paper panels. There was a hot bath where friends and families could share an evening soak. Following directions in a booklet provided by the tourist office, I showered and then inched my way into the plastic cauldron.

Toilets, too, are used by both sexes. You wear special plastic slippers to enter toilet areas, which are often decorated with images of newly-weds or kittens. The toilet here was shaped like a scooter with a hood at one end. Happily, the booklet explained how to drive one.

That night we slept on a mattress rolled out on the floor. In the land of bullet trains I found serenity on a straw floor with a rice pillow. I will go back - but I will pack more of the language.

Getting there: London or Manchester to either Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka's new airport) costs pounds 605 return on SAS via Copenhagen through Trailfinders (071-938 3366). An eight- day tour of central Japan, visiting both Nara and Kyoto, costs pounds 955 with Japan Experience (0703 730830).

Accommodation: The Japan National Tourist Organisation has a free guide to ryokan (traditional Japanese hotels). The lowest price is around pounds 25 per person per night.

Further information: Japan NTO, 167 Regent Street, London W1R 7FD (071-734 9638).

(Photograph omitted)