Our last day in Japan was spent buried in the madness of Osaka, as we bargain hunted our way through vast, packed, twinkling shopping arcades. Our last evening in Japan was spent sat in a small Japanese restaurant, eating tempura and sipping miso soup before leaving for the airport, and our midnight flight.
12 hours later, we landed back into the alternative madness of Hanoi. We knew we were truly home on the taxi ride from the airport, when we spotted a Vietnamese guy standing on the central reservation of the motorway, next to his motorbike, peeing in open view of all the passing traffic.
Things that don’t happen in Japan, page one…
The reality is that there couldn’t be two more different places, Vietnam and Japan. It’s hard to not compare my chaotic and at times slightly ramshackle home city to the obsessive order of Japan. After six weeks of mind boggling efficiency, obsessive clockwork operation and bewilderingly precise organization, it’s difficult to believe the Vietnamese ever get anything at all done.
I suppose the obvious riposte to that is that – well, more often than not, they don’t.
I love Hanoi from the bottom of my heart. It remains my home city because I love the persistent sense you get here that something slightly bonkers is never far away. I admire the Vietnamese for their practicality in adverse circumstances, their humour and their complete lack of concern for rules.
But by the same token, during our six weeks in Japan I also grew to both admire and be fascinated by the Japanese. The way the bullet trains arrived precisely on time. The way everyone did their job with an efficient sense of purpose, quiet diligence, determined service. The way everything was absolutely spotless, and how everyone took so much pride in the place they lived.
Now, at the end of six long weeks of travelling, I am left trying to make sense of it all. Trying, and failing spectacularly.
We just did so much stuff. I don’t know quite how else to put it. For every big, dazzling city – Osaka, Tokyo, Sapporo – there was a small, countryside retreat – Kinosaki, Koyasan, Furano. For every day spent walking anything up to 20 kilometres exploring Japan, and for every mountain climbed and every mountain bike mastered, there was another day wallowing happily in an onsen or resting up in a village. For every stunning Tokyo hotel room, there was a countryside youth hostel in the middle of nowhere.
Never mind contrasting Japan with Vietnam. The contrasts within Japan itself are already sharp enough.
I look back now on six weeks of adventure, and what else can I say? I absolutely loved every second of it. I’d do it all over again. I wouldn’t change a single thing about it. Not a single thing.
This was a journey of 42 days, 7,500 photographs, 500,000 steps, 300km walked, 18 rooms slept in, 17 onsen wallowed in, 6 umbrellas lost, broken or else rendered unfit for service, 1 umbrella which we actually managed to bring home intact, and at least 20 doughnuts gorged upon.
What were the highlights? I’m not sure its possible to really pick out highlights – the whole trip blurs into a dizzying series of utterly unique memories. Of course I’ll remember with particular fondness the day of seven baths in Kinosaki. The scenes from Tokyo – the flashing streets of Shibuya and Shinjuku, the craziness of Akhihabara – will never leave me. The adventure of riding on Shinkansen, watching the vast, mountainous Japanese countryside blur past the window. The trials of climbing Mount Bandai, a deeply moving visit to Hiroshima, and our time spent living in a Buddhist temple – they are all highlights, really.
Maybe what I’ll remember the most, though, is less about these experiences themselves, and more about that general sense of travelling through Japan. The smaller, imperceptible things that are subconsciously absorbed, rather than actively experienced. The vending machine bottles of cold coffee, the way even the tiniest and most deserted zebra crossings had green and red lights telling you when to stop and when to go. The way Hello Kitty was everywhere. How people in shops would sing ‘Hello’ and ‘Thank you’ at you whenever you came or went. How the arrival of each train in a train station was greeted by a little musical jingle on the platform. The grown men reading cartoon books on the trains. The terrifyingly convincing plastic food samples on display outside every restaurant. The shrines, the temples. The business men staggering home exhausted, drunk or a combination of both, still wearing their shirts and suits from a day in the office. The way everything there worked, impressively, bewilderingly efficiently. The apparent juxtaposition of a complete lack of trash bins, and yet a complete lack of trash. The constant assault on your senses that never quite ends.
This is what makes travelling such an addictive sport. The fact that the things you see and do and hear and experience often stay with you much less than the things you simply absorb. The things that, by some strange form of osmosis, simply plant themselves and take root in your consciousness. Japan had this experiential osmosis by the bucket load, and then some. It was thrilling, addictive, exhausting, spectacular.
God, it was wonderful!
But like all good things, it had to end somewhere. Even six weeks ended eventually. As our time in Japan has ended, my sadness at the end of such an astonishing trip is again only tempered by the emergence, once again, of that irresistible question: