Farewell to Tokyo and Aokigahara (青木が原) – The Suicide Forest

So, the day after tomorrow, we will be boarding the flight that will take us back to the U.K, for what will most likely be at least a year and probably longer.

On the plus side, we are moving back to London, where we have never lived before. Incredibly, our furnished flat for the first month is a five minute walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. I think it is likely that, in terms of entertainment, we will be just as fulfilled, if not more so, than in Tokyo. I would be lying, however, if I were to say that I didn’t have any regrets about leaving.

I am still not sure whether I have been in love with Tokyo, or in love with my situation. Spending my time working part-time, writing and learning Japanese, this has been the first time since I left university that I haven’t dreaded the trudge to work every morning. As work goes – I even enjoyed teaching a little.

I imagine the things that I will miss about Tokyo will be much easier to articulate in hindsight, when all the negative points of England, which nostalgia has worn away over time, will slap me in the face, indignant that I could ever forget them.

For now, I will hold my tongue and go into my new life open-minded. I’m looking forward to attending lots of concerts at the royal Albert Hall, Dissecting charity shops looking for good books and possibly even going to Wimbledon. Getting my food shopping delivered will also be a God send (how I hate shopping).

Aokigahara

I was determined, before I left, to visit Aokigahara. The forest is infamous, both inside and outside of Japan, as a popular suicide destination for natives and the occasional foreigner. People who are bankrupt or have nothing to lose, make their way into the forest – where it is infinitely easy, given its mind-blowing size, to become lost – and either hang themselves or starve to death.

It was not just the lore that attracted me, but also the look of the forest, which is primeval and so peaceful that you can understand why someone would choose this place to end their lives. The other reason is equally obvious. In a country – and especially in Tokyo – where the population density is so high, apartments so crammed together and walls so thin, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were never truly alone, that you never have the luxury of privacy. The forest is full of caves and dense packs of trees fit for hiding, while the size means that it is impossible to properly monitor. It’s one of the few options they have. There are even many signs (not on the course we took) in both English and Japanese to dissuade the person intent on suicide.

We walked around it for an hour or two, meeting no-one on the way there, and only three of four couples on the way back. It truly was a peaceful and beautiful place. It’s a shame that it took us nearly three hours each way, but as I said, I was determined.

Here are a few photos of the forest preceded by a few of Daiba:

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I suppose it is only fitting that my final post, featuring ‘farewell’, should also feature this forest.

Suicide in Japan, as a generalisation, is a cultural thing, and something that is more common than in the west. Maybe it is because of the lack of long-standing or deep Christian influence (It barely made a scratch in Japan), or perhaps it is because of their strong sense of honour and, more importantly shame, that they resort to it more freely, fearing a loss of dignity more than the end of their life. Anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of Japanese literature could tell you that it was in vogue with novelists not so long ago.

Whether or not I will continue a blog in London, I cannot say. I’m sure there are lots of interesting things to see and share, but I am not overly sure of what my situation will be, so I will leave the decision for later.

Will we return to Japan? Almost certainly yes. While I am worried about the gradual rise of nationalism in Japan, especially under their new prime minister, we would like to return in the near future, most likely to study.

TTFN and have a better one,

Chris

A day in Seoul

It’s obviously quite difficult to get a good handle of a city when you are only spending the briefest of times there. Including the travel time there and back, a day is actually a bit of a stretch of the imagination. I did, however, get to see a lot of the city by foot and was able – if only through the narrowest of straws – to slurp up some of the atmosphere.

The first thing I noticed, on arriving in the city, was that it was crowded with soldiers, all of whom were young-looking. I don’t know if this is a common sight, or if our trip coincided with a leave from duty, but you couldn’t look anywhere without being faced with another camouflaged uniform. The train to Seoul, which was also half filled with soldiers, was a comfortable and – more importantly – cheap journey (we used a rail pass for foreigners that cost less than £35 for a return) that took us around two hours. This train, unlike the ones we took in Busan, luckily did not smell like urine and actually rivalled the Japanese Shinkansen (Bullet train) in terms of comfort (if not speed), which is no small feat. It was also vastly cheaper.

Many people have said to me, when asking about visiting places like Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul, that a major city is a major city, with little to no difference between them. To a certain extent (in Asia at least) I think this is probably true. I don’t completely agree, though. Seoul certainly had its own identity, whether it be the quaint local restaurants, the area of trendy artwork (Insa Dong) that literally neighbour the financial and shopping districts or the Korean food stalls that are dotted around everywhere.

A note on the obsession with World Heritage sites: OK, this has been a source of rancour for a while now. In a desperate search for quantifiable quality in the World, some organisation or other has taken it upon itself to highlight certain sights that deserve more praise than others. In my experience, this elaborate seal means nothing, and both of the World Heritage sights in Korea were entirely underwhelming. I actually know Japanese people who plan their holiday around how many World Heritage sights they can see in one trip, such is the faith that they put into the list. There is much more culture and interest to be gained from wandering around a city or town than there ever could be from being herded around like cows and fed the reasons you should appreciate yet another piece of ageing stone. I’m sure there are exceptions, but I often find that the sights that are less lauded tend to have the better atmosphere and more organic feel.

TTFN
Chris

A few days in Busan

It wasn’t with a whole lot of enthusiasm that I went to South Korea – the main reason we were making the trip being that it was so ridiculously cheap as to make our not going sinful – but I was pleasantly surprised.

It’s not difficult, the moment you arrive, to start making comparisons with Japan. The people exhibit similar behaviour (I’ve been told by others that the working culture is very similar – South Koreans being on top of the list in terms of hard working nations), the buildings and streets seem on the whole impeccably clean and the food seems similar.

One of the first differences to note is that it at times had an Eastern Block feel to it, replicas of buildings popping up everywhere – some so basic in design as to make you wonder if they needed an architect or just stacked squares on top of each other – like reused negatives of photos. Almost every office building or block of flats will have at least a twin, with others having a number of siblings (check out the skyline photo below). I noticed many blocks of apartments that were actually numbered in large writing on their sides, no doubt so that the management company doesn’t mix them up. The service culture couldn’t be more different. Unlike Japan, whose bend over backwards form of service often verges on the sycophantic, many of the service staff in Korea seem put-out and sullen when dealing with customers. Some transactions I experienced were conducted entirely in silence. I’m not saying that there aren’t exceptions – as there always are – but it was noticeable right from the off.

So, Busan itself. The area in which we stayed (Haeundae) was located right by a beach and was often filled with families and hyperactive children. The place underwent a transformation during the weekdays, morphing from a vibrant hub of leisure to a relative ghost town. The huge Starbucks by the beach, which was incredibly open until midnight nearly every night, was empty when we entered during the week. I think an empty Starbucks speaks wonders for the solitude of the place.

In terms of things to do, we did travel to a few temples outside of the city, making use of the cheap but urine-reeking trains. There are also a few good walking routes around the area and, after walking for long enough, you do quickly find yourselves in quaint fishing quarters and modest local dwellings. The aquarium is also worth a note, if only to point out that it featured many species I have never seen before, including the eerie looking Sun Fish pictured. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised (although a couple of days is more than enough time really).

TTFN
Chris

Cherry Blossoms (桜)

Hi,

I just wanted to share a few of the cherry blossom photos I have taken recently. You will notice that many of them feature people having picnics on the grass in a very peaceful manner. This is because I took this photo on a weekday. There is a strange mania that overtakes a Japanese person’s senses when these little buds finally open to reveal the pure colour underneath and the parks and pretty much every blade of grass (or patch of mud) available is filled with a Japanese person’s rear. It’s quite similar to the way British people act on a sunny day actually.

Most of these photos are taken in Shinjuku park and a few near where I live, where they light up the trees at night.

As you’ve probably noticed, the last picture features no Sakura. This is actually a picture of the terrace of a Starbucks in Harajuku. The terrace – situated on the roof of the building – is filled with tress, loungers and soft jazz. It has a view of Harajuku and Omotesando on three sides. If it wasn’t always so busy, it would probably be one of my favourite places in Tokyo. As it is, it’s still pretty amazing and without doubt the best coffee shop I have been to.

Also on the roof of this building is Bill’s, an Australian owned breakfast-focused restaurant. One of the most disappointing things about Tokyo is its limited choice of breakfast eateries. Deciding, as we had a couple of days off, to try two of the lauded ones in our area (Bill’s and Bubby’s), we tried both and were disappointed. Both of my full English (full Aussie in Bill’s) breakfasts were diminutive, the plate being filled mainly with toast. For breakfasts that cost me around £10 and £15, I expected a lot more. I could get that quality of full English at any pub in England for half the price or go to a nice place and get a good one for still marginally cheaper. My wife seemed happy with her pancakes, but pancakes are pancakes are pancakes, right?

It’s also worth noting that we had to come back after an hour just for a table at Bill’s, while people arriving later were told they would have to wait over two hours. I was blown away after seeing what was on offer for myself (the sausage was basically a cocktail sausage and the bacon was pretty weak). Word of mouth and advertising must do wonders here. Entrepreneurs out there – there is a serious gap in the market for a good breakfast! (or maybe good quality ingredients are hard to find)

TTFN

Chris

Tokyo Wanderings 3

Here are a few more photos I have that are just from wandering around Tokyo. I’m going to Busan on Sunday, so maybe I will be able to share some interesting photos with you from there when I get back. It’s also cherry blossom time here, so expect some photos of that at some point.

Just to give you a bit of background information on these photos: Happy Science is a new religion that believe (like the majority of the new religions in Japan) that their leader is the reincarnation (or can channel in this case) of all the messiahs (Jesus, Buddha and that other guy), and that because of this you should donate a hell of a lot of money to them and join the club. Some of the other new religions believe that if women truly believe in their cause, they will need no pain relief whilst giving birth, and should therefore opt out. Happy Science has been heavily linked with Aum, who carried out the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway.

The shrine was the cause of a great fire in the past. Because of this they have a statue to represent each victim of that fire (there are many).

Yes, that is a rice vendor. I think it was 1.5kg for a thousand yen or something. I was happy as it is the first one I have seen.

We both feel a little in flux at the moment, not knowing whether we will be in Japan for another month or another year before returning home. As with every process that you wish could be finished and wrapped up quickly, it is taking an age to get any kind of answer. It’s gotten to the point where the both of us would just like a simple yes or no.

If we do move back, it will probably be to London, rather than the city we left from.

What will I miss about Tokyo, should we be forced to leave? The lack of tipping culture, the weather, the cleanliness, the transport system, the ability to travel around Asia easily and the little traditional secrets that seem to be hidden in the shadow of every imposing skyscraper.

What won’t I miss? The hordes, the high prices, the food, the entire world pretending that Japanese people are innately more polite than their international counterparts, the soul-sucking vacuum that is the absolute belief in the business culture, the high-pitched squeals of girls and women alike, the sickly-sweet service culture (this started out as a bit of a novelty but now I just wish they would relax and give their face muscles a rest) and the snooty rich which seem to be everywhere in this area.

The weight (if not the number) of the pros is still greater than that of the cons, and we would like to stay but, as I said, an answer either way would put us out of our misery at this point.

TTFN
Chris

Mount Ooyama (大山さん)

An hour train and a fifteen minute journey in order to reach, Mt. Ooyama was never top of our list of things to do near Tokyo. But with the weather so pleasant last weekend and the two of us wanting to be exposed to at least some amount of sunlight before we perish from vitamin deficiencies, we headed out to our unlikely destination.

Nearly a week down the line and having given it some thought, the truth is that it is probably the best mountain we have been to in Japan. Unlike Takao and Mitake, this mountain is relatively deserted, it being a rare occurrence that you happen upon anyone on the ascent or descent. There were a few groups of people at the summit, either drinking beer or smoking that well-earned cigarette, but it was otherwise very peaceful.

The major challenge on the way up was the snow and ice, remnants of the colder weather that haven’t quite given up on the mountain. There were a few occasions where all four of us nearly ended up horizontal. The descent was that much more difficult, gravity aiding the harsh conditions in an attempt to drag us rather embarrassingly to earth. There was one occasion where my walking boots would simply not grip any of the ground where I rested my foot, meaning I quickly made progress down a hill, the security of a desperately clenched tree being my only means to stopping myself from descending the mountain much faster, and rather more painfully, than I would have intended.

As you can see from the pictures, the scenery and the nature were quite beautiful. The deer were also nice to see. What doesn’t really come across in the photos is the solitude of the place. At one point we were inclined to stand still and listen, having noted the unusual lack of sound. We heard nothing – a silence that doesn’t exist in a city like Tokyo.

Sorry about the rushed nature of this one. Hope to have more time for the next one.

TTFN
Chris