Travel: Speeding up to slow down in Japan

Joining the dots between past, present and future, Andy Welch travels from Tokyo to Kyoto on the bullet train and discovers two very different worlds

Think of Japan, and normally one image springs to mind - a futuristic one.

Landing at Narita airport, you don’t have to wait long to see it. There are glowing neon signs, space-age toilets complete with sound effects and seat heaters, tempting vending machines... not to mention hi-tech air-conditioned trains waiting to whizz passengers out to destinations all over the country.

Arrive in Tokyo, and again it’s as you hoped it would be; like sci-fi come to life.

Wait until night falls and the effect multiplies. I venture up to the bar at the Peninsula hotel (www.peninsula.com/tokyo), minutes from Hibiya station in the Chiyoda district of the city, and look out across the illuminated skyscrapers, glass buildings and manic streets below. One cocktail too many - easily done, they’re excellent - and I’m convinced I’m not on holiday, but an extra in Blade Runner.

From this location, you can easily get to many of Tokyo’s most iconic or interesting sights: the Imperial Palace and gardens, the diagonal crossing and shopping malls at Shibuya or the world-famous, seen-to-be-believed Tsukiji Fish Market.

Huge as Tokyo is - the Greater Tokyo area is roughly a third the size of England, while the urban area is roughly the same size as Kent - it doesn’t take that long to get about. I’m keen to discover the different faces of the city, and start my cultural journey in Akihabara.

Cultural tribalism is a big deal in Japan, and the otaku (a group obsessed by anime, manga, technology and retro video games) make up a sizeable proportion of teenagers and young adults in the capital. This is where they hang out. I stumble into several specialised cafes, complete with waiting staff dressed as gaming characters, and streets lined with shops selling cutting edge gadgets. It’s like a theme park for Nintendo fans and people who love fancy dress.

Harajuku also has the same sort of otherworldly feel to it. It’s as if teenagers have taken over, and here you’ll find Gothic Lolitas, cyber punks and Ganguro - a particularly Japanese take on the style of American teens. The youth not only fill the shops and arcades, they staff them too. It’s fascinating to watch, and nestled as close as it is to the Meiji shrine - another must-see - it’s all the more startling.

A tranquil area in the heart of Shibuya’s madness, the shrine is a garden dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken. There’s a fitting irony to such a peaceful, old-fashioned area being so close to such contemporary culture. The Emperor oversaw Japan’s change - known as the Meiji Restoration - from feudal country to Imperially-ruled world power in 1868.

Walking along the grand gravel walkway through the dense forest, I find two giant camphor trees in front of the shrine. These have special significance as they were the only two trees to survive the bombing during the Second World War. Their ability to endure the most testing of times makes this a popular spot for young suitors to propose to their partners. The other tree is surrounded by wishes, written on paper and wood, and hung on a series of small hooks.

It’s a taste of traditional Japanese values in the heart of a thoroughly modern metropolis.

For more of the same, you really don’t have to travel far out of Tokyo. Actually, you do, it just won’t feel like it thanks to the Shinkansen - bullet trains - that travel out of the city at around 200mph. Nowhere seems too far away.

Anyone planning to get around the country should invest in a JR Pass before coming to Japan (you will need to get it validated upon arrival). A 14-day pass comes in at just under £300. They’re only available to foreign tourists and will cover unlimited travel, including metro and all Shinkansen barring the fastest Nozomi trains and a couple of other minor routes.

Japan natives dream of rail travel being as cheap as this, and having a pass in your pocket, especially if you’ve paid for it well in advance of arriving, really takes the sting out of what can quickly become a very costly holiday. Saying that, the current exchange rate means Japan is around 15 or 20% cheaper for British tourists than it was this time in 2012.

For a contrasting Japanese experience, get out of Tokyo and head for Kyoto to the south-west of Japan’s mainland, Honshu.

Kyoto was the country’s former capital, and while Tokyo brims with visions of the future, this altogether humbler, subtler city is a window into what Japan might have been like prior to the Meiji Restoration.

No, you won’t find peasant farmers working for feudal masters, but it does look very different. The buildings are largely wooden and much shorter than those in the capital, for a start, and there’s a marked difference in the pace of life.

A highlight of my visit is the breathtakingly beautiful Yasaka shrine in the Gion area of the city. I arrive at night when all the paper lanterns are glowing and hundreds of bullfrogs are singing in chorus.

But I find the most peaceful spot of all in Arashiyama, 20 minutes by train from central Kyoto, at traditional ryokan-style hotel Hoshinoya (global.hoshinoresort.com/hoshinoya_kyoto/).

Camouflaged by steep river banks, it’s only accessible via a short ride along the Oigawa river. There are 25 rooms fitted with sliding shoji doors, tatami floors and low beds.

It’s a welcome relief from the flashing lights and crowded streets of Tokyo. But once the digital detox has taken effect, I’m more than ready to once again embrace the skyscrapers, vending machines - and even those magical toilets.

Travel facts - Japan

Andy Welch was a guest of Inside Japan (www.insidejapantours.com) who offer group tours, self-guided adventures and tailor-made itineraries. Their 13-night Japan Unmasked tour (various departures) starts from £1750 pp, excluding international flights.