Tuesday, 9 February 2010

There's nothing wrong with being KinKi

Let me take you, dear reader, on a journey through my Japan. We'll begin seated on a Shinkaisoku (Limited Express) train standing ready at the main Japan Rail (JR) station of Himeji, a large city in Western Japan. If you stretch your head out of the window, you may just be able to catch a glimpse of the majestic Himeji castle towering above the city...

Alas, it's time to head off now. The train moves quickly through outskirts and small towns, making a brief stop at the city of Kakogawa, with its new raised station, before continuing on its way eastwards. We hurtle through some more suburbs (Tsuchiyama, Uozumi, Nishi-Akashi), and we come to a smooth halt at Akashi station (my Japanese hometown and birthplace of the famous Akashi-Yaki style of Tako-Yaki).

As we bid a fond farewell to Akashi, the express calmly rolls out of the station. To your right, you can see the impressive bridge linking Akashi to Awaji Island (where, if legend is to be believed, Momo-Taro defeated the ogre), a shimmering mirage of concrete and steel in the summer sky. But on we must go, and on we do go, through Hyogo, the small (and slightly dull) prefectural capital, stopping briefly at Kobe station, near the harbour, the Port Tower and the Oriental Hotel (and, formerly, the Sizzler restaurant with the best view ever), before stopping at Sannomiya station, Kobe's main transport hub. If you look to your left, you can see Mount Rokko rising beyond the city's high rises (Arima hot springs may be a little too far away to see from here...).

On we go. The train now hurtles on past Kobe's inner suburbs, streaking past Ashiya (home of the rich and the birthplace of a certain writer I may have mentioned once or twice...) bringing us gradually out of Hyogo Prefecture and into Osaka (we have crossed the river!). Having arrived at Umeda station in Osaka, it's time to leave the train, but our journey has not ended, oh no: there's many a mile to go before we sleep. Follow me now as I guide you through the labyrinthine shopping area concealed beneath the station (keep close; you wouldn't want to get lost down here...), for we must change train lines for our next destination.

And now we board another train, just in time; the Tokkyu express train is about to leave. Feel free to gaze in wonder at the view from your windows: in Osaka, Blade Runner was just a documentary. Eventually, the sea of high rises and randomly scattered wooden remnants recedes into the distance, and we are able to enjoy a little greenery before the train drags us back into the urban sprawl of Kyoto. Of course, I hear you cry. Kiyomizu-Dera, Kinkaku-Ji, Sanjusangen-Do, Heian-Jingu...

Sadly, we have no time for sightseeing - onward and upward. The train now rattles merrily along through small towns and countless rice fields. From the window, you may be able to spot several mounds in the distance (ancient royal burial mounds, no less). And here we are at our destination: Nara - the first (semi-)permanent capital of Japan. Feel free to wander through the temple grounds, feed the tame deer that roam the streets and marvel at Todai-Ji's Daibutsu. Our journey is done.

The point? This is my Japan, the region where I spent three years of my life a decade ago. It is also the setting for Jun'ichiro Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters.

Consider this an introduction...