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Japan - polite and perfectly packaged

Japanese tourism suffered grievously in 2011. I visited in November, when visitor numbers were beginning to recover. There were times when I felt selfishly glad that it was still so quiet. In those many chocolate box views in Kyoto, for example. No need for sharp elbows to compose the perfect shot of Kinkakuji Temple, a blaze of gold reflected in a lake on a perfect autumn morning. And at the Kamigamo Shrine I had the famous cherries, now in rich autumn leaf, all to myself.

The prim and petite Japanese lady, who in her youth might have been a famous geisha girl, sat down opposite to me.
I was on the train back to Tokyo after a close encounter with Mt Fuji. I'd taken the tour to the Fifth Station, 7500 feet up. Now I was wondering what, if anything, should deny it top spot on any list of the most perfectly formed natural features on earth.
Then something unexpected happened. The lady opened her handbag, took out a packet of chewing gum and solemnly offered a piece to her companion, to the stranger next to her, and then to me.
As a non gum chewer, my first impulse was to mumble a meek refusal, the default “British reserve” response. But feelings are easily hurt in this ultra-correct society. So I accepted the gift and popped it into my mouth.
Was this touching gesture from a stranger an act of welcome to a westerner making the trip to her country after the horror of the March tsunami, when so many were still staying away? No, I think it was pure routine Japanese politeness.
I had already experienced the country’s salutation at full throttle. It is as precisely performed as a piece of theatre. A chorus of greeting swells up when you enter a restaurant or a shop. And it is mirrored with an equally enthusiastic outbreak of goodbyes when you leave.
Japanese tourism suffered grievously in 2011. I visited in November, when visitor numbers were beginning to recover. The British are returning in bigger numbers than the French and Germans, who still have misgivings. They should have none. Bad things can happen anywhere. And modern Japanese hotels are robustly earthquake resistant. (There was a brief, no damage quake in Tokyo on my last night. All I felt, 45 floors up, was a noise like hailstones on the window.)
Current advice from the UK Foreign Office is not to go within 12 miles of the stricken nuclear reactor at Fukushima. As if you would.
There were times when I felt selfishly glad that it was still so quiet. In those many chocolate box views in Kyoto, for example. No need for sharp elbows to compose the perfect shot of Kinkakuji Temple, a blaze of gold reflected in a lake on a perfect autumn morning.
And at the Kamigamo Shrine I had the famous cherries, now in rich autumn leaf, all to myself. These are some of the most photographed trees in the world, direct descendants of specimens that have stood here for 600 years. When their spring blossom is out, they are part of an arboricultural sensation, a flush of pink and white you can track on the Internet as it sweeps around the country.
As many British visitors do, I travelled overnight from London, arriving at breakfast time. My itinerary contained the perfect jet-lag relief, the Bulllet Train. I could relax and doze for three hours as this symbol of Japanese post-war renaissance zipped south to Kyoto. This train, sleek, comfortable and furiouly fast, is a prime reason why Japan in one of the easiest countries to visit. The £234 go-anywhere Japan Railways ticket gives you the freedom of the Bullet for a week.
The trip down the east coast to Kyoto shows Japan in microcosm. Sprawling towns, almost joining up. A jumble of criss-crossing motorways. Huge factories alongside little farms. Yet there is a backdrop of distant, dreamy, mountains, pointed just as children draw them. Rising out of green foothills, they are the staples of traditional Japanese art.
This was my first visit to Japan, but for a foreign country with a challenging language, it felt awfully familiar. We know all the big brand names - Nissan, Toyota, Sony and Samsung. Madame Butterfly is one of the world’s best loved operas. Japanese gardens, tea houses and sumo wrestlers are familiar features. Japan even plays rugby. And drives on the right.
Japanese ways are practical and considerate. I used to think people wearing face masks were fussily avoiding other people’s germs. It turns out many are just as keen not to pass their cold on to others by sneezing all over them.
And taking your shoes off in a restaurant. Doesn't that keep the place so much cleaner? As for those rice paper windows: such a good way to keep out the glare, while letting in the light.
On my first morning, in the Hyatt Regency, Kyoto, determined to be polite, I showed up early for my tour. This being Japan, my driver was even earlier and was waiting for me, ready to don his white gloves and set the a/c just right. We set off with the scarcely achievable challenge of visiting all 17 of the city’s World Heritage Site - a fabulous list of shrines, temples and a castle. (We must be eternally grateful to one US official that they aren't all dust. He pointed out the city’s rich heritage before a terrible decision was taken in 1945. Nagasaki became the second A bomb target instead.)
In the end we saw seven, scattered across Kyoto. Each was worth a long linger, a beautifully restored testament to Japan’s complex war lord-dominated history.
Tokyo is best left to last. It is beyond big. Think of it is as a series of smaller cities, linked together without a gap, each with a station five times the size of a London terminus. My guide Hiro was waiting exactly where my carriage stopped on the Bullet Train platform. He guided me easily around the highlights, through the city’s vast train and underground network.
The next day I took a coach tour to Mt Fuji. I found the close up view disappointing. The slopes were bare and bleak – it was late autumn and last winter’s snow was gone. I think it is better seen from afar. One of the best views is from the Bullet Train, south of Tokyo. They give tourists a window seat on the side nearer the mountain.
In Tokyo I stayed in the Park Hyatt, where they filmed the movie Lost in Translation. It is sumptuous, exclusive and set way above this full-throated city. Like Bill Murray I sat after dark with a drink on the 52nd floor, waching the strangely soothing torrent of vehicle lights far below.
But I never felt lost in Japan, with or without translation. I could be independent, even in massive, flat-out Tokyo. The concierge helped me plot a route, the station names were in English and taxi drivers delivered me safely back.
On the train to the airport I listed random highlights. The country band progressing through my restaurant in Tokyo, chanting and clashing. Endless oceans of impeccably dressed commuters. Those wonderful wall-long landscapes hanging in the Kyoto’s National Museum.
Small things were equally memorable. The skills of the sushi chef, for example, at work on the other side of the counter in small sushi restaurants, preparing exquisite little dishes. Edible origami.
Those packaging skills extend to the shops. In an art and craft shop in the gold plated Ginza district, I found a little decorated box made from paper for keeping business cards. It was obviously, and beautifully, hand made. Yet it cost less that £10. They gift wrapped it most meticulously. No, I didn't have to ask.

Factbox.
The writer’s trip was organized by Japan specialists Bales. He flew with Virgin Atlantic, and stayed at the Hyatt Regency Kyoto and the Park Hyatt Tokyo.

www.seejapan.co.uk
www.hyatt.com.
www.virgin-atlantic.com,
www.balesworldwide.com.

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