The Moran and family soak up hot springs, mountain views and hi-tech toilets
To go to Japan is a long way. A long way. You fly over a great deal of tundra to get there. Russian tundra. Chinese tundra. Fourteen hours of tundra. There’s so much, it’s like someone’s comically unspooling more tundra from a roll of tundra, and it will never end.
The journey is very tundra-themed. As someone who would always prefer to go on a walking holiday in mid-Wales – perhaps daring to stop off in Hay-on-Wye, for some paperbacks, for extra thrills – it would be hard to tolerate this amount of tundra were I not, happily, in Business, under my Business Duvet, drinking my Business Wine. It is a reasonable bulwark against tundra ennui.
But we are going to Japan, via tundra, because we have teenage girls. You see, once a child passes the age of 12, they want only two things from a holiday – either fast cities, such as New York or Tokyo, or banana boats, from which they can instagram themselves achieving “Holiday goals”. That’s it. Forget your caravans, villas with pools or minibreaks to see the disused limestone quarries of Brecon. You’re wasting your time, money and constant, earnest exhortations to enjoy the ruins/sandcastles/Brontë exhibition.
We are going to Tokyo because the girls love neon, skyscrapers, sushi, shops that sell adorably mad dresses, and the idea of cafés where you can dress up rabbits and pet them. We’re going because Tokyo sells itself as essentially heaven for teenage girls – but without the bummer of having to die first. You just have to fly over the tundra, instead.
And then, once we’ve done Tokyo, then we’re going on to the rural Gifu region, because I refuse to fly over so much tundra and not get a feel for Japan’s history. I haven’t told the girls that. I’ve vaguely said that there “might” be banana boats. I haven’t told them it’s a wholly landlocked, mountainous area. I’m sure I’ll be able to busk it, once we’re in a 17th-century onsen, or hot spring, admiring the architecture. I’m confident in my ability to bring history alive, once I’ve googled the history.
But, in the meantime – tundra. Another three hours of tundra.
We wake, jet-lag early, in the Mandarin Oriental hotel, with Mount Fuji battling with the Tokyo skyline to be the most beautiful thing visible from the window.
It’s amazing – one of those views of a lifetime – but it is ignored in favour of the whole family gathering in the bathroom, to marvel at the legendarily WTF Japanese toilets.
While those who are fans of Terminator wait for Skynet to become sentient, the news is that, in Japan, the toilets already are. When you walk into a cubicle, the toilet lid opens up as you move towards it – like a noble robot friend going, “Hey – here! You can poo in here, old buddy!” Like the early stages of a BDSM relationship, it can feel a little wrong, even though everyone involved is wholly consensual. Or, at least, programmed to be.
We ignore the view and meet in the bathroom to marvel at the legendarily WTF Japanese loos
Of course, everyone who goes to Japan knows about their 23rd-century toilets, but there are elements that even the most ardent Clive James fan will still not be aware of. In service stations, they have a guide on the wall that shows you which cubicles are occupied – so you can go straight to a free one. The Japanese seem to have an unholy terror of having to try a door with the traditional tiny fingertip nudge to see if it’s occupied. They have basically invented a Toilet Departures Board, so this need never happen.
And even the things you are aware of – such as the hot-air “drying” option – are still a shock when you encounter them. On the control panel for your toilet, there are three “drying” options – one hot, one cold and one that appears to mean “titivate”, which strobes body-heat gusts onto your nethers, and the unexpected sensation of which is, essentially, to feel like you are getting sexual with your toilet. I offer this information with no further comment or judgment. It is down to you whether you wish to enter into this kind of relationship with a toilet. It is, perhaps, only a decision you can make in the moment.
Having pressed all the buttons, we finally leave the toilet, enjoy the lavish insanity of a Japanese hotel buffet breakfast – imagine everything, twice – while I tell the girls that, because I am cruel, I have hired a guide for the day, to show us Tokyo’s culture.
“You’re not going to take us anywhere to show us … broken pots, are you?” Nancy asks, warningly. This is her summation of museums.
Tyler, our guide, however, knows exactly how to get the girls onboard. In the hotel lobby, he brings out a small device.
“This,” he says, “is wi-fi. Stay near me, and you’ll be online all day.”
They look at him like a god.
We walk over to the lift, where a porter waits to press the button for us, and encounter our first bowing.
Everything you’ve seen about the Japanese being very polite, and bowing a lot, is absolutely true. It’s not some mad stereotype, like French people walking around with strings of onions around their necks. It’s real, and it’s going to happen to you a lot.
You really need to practise this before you go. If you do your first one in the lobby of a hotel after a big breakfast, it’s going to be dismal. Have a look at some light-to-medium-strength Japanese bowing on YouTube, and pop a couple before you go. You don’t want to do a western “just looking to see if I have spilt gravy on my shirt” bow. Something a bit crisper and from the hips will make you feel like quite the cosmopolitan guy. Get in there.
Having negotiated the bowing we’re out onto the streets of Tokyo. It’s the start of cherry-blossom season, and Tokyo is drunk on it. Figuratively – there are cherry blossom insignia on the manhole covers and on boxes of tiny chocolates, and pinned in girls’ hair, and in huge boughs, draped across every doorway – and literally: in Ueno Park, thousands sit on blankets, under the trees, surrounded by lanterns, drinking and singing.
A city in love with blossom is a beautiful thing – businessmen in suits take selfies of themselves next to particularly winsome sprays. Tokyo is delightful. Tokyo wants you to have a lovely time. In order to counteract its terrifying hugeness – even on a bullet train, it takes half an hour to clear its suburbs – it will open doors for you, it will make sure your hands are cleaned with hot towels before lunch, it will tell you exactly where to stand on each platform, it will let you wander around dressed up as a schoolgirl, princess or robot. So long as you can do something delightfully, Tokyo will absolutely defend to the death your right to do that.
A teenage girl is as apt to fall in love with a beautiful city as she is with a beautiful boy. As Tyler takes us on a circular tour that takes us from shrines to neon to blossom-filled parks, they rate it against other capital cities, in the same way you’d rate pop-star crushes.
They’ve just decided it’s hotter than Paris, but not as “lit” as New York, when Tyler overhears them, and says, “Not as ‘lit’? Wait until you see where we’re going for lunch. The Monster Cafe,” and, for the purposes of a speedy narrative, we’ll ignore the hour-long queue we stand in, and step straight into the DayGlo insanity of a restaurant that appears to have been invented by Willy Wonka, shortly after he was in a car crash and suffered a notable head injury.
Multicoloured spaghetti, Harajuku girl waitresses, 20ft plastic cakes that contain seating booths, pounding pop music and a small nervous breakdown from Nancy, who is vegan, and accidentally – in the DayGlo confusion – eats some tuna.
Here is a warning to vegetarians and vegans: Japan doesn’t really do things without fish in. Bonito (dried tuna flakes) form the basis of nearly everything. You know the vegetarian sushi you love? That’s a Californian invention. They don’t do it here. And there’s no such thing as salad outside the cities. Although our tour operators go to incredible lengths to cater for Nancy, in the countryside, veganism consists of a lot of glutinous rice, and “boiled swede and broccoli” for breakfast.
On our last day – back in Tokyo – we walked for an hour to get a salad, and when Nancy saw her first slice of cucumber for a week, she held it up on her fork and sang God Save the Queen at it, while crying.
Still, where Tokyo closes a salad door, it opens a Rabbit Café window. The next day, we hand over an astonishing sum of money to two giggling girls dressed as Alice In Wonderland, who preside over a rickety townhouse filled with rabbits, costumes you can put rabbits in, and snacks you can give rabbits you’ve dressed up like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind.
Rabbits attached to leads, we go to the rooftop garden, and watch them get tangled up in each other’s leads, then try to have sex with each other, as Tokyo roars madly below.
“Is this cruel?” Nancy wonders, replacing the bonnet that’s just been sexed off her rabbit.
“To my credit card, yes,” I reply, running my receipt through Google Translate. “F*** me, this is more than £100, to host a rabbit cosplay orgy.”
When we move on to Harajuku, however, £100 seems like a mere bagatelle. Harajuku is the global centre of teenage girlness: a massive shopping district full of thousands of expensive things that they must have, or die. Everyone here is a tiny teenage girl with a backpack. Every so often, you see a harassed father looking like a huge dog in a sea of kittens, before the crowds roll over them, and they appear to drown – but not before handing over their credit card. As I am impressed with the girls’ genuine appreciation of all the Shinto temples we’ve been to, I allow an hour of rampant consumerism, the explanation of which annoys them.
“This is cultural, too!” Nancy protests. “It’s like that Gwen Stefani video! It’s educational!”
I shrug. For starters, they’re as happy as they’ve ever been – they are wholly in love with Tokyo. And besides, tomorrow, I’m taking them to a remote 11th-century world heritage site, where I know, with certainty, there are no banana boats. I’m playing a long game here.
Well, what do you know – it turns out teenage girls love 11th-century world heritage sites.
“This is amazing. It looks like … Game of Thrones,” Nancy breathes, as we walk into the village of Shirakawa-go, past the Shinto shrines.
“How do you know – you’ve never watched it,” Lizzie snipes. “I’ve seen the memes,” Nancy replies, indignantly.
It fills a remote valley, deep in Gifu, with its grass-roofed houses and koi ponds. High in the hills, it’s still crusted with snow, and, despite being on the tourist trail, it empties out in the evening – leaving only residents staying in the guesthouses.
To sleep here is to time-travel – the walls of the Magoemon guesthouse are made of paper, you sleep on tatami mats and you eat in a communal hall, where each guest sits on the floor and has their own tiny fire, over which they cook their prepared meal.
Spearing a fish on a stick, and slowly roasting its skin off while listening to the river outside, you feel like a traveller on a ring quest. It’s 100 per cent Tolkien, and the whole family is alit with wonder at being incarnated, for one night, in another century. The kids don’t even mention that they don’t have wi-fi. Parents of teenagers will know how extraordinary that is.
“This has … changed my heart,” Nancy says, to which I nod wisely, and then go outside and cry.
Shirakawa-go is the first place our shoes become problematic. No shoes inside the houses. You must leave them outside and change into the provided slippers. Everyone knows this.
It’s a simple rule, but seemingly impossible for the western mind to easily grasp. Again and again, we defile spotless tatami mats with our clumpy western boots. It’s amazing how many times you can mess up someone’s carpet.
The next day, in Takayama, it gets worse. At the utterly ravishing Hironoya hotel, our arrival is the perfect storm of incorrect bowing and wearing of shoes in the wrong place, all magnified by the fact each new visitor is welcomed by the banging of a gong. Even shy, polite British people will feel like they’re some brash twat from Texas in a Hawaiian shirt, clomping all over something delicate and innate. But this is why you travel! To feel otherness! The delicious pleasure and pain of tasting something wholly alien!
The pleasure/pain steps up a gear in the onsen, across the road. In the beautiful robe and wooden slippers provided by the hotel, I shuffle across the cobbles at night and feel the bone-deep joy of another world. This is so not “going to the pub”. Naked, in the communal changing rooms, I am able to arrange my face in an expression that eloquently explains, to the Japanese women there, that the reason none of them has cellulite is because they live in a country with very punctual trains, and therefore do not have to stress-eat ham sandwiches when standing on a freezing platform in Three Bridges – and that if they had to use Southern rail on a regular basis, they, too, would have a bum like mine. I’m proud of how unexpectedly bilingual my face is.
If it were possible to die of beauty, the Gifu mountains are one place it could happen
Finally in the pool, I sit back to enjoy the brilliant, steamy high of volcanic water. No – I am not ashamed of my nakedness! That’s what everyone here is doing! And besides, I’m on the other side of the world! No one knows me here! My breasts are entirely without social consequence.
A woman on the other side of the bathing tub looks across.
“Are you … Caitlin Moran?”
I assume a noble, rakish yet relaxed air.
“You’re not supposed to bring your towel into the water.”
Our final night is high in the Japanese Alps, and in a week of exquisite accommodation, our last ryokan, So-En, is the most astonishing of all – exquisite, crusted with hard frost, and home to wild monkeys who bathe in the hot springs. According to the pop-obsessed boy working there, this is where John Lennon, Yoko Ono and the infant Sean were staying when John wrote Beautiful Boy – something that I cynically dismiss as self-mythologising bulls*** until later, when I see a sign pointing to the single-sex onsen that reads “Woman”, and think, “Well, maybe he wrote that here, too.”
In a dreamlike week, this is the place that feels like the febrile finale before you awake. In our rooms – overlooking the river – there are clothes laid out for us to wear, and it’s like the bit in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where the Pevensie children find that Narnian clothes are so much softer, warmer and brighter than their tight, dull English clothes.
In the colours of spring – moss green, dark blue and pink – we have loose trousers, padded jackets and white padded moon boots: clothes in which it’s impossible to feel dysmorphic or awkward. T-shirts and jeans seem so gauche, cheap and inelegant, in comparison. Six months later, I’m furious I didn’t buy this outfit, on the spot. “I’ll find something like it when I get back,” I thought. No. There are still some things you can only buy in a specific place. Globalism isn’t total.
Wearing these clothes, you walk down to the outdoor pools, and sit in hot water, staring up at the Japanese Alps. Three hours ago, we were at the top of them – riding the cable car and building snowmen. Now, we are in this lantern-lit hideaway – the smell of wood smoke, and dinner, reminding you just how good humans are at making joy and luxury in the most remote of places.
The simple truth is that if you’ve ever thought it’s possible to die of beauty, the mountains of Gifu are one of the places it could happen. Nothing isn’t exquisite. Your cup, your robe, your chopsticks. The path, the lanterns and each polished stone. The windows cut to bring the mountain into the room. The snow, the shrines. The blossom. Your racing OCD thoughts can’t get a toehold when you’re being pummelled with a place so exquisite that it’s clear a philosophy lies behind it all: that the secret to a calm mind is for everything to be absolutely gorgeous. That’s the principle that Japan seems based on.
My guilty secret is that, every time I travel, it’s in the covert hope that I can be disappointed. That I can fly away from it, thinking, “I don’t need to go there again. I will not miss this place. That place is done.”
But instead, every time my daughters make me travel – because they are still hungry for new things – I find this one thing: the world is unstoppably beautiful. The more you see of it, the hungrier you get for it. The more in love you feel with still being alive.
“We will have to come here again, won’t we?” Nancy says, leaning back in the pool – face lit by lanterns, steam swirling, eyes wide. “When you said, ‘If you’ve got a good imagination, there’s nothing you’d find in Japan you couldn’t replicate by going to Wagamama, then watching Howl’s Moving Castle,’ that was wrong, wasn’t it?”
Yeah. It was wrong. Sometimes, what you have to do is unspool some tundra, and let somewhere explode in your head.