Things Are Easy When You're Big In Japan
As a teenager in 1980s west London, I grew up with an awed longing for the twin behemoths of global cool, America and Japan. England was grey and dreary, everything was “post”. Post-industrial, post-war, post-punk. Acid House, Oasis and (sorry) The Spice Girls would finally give us the confidence to be proud of ourselves a decade or more later – but back then our inheritance expressed itself in the introspective gloom of The Cure, The Smiths and Joy Division.
When I finished up at school in 1985, I blagged jobs in the States and Hong Kong (tales for other columns), eventually saving enough money to get myself to Tokyo, then with the reputation as the most expensive city in the world. My only real preparation for the sensory overload of Japan’s capital was Bladerunner (1982), a movie I had watched on a loop until the VHS tape wore out. Although notionally set in the dystopian future Los Angeles of 2019, like the rest of us at the time, its creator, Ridley Scott, assumed Japanese culture would by then have subsumed American life.
I stayed with a school-friend who was working out there and had a Japanese girlfriend. Thrillingly, she had a friend, and the four of us got in a cab on my first night and drove what seemed a preposterously long way to a large apartment block in a quiet residential area. Walking into a dimly lit unmanned lobby, we took the lift to the 17th floor, where the doors opened directly into total mayhem. A triple-height, post-apocalyptic scene, packed with kids in performative fashion. Around the outer edge of the club were a series of caves, with deep sand on the floor. Removing shoes, you crawled in, and the rough stone walls were embedded with tiny video screens (then totally unknown as a technology in the west) showing the most violent bits from Japanese horror movies. The music was an assault, totally alien. The people were beyond cool, beyond beautiful. Nowhere since has come close to that club experience. In fact, that place – and I don’t think I ever even found out its name – ruined nightclubbing for me forever.
Cut to 2023 and I am back in Japan, on a ski-trip in the northern island of Hokkaido, which lies parallel to Vladivostok in Siberia. In winter, a brutal northerly wind comes sweeping down from Kamchatka, hits the relative warmth of the Pacific Ocean and dumps snow in ridiculous quantities there. Skiing in Japan is the worst kept secret in extreme sports. For those of us who are addicted to deep powder snow, the conditions are spectacular. You don’t go for sun; it snows all the time. There are no pine trees, only fine wintery birch that gives the landscape a hairy feel. Like everything in Japan, it is other, different and wondrous to the western sensibility. Maybe once a day at best, the clouds lift for a moment and you realise you are skiing on a chain of perfect Fuji-like volcanoes.
After skiing, one repairs to an onsen, often beautifully designed mountain bath com
plexes powered by natural hot springs. For the first time since school, I wondered around from hot-pool to ice-plunge 100% naked in (male) company. Not being a regular reader of H&E Monthly, I found it initially daunting, but then curiously liberating. The baths themselves engender one of the great natural highs. You pay to get in, so I think this can be classified as an elevated hospitality experience, certainly one of the better ones of my life.
I won’t tell you about the specifics of the ramen bars and extraordinary restaurants. They were brilliant, but you can find similar in London. The standard of hospitality is spectacular, each new guest being greeted with shouts of welcome, and the efficiency and humble friendliness is a lesson to us all. There is a strange and counter-intuitive disconnect between a nation that is clearly brilliant at automation and productivity but equally comfortable with creating millions of non-jobs. Japan permits almost zero immigration, and its government pays (Japanese) workers to sit on folding chairs by junctions recording traffic patterns all day, all night, in all weathers. For a country with a reputation for technology innovation, the speed and consistency of mobile broadband is woeful, and most companies’ websites look like they have been designed by Borat.
Two peak food moments will live long in the memory. An entire column could be written (and has) about the phenomenon of the ubiquitous Japanese convenience store (Google it). But the egg sandwich in Lawsons, one such chain, available for the princely sum of £1.35, is quite simply a perfection of simplicity, indulgence and deliciousness. Thank you to Paul McKenna, of Red Branch Hospitality, for putting me on to that!
At the other end of the spectrum, after the ski-week we did a bit of touring on the main island of Honshu and found ourselves staying at Ichijoin, a Buddhist temple in the mountain sanctuary-town of Koya. A surprising combination of hyper-simplicity and extreme luxury, and still owned by the family that founded it in the year 700, this is definitely one of the most impactful places I have ever stayed in. Ichijoin only serves vegetarian food, and the two meals we ate there were each 15-plus small plates and almost entirely made up of ingenious interpretations of the soy bean. A very large penny dropped – the artful preparation of the soy bean might be a solution to the whole vegan/vegetarian conundrum, yet we see little of any quality in the UK. Dishes ranged from a hearty miso and soy bean stew (literally as rich and unctuous as any boeuf bourgignon) to a fresh, creamy tofu that was indistinguishable from burrata.
There are a thousand-and-one extraordinary hospitality experiences to be had in Japan. My first trip was during peak-Japan, in the 1980s, when the narrative was that they were taking over the world. Since then, decades of economic stagnation have caused the country to turn inwards and create ever more decadent and extreme versions of its own already alien culture. There is little effort to make it easy for the foreigner (thank goodness for Google Translate). All of this makes for a deep, visceral experience. And – as per the Lawsons egg sandwich – it isn’t even that expensive any more.