I was sat in an internet cafe in Hokkaido when i last wrote but i’m now safely cocooned back near the throbbing mass of Tokyo after travelling back from the north and going back to work.
Hakodate had a load of old colonial buildings, grand old Russian churches and a former British Consulate which has since been converted into an over-priced tea room and a crap gift shop. This seemed quite apt as most old touristy buildings in the UK have an over-priced tea room and a crap gift shop. I’m hoping that’s what most of the Olympic Village will be next summer in London – just lots of cafes hawking tea and scones for five pounds and some William and Kate commemorative coasters and tea towels.
It hosed it down in Hakodate when i was there so i spent quite a bit of time ducking in and out of old buildings and churches trying not to look bored and found refuge in an expensive jazz coffee shop with lots of cats and waited for the sun to come out which it eventually did. The most famous thing in Hakodate is the view of Hakodate from the little mountain which pokes into the sky at the southern end of the city. A quick cable car to the top reveals the sprawl below and all of sudden it looks nothing like an old colonial city but like a luminous modern Japanese hub glowing in the night time.
From Hakodate i headed back south on more local trains and met a couple of students who had the same cheap ticket as me. We chatted for a few hours as best we could and they drew pictures of my face and told me that i “look like Harry Potter”. Later that day i arrived in Akita, found a cheap hotel and paid for two nights. I should probably have stayed for two hours.
Akita is empty. There’s nothing actually there. The streets are dead. There are no shops. There are no offices. There are no restaurants. Just block after block of bland buildings. Then after a while you realise that everything is inside. Akita is actually an indoor city. All the stuff you need is encased in department stores and shopping centres leaving you with the feeling that an entire city is inside out/outside in and as a consequence it had the feel and atmosphere of, well, a bland shopping centre. The only outdoor place that enabled you to feel alive was the park and castle which were empty as everybody was escaping the heat by heading to the air-conditioned bliss of, of course, department stores and shopping centres. Akita is rubbish.
Last Sunday afternoon i got another handful of slow trains back to Tokyo half filled with people gently dozing and falling asleep as if they were spending their Sunday afternoons not sat on a train cutting a track through gentle green landscapes but instead sat on their sofas at home failing to stay awake as a movie plays idly on the TV. It was a nice reminder that it’s very easy to get caught up in the hype and hustle of the capital and the cities that surround it. Everybody is in a rush, on the train, on the phone, at work, at home, with friends, in a bar, nurse a hangover, rinse and repeat every week. But there are large parts of this country that beat to a different rhythm. People here sometimes tell me that it’s a small country (i guess it is when you look at a map and compare it to China right next door) but there’s so much depth to the place. You could spend forever swimming through the history, food, drinks, art, literature, mountains, film, temples, parks, cities, beaches and, of course, shopping centres and department stores and still feel like you’d not seen enough. A week with a cheap train ticket barely scratched the surface.