Gosh, it has been a long time between drinks. I can only offer a pretty useless excuse for my radio silence: a stunned-mullet, despondent contemplation of my navel as recent events have seemed to defy political gravity and logic. Did Britain really vote to leave the EU? Is Donald Trump truly the Republican presidential nominee? Is Jeremy Corbyn actually leader of the Labour Party?
If you had had an accumulator bet on all three of these scenarios as recently as eighteen months ago, you would surely have enjoyed quite a juicy payout on a relatively modest stake. When reality is this crazy, who needs satire?
Well, I have an opportunity to take a closer look at two of the above three phenomena, because I am back in Blighty – land of my birth – for a prolonged stay of three months. The main purpose is to spend quality time with family who are not getting younger or, sadly, healthier: the price one has to pay for deciding to live as remotely as is possible from ‘home’.
Of course, it gives me ample opportunity to test the water of Brexit Britain. Is there a vibe of confidence, despair, trepidation or all three? What on earth is going on in a country where both main parties seem determined to row as furiously as possible away from the centre ground: one back to a 1950s utopia of grammar schools and protectionism, the other to a more 1970s-stylee world of closed shops and nuclear disarmament.
Anyway, en route to Airstrip One, we decided to break up the horror of long haul flying with a delightful five day stopover in Tokyo. I couldn’t recommend this city more.
It is as clean, efficient and modern as one would expect from the Japanese, and yet there are hidden, twisting alleys away from the gigantic malls and Blade Runner-esque neon signage serving homely, delicious yakitori street food. There are other contradictions: the preponderance of space age toilets with electronic seat warmers and built in bidets jars with a puzzlingly old school cash-reliant economy – frustrating for the traveller hoping to rely on his trusty Visa.
The lack of English among many locals, even in hospitality, is a minor hindrance but a reminder of Japan’s splendid isolation, although it is compensated for by a uniquely attentive politeness. And for all the business-like efficiency that permeates this megalopolis, there is an endearing charm and sense of fun. The Studio Ghibli Museum, a shrine to the beautiful anime of Hayao Miyazaki, is worth fighting tooth and nail to get tickets for (it is absurdly difficult to source them online, so mahoosive thanks must go to the concierge of the Tokyo Station Hotel for procuring them – simply one of the best hotels I have ever had the fortune to stay in).
Even Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea exceeded my somewhat cynical expectations, with astonishing parades and firework displays to complement the absurdly popular rides. Word to the wise: you need to spend time working out how best to utilise the slightly Byzantine fastpass system in advance. You always need a plan in Tokyo.
But the highlight, without question, was the Onsen Oedo Monogatari in Odaiba. The Japanese onsen is so much more than a thermal springs spa, as their more humble New Zealand counterparts tend to be described. It is a whole complex offering much more than just natural hot springs: within the walls are sushi restaurants, sake bars, kids activities and a range of massage options. Indeed, the best way to describe an onsen is to say it is the very antithesis of a gym, with absolutely nobody doing any exercise, and long may that continue. Every aspect is geared towards different ways of relaxing. Even the quiet room was a sort of gym parody, with an array of TVs for patrons to watch, but only electric massage chairs to sit in instead of those wretched cross-trainers.
Think on, people. When a culture as workaholic as the Japanese invests so much time in the pleasures of studied relaxation, perhaps we need to reconsider the wisdom of dealing with a long day at the office by pounding a treadmill into submission. Even the insistence on nudity and gender-segregated bathing areas was liberating, once I had put aside my Western awkwardness.
Five days barely scratched the surface of Tokyo, let alone the delights of the rest of Japan, but we will return. Next up: Skipton, North Yorkshire: “Gateway to the Dales”. Sheesh…