The pleasure and pain of Japan

Image of Tyler Brûlé

It’s been a good week to be in Japan. A little growth (if temporary) in the economy, a high pressure system hanging over Tokyo that’s kept the weather sunny and crisp, the start of the Christmas shopping season and a few days of rest have all added up to an almost enjoyable five days. The city seemed to be in a sparkly mood with festive lights being switched on and considerable attention being given to the state visit by the King of Bhutan and his fetching wife Jetsun.

A whole morning’s news programme was devoted to the Dragon Queen’s shopping expedition around Ginza. In typical Japanese TV fashion, the graphics department of one particular network had been kept busy with their glue and paints making graphic boards (for some reason Japanese TV presenters still like a bit of board and a pointer to get their message across) displaying the temperatures of Bhutan and relating them to the queen’s purchases.

I was able to decipher that she’d made a trip to Uniqlo to buy some thermal underwear and a down jacket. The channel’s meteorology department concluded that these were wise purchases for a monarch who lives at high altitude.

Uniqlo has served as a good example for others in Japan, that a retailer of fashion basics sold at affordable prices can not only establish itself in distant markets but also thrive, all without losing its Japanese-ness.

Armed with a strong yen, many Japanese companies have been on a spending spree, snatching up international brands across a range of sectors and now there are signs that more companies are willing to take their businesses abroad rather than relying on a shrinking domestic market of 120m fussy consumers.

While not the easiest concept to replicate overseas, many of the elements that define the Japanese ryokan (traditional country inn) are ripe for export. On Tuesday afternoon I ventured up to the Hoshinoya near Karuizawa (a little over an hour from Tokyo by rail) for a day of sleep, good food, excellent drinks and bathing.

Because of the position of the villa, there was the added bonus of poor mobile reception so it also turned out to be a BlackBerry-free day and night as well. It’s now become something of a late-autumn and early-spring ritual to venture off to various ryokans for a one-night stay and mental re-charge. It helps that Japan has the infrastructure (good rail and bus links) to make such escapes so easy but what’s more attractive is the lack of preparation involved for a visit and the lack of choice when you get there. I packed for my one-night trip, then found myself removing things from my tote as pretty much everything is provided at most good ryokans, right down to sleepwear and a toothbrush. All I needed to take was underwear, socks, a shirt and a couple of things to read.

On arrival there was a plan to go for a soak in one of the bathing houses but the futon on its raised platform was so tempting that it demanded I try it out for a proper, “take your clothes off, don’t set the alarm” three-hour nap.

There’s something quite decadent about a late-afternoon nap on a workday but to enjoy it without being tethered to WiFi or a mobile device is my definition of a luxurious experience.

One of the other small luxuries of ryokan life is the total lack of choice when it comes to dining. While I’m not always up for an elaborate 17 course kaiseki dinner, I’m nevertheless thrilled that someone’s done the thinking for me and I can just enjoy what’s set before me.

On this particular evening, however, we opted to leave the property for a quick dinner and I was happily tucked-up under the duvet two hours later. After eight hours in bed, it was off to one of the bathing pavilions for a morning’s scrub and then an hour soaking in various rooms – in total silence. After a hearty breakfast it was off to the station for the train back to Tokyo and 80 minutes later I was back where I started. In less than 22 hours I felt like I’d enjoyed the equivalent of a long weekend and was completely relaxed and ready for the final dash to the holidays.

I was about to hit the streets and soak up the wackiness of Japan’s take on Christmas when I suddenly felt a sharp pain on the lower right side of my abdomen.

For a moment I thought it was a cramp from running but when it didn’t go away after 30 minutes and became more acute I shuffled slowly to the bed and knew that I was about to embark on the ordeal of passing a kidney stone.

Having been through this several times before (yes, I should drink more water) I’ve established there’s a relationship between extreme states of relaxation and renal colic. Japan’s culture of fine innkeeping can work wonders in 24 hours; sadly it doesn’t offer a cure for its less comfortable side-effects.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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