In Japan – part 1

In Japan – part 1

Shikoku was the name of our dog, and I loved her with childish passion. We kept one of her many puppies, a floppy-eared male we named Uji. Dotted around the house were images and artefacts from Japan, tiny, exquisitely painted bowls, ethereal paintings of blossoms and mountains. Framed photographs of our parents, youthful and unrecognisable against a backdrop of pagodas, temples and buddhas. My mother holding Shikoku, a ball of white fluff, and behind her a house with a gracefully curving roof and windows that seemed to be made of paper.

My parents were married in Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, an Indian captain in the British India Division and an adventurous FANY who had served in the Land Army and seized the chance to go overseas as the war ended. They met on a troop ship, and married boldly a few months later. And finally, some seventy years later, I made the trip to Japan, just another tourist spirited across the world in a modern airline, arriving jet lagged and grumpy to the comfortable embrace of a friend’s home in suburban Tokyo. But I carried with me those images impressed upon me throughout my childhood. A handful of old photographs were a talisman for my travels as I followed in the footsteps of my parents, railpass in hand and armed with a smattering of elementary Japanese.

My reading of Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, had warned me that old Japan would be hard to find, that the swooping roofs and sliding screens of traditional dwellings had been replaced by a sea of mismatched cubes surrounded by a jumble or overhead wires. Tokyo seemed to confirm that view, with its endless sprawl of high-rise buildings, train tracks and motorways rimmed by strangely cropped gingko trees. I found it hard to make any sense of this vast modern metropolis. In a blur of jetlag, I allowed myself to be swept through temples, shrines, gardens and shopping districts, the seething crowds of Japan’s Golden Week holiday pressing around me. Only in the great fishmarket of Tsukiji did I finally begin to get a sense of what made this culture so distinctive. There, amidst the frenetic bustle of daily commerce, I watched as modern-day samurai wielded meter-long curved blades to slice through gargantuan sides of tuna with absolute precision, wiping hands and blades as they worked, sluicing down surfaces and forearms with cloths dipped repeatedly in vats of water. “If it smells of fish, don’t eat it!” was the advice given to me later by a chef, words of wisdom that were not difficult to heed in that odourless bustle. Precision, immaculate presentation, and an absolute adherence to a rigorous standard of cleanliness were everywhere apparent.

Japan is like nowhere else, in every respect. Alex Kerr compares it to a hapax, a Chinese character that is found only in one instance. However much you study it or try to understand it, you will never really know what it means, as there is nothing to compare it with. It stands on its own. From the impenetrable writing system, to its extraordinary food, its crowded cities all packed together in a plane that stretches between the mountains and the sea and its amazing bullet trains, everything about Japan is remarkable and unexpected. I’m a language fanatic and whenever I visit a new country, I try to crack something of the language, but I had to admit defeat with written Japanese. First there are Hiragana and Katakana, the two alphabetic systems with their dizzying multiplicity of strokes and diacritics, and then there are the Kanji, thousands of characters borrowed from Chinese, a system of elegant, compact line drawings each representing a concept and not connected to sounds at all. It was only when I found a manual generously setting out the fundamentals of the language in Romaji, a romanized system of phonetic transcription, that I was able to make any headway at all. I took with me some of the photos from my parents’ old albums, those small black and white images of their courtship and honeymoon in places I hoped to be able to identify. Pointing at the photos, I managed to use my rudimentary skills to make it clear that these were my parents, in Japan all those years ago, and set off to follow in their footsteps: to Kyoto, Uji, Nara and to Kobe to the mosque where they were married. And finally to Hiroshima, the devastated city they had seen in the days when the grim details of its fate were still kept a secret from the outside world.

The hapax revealed itself to be a very modern place where everything works. To me, more used to the anarchy of London, it seemed a conformist society where people behave with great restraint – at least in public. No drunken ladettes here, no loud yobbish behaviour. No litter anywhere and no pick-pocketing or mugging. There must be crime and poverty, but I saw no sign of it. I saw only a homogeneous society where everyone is Japanese and speaks Japanese. It couldn’t be more different from Europe or America with their immigrant communities and array of peoples from all over the world. This is Japan, and the Japanese way of life is the only game in town. Beautiful clothes, an extraordinary variety of mysterious foods all presented with absolute care and elegance. Sushi, noodles, tempura, weird vegetables, fish of all descriptions and strange confectionary, none of it particularly sweet, and Japan’s own version of cuisines from all over the world, all absorbed and presented in a distinctively Japanese manner.

People behave with great restraint, are always extremely polite, bowing and smiling courteously, especially in hotels and restaurants. The trains are impressive, always on time, usually crowded, perfectly clean. Stations are huge, busy, crowded, well-organised and signposted. Everywhere I went, on the Tokyo metro, on buses and local trains, on the whimsically named Romance Car to the shadow of Mount Fuji, and most of all the bullet trains with their sleek white silhouette and long blunt snout, I found the same immaculate precision and courteousness. You form a line on the platform to board the train at precisely the right spot for your reserved seat. Everything works, everything is clean, everyone is polite.

And then there are the toilets. Heated seats, a control bar mounted on the wall at the side or attached to the throne itself, with a choice of added features. In upmarket hotels, public loos in the park, the ladies room in temples and noodle bars alike, and of course on the trains, I found always the same hygienic odourless splendour, the control displays illustrated with helpful line drawings to supplement the instructions: rear cleansing, front cleansing, deodorizing and sometimes a musical option to add to the sensory delights on offer. And, for the mother with her children in tow, no need to hang on to a wandering toddler with one hand while attending to her own needs, there is a small high chair, with harness, attached to the wall.

My travels took me to the mountains of Hakone where a sighting of Fuji San on a cloudless day, the great white cone floating in a flawless azure sky, fulfilled the promise of all those images imprinted on the mind from countless reproductions. Hot-spring baths, bowing hotel staff dressed in kimonos, tatami matting, meals that lasted for hours and consisted of innumerable small bites of mysterious delights, this surely was the Japan I’d been hoping to find. And then on to Kyoto arriving by bullet train amid throngs of people to be delivered to Japan’s ancient capital, a city left relatively unscathed by the destruction wreaked upon most of Japan’s cities during the war. More temples, shrines, castles, exquisite art works, buses, and wide straight roads set out on a grid, a sea of umbrellas and always, throngs of people. Learning to negotiate buses and local trains, I headed to Uji, Nara and Kobe to find what was left of the places where my parents had married and spent their honeymoon.

Kobe, like so many of Japan’s cities, has suffered destruction from earthquake and fire more than once. In 1946, all that remained standing after the bombing raids and fires was the stone-built mosque, the first mosque in Japan, where the Turkish imam welcomed my parents and married them, the mosque crowded with well-wishers and curious on-lookers. The old family photographs show my mother, legs and arms bare, her head uncovered, standing proudly on the arm of her uniformed beloved, solemnly facing the imam, and later on the steps of the mosque, smiling to the camera surrounded by beaming women and children. Flowery shirt waister frocks, 1940s hairstyles rolled and curled, children in dungarees and baseball caps and a Japanese women staring quizzically down into the camera, a basket on one arm, a paper parasol in the other. The modern imam greets me and seems interested in the photos but I must go upstairs with the women until the men have all finished praying. The mosque looks much as it did all those years ago, but the city around has grown up once again and the building is now hidden in a sea of wires and earth-quake proof structures, the worshippers dressed in Islamic style, heads covered, arms and legs hidden from view. Children play on the steps, chatting in Japanese and Urdu. Around the corner from the mosque, tourists wander among the boutiques and restaurants of Kitano, Kobe’s western enclave, once the home of foreigners, now a strangely Disneyesque cluster of ersatz French bistros and English tea shops in the shadow of the mountains that frame the city.


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