It fascinates me how one can immediately like a place, whether it’s a city or a whole country. I suppose the same goes for the opposite, disliking somewhere for no logical reason. It’s something you feel in your gut, an emotional response, and it’s happened to me in cities, like Chicago, which I loved within hours of arriving, and in whole countries, like France and Italy, which make me smile the moment I’ve arrived. It’s like walking into a room and feeling that it’s a lovely space. It’s what I felt when I travelled in Japan in 2014 and it’s what I felt more strongly when I was there again a few weeks ago. I am now officially in love with Japan. And yet why do I feel so at home there when it is, frankly, such an odd and unusual place? Well, let me count the ways…
The main reason for this trip was to see autumn colour. The Japanese take the season very seriously and the hillside temple compounds of Koyasan, not far from Osaka, were ablaze with maples in flaming red, orange and yellow. There are Japanese websites that will tell you which place has the best autumn colour on that particular day and they’ll even direct you to the exact trees that are putting on the best show. Shop displays and even the sides of buses are decorated with maple leaf designs. It’s sort of naff but sort of wonderful, too, because any country that loves trees has got to have something going for it.
If ever a country makes me hanker to live in a more temperate climate again then Japan does. Tranquil gardens with remarkable rocks, trickling streams and damp, mossy pathways dotted with pagoda lamps seem to call out to the moisture-content of my body. It was truly the season of mellow fruitfulness, making it a reflective paradise compelling to any writer. Of course, the effortless gardens filled with all their subtle contrasts – soft moss, rough cobbles, clipped camellias, scented cedars – are anything but effortless, often trimmed and raked to within an inch of their life. In Takamatsu I watched a couple of gardeners sweep the water of a garden’s shallow waterway, disturbing any algae that had formed among the stones. And everywhere I saw men up ladders, clipping unruly branches from the pine or yew trees or tying them down so that they would have the perfect lateral shape. It’s called cloud pruning and, while it goes against my belief that nature is best when allowed to do what it wants, it’s hard not to be seduced by that search for perfection. I even began to admire bonsai trees.
At Koyasan, with its famous temples, we wandered at night through a lofty cedar forest in which hundreds of stone tombs mark the dead. With owls hooting, and soft light from the stone lanterns along the path, it was the perfect example of what Japan does so well – the fusion of mother nature with mankind. Haunting, certainly.
Japanese cities are not exactly beautiful. Many cities were flattened by bombs during the Second World War or their fragile streets of wooden buildings destroyed by fire. Most of them now sprawl outwards with long main boulevards that lead to some distant focal point, often a temple or a castle. Running parallel to the main boulevards in the centre you’ll usually find covered shopping malls – brightly lit, garishly decorated, and home to every type of shop and plenty of restaurants. People cycle through them, just as they cycle along the pavements, somehow managing to miss pedestrians.
But among the generic modern stuff there are pearls, and often traditional ones. The temples for both the Buddhist and Shinto faiths are similar – a pagoda, a large main prayer hall, and a variety of outlying buildings scattered throughout a walled compound – but each is stunning. In Osaka, the huge Isshinji temple is famous for making a Buddha statue every ten years from the ashes of 20,000 cremations. The Buddha is displayed alongside the previous ones. I thought it was a brilliant idea and judging by the busyness of the place, so do an awful lot of people in Osaka. Most temples show an extraordinary use of wood, often left unpainted, which somehow makes them more powerful. One on the island of Miyajima made me think of C20th Brutalism the way its huge timber frame was so forcefully displayed – Brutalism, C17th-style, of course.
A visit to the so-called art islands of the Inland Sea was interesting for the contemporary buildings of architect Tadeo Ando, and others. On Naoshima, there are several museums, and many houses that have been transformed into galleries. Yayoi Kusama’s red pumpkin greets the ferry in the main village and a yellow one sits at the end of a pier near the chic Benesse Art Museum.
The Chichu Art Museum houses five of Monet’s Waterlilies as well as a couple of James Turrells and an astonishing Walter De Maria staircase space. Ando’s building itself, with concrete ramps and angular courtyards is also considered an artwork. But Naoshima felt a little too precious for me and I was glad we didn’t linger too long. On neighbouring Teshima, a single concrete structure by Ryue Nishizawa has large openings to the sky and holds a single artwork by Rei Naito called Matrix where the floor weeps tiny water droplets that roll around the polished floor like mercury. An absurdly affected guide had warned us in quiet, reverential tones not to touch the exhibits as they were so delicate, as though we might never have encountered an art gallery before. In this case, we couldn’t touch the water seeping through the floor. It felt too pretentious and yet I stayed there, among the water droplets, for an hour so something obviously engrossed me.
In Hiroshima I was eager to see two buildings – the shattered bank building that is such a potent symbol of the atom bomb that exploded four hundred metres above its dome in 1945 – and the Peace Park Memorial, built by the young Kenzo Tange in 1955 (an architect whose work I have previously written about, and adore). Sadly this long pavilion was covered by scaffolding as it underwent work to make it earthquake-proof but the spacious park itself, with its various monuments, including a cenotaph in which the names of all who were killed are inscribed, is very moving. There were hoards of roving school groups there, too. It’s only comparatively recently that there’s been acknowledgement that the bomb was used because of Japan’s active role in the war rather than a random attack by the USA. Despite the way Hiroshima seems to have rebuilt itself into a thriving and obviously prosperous city, with ospreys diving for fish in its river and a wonderfully sleek Incinerator Plant at the end of the island (yes, I did visit it), I couldn’t tear myself from the heaviness inspired by the Atomic Bomb Dome. It was lit at night and visible from my hotel bedroom, and I would sit and gaze at it, trying to imagine the unimaginable, that bright flash in the sky one August morning that ended the war in the most gruesome way. (Equally moving was the tall gingko tree in a Hiroshima park that was blown sideways by the bomb but survived, leaning precariously still, and whose seeds are still sent out into the world as powerful symbols of peace and resilience.)
The use of wood in Japan is famous, and a stay in a traditional inn gives you a chance to appreciate the fine joinery of cedar and pine, the delicacy of paper-filled sliding screens, with lantern light casting shadows on the beautifully-bound tatami mats.
In a country whose cities are so choked by people and yet can seem so tranquil once you step away from the main boulevards, where space is optimised in tiny houses that look basic and simple, there is beauty to be found in small things, like a simple tea cup, the elegant utensils in which food is served and the burnished or lacquered wood trays on which they are carried, the paper-wrapped tea caddies, and the thoughtful way gifts are wrapped (although wrapping is often over the top and very wasteful). Flowering plants and even water gardens planted in old washing up bowls often stand at the doorways of the humblest, scruffiest homes. The roofing technique of using shingles made of thin copper and the Japanese way of thatching, using splinters of cedar bark, and the precision of wooden screens that can be folded out of sight within a matter of minutes are one of the many pleasures to be found throughout this country.
In 2014 we spent a couple of nights in traditional ryokans and they were unforgettable experiences. So this time, we booked more Japanese-style rooms than Western. The grandest was the Iwaso on Miyajima island, a famous and beautiful old ryokan with spacious rooms overlooking a babbling stream. Dinner was served in our room and it was a lavish affair. At ryokans there are usually about ten courses comprising different dishes, some of which are cooked at the table – thin slices of marbled Kobe beef fried with enoki mushrooms, vegetables simmered in delicate dashi, the broth made from seaweed and mushrooms that has a gorgeous earthy pungency. Each dish tasted as good as it looked, the constant bringing of food making the meal last an hour and a half.
At the two temples we stayed at in Koyosan, where most of the many temples take in paying guests to help maintain their spectacular buildings, the food was served by monks in a common dining room (although there were screens between tables in one). Being Buddhist, the food was vegetarian and while the first temple was superficially smarter, the second’s offerings had more flavour. I love the miso soup and the variety of ways they do tofu, and there were potatoes and leafy greens poached in dashi, and rice if you wanted it. Everything is served with such panache, and you always feel satisfied at the end. (Although I confess we nipped to the nearby Lawsons to buy a chocolate Haagen-Daz afterwards.)
In Osaka and Hiroshima I fell in love with the okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake dish filled with cabbage, egg, slices of bacon and given a rich soy-sauce dressing, which is made in front of you (you sit at the counter in small but busy little restaurants). With a large glass of chilled Sapporo beer, it’s filling, nutritious and very satisfying. And in the izakaya, you sit at the bar in a noisy room and simply point at whatever food you want, rather like Japanese tapas. I was careful to avoid the more dubious-looking things like fish heads and offal but everything was bursting with flavour, from leafy greens sprinkled with roasted sesame to piles of steamed squid. You eat as much or as little as you please, and the feeling of bonhomie was extraordinary, especially in those places where no English was spoken and everything had to be mimed.
The old man sitting across from us on the country train travelling through Shikoku was wheezing rather loudly because he’d had to run. We exchanged a smile. I noticed how his grey hair was tied up in a topknot, so that he looked like a hipster, although I suspect that wasn’t his intention. “Country?” he asked, and made sure that I understood by patting himself on the chest and saying, “Japan.” I told him Australia and he seemed delighted. He then dipped into his carrier bag and handed a couple of mandarins to me, and another two to my partner. Oddly enough, I had been musing on the way my partner had just told me he was craving a mandarin. I live with someone who craves fruit? I was thinking, unable to think of anyone else I knew who craves fruit. But now I had two mandarins in my hand, I realised it was just what I wanted. I thanked the man profusely and we ate the fruit, much to his apparent delight. For the next ten minutes there was a two-way exchange of nods, smiles and appreciative noises, meaning the mandarins were delicious. At his stop, the old man reached over to give us half of what he had left. “No, no!” we cried but he was having none of it, and tossed the bag in my lap before hurrying from the carriage. He stood on the platform and waved to us as the train set off again.
A young woman now sat in his place and she, too, smiled at us. And then, with a sudden flourish, she produced two origami flowers which she presented to each of us. What on earth was going on with that seat? They were lovely little paper decorations, multi-coloured and intricately folded, and we thanked her, of course, while feeling rather surprised. She hadn’t a word of English but we mimed a conversation and I asked her if she had made them and she nodded and produced a tiny tube of glue to show how she stuck them. When it was her stop, she left with a wave and a smile.
The next person who took her seat didn’t give us anything. ‘Mean bastard,’ I whispered to Anthony.
We decided to buy food to eat in our hotel bedroom in Hiroshima on our last night as we had an early start in the morning. Japanese department stores are fascinating places to visit, with gorgeous displays of fine porcelain, beautiful fabrics and interesting cooking implements. (Daimaru is my favourite.) The basement food halls are brilliant. There is usually a supermarket-type part and the rest is taken up by concessions selling everything from French bread and elaborate cakes to special teas, a hundred different types of saké and various seaweed products. We bought two bento boxes – a pleasure to look at, a joy to eat, and ridiculously cheap for all their apparent work. I wanted something sweet as well and settled on a little jar of crème caramel that had apparently won prizes at a food festival. It cost about $4 and was so small I felt embarrassed just asking for one. The assistant, though, seemed delighted. What followed was classic Japan. First she lifted the tiny jar from the chilled display as carefully as if were a Tiffany diamond and then placed it in an attractively-printed cardboard box. She then tucked a chilled sachet around it to keep it cold for its journey to my hotel, and buttressed it with springy cardboard so that it wouldn’t topple over as I walked. The box was carefully sealed and then placed in a bag, the handles twined together so it’d be more comfortable to carry, and then she came out from behind the counter to present the bag to me with both hands. She then gave a deep bow. This was a $4 pudding! I was almost embarrassed by this show and probably over-smiled and over-thanked but really, it’s happened before. Anthony was watching from a distance and told me afterwards that the assistant bowed repeatedly as I walked off.
The same sort of thing happened at hotels. In one instance, the receptionist and the lovely woman who served us breakfast both came out on to the pavement, and bowed and then waved to us as we walked away. I looked back as we were about to turn the corner, some distance on, and they were still there, watching us go. The guard in the train turns and bows before he leaves the carriage; the checkout chick bows as she enters the store to start her shift; even the ground staff bow as your plane pulls back from the airport gate. Some might find that all a bit too much, too formal and rigid, almost a bit spooky, but it sums up the way the customer and work in general is shown huge respect. And while sticking to such rigid rules and protocols might become very wearing, and lacks the spontaneity of a heartfelt gesture, it certainly oils the wheels of society when everyone knows the rules.
There’s more, though. Whenever we dallied over a map or were obviously unsure of where to go, people would always stop to offer help. One couple, who had no English, walked us to the restaurant we were looking for. People move out of your way on the pavement or thank you when you move aside or open doors for them, and apologise if they get in your way when photographing. The politeness and generosity is infectious. In parks there were brushes to clean your shoes after walking on a dusty path. At station platforms and at bus shelters there were thin cushions to make the cold metal benches less chilly to sit on. To my mind that goes beyond mere rigid rules and duty and enters into the realm of pure empathy.
So it’s an extraordinary place, Japan. It has beautiful buildings, a fascinating culture, and a genuine friendliness. It’s no wonder that it is rapidly becoming one of the world’s top tourist destinations. For us – whether we were gazing at a sunset from a mountaintop temple or ambling through a magical forest or gawping at the beautiful products for sale in the food halls or laughing at the way Auld Lang Syne was booming out in the park around Himeji castle to signify it was closing for the day – there was only one question in our minds: when could we return? Someone told me about a friend who visits Japan each year simply for her mental wellbeing. After this trip, I’m thinking that’s a very good idea indeed.
What places did you connect with the first time you visited them?