steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

A Voyage to Japan - 2nd-3rd April

There is a definite "trail" that visitors to Hakone follow, and so in the morning (after breakfast and my first encounter with the notorious natto – a surprisingly bland food, as it turns out, though messy to eat with its sticky spider filaments) I followed it, leaving the ryokan and reboarding the little mountain train. It took me to the top of the line, with several switchback turns along the way as it followed the mountain's folds. Then it was on to the cable railway, which continued where ordinary trains ran out of puff; and finally to a ropeway that lifted tourists up over the volcanic valley of Owakudani. On a clear day this journey apparently offers fabulous views of Mount Fuji, though the only thing visible to me were other cars floating through the low cloud:

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Gondalas in the Mist

I found myself sitting next to a group of three young women and asked them to take my picture, after which I made small talk about the weather, and wondered aloud in which direction Mount Fuji might be if only one could see it. They smiled, and from their friendly faces (clear of any trace of derision or suppressed impulse to correct my grammar) I inferred that my Japanese must be improving. However, as soon as they started talking to each other it became evident that they were actually Chinese. Of such small humiliations is the would-be Japanese speaker's life compact.

On the far side of the mountain lies Lake Ashinoko, where there are boat trips to the small lakeside towns of Hakone. The ships are styled pirate ships, the pirates in question being European rather than homegrown. I think the last time I was close to a figure like this was in Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight:

2007-04-01 08.39.20

If you are acquainted with katakana you will see that this ship is no pirate vessel but actually has the far more respectable name of "Victory" – though she looks rather different from her Portsmouth namesake:

The Victory

As so often in Japan, the jumbling together of the sacred and profane is particularly striking, as in this sight of floating torii hard by a flock of swan pedaloes, a little further down the lake. (An even better example was a little shrine I found just off a cheap souvenir mall in Kyoto a couple of days later, where a coin-operated kami had been installed just one pace from the spot where prayers are offered. Churches too are of course replete with moneymaking operations, but the Wind-Up Jesus is a trick they've so far missed.)

Torii in Lake Ashinoko

I had not realized till I reached Hakone, by the way, that it was the setting for Neon Genesis Evangelion (did you know that, ashkitty?). I must get my copy back from my daughter's friend and watch again, looking for landmarks. Anyway, I had no time to linger longer – there was a shinkansen to catch. So, having bought a himitsu box (a speciality of the region, and a perfect gift for the compartmentalizer in your life) I took a bus back down the mountain to Odawara, and on to Kyoto, where I arrived late in the afternoon.

I already knew that Kyoto is basically a flat city on a flood plain edged with hills, but I didn't know (or had forgotten) that it's laid out on a grid pattern, with numbered streets – something I associate so strongly with Manhattan that it kept surprising me for the two days I was there. Has it always been thus, or is it a relatively recent innovation?

I decided to spend the next day in central Kyoto, taking in a few of the grander places of worship: the Buddhist temple of Chion-in, and the great shrines of Yasuka and the Heian Shrine – all big complexes. This is just the gatehouse for Chion-in, for example, where I arrived first:

2007-04-02 08.48.32

I walked inside, surrendering my shoes to a carrier bag, and watched the monks hold a service. It was very different from what I would have imagined. The incense I expected, but beyond that I thought there would be austerity and silence, or chanting at most, but in fact there were gold, gorgeous vestments, altars, and much banging on bells and gourds at points that clearly had a set timing and significance within their liturgy. Altogether it was far more reminiscent a Catholic service than of the meditative quiet of a Quaker meeting. That said, the incense reminded me strongly of my father, who was fond of lighting it round his house, Quaker though he was…

… by way of which I remembered a childish comment my brother had made when young, which my father jotted in the notebook he reserved for such remarks. Looking at Canon Norris, then vicar of Romsey, wearing a rather splendid cope, my brother had said to our grandmother, "Nana, I know the man inside that!" God couldn't have put it better…

… by way of which I thought of my quite recent phase of saying to my daughter, in a slightly-too-loud childish falsetto, about random people we happened to see, "There's a skeleton inside that lady!" (She found it amusing, but you probably had to be there.)…

… Sorry, was I drifting? That tends to happen to me in services.

Once the monks had withdrawn I padded on over the tatami mats in the hall to enjoy the inner temple garden. (Note the falling petals.)

Falling petals

As I walked it began to drizzle, and the first cherry blossoms fell onto my umbrella in a way that – sensitized as I was beginning to be to the aesthetics of sakura – struck me as rather pleasing.

Cherry blossom on umbrella

Now, however, I was presented with a quandary. To get out of the temple, I had to walk back through the tatami hall where the service had been held; but my umbrella was wet and I couldn't imagine that its dripping onto the tatami would be well received by the gorgeously arrayed monks. I pondered this problem while standing alone on a wall surrounding a small courtyard. There it occurred to me that I might have a plastic bag in my tote bag that I could put the umbrella in for a couple of minutes. Unfortunately I fumbled, and the tote bag fell from my grasp into the courtyard six feet below.

It was too far down to reach, nor did I have anything I could hook it back up with. On the other hand, a few feet away there was a wooden staircase leading down to the courtyard, by which means it would be easy to fetch. The only trouble was, the stairs were just beyond a notice that said, in many languages, "No Entry".

There was no one about to ask for help. On the other hand, there was no one to stop me helping myself.

Tote bag on wet sand.
Shall I come? Silence forbids,
And also urges.

In the end the urging won out, and I nipped down the stairs and across the wet (and I fear monastically raked) sand to fetch my bag. This I take it was the Buddha's second little joke at my expense about letting go of one's baggage, after the KLM mishap. When I turned around, of course a man in overalls had been precipitated at the top of the stairs, and he looked at me with justifiable disapproval as I "gomen"ed my way back to the profane world.

Some of these shrines and temples are very old – but they also look pretty new, because they've been restored and rebuilt over the centuries, being made of relatively temporary materials such as wood. In the bits of Japan I've seen, at least, there are few buildings made of stone or brick, which may reflect the availability of materials but also (and perhaps consequentially) a different attitude towards age itself from that common in the West. As a child I went to primary school in the shadow of an 800-year-old abbey and had a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old hill fort as my weekend playground, so I suppose I'm quite difficult to wow with antiquity in itself, but like a lot of people I get a frisson from looking at a building or an object and thinking about the hands and eyes of previous generations that must have touched it. Of course, that's also something one can do in Japan – but age here seems to be more about continuity than durability. It's taken for granted that things will need to be renewed from time to time. I recently heard about an "ancient" bridge that is deliberately destroyed every forty years or so and then rebuilt, so that the traditional construction skills can be passed from one generation to the next. It's an old bridge nevertheless, because this has been happening a long, long time. In Japan, I doubt whether the paradox of Theseus's Ship would be regarded as a paradox at all: if there is a secure provenance linking each step in its development, then of course it is the same ship.

Conversely, I wonder whether Japanese culture finds the same value in the historical fissures and gaps that enthral and intrigue Westerners. Half the appeal of Stonehenge must come from our not knowing who made it or why – but perhaps in Japan these would make it less interesting, not more? I don't know, of course.

I won't clutter this journal with more pictures of the Yasuka and Heian shrines, which I also visited in the rain, but for anyone interested these (and more) can be found on on my Flickr page. Both were impressive, but the highlight of my afternoon came when I was standing amongst the stalls that cluster around the Yasuka shrine, which is in the middle of a park. One of the stalls turned out to be a haunted house – a Japanese institution I'd long been curious about. So I paid, and found that just in front of me two Japanese girls – maybe 12 or 13? – were calling "Isshoni!" (i.e. "Together!") and beckoning me to join them. Not because they particularly liked the cut of my jib, of course, but because they wanted adult company as they ventured into the scary interior. They clung to my arm throughout, much as Hazumu did to Tomari in the test-of-courage episode of Kashimashi, and barely looked at the horrors on display, but made up for that omission by doing a lot of screaming. I yelped myself a few times, not so much at the strange noises and mechanical monsters (which were much as one finds in a ghost train in the UK) but because there were several real people in there too, dressed in ghostly masks, paid to leap out to scare and even chase customers down the tarpaulin corridors. We survived, however, and (of course) had our picture taken in front of the house to prove as much, before we said our yoroshikus and went on our way. That was fun. Though if I'd known what was coming, I think I might have been calling "Isshoni!" too.

Survivors of the ghost house

I'll probably do a separate post about food at some point, but let me just pay brief tribute to my meal that evening, which was at an okonomiyaki place recommended in my guide book, down by the river. As you may remember, I've been fascinated by okonomiyaki ever since I saw Cardcaptor Sakura and Kero get so excited at the prospect of making one, way back:

Sakura and Okonomiyaki

And of course I've had a go myself, with passable but hardly inspiring results. This place didn't make the same kind I'd been attempting, but they were so pretty in preparation and so delicious in consummation, with ginger and chilli and general yumminess, that I think it made for my favourite meal of the whole trip. Thank you, Issen Youshoku!

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I must admit that I was a slight sceptic about cherry blossom viewing to begin with. It's true that cherry is very pretty: I love the way its pink flowers frost to ice with distance, or show more warmly in certain through-lights and under-lights. I can see the aesthetic and even spiritual appeal of its ephemerality. But – well, we have the same trees in England too, and they do much the same thing here.

By degrees I've changed, though. The next stage was to think – well, it's a nice tradition, and I'm all for observing the natural world; but I'm more interested in watching the Japanese watching the cherry blossom than in the blossom directly. Even in the rain in a Kyoto park there were hundreds of people doing just that. And again, at night, here in the lanes behind the hostess clubs where the geishas ooze their charms. So I took photos of people taking photos.

Sakura at night

And then somehow the enthusiasm and excitement were infectious, and I began to feel something of enchantment of the flowers themselves, until I was snapping almost as feverishly as the rest. Here are some samples from my spring collection:

Sakura collection 2

Sakura Collection 3

Sakura collection 4

Sakura collection 5

One of the many subterranean links between Japan and England is that both are countries where people wear socks and sandals without shame. True, in England the people who do this tend to be members of CAMRA while in Japan they are affecting archaic court dress (though let it be recorded that Madoka's teacher also wears them in her first scene). Anyway, the traditional Japanese sock (as bought by me near the Heian shrine and modelled below with the assistance of Ms Miki) has a separate toe, taking the principle a step further and allowing the wearing not of court clogs only but of flip-flops also.

Wafu socks

Look out, summer, here I come!
Tags: nippon notes, voyage to japan
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