September 8th, 2007

Japan 2

Sayonara Japan


We pretty much SLEPT through the typhoon, ladies and gentlemen, although we did individually wake up at some unearthly hour of the morning (like three or so) and peered out of the window, where it was looking pretty wild, to be sure. But it seems to have missed us, mostly, and made landfall somewhat to the east of us so that we only got the fringes. But I can now say that I have survived a typhoon. So there.

A couple of typhoon souvenirs - we found a local Japanese TV station on Thursday evening which pretty much solidly had typhoon coverage all night. We got to watch people being interviewed at JR stations which we recognised ("That's SHINJUKU!"; we got to watch scenes from the typhoon areas all over (with a little "live" in the corner of the screen, the only English word visible), we got to see the grounded Shinkansens lying in their berth, quiescent, like sleeping dragons; we got a complete kick out of the way that the entire newsroom anchor team, two men and two women, suddenly and in unison performed a perfect bow to the camera, almost touching their foreheads to the table. And then we decided that we might as well go to bed, and, well, like I said, we slept through most of it.

The following day we picked up our interrupted tour to Kyoto. We were picked up by a shuttle bus again and delivered to the Hammamosutcho bus depot in Tokyo where we were shuttled to various coaches which would take us to our destination.

We hit the jackpot with our guide. Tadashi-san conceived it his duty to ENTERTAIN us, during the long hours were were stuck in traffic still congested by post-typhoon accidents and snarls. He talked of everything, of daily life in Japan (prefacing every remark with a bright, "In Japan...[smile nod nod nod nod] or the entertaining, "According to the typhoon..."), gave us cheerful catastrophic projections of possible forthcoming disasters (Tokyo was overdue for a big earthquake, and we now know how many people would die in one; Fuju was way overdue for a major eruption...), he told tales of myth and legend, of history, he even made English puns. At some point in the trip he even hauled out paper and taught the entire bus origami. We had to make adjustments on the fly to account for closed roads and what have you so our itinerary was flexible - but first we stopped, after a long drive, for lunch in a hotel where I actually had to take a picture of the lunch setting, so much of a work of art was it, all black and red lacquerwork and food of unexpected colour or texture. Tadashi-san cheerfully promised chocolate ice cream for desert but instead we got a citrus sorbet so either the Japanese have a strange idea of what chocolate is or else the menu was as flexible as our itinerary.

We skipped out a lot of stuff, simply going straight from lunch to Stage 5 of Fuji, from whence ascent trails start up. This place is a Swiss village with a Shinto shrine. The wind was whipping up something fearsome, and we were running REALLY late, so the rest of the bus (carl_allery and I dissented, but were outvoted) decided to cut our time at the summit short and sped back down again to catch a little dinky boat to take us out on a small lake from which we had a stupendous clear view of Fuji. It was summer, of course, so no snow, no iconic Fuji that I was unconsciously expecting, the snow-capped emblem of Japan - and I was a little disappointed at that. But it was still there, still imposing, and we took an unholy amount of pictures. Tadashi-san said that it was really rare to see it so clear, that in the afternoons it was always veiled in cloud - but "according to the typhoon" the clouds had been blasted away and so we got a good clean look at it, and were privileged to do so.

On the way from the lake to the Odawara station, where we were to catch the Shinkansen train to Kyoto, we had the aforementioned origami demonstration, we were drilled in bullet train etiquette. The schedule, Tadashi-san said, runs to the *second*; bullet trains sometimes stop in a station for less than two minutes. We were warned and warned and warned not to dawdle anywhere, that bullet trains wait for no man. And we had to change - the older slower Shinkansen (Kodama)to Nagoya, and from there the really fast new superexpress (Nozomi)from Nagoya to Kyoto, where we arrived at some point after ten in the evening, tired and shagged out after a long day of sighstseeing and origami and tales of Shinto gods, and basically passed out in the room.

I am taking a break here, and "Sayonara Japan, part the second" will be done after I have my massage here in the Sakura lounge of JAL Business Class. More about that later, but man, this is the life...
Japan 2

Sayonara Japan, part the second

I bet you're all wanting to know about that massage, eh. Well, I'll get to that.

In the meantime, I give you...


We woke up in Kyoto bright and early, meandered down to breakfast, had same, and joined the throngs waiting for the tours for which the two young ladies of Sunrise Tours were handing out stickers at the tour desk. We were supposed to have two nights in Kyoto, one of which was kind of tour-ish, the other much more free-ranging at our own leisure, and we were also supposed to go and see Nara (where a substantial number of my flist appeared to have been bitten by a deer if too slow to unwrap a snack). However, the typhoon screwed all that up and we now had a single night in Kyoto (which we had now had) and we would have a full day of guided touring in Kyoto, and then we were to catch the Shinkansen (the fast one, again - we were scheduled to leave Kyoto at 18:26 and arrive in Tokyo at 20:45, which is pretty phenomenal...). Frankly, I grew to resent that typhoon mightily as enticing small lanes opened up the main road, lined with wonderful old houses, places where we might happily have wandered had we had time to try it. But no rest for the wicked, so we climbed onto the bus for the Morning Tour of Kyoto, and off we went.

The first stop was Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the Shogun's residence when in the city. We had to take our shoes off and then, barefoot or in stocking feet, followed our guide across a real live nightingale floor - and it truly does sing, people, not just squeak in an arbitrary manner like a loose board, it's a beautiful almost lulling sound and I was both astonished and delighted to have had this opportunity, which I had not known was part of the menu until this point. The castle is covered in paintings in the Japanese style, all peonies and dragons and herons and gnarled pines done on a background of gold leaf - astonishingly beautiful work, even after so many centuries, and they are exceedingly careful with its preservation, with shoji screens to the outside all closed and notices posted "do not open to preserve artwork". Some of the most jawdropping paintings were done by artists who were in their twenties when these were done, and they are masterworks. Along with the nightingale floor, we also learned the origin of the phrase "not my cup of tea" - when a local girl chosen for the Shogun's potential bedmate brought him his tea, he either said "This is my cup of tea" (which meant that she was accepted and was to present herself forthwith in the Shogun's private quarters) or "This is not my cup of tea", meaning that the Shogun was not interested. Huh. Live and learn. I always thought that that particular phrase was British, not ancient Japanese.

The garden behind the castle is quite magnificent, and the whole thing gives off an aura of brooding leashed power that is amazing - even after this many years as museum, it breathes a faint scent of ancient Japan. Oh, this was my cup of tea indeed. This was pretty heady stuff.

The day got hotter, and we piled back into the bus to go to another ex-Shogun residence, the so-called GOlden Pavilion, so-called because it is entirely upholstered in gold leaf. I kid you not. We got there just as the sun did, but it was worth the swelter just to see this thing GLOW in the sunlight. We got a history spiel about it, as always, with the information that the place was built by the then-Shogun as his retirement home, in three stories and three styles - the Imperial style (lowest floor, where he received Imperial messengers and suchlike), the Shogun style (a very plain second floor) and the Temple style for the top floor where the Shogun could practice his Buddhism. Of course, there is the small fact that the building CURRENTLY standing there is actually a 50-year-old replica - faithful in every way, including up to being covered with more than 700 000 000-yen's worth of gold leaf, but nonetheless a replica of the original which burned down when a Buddhist monk - and I quote the guide - "lost his mind" and set fire to it. Never mind. It looks really cool, replica or not. But HOOO-boy, by this stage it was hot. My clothes were sticking to me again, and this was walking in the shade of the garden beyond the pavilion - and the first place carl_allery and I headed for when we emerged from the complex were the inevitable vending machines lining the exit, which in this instance offered ice cream, which was a gift from the gods. We got our ice cream, piled back onto the bus, and went on to the shrine built to accommodate the vengeful spirit of a Japanese bureaucrat whom jealousy had given a bad name and who had been exiled to one of the outer islands as a punishment - apparently after his death all kinds of bad stuff started happening in Kyoto, so they built the nice fellow a shrine to placate him. Seeing as he was quite a clever chappy, in an academic kind of way, the place became the unexpected place of pilgrimage for young Japanese about to sit exams for admission to a school of higher education, offering prayers to the "vengeful spirit" for help in being accepted into the school of their choice. You gotta love the Shinto way of incorporating the everyday into the divine.

After this, we headed for the Kyoto Handicraft Center for a buffet lunch (all you can eat, including both Western and Japanese food and *coffee jello*) and a bit of browsing in the six floors of shops of the centre which contained lacquerwork, bamboowork, kimonos, fans, dolls, pearls, paintings, and an unconscionable amount of Hello Kitty paraphernalia. I have yet to get my head around this national obsession with Hello Kitty in Japan. Here, the wretched cat was even offered up dressed as a geisha - something that I absolutely HAD to have a photo of. It's mind-boggling.

After a spot of shopping, carl_allery and I presented ourselves to the bus for the Afternoon Tour of Kyoto, which involved visits to one shrine and two temples.

The Heian Shrine was absolutely beautiful, up to and including the presence of two majestic Japanese cranes in the water garden, who made the entire thing look like one of those classic scroll paintings which we had just left behind in the craft centre. There were stepping stones across a pond covered with blossoming water lilies. There was peace and quiet, even with the raucous presence of chatty foreigners on a bus tour exclaiming "Oh, look over *there*!" in American or German or French accents. It was also notable for the rather wonderfully Japanese fortune telling trees - branches stuck in the ground just outside the shrine absolutely covered with white papers and we were told that you could buy a fortune there at the shrine, and if it was a bad fortune you could tie it to the tree outside and hope that the bad luck went away under the beneficent influence of the shrine. Which makes sense, in a way, but people with mediocre fortunes ALSO left them there in hopes that the mediocrity might turn to something better, and people with the highest of good luck fortunes left THEIRS there because they figured that they were at some sort of apex and the only way left to go was down so the shrine might intercede on their behalf too. In fact, there seemed to be very little left - you got your fortune, you went outside, and you tied it to the tree. Odd.

This haven of beauty and tranquility, and oddity, was followed by a visit to the Sanju Sangendo Hall, which for the first time in Japan actually made me rather uncomfortable - it's SUCH a "working temple" that I felt as though I was actively intruding on people who were there to light incense and pray - and by the way, this is where I learned that Buddhism is immeasurably more complicated than I had thought it was. But seriously - we were RIGHT THERE AT THE ALTAR, and yes I know the monks charge admission and use the funds for their own purposes but I kind of felt... *in the way*. Oh well, we had a short while there and then we went on.

The last stop of the day was the Kiyomizu Temple, reached from a central parking lot by taking a short walk through a wonderful winding busy little shopping street which sold foods I could not identify on sight at all, lots and lots of those little Japanese waving good luck cats which seem to be as ubiquitous as Hello Kitty - yes, actually, Japan and its *cats*... - combs, more fans and kimons and paper parasols and ice cream vending machines and all that Japanese jazz. It also yielded a pair of geisha in full fig, whom I gleefully photographed, as well as a Buddhist beggar standing there on a corner very peacefully chanting something very softly and bowing deeply, without stopping the chant, when someone put a coin in the cup held between her - I think it was a her, it was hard to tell under that hat - hands. Then we had to climb a rather serious set of stairs to reach the upper levels of the temple, from where the city of Kyoto lay spread out beneath us like a jewel in the strange light of a hot afternoon heading into stormy night. We took photos, wandered around the back way and admired the serious stilts this place was built on on the steep hillside, and meandered down the little shopping street again on the way to the parking lot (carl_allery plumped for a Coca Cola slushie. Don't ask. It's Japan.)

We climbed into our buses in the nick of time, just as it started to rain. During the drive back to the hotel it was absolutely POURING, and the streets ran like rivers in the gutters I could see outside of the bus, with wet tiles sluicing water and gleaming in the halflight and Japanese lanterns spilling reddish light onto wet sidewalks where, under awnings, barrels of umbrellas had been set out by the helpful shop owners who knew an opportunity when they saw one.

Back to the hotel, collect our luggage from the check room at the New Miyako, and straight across the road to catch the bullet train back to Tokyo. We did so smoothly, had an uneventful ride, were impressively picked up by a serried rank of taxis laid on by the touring company to take us back to our hotels, and we were taken back for one last night at the hotel we were at for our earlier TOkyo stay. The minions fell over each other to come and help deal with our luggage as we were delivered to the hotel, and the receptionist said to me, "Welcome back". That's Japan for you.

We had a late-ish supper, grabbed a bit of Internet time after two days away (why did you THINK I didn't blog for two days...?) and went to bed. I woke up early enough to take a photo of the sun rising over Tokyo's skyline - a fitting farewell to the land of the rising sun.

We caught the "Airport Limousine Bus" to Narita later in the morning, and, well, here I am, waiting for my flight.

Perhaps the whole trip was encapsulated for me by a song which (weirdly, as though they had read my mind) they played on the airport bus to announce our arrival there - "Fascination". Before I came to this country, I was fascinated by it, by its long history, its inimitable culture, its civilisation. But somewhere during that long hot day in Kyoto something else happened - just like in the song, the fascination turned to love. I fell in love. I fell in love with the shining steel and glass and chrome of Tokyo and the torii gates and the curved ancient pagoda roofs and the gold-leaf artwork and the nightingale floor of Kyoto. I want to come back here and see the cherries and the plums in bloom, and the maples in full fall foliage. I want to come back here and see the smiles again, and the bows, and the curious mixture of friendship and formality and whimsy which these people bring to their everyday lives.

I love Japan.

Aregato, Nippon. Domo aregato. I will return.

(oh, and that massage...? Peoples, it was a full-on Shiatsu massage, after a very civilised shower in a beautifully appointed shower room, and I am so damned relaxed that they will have to POUR me onto that plane. I just wanted to mention that.)