One of my most memorable trips with my bae was to Japan. Not as physically challenging as my trip to the Indonesian jungle but filled with much otherness all the same.
I was much moved by meeting one of the last traditional bucket makers of Japan (blog here).
I’ve started reading: A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations by Pico Iyer.
It’s brought back memories.
It’s carefully observed and skilfully written.
In the “non-fiction” narrative it even manages to evoke to me Sei Shonagan’s Pillow Book in some fashion
Here’s the beginning:
“I’ve been living in western Japan for more than thirty-two years, and, to my delight, I know far less than when I arrived. A land of streamlined surfaces gives you very much what you expect—and so much you didn’t expect, under the surface, that you don’t know what to do with it. The home of collected inwardness has also shown me daily how much, as Proust observed, “a change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world, and ourselves.”
I’ve never studied Japan or worked here, and I stay in Nara on a tourist visa to remind myself how out-of-it I remain. I speak the language as a two-year-old girl might, since such Japanese as I know I’ve picked up from my wife, and in Japan even the word for “I” is different for a woman and a man. But I’ve been with my Kyoto-born wife—and our entirely Japanese kids—for more than thirty-two years now, most of them in an anonymous suburb where no other foreigners are to be seen. I seldom speak English in Japan, and in any case Japan has taught me how deeply the truest things lie beyond the reach of any language.
Much of this book may infuriate anyone who knows Japan; it infuriates me most of the time. Assertions in one section seem to contradict those in another, and what appears to belong in the temple appears in a section on the love-hotel, and vice versa. A lot of what I ascribe to Japan clearly applies to much of East Asia, and some of what I see in Kyoto you’d never find in more rural areas. No matter. These are simply provocations, opening lines designed to quicken you to better comebacks of your own. “The opposite of a great truth,” as they say in the temples of Kyoto, “is also true.”
I’ve tried to order my salvos so you travel, as most of us do, from the noisy, congested streets to impeccably well-made-up interiors to, at last, that private domain where you can’t even think in terms of “Japan” or “the West.” But if you read out of sequence in this fan-shaped book, now on a jam-packed train, now in a noiseless temple, you’ll be taking in the country as most of us do, bumping from the strange to the familiar and back again. I call this a “beginner’s guide” not only because it’s aimed at beginners, but mostly because it’s written by one. Being in Japan has taught me to say, “I wonder,” more often than “I think.” The first rule for any foreigner in Japan is not to talk of this-or-that; the second is never to take anything too seriously.
ON THE STREETS THE ENIGMAS OF ARRIVAL
There are eleven arrows on the sign above you, as you disembark in Kyoto Station. They point left, right, straight ahead and backwards. In the middle is a question mark.
Platform 0 is close to Platforms 31 and 32, and a large “Restaurant Guide” board informs you that there are one hundred and seven dining options around the station alone. There are also twenty-two hotels in the immediate vicinity, just one of which offers fifteen banquet halls, five hundred and sixteen rooms, a halal menu, a clinic, a photo salon and a church.
So much is available, almost nothing can be found. You’re in a living Web site of sorts—boxes and links popping up on every side, leading to art gallery and “Happy Terrace,” to six-story post office and thirteen-floor department store—but nobody’s given you the password.
There are snatches of English, French, German everywhere, but serving almost as decoration—like colors or sounds—and surrounded by characters in three non-overlapping alphabets. The net effect is of a hundred and one people speaking a thousand and two languages, none of which they understand.
There are no addresses, it’s said, in Japan—or, worse, there are collections of numbers, but sometimes they refer to the chronology of construction, sometimes to something else. When my daughter, my wife, and I write down the address of the flat we’ve all shared, each one of us inscribes a completely different street name.
Before the West arrived, there were twice as many T-junctions and dead ends in Tokyo as there were thoroughfares. A castle town needs to confound invaders. After World War II, the city was reconstructed along the pathways that had come up around the rubble of bombed buildings, rendering the terrain even more impenetrable.
On the train into Kyoto, I point out to my Japanese wife a sweet ad full of teddy bears, one sporting a badge, another next to a bright-red ambulance. “Yes,” she says. “It says that if you see a child who’s been beaten, please call that number. If you do not, the child may die!” “And that picture of the cute fox and bear exchanging whispers?” “A lawyer,” says Hiroko. “If you have some kind of accident, he can help.”