We sleep tonight on the thirteenth floor of the Keio Plaza International Hotel in the downtown Shinjuku district of Tokyo. F. has accompanied me to a symposium, at which I speak tomorrow, on an improbable configuration of dyslexia, “emergency preparedness” for the handicapped and social entrepreneurship. Our warm and sincere hosts, met tonight at a buffet reception, are apparently paying for the flights and accommodation for both of us and have worked hard to prepare a programme, translate my talk into Japanese and organise “study tours” for us. We expect, on Sunday, to visit a winery that produces a world-famous champagne (its most recent outing was at the G8 summit), sleep in a “Japanese room” (on a mat?) and bathe in a hot spring.

 

We travelled a quarter of the way round the world on an uninterrupted twelve-hour flight, never leaving Russian airspace. Because we were heading east, to the plane’s (roughly) 500 mph must be added 1000 or so mph of the earth’s speed of rotation in relation to the surrounding space. As Australia woke into sunlight, Southern Africa dipped into darkness. I had thought China was vast and Mongolia a large portion of the Far East. Not a bit of it: China was a well-defined province and Mongolia a mere region to the north of India. The vast strip of planet above them passed beneath us with scarcely a murmur of forest and mountain, marked green on the flight data map but empty, apparently, of any defining cities or aspiring population, so great is the remaining mystery, even to cartographers, of all that vast space.

 

Loosely clothed, well-prepared and richly entertained (books, tapes), F. and I were in addition able to expand – in this plane perhaps a third empty – across the aisle into neighbouring seats with leg-extension possibilities. Drowsing between visits of cabin staff with snacks and orange juice, we forgot the time our bodies thought it was and surged forward with the horizon-cresting sun, into the time-frame of novelty and adventure. Around 5-6 am I switched off all lights, screens and musical equipment and drowsed in relative comfort, afraid no longer of the death panics that used to visit with airplane sleeps.

 

Only as the plane curved southeast beyond the upper slopes of Lake Baikal, known to Avvakum and latter day ecologists alike as the largest freshwater lake in the world, did we leave the mysteriously vacant strip of endless green space and head down towards Japan, the Koreas and the Sea of Okhotsk in multi-layered blankets of darkness. My first consciousness of Japan, therefore, was of light flooding the cabin several hours later when I woke after a serious sleep, F. having raised the shutters of her two windows. After a while she said, “Look! Mount Fuji!” and I looked over her shoulder down at the ground, corrugated as an elephant’s hide in close-up. But I could not see it. Then I saw it, not on the ground but in the sky, its magnificent white peak chiming with the whiteness of snow and cloud, but raised high above the surrounding environment.

 

Then, just as the moon used to stay constant in the sky however much I ducked and dived through the lanes and side streets of Walthamstow and Barkingside, so Mount Fuji kept reappearing as a noble constant whatever descending turns and circuits our plane executed in its approach to Narita. In its sacred presence the light kept on flooding my mind with its first impressions of Japan. Though – at 5-6ºC – little warmer than the Heathrow we had left, Tokyo and Narita seemed to sing in a daze of luminance, even after we stepped outside to await, with the help of boys with lists, little English but Japanese intensity, the arrival of the airport limousine bus that would ferry us, along impressively static and toxic aerial decks and slip roads, through the Tokyo rush hour directly to our hotel.

 

The conference itself took place in a long third floor lounge in a business building. The rostrum was equipped with laptop and PowerPoint and wired up so that a microphone transmitted the speaker’s words to two ladies in a translation booth at the back of the hall. Once it existed in Japanese, a team of four stenographers with laptops, writing in series, produced real-time captions which floated up a large screen at the front. In addition, members of the audience had individual relayers with earpieces, so that the talk could be received in the appropriate language. A smiling young man rotated around the room, imperturbably ensuring that all the technology worked.

 

Nevertheless all this electronic facilitation served, as in Russia, an authoritarian monologist world of expertise. Members of the audience slept and even those who remained awake were quite passive: there was very little audience participation, even when questions were invited. Indeed much of the matter being delivered was vague – always a sign of public or otherwise charitable funding – with buzzwords floating around like

 

community … marginalised … project … task-writing … initiative … disadvantage … co-operative … win-win … potential … new mood.

 

The shadowy infrastructure of fragile funding was illuminated by strokes of resolute optimism.

 

The wall-to-wall technology thus served to render a field of loose but cheery fluff for a small audience, among them journalists, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, academics, who if they stayed awake, were anxious to cement contacts who could be useful to them on their next visit to the U.K. This was the world of the Japanese NPO – not for profit organisation – and the skies of the voluntary sector were occasionally illuminated by the fervent, furtive fires of lurking passion, something which if not to be altogether concealed was also not to be bruited about either. But the anaesthetic of formality was heavy: I was far less spontaneous as a speaker than I would normally be and, pacing myself to the translators in the box, covered too little of my talk in the allotted forty minutes and had to foreshorten it, even though the ladies had said they found it much easier to interpret spontaneous speeds (“people speak as they think”) than the reading even of a prepared text they had seen in advance.

 

There were what appeared to be several felicitous mistranslations:

 

Art can be the vehicle for the invasion of the community.

 

And early on we had been enjoined to do all we could for disabled persons, who would thus be permitted to realise the “divinity” that they had within them. And was that really a reference to an “Institute for a Healthy Future”?

 

Once again:

 

HIRAGANA

syllabary for Japanese words

KATAKANA

syllabary for non-Japanese words

KANJI

Chinese characters appointed 1000 years ago and

morphologically combined.

 

 

 11th February 2003

 

The girl seems divine until she opens her mouth to ask for a cheese sandwich; the notice in stark, splashing Kanji – black on white – in the sanctuary seems a revelation until it is translated: No Smoking.

 

Somehow it is a mistake not to remain in our divinity. With our divinity the prepositions get tricky with numinosity.

 

I asked Phillida Purvis, who has been coming and going to Japan for years, whether she had ever come across a rude shop assistant in Japan. “Never,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation, and went on to tell me how shocked she had been by comparison behaviour in London.

 

One evening we wandered around the streets close to our Keio Plaza Hotel in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. Every Japanese was helpful, though English was not widespread. As the rain began to freckle, we passed a stall selling the latest models of mobile phone which, at the moment, in Japan, take photographs and transmit colour pictures, though text is unknown and international calls are impossible. It was possible to peel each one off its stand, to which it was attached by a Velcro strip, and experiment: it was fully operational. Moreover the stall was unattended: whoever was in charge was not hovering. This situation was the one, of all those we experienced in Japan, least thinkable in the UK, where mobile phone theft is an epidemic.

 

There is a novel – and to Japanese disturbing – phenomenon of unemployment and homelessness in Tokyo. But one homeless chap we passed on the street at least, amid his blankets and cardboard, had his mobile phone.

 

We lodged on the 30th floor of the 45-floor Keio Plaza Hotel. But the lifts were so fluent we reached the 30th floor without me noticing – I was studying a leaflet. Everybody else waited politely for me to get out, but when I didn’t, resigned themselves to the upward progression.

 

I discovered a coffee shop in the basement of the hotel where, on a tablecloth with orchids, an exquisite waitress whose life story I longed to listen to was prepared to lay cappuccino after cappuccino. I sat and wrote there one evening, whey-faced and wasted though mirrors reveal me to be: in Japan I prefer stimulation. There is much to be said for a mean national IQ of 106. Order is civilisation. So is aesthetic intensity. Mrs Yamauchi, who seemed astonished at my contention that individualisation results from Christianity, described her mother wiping humidity from glass panels: three horizontal strokes, three vertical strokes. At the next table in the restaurant, however, a vast American Negro, full of high-spirited jive talk came to sit with his Arab friend. The Negro seemed to want to fill the restaurant with his noise and to generate a spirit of uninhibited stag-night risk-taking! However the more contained Arab commenced a long, involved conversation with someone on a mobile phone complete with an aerial that trembled close to his temple. It seemed that he was not at all eager to talk to his Negro friend. Gradually the man deflated, though he did not easily relinquish a style of communicating that seemed, here, absurdly out of place and empty.

 

On the landing of the 30th floor a wheelchair approached conveying an elderly Japanese man whose skin had a leaf-like transparency. He was pushed by a younger man who disappeared and reappeared, and accompanied by an elderly woman in simple apparel with a small dark pattern. The lady performed a little ritual bowing and clapping as a charm against the uncertainty of the journey, before getting into the lift. The old man stared at me and through me, serenely unwilling to smile, but also without trace of a frown.

 

We had two free days remaining in Japan after the conference and found good reason to be grateful that we had surrendered ourselves to our hosts’ ministrations. They orchestrated for us every kind of agreeable experience. After the symposium we repaired to a Chinese restaurant where a succession of little dishes was served, conversation flowed and time receded. The soup was controversial: was it shark’s fin? No, it consisted only of the swim-bladders of certain fish. I was flanked by two ladies excited about dyslexia. The one to my right, to whom I had to emphasise that there are no short cuts, preferred like most teachers not to listen but to talk. She advanced her theory – about Japanese brains and reduced self-esteem – translated by the more able lady on my left. After one hefty gobbet I felt more was expected of me, so I said (to my interpreter),

“I understand what she is saying but not the point she is trying to make.”

“Me neither,” came the instant reply.

 

After dinner everybody who was anybody in Japanese dyslexia and social enterprise lined up for “picture time.” My camera, handed (by F.?) to a Chinese waiter, refused to work – for him, for her and for me. Gradually I surmised that the time had come to replace its two lithium batteries; but the photographic moment had passed. Other cameras, mostly digital, flashed, including F.’s, so I hope the grouping will end up in a Japanese sequence in the album.

 

On Monday a long coach journey began with a tortuous exit from Tokyo complicated alike by a bog of traffic and a prolonged extenuation of suburbs. Gradually we came to rice-growing areas and older, tightly packed houses (there are few old buildings in Tokyo) with steps, balconies, mezzanines, bonsais, cars squeezed into doorways and an occasional inhabitant at peace under his vine.

 

Our first port of call was the Coco farm and winery, founded in the 1970s to create healthy, uncomplicated employment for the 100 or so adult inhabitants of a nearby “school” for the mentally handicapped. This curious mixture of business and the not–for-profit organisation was explained to us by Bruce, an engaging Californian wine expert, who had come to trouble-shoot the humidity and mould (Japan’s is a highly unsuitable climate for grape growing) in the mid-1980s and stayed on. After years of cultivating the few skills of wine drinking, I started to understand something of how wines are made. The founder, now 82, put in an appearance at lunch, poised, humorous, elegant, holding a wineglass in his hand by the stem as he spoke. The story was repeated with much amusement how, when he had told some visitors he had first acquired a taste for alcohol at the age of four, one lady had said,

“That’s too late!”

I asked him how to turn an idea into reality. He replied,

“First I bought a mountain”.

 

Our table at lunch was liberally supplied with wine – two whites and a red: this winery simply doesn’t make wine with sub-standard grapes, but discards them, so its high quality is famed throughout Japan – and evidently this was true of the other table also. So when we tiptoed back up the hill afterwards we were more than a little merry. Unfortunately the director and deputy of a local group-home (or hostel for adult mentally handicapped), to which we were going on, were seized at the sight of us, by a fit of provincial self-importance. We all sat around a table on the café terrace as coffee was served and set ourselves to the business of exchanging name-cards and making introductions. Then the director, with an air of a Soviet official, stood up and began making a speech to his tiny inebriated audience. As we collapsed with hysterics (which had no effect on the impervious man), a struggle ensued to cover up our mirth with a semblance at least of straight faces to redeem this most un-Japanese lapse from respectful politeness. The pair made repeated excuses of having busy, important meetings to get to, but seemed never actually to depart, which would have brought their humiliation to an end. It was some time after we had climbed back aboard our bus that our hysteria began to abate. The Russians, I thought, would precipitate such a situation – of speeches and pompous formality – but would not then laugh at themselves or permit themselves to be laughed at.

 

We moved on to two group homes which were an affectionate delight, but something of the same kind of situation persisted. Most societies arrange this kind of provision in a fairly similar way, so perhaps it was not really necessary to unravel the strands of central and local government money and private employment that held together the fabric of a passable life for all concerned. Nevertheless John Smalley wanted to know why the residents earned “so little” and what degree of “financial autonomy” they could have. At this persistent line of questioning our provincial director’s speeches got longer and longer, as he felt exposed to possible criticism . Meanwhile, as often happens after drinking, our little party was, one by one, falling asleep. Eventually, summoning up diplomatic skills acquired in innumerable Russian orphanages, I stepped into the breach and made a speech of my own. It was easy for even the casual visitor to see, I said, how successful had been the efforts of the Director and his wonderful staff. Comfort, security and equanimity were evident in the smallest details of the life around us. (A nursing assistant had quietly ascertained the number of teas and coffees and handed round a tray, while, at the table, a middle-aged downcast woman, absorbed in drawing in a pad on which her pen had produced not very much, had been squeezed round the shoulders by the kindly house-mother standing behind her and had visibly brightened.) Now the Director’s speeches became shorter and shorter, but still nobody moved. Hiroshi, whose head had stopped jerking, had descended tranquilly into deep sleep. Then F. entered the fray, posed a few more questions about the obscure organisation of the place and, with an almost Ericksonian air of finality, leaned back and said, “Thank you!” At which point, everybody stood up.

 

On we went, in our coach, to the mineral spa at Onsen. Here the Roman script was non-existent and everything was done according to Japanese custom. Stooped from a lifetime of toil, country couples would arrive – he with short sight, she with little steps – wrap themselves in kimonos and top-jackets and enjoy the waters’ healing properties. Apart from the latter, one has to imagine a combination of jacuzzi and Turkish steam, for neither of which, perhaps, would one have to make a very arduous journey in Britain. But this was all a cause of deep excitement in our party, for foreigner and Japanese alike. Moreover we all met up for a traditional Japanese supper served at a long low table in a room apart, at which we kneeled, cross-legged, on mats or, in my case, leaned with one leg stretched out and my back supported by an upright seating supplement. The absence of chair and table, combined with irritable fatigue, would mean that I could not write and I woke next morning with a severe back pain. However, it was my birthday and, goaded by Hiroshi who sat opposite, I opened the meal with a toast. Many little dishes appeared with unidentified small portions of beans, vegetable, seafood, aparilla herb, tofu (a curd of soya beans), orchid flowers that turned out to be tiny squid and, ultimately, bowls of rice (as when the fat lady sings, you know the meal is ending when the rice arrives). Best of all, this meal was the long-awaited opportunity to get to know the short, wizened, sad-eyed but ever-twinkling Hiroshi Kawamura, the Renaissance genius behind the whole adventure. He had been a librarian at the University of Tokyo for seventeen years, until he was given the task of programming a Braille system for a brilliant, blind student. The system of “talking books” and “tables of contents” that he devised – Daisy to its friends – has proved to be useful to many others also, including dyslexics. He now chairs an international forum on standardising access protocols for the disabled of many countries. Being in the presence of a truly gifted individual was, as always, an experience both exhilarating and calming.

 

Iranian women have traditionally had their scope confined to core female functions and F., though herself more than emancipated, has always reacted to this intensification of the female by being intensely feminine. She talks about women, not just as one of them, but as an expert, and tends quickly to fascinate the women she meets. Japanese women proved no exception. “I’m an old maid,” confided Yuko, beaming, within minutes of meeting her. At the Chinese restaurant, the junior high school teacher to my right, only towards the end of the meal summoning up the spirit to address F. publicly across the table, chose to congratulate her on her appearance, meaning her fine clothes, but still more her exquisite, youthful looks. Following their shy, giggling retirement to the bath house together, F. reports that Japanese women have small breasts but large nipples, narrow waists but broad bottoms, and are all in perfect trim with no flab or problems of overweight. They all took in their little pots and sat on them in a row, obediently filling bowls with water so as to conserve the fresh supplies, and washed themselves diligently. After the pool, where the water bubbles up through little holes, F. gave them a lesson in the many arts of make-up. The Japanese ladies were amazed to learn that their own brand, Kanebo, was F.’s favourite.

 

After a deliciously cool night on the floor between tatami mats and duvet, we rose, packed once more and headed in our faithful bus to Nikko, a town not far to the north of Tokyo with a famed national park and temple complex that is a world heritage site.

 

Even the approach to Nikko involved a physical ascent, as the immense presence of a group of snowy mountains mysteriously revealed and concealed themselves ahead of us behind trees, streets thick with overhead wires and signs and self-importantly posed, jutting buildings. Once more the day and the environment were full of light, girdling the coach and its little party dazed with happiness, the villages and bonsai-dotted homesteads and stimulating the cameras to emerge from their dark bags and glance hurriedly through the generous bay window at the front of the bus at the scenes that unfolded in quick succession. We were passing through an area famed for its Japanese cedars – sogi or cryptomeria – as our driver, a part-time rice farmer, was pleased to remind us.

 

We emerged from our bus onto a muddy level and unfolded the wheelchair of Rayini, the Taiwanese girl student of five languages who is of the party. Thereafter she progressed either on foot or pushed by one or other of us, to the very topmost temple, jibbing only at the 270 steps that crowned the ascent to a final shrine. Snow lay on the ground to the sides of the paths and the great central avenue that led, by steps and levels, from temple to temple. The air had a pleasant chill; later F. was to pooh-pooh the guidebook pictures of dragon-ornamented lintels framed by spring sunshine and April cherry-blossoms, claiming that the snow and the early darkness (falling from four o’clock) had added specially to the atmosphere.

 

We toiled unhurriedly up the pathway. The pilgrims seemed to consist disproportionately in young people, especially loving couples seeking some sort of blessing on their intentions. On me the unhurriedness had the effect of loosening my body, so that I took long, slow strides, enjoying the shifting balance of my weight going up steps or coming down. Occasionally we stopped to absorb information from our guide, who waved her green flag like a railwayman, indefatigably interpreted by Misako, of whose planning efforts today was the fruit. Or more often we composed our thoughts in photographs, thus absorbing visually the centuries concertinaed detail.

 

Why such happiness? We all felt this, a sense of charm, or good fortune, or grace descending on us as we rose up the mountain, the sense of climax increasing with the altitude. The inner mists cleared, the malice fled, the harmony (kio-chio) prevailed. As a little party we enjoyed a feeling of unity in which artificiality played no part. Delighted to find that my own Christian faith enabled me to rejoice in being, I paused in front of a little shrine and thought: God is not just great – he is infinitely great.

 

Many forms of aesthetic intensity are characteristic of the Japanese, and these can degenerate into mere compulsion. But the flair for detail, and for conveying presence of mind into ritual and creative gestures, intensified at the summit of this very Japanese mountain. Priests, guides and mikkos – vestal virgins in robes as red as cardinal birds – seemed enormously busy and active, channelling and enlightening us tourists. We were led – without shoes and with cameras switched off – round rectangular temple corridors and balconies. Words cannot possibly convey the cumulative atmosphere created by the Chinese carvings (dragons, children), the worked metal and wood, the great bells whose noonday ringing so inspired F.. Layer upon layer of slatted or tiled roofs rose above each other, and above us, and above all stood the cedars, gaunt, curtained, gloved in snow, bound by the priestly Japanese in hoops of iron, but themselves more priestly, lofty and ancient (one was 800 years old) than everything else around them, nobler than the samurais, fiercer than the bushi, more enlightened than the forefathers of Zen and Shinto whose wanderings ended in this place. Their presences were like spirits, someone said: “They are a kind of god”. Yes. I thought, once again pressing onward up some more steps, and the female sexual organ is a kind of god also, but one cannot say so.

 

Now at 38,000 feet we are following a more northerly path than on our outward journey, heading away from the uncharted (but not uninhabited) expanses of northern Russia towards the Barents Sea, having negotiated, first the Lapter Sea, then the Kara Sea, known to cartographers but not to me. Indeed if we do not take a southerly turn soon we may find ourselves at the North Pole. I feel I may now have covered the greater part of what I wanted to record about Japan. I have been writing for six hours, and the excitement scarcely dies down. Incredulous, I see other people sleeping. But perhaps I’m not finished yet.

 

Now we’re turning south at last, over an unnameable icy spur that divides the Barents and the Kara seas. I’m sure that the Arctic fish shoals and submariners far below are oblivious of our shadow, as we pass in the opening eye of sunrise.

 

Will I carry anything of this serenity and energy away from the Nikko mountain as I leave? Perhaps. We descended to our bus eventually as the light began to go and returned to the forecourt of the souvenir shop where we had initially picked up our guide and where the coach had in the meantime parked free of charge. In return we were expected to go inside the shop, where a tray of green teas awaited us, use the toilets and cast an eye over the unutterable kitsch on the shelves. This we duly did, discovering (and buying) some treasures – mainly cups – lurking amid the candyfloss and day-glo colours of the children’s temptations. Back on the coach Misako said we had done well to co-operate. I had heard this word used, in a faintly inappropriate way, at the end of the symposium also: “Thank you for your co-operation”. It struck me that this was a hugely important concept, kio-ryoku, co-operation, or kio-chio, harmony.

 

In the valley between the two mountains rushed a torrent and we crept back up the river to approach our lunchtime destination which sat on an eminence above us, the Kanaya Hotel. This is a world-famous classic hotel that has only recently put aside – but still displays – its blue porcelain. Here Einstein, George VI and others have stayed, their bills of account proudly displayed, complete with signatures. Opting for “western” food for a change, we sat to an alcove table exquisitely laid and consummately served to the highest possible standard. Conversation turned briefly to social harmony (Japan) and rugged individualism (Britain), to Iraq and America and the meaning of culture. But there was a new awkwardness, perhaps because of the Western setting. Nevertheless, at our end little Rayini came to life when she lectured us on the five basic tonal “positions” in Taiwanese and Mandarin Chinese – her own language (my lime-green Virgin Atlantic notepad was out again, to capture the vital words and signs). How much a person’s own language means to them; how its use activates them. As always I had coffee and requested a cup of hot water for F.. We discussed “kinds” of tea, a slightly baffling question for the Japanese, who are fascinated, too, when I drop Hermesetas Gold pellets into my hot drinks. When the hot water arrived, I produced an Earl Grey teabag from my trouser pocket and held it up. “Do you know what this is?” I asked. When they didn’t, I said, “This is called marriage!” After an initially literal reaction they got the point and laughed merrily.

 

And so the story ends, with a coach trip back to reality – or at least normality – as embodied in the Tokyo rush hour. Our very tender goodbyes had to be said on the porch of the luxurious Meridian Pacific Hotel, where we were to experience the epitome of refined comfort (breakfast overlooking waterfall and pool) for £50 a night each, the price comparable to that of the Travel Lodge up the road in Bagshot. Will we meet these very sympathetic friends again – Misako, Yuko, Mrs Yamauchi, Rayini? Our gratitude to them will not quickly die down. Then our English friends, John and his son Rick, who travel to the same destination at the same time by a different airline, must be bid a fond farewell at Narita airport. We have all shared in an experience unexpectedly sublime. And we must say sayonara to Japan itself, whose aesthetic intensity and ingenious hard work (kim-ben) are embodied for the last time in shop after shop of exquisitely produced goods in the terminal’s unhurried, uncrowded arcade. Considering this was not even a holiday, Japan has turned out to be another in a lifetime’s mysterious chain of snow-covered peaks.

 

Nikko fusion

 

 

This mountain has approached all day

and now bows a welcome through archways.

Somewhere a clock strikes noon or afternoon,

far or near, chimes in the lustrous dark.

 

Generations of round-eyed men have laboured

to bring each peak and pebble to visibility.

But how little trace there is of insight, how it evades capture –

the notebooks, the cameras.

 

Far below the surface something is shaken.

A mountain becomes a wave.

Can a volcano be tossing these pines and boulders

tipped with people?

 

And what happiness invades

the climbers agog with frost and fire?

Couples ascend to sprinkle

good luck on their futures.

 

The pines lodged here before the temples,

though hooped with iron some centuries ago.

And ten generations were not enough to layer

the temple grounds, the mossed stone lanterns.

 

Light feet repel the ground.

For the donor, a mini-bottle of sake.

Perhaps the gods are plural, playing hide-and-seek

like dapples of light on the topmost steps.

 

Snow crusts the needle-bunches, while brooms

in the hands of cardinal-red mikkos, part-time vestals,

robustly guide the bergs

towards the destined buckets.

 

There is nothing but happiness.

The trees themselves are a kind of god.

One by one climbers lock onto the sole frequency,

happiness without even the doctrine of silence.

 

And the raven warns from the rooftop

of the old Kanaya Hotel:

Sumimasei! Ha ha!

Two claps, one bow, two claps!

 

7-10th February 2003

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