Met at the airport by Ms Takeshita; impressed by bathroom with heated loo seat; surreptitious copying of other people’s eating techniques.
After an 11 hour flight, made tolerable by Japan Air Lines in-flight service Club Class – Japanese breakfast and dinner, Japanese civility, and endless Japanese hot towels – I was met at Narita Airport by my guide Ms Taeko Takeshita, whose surname, for some reason, was all too easy to commit to memory. She was accompanied by a chauffeur in the first of a series of large black President automobiles which swished silently to a halt by the pavement. The weather was cold but dry, rather like Scotland in winter without the rain. We drove in to Tokyo, an hour's journey away, while Taeko churned out a series of facts about Japan.
First impressions of Tokyo were entirely unlike I had imagined it. The streets were broad, not overcrowded, far from the jostling sort of atmosphere one might have expected. This may have had something to do with the recession, which is the only topic of conversation in Japan. The Imperial Hotel is very grand, very big, in the heart of the Ginza area, which is the posh bit of Tokyo near the Imperial Palace. Unpacked, found my way round my vast room (the bathroom had a heated loo seat with built-in electronic bidet, such a surprise), then ventured out to find something to eat.
The streets were thronged, but not that thronged, the neon signs did indeed flash but not oppressively so. In short it was a good city in which to walk, and, so everyone insists, very safe. Certainly there were lots of women unaccompanied, and restaurants by the mile. I ate in a friendly Japanese restaurant which served perfectly nice, if still strange, food – lumps of rice, fish wrapped in paper, soup with things floating in it. And green tea, which is ubiquitous. Choosing from the menu was made easier because there were pictures of all the dishes. Knowing when and how to eat them was more complex. Surreptitious copying of other customers helped.
Ms Takeshita's disconcerting behaviour; words of conciliation concerning General MacArthur; to a darkened room in the name of art.
Was met in the lobby by Taeko, and whisked all of half a mile to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to find the office of Mr Watanabe Masaru, head of the Second West Europe Division.
I began to realise that being escorted by Taeko was a slightly baffling experience. She is very small, rather short-sighted, and delightfully vague. Whether it was her short sight or her vagueness, but she never seemed to be entirely certain where she was going. She would set off ahead of me, stomping along towards the nearest notice-board which she would study closely without apparently learning anything to her advantage. Then she would set off in the opposite direction, peering anxiously around her. Finally she would stop someone and ask for instructions and we would set off back where we had come from, while she smiled apologetically. Even when she knew where she was going she would look as if she didn’t, glancing right as she turned left, and left as she turned right as if she half-wished she was going the other way. It was quite disconcerting.
Finally we reached Mr Watanabe's rather cramped office, and we drank green tea and discussed the Japanese economy. Light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be a recurring phrase. We were also joined by Miss Oka, a cheerful lady who spoke English very well, and knew lots of people in Britain ('Did you know that Peter Parker writes haikus?' she asked casually). Then we set off along some other corridors, searching for the offices of Mr Muto Masatoshi, deputy director of the cultural affairs division, where we talked about the arts in Japan.
I had arranged to have lunch with Robert Whymant, the Times's man in Tokyo, at the Foreign Correspondents Club. Naturally, we ended up at the wrong place, and had to drive round central Tokyo for some time before we found it. An enjoyable lunch. Robert is an old Tokyo hand, author of a good book about Richard Sorge, the Soviet spy, and instructive about Japan. We arranged to meet again. Then it was off again with Taeko in the car, first to the Tokyo Museum – which deals with the history of Tokyo, from Edo (as it was originally called under the old emperors) to today. Lots of stuff about Samurai, and Shogun, and the tiny houses people lived in, but the bit that struck home was the section on the Second World War. I simply hadn't appreciated that so much of Tokyo had been flattened by bombing. Whole areas were simply devastated by conventional bombs and about 100,000 people were killed – 30,000 more than died at Nagasaki. I asked Taeko what the Japanese thought about General MacArthur. She said they liked him. 'He helped us rebuild Japan,' she said. Very forgiving.
On to Opera City, a brand new opera house, concert hall and theatre complex, which also had a gallery with two exhibitions. One, by a famous Japanese artist called Lambata, who lived to 92 and painted all his life (literally, his last pictures were painted in the hospital bed where he died). Since he lived so long he was influenced by everyone from Braques to Jackson Pollock, whose work is faithfully reflected as he travels through life. He ends up with huge, rather muddy paintings of his own. Then there was a contemporary exhibition of 'installations', a lot of it on video. We ended up in a darkened room with eyes and ears blocked by electronic masks which only emitted the sound of the heart-beats of the other people in the room. We had to find our way to or round them by circles of light which we could see on the screen inside our masks, and which were, apparently, the body heat of the others. Very Japanese, but is it art?
We were shown around the opera house etc. Vast, all mod cons. They have a new full-time opera company, a new full-time ballet company, a new full-time National Theatre, and they are just starting their first season. Bold or what? It's all the result of planning during the golden years when Japan was rich, a period now known as the Japanese Bubble. The Japanese themselves call it bubble-o. We watched a rehearsal of Petrushka, then realised it was being directed by Norita, who used to be the prima ballerina at Scottish Ballet, so we fell into each other's arms, figuratively speaking.
Back to the hotel, then to dinner with Mr Watanabe at a posh Japanese restaurant. Although we were waited on by waitresses in kimonos, we had proper seats, so it was fairly westernised. Dish after dish, most of them eatable, the most delicious being shusha shusha, thin strips of beef which you dip into boiling water for a minute then eat with sauce, like a fondue.
An audience with a Living National Treasure, and the Treasure's formidable wife; a misunderstanding concerning Stanley Baxter.
Picked up and taken by Taeko back to the ministry of foreign affairs (more going round in circles) where I had an hour with Mr Numata Sadaaki, very smooth, very senior diplomat (he is about to take up a post as ambassador in Pakistan), who knows far more people of importance in Britain than I do. He was bright enough to know exactly what I wanted to know, and far too bright to tell me. Instead I was given a sophisticated Euro-centric sort of view about Japan, a country which becomes more baffling with each person I talk to. The whole place is a mass of contradictions – ultra modern, highly traditional, sure of some things, totally unconfident about others, wanting to be like the West, but determined to remain Japanese, they go on and on. And now, with the recession, they are obsessed by what went wrong and how to put it right. 'Self-analysis is the engine for change,' said Sadaaki gnomically.
Lunch with Taeko at a sushi bar – fascinating to watch the nimble fingers of the waiters behind the bar as they slice bits of fish, fold them into balls of rice, and wrap them in seaweed, tying them into a neat little parcel in milliseconds. Although signs in shops and restaurants are in English as well as Kanji, communication is not easy, since although the Japanese are taught English grammar and writing, they do not learn conversation in English. But everyone is very smiley and friendly. Afternoon at the National Museum, lots of bowls and buddhas, but the revelation was the early 13th, 14th and 15th century painting, the delicacy of the colours, the design, the paper, so elegant and simple and beautiful. There was one paper screen from the 15th century that looked as modern as if it had been painted yesterday, and indeed it might have been. The style has barely changed in 500 years.
We came back through the part of the city devoted to shops selling electronic gear. Quite extraordinary. Street after street of mobile phones, TVs, cameras, etc. Everyone has a (tiny) mobile phone of course. And they are obsessed by new gadgets. The area was very reminiscent of Kowloon – it’s a kind of electronic pornography.
Taeko and the chauffeur talk to each other a lot. The sound is rather like hens at roosting time. A sort of sing-song clucking which goes up and down and occasionally erupts into a sort of animated squawk. Hi means OK, or right. Ha seems less certain. Aaah on an upward note means, I'm thinking about it.
On to that evening's entertainment – Kabuki Theatre. It was the first night of a new season, beginning at 4.30 in the afternoon and ending five hours later. I was allowed to interview the lead actor, Japan's most famous Kabuki actor, Ganjiro, before he went on stage. He was surrounded by acolytes, and we were ushered into his tiny back-stage room, after removing our shoes, and kneeling in front of him. He was charming, about 70, and rather giggly. His wife was there too, formidable, a politician, chairman of the general assembly of the Liberal party. They are coming to Glasgow next year, putting on a Kabuki show at the Theatre Royal as part of the Japan 2001 events. God knows what Glasgow will make of it. Ganjiro's speciality is playing women, young and old, which has earned him a huge reputation in Japan. He is now an officially designated Living National Treasure, one of a small number of actors, artists, musicians, etc who have been given this honoured status because of their contribution to national life. He gets a grant from the government and is adulated wherever he goes. Kabuki is an all-male business, and the roles are kept within families. Thus Ganjiro had taken over from his father who had succeeded his grandfather. Now his son was on stage too, at the age of 10. He explained about all that, and then we had to leave so that he could begin putting on his elaborate make-up and dress.
The theatre was packed. The performances entirely stylised – Kabuki hasn't changed for about 200 years, and everyone knows the characters and the plots backwards. They applaud and shout at odd intervals. The whole thing is beautiful to look at, amazingly static, and completely baffling unless you have been well-briefed beforehand. Luckily they provide an English commentary through earphones. Ganjiro came on and played an ugly girl, which he did in a style reminiscent of Stanley Baxter. Then he came back on as a lovelorn girl who throws herself off a bridge after being dumped by the hero. He is followed by the male hero who also throws himself off the bridge. The audience went wild, although they had seen it, unchanged, a hundred times before. I asked Taeko what she made of it, and she said she didn't understand it any more than I had.
The evening was later to lead to some embarrassment. I wrote a column for Scotland on Sunday, in which I said that watching Mr Ganjiro dressed as a woman in a highly stylised performance, full of incomprehensible ritual, reminded me of nothing so much as our own pantomime. Mr Ganjiro, I concluded, was Japan's answer to Stanley Baxter. Within a day or two of it appearing, I had an anxious call from Miss Oka asking me who Stanley Baxter was. I answered lightly that he was one of our favourite Scottish comedians. On my return to Edinburgh, I got an email from her, saying that there had been much comment about my article, and she hoped that I hadn't intended to insult a Living National Treasure. If I had, they might need to reconsider coming to Scotland at all. I assured her that nothing had been further from my mind, and that in fact I had been paying Mr Ganjiro an enormous compliment. Stanley Baxter, after all, was the nearest thing Scotland had to a Living National Treasure. Whether this worked or not remains to be seen. It just goes to show that dealing with Japanese cultural traditions is like walking on eggshells.
Learn more than anyone needs to know about Korean blue celadon; an evening with a Geisha; throw beans at the devil; become somewhat intoxicated.
A day for firsts. First trip on the bullet train, first encounter with a Geisha, first time throwing beans at the devil. We hurried through Tokyo station (super-clean, super-efficient), shifting course behind Taeko as she peered for the signs for the Kyoto train. Almost inevitably, we had to go back on our tracks a couple of times. And the ticket machine wouldn't accept her tickets because she pushed the wrong ones in. However, we had time to buy lunch for the journey – boxes with sushi, elegantly presented, with chopsticks and soya sauce, such a contrast to Burger King. Then a smooth sleek, long-nosed silver snake eased in to the platform.
We travelled in a 'green' carriage as the first class is known. They're too democratic to use the terms first or second class. Very comfortable seats, more like an airline than train, but with much more leg-room. The train whips along at speeds of up to 300 mph without a lurch or a rattle. I hung a bag on a hook on the seat in front of me and it scarcely swayed. Immaculately turned out conductor, and girls pushing trolleys. You are automatically given a hot towel to refresh you. We got to Kyoto, 325 miles away, in two hours and 18 minutes. Taeko and I were joined by Miss Oka. We were met by the standard limo and driven through anonymous looking streets to our first destination.
Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan, and the old town is very old. But the rest is depressingly modern. We picked up an interpreter and were taken to the house of a 70-year-old potter called Sunzei Tani. He lives in a traditional Japanese house, where we had to take off our shoes, and where we were offered green tea and sweet cakes as we listened to Dr Tani and admired his work.
On bowing: this was a day for bowing. The further you get away from western-dominated Tokyo, the lower and more frequently you bow. The lower you bow, the more respectful you are, the more you indicate how important the other person is, and the politer you become. It is not so much the lowness of the bow but the endless dipping that is obligatory. You put your hands to your sides, and dip down several times, smiling as you do so, keeping your face turned to the object of your respectful attention. You also have to hand over your card, gripping it with both hands, then receive the card of the person you are greeting. You mustn't just pop it into your wallet, you have to study it with every expression of interest, raising your eyebrows and shaking your head to indicate admiration and amazement at what it reveals. Aha, ahaaa is a useful response. There is also quite an art to bowing farewell, as you have to bow and turn to go at the same time, or bow as you get into a car, or bow as you close a door. You see perfectly good friends bowing to each other, and of course in any public place, the waiters or shop-keepers bow to the customer with fawning enthusiasm. In the hotel the girls bow to the lift as the door closes.
Everyone bowed to Dr Tani who appears to be a considerable citizen in Kyoto, and also immensely pleased with himself. He works in Korean Blue Celadon (porcelain), and is, it appears, the man who rediscovered it. By his account he went out to Korea to dig for bauxite, and found some early Korean earthenware. Being, as he told us, an engineer and a chemist as well as an artist, he was able to work out for the first time how to restore it, which the Koreans themselves had been unable to figure. He is therefore responsible for a massive Korean industry, and for single-handedly boosting the sale of Korea’s most sought-after souvenir. He now also makes pots of various kinds which go on show round the world. He had photographs signed by people like Jacques Chirac and Prince Albert of Monaco round his wall, together with testimonials from various museums saying how grateful they were to have been able to show his work. 'I am not interested in money,' he told us. 'Many people have come to ask me to sell them my work, but I am not interested in selling.' He was, however, deeply interested in the possibility of having an exhibition of his work in Edinburgh, and he wondered if I could help him in this regard. Not to be outdone, I said I would speak to the Museum of Scotland, which impressed him enormously. By the time the afternoon had ended he had assumed it was fixed. I can't wait to tell Mark Jones, the museum's director, not least because I doubt if he will warm to Dr Tani's work which is very glazed and glittery. He showed us some lacquer boxes he has made, which looked exactly like the ones you get in John Lewis.
For some reason he seemed to regard me as an extremely important contact and invited me to dinner that evening, which I accepted. Thence, after much bowing and fawning, on to the Prefecture, where we were greeted by a full delegation of senior officials. We sat at a table with a Japanese and a British flag in the middle, like a summit conference, and I had to explain the state of Scottish-Japanese relations, and compare the civic situation in Edinburgh and Kyoto. Mr Satori Shimmi, section chief of the International Division of the Governor's Office of the Kyoto Prefectural Government – for it was he – told us he had met the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Mr Elic Mirrigan, and was arranging an exhibition of Japanese gardens at Lauliston Castle next year. I told him I virtually lived in Lauriston Castle, and extended to him the freedom of the City of Edinburgh. By the time the conversation had ended, I was dealing in bilateral trade.
We then set out on our next mission, to visit an artist who makes kimonos –not just any artist, but Mr Tokio Hata, who is another Japanese Living National Treasure. Actually, Mr Hata himself was not there, but his son Noburo and his grand-daughter Toki were, and there was a video of the Living National Treasure. By now we were trailing a delegation of seven people – three from the prefecture, two from the city's crafts division, an interpreter, Taeko, and me. At the gallery there were five others, so we made a sizeable audience. Mr Hata's kimonos were stunning, and the technique he uses ancient, complex and completely baffling, despite the video. Since Kyoto is the dye capital of Japan, it involved many stages of transferring colours, of delicate painting on silk, and finally of washing in the clear river-water of Kyoto. The most moving bit of the video showed Mr Hata sitting contemplating the Zen rock garden at the Ryoanji Temple, which was made in the 16th century. 'I have been coming here for 50 years,' he said, 'and even though I might come for another 50 I would only have begun to understand the mystery and meaning of this garden.' I asked his son what it was like having a father who was a Living National Treasure. He said it was like having any other father – fathers, he said, are fathers. The man from the prefecture said that these days they were known, not as Living National Treasures but as 'important intangible assets.' Somehow it doesn't have the same ring.
Next, with our expanding delegation, to an Obi factory. I couldn't believe there were still Obi factories in Japan. The Kabuki play in Tokyo had been set in an Obi factory, which I imagined was a throwback to the 17th century. But no, here was one, and one, what is more, that appeared to be thriving. An Obi is the broad band of silk, elaborately decorated, that you tie round your kimono, and it is sought after for special occasions. The factory had 22 people working on machines that looked like spinning jennies. They hadn't changed much, so far as we could see, since they were invented a hundred years ago. Hundreds of threads came down from the ceiling to be woven into dazzling silk patterns. The girls working them had flying fingers, the machines clanked and whirred – it was like a scene from an Italian opera.
There had been one change, however. Formerly, the pattern and colours were drawn on paper, and the order in which the appropriate threads were selected was dictated by a complex pattern of holes in the paper. Now it was done by computer. But the weaving machines remained unchanged. Each Obi, from concept to completion, takes three years. There is no government support. How can it possibly pay? The boss, a twinkling figure with a nice line in repartee, admitted it was a tough going, and could the Scottish Arts Council help? I promised to fly over a team at once. But the truth emerged when he said that they managed to produce 100 Obis per month, and quoted the price. One was for sale at 1.5 million yen, or nearly £10,000, one for 8 million yen or £50,000. Yes, he said, he had no lack of customers. So plainly the gloss hasn't completely gone off the Japanese economy.
Then it was off to dinner with Dr Tani – just me and my interpreter. We were ushered into a very Japanese restaurant, removed our shoes, then up some stairs into a private room where we were greeted by the madam, on her knees, bowing as if to Mecca. My heart sank as I saw there were no seats, just floor-level things to kneel on. Along one side of the table was Dr Tani and his son who runs the business side of his empire. Along the other was me, my interpreter – and a geisha! Well, actually, she was a geika, a trainee geisha, known as a Mika-yan, or dancer. She was elaborately painted, coffered and dressed. She was like a china doll. But when she smiled, she revealed yellowing buck teeth which slightly spoiled the effect. Her job was to sit beside us, pour out drinks and smile. Apart from asking us if we wanted more beer or sake she was silent. If you looked at her she smiled and nodded and poured you out more to drink. It was disconcerting.
Not, however, for Dr Tani, who continued his conversation about the wonderful work he was doing. He was about to deliver a lecture on Korean blue celadon in which he intended to advance the theory that Korean blue celadon could bring peace to the world. I asked him how this might be achieved, and he said that if everyone had the opportunity to contemplate Korean blue celadon, they would find it immensely calming. I couldn't quite think how to respond to this, but, bolstered by enormous quantities of sake and beer, I ventured to outline the Scottish Arts Council's policy on crafts and how they could help boost the economies of rural areas. Perhaps Dr Tani had something like this in mind for Korean blue celadon. He did not. He wanted nothing to do with communities, he was only interested in world peace, and his lecture would explain how this was to happen.
Meanwhile course after course was being brought in by kimono-clad waitresses, who mostly seemed to walk on their knees. There was raw fish, and rice cakes, ginger, little bits of seaweed, and, every now and then, something ferociously hot. It seemed to go on for ever, and the muscles in my legs were screaming in agony. I began by kneeling, then slumping sideways, sitting up with my legs straight in front of me, then back to kneeling. Just as I thought I had lost all sensation below the waist, Dr Tani got up and said we were going to a night-club. It was the 3rd of February, when they celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of spring, and we had to throw beans at the devil.
Photographs were taken, we bowed our farewells, and drove on to a very swish night-club, which Dr Tani assured us was the biggest and most exclusive in Kyoto. I was deeply impressed. I had read about the geisha clubs of Kyoto in my guide book which said: 'They line the alley, unassuming almost to the point of invisibility behind their opaque slatted windows, guarded by exquisitely refined, unforgiving, unbridgeable matrons, who, unless the visitor has been invited by a very rich and very trusted client, will not allow him to cross the threshold for love – or, even, for money.' Yet here we were, being greeted by a smiling and apparently forgiving matron. We did, of course, have a very rich and very trusted client – Dr Tani.
We went upstairs into a dimly-lit room, where there were tables with men only around them. Each table, however, had a girl, or sometimes two, performing almost the same ritual as the geisha. They were hostesses in short skirts – though one or two were in modern kimonos. They were perhaps a bit more interventionist – ours, who was very glamorous, ventured a joke or two. But mainly they were there to minister to the men, listen to their conversations, nod in appreciation, laugh at their jokes, and fill up their glasses. Their main excitement seemed to be replenishing the ice-bucket. Whether there was more in store later in the evening I have no means of knowing. It must be a dismal way to spend an evening, though apparently they are well-paid, tipped, and who knows what else. We drank Japanese whisky, and discussed the merits of Korean blue celadon, until the night-club boss announced that the time had come to throw beans.
I was invited, as an honoured gaijin, or foreigner, to throw the first bean. I was given a costume to put on, and a box of soya beans. Then a fearsome creature in a devil's mask came in, and we pelted him with beans, while the hostesses clapped and giggled and the men shouted out appropriate insults. Finally, when that was over, we all posed for photographs with the devil, and went back to drinking.
What with the sake and the Japanese whisky and the bean-throwing, I was fairly pie-eyed by now, but I was told there was another ritual, which was to eat a foot-long sushi roll – you had to consume it all at one go, and you weren't allowed to speak until you had done so. Since I was completely bloated, not to say blootered, I didn't see how I could do it, so I took a bite and tried to conceal the rest of it under the table, where, alas, it was spotted by our hostess who drew it to everyone's attention. I had to plead the ignorance of the foreigner.
Finally, even Dr Tani ran out of steam, and we all went home, not, unfortunately, before he'd made a date to show us the treasures of some temple to which, he said, only he and the emperor had access.
They happened to include some examples of his own work in Korean blue celadon.
The maker of creative thoughts buys a title; feels he has seen enough temples.
Nara, and the day of the temple. Taeko and I entrained for Nara, said to be the most beautiful and ancient city of Japan. 'A spacious, public beauty,' said my guidebook, 'a beauty amid which to congregate and applaud.' Well, up to a point. Drive through or round it and you’d think you were in any Japanese town – undistinguished concrete buildings, higgledy-piggledy modern architecture, nothing to write home about.
It does, however, have an old town of narrow streets and rather fascinating houses and shops. And it has temples. We saw the Horyuji temple, the oldest in Japan, which has two miraculous statues. One is a tall, elegant, 7th century goddess known as the Kudara Kannon, which is simply sublime. The others the Miroku Bosatsu or Buddha of the Futures, which is said to have been made by Prince Shotuko, the great patron of Japanese culture. It is just wonderful – soft and graceful, with a smile like the Mona Lisa's. Taeko and I knelt in front of it for ages. She was quite overcome, bowing and praying like anything. She is more of a Shinto person than a Buddhist – in fact she thinks most Buddhist priests are corrupt and that modern Japanese Buddhism favours the rich over the poor – but she has nothing against Buddha himself, and says the two can go quite well together: Shinto for births and weddings, Buddhism for death, because that way you have the chance of reincarnation.
Then we went to the Toshodaiji Temple which has an extraordinary main hall, with vast pillars of wood, like a Greek temple, and yet more Buddhas. Thence to Yakushiji, which has two very old pagodas, and where they were rebuilding the lecture hall or Kodo. I paid 2,000 yen to 'buy' a tile, on which I was allowed to inscribe some Japanese characters of my choice. I chose one which said something like: 'maker of creative thoughts' – in other words, journalist. In two years' time it will be keeping the rain off the Kodo of Yakushii, with my fine brushwork on it. I cannot think of a better way of spending 2,000 yen. On to Todai-ji, the biggest temple in Japan, and the largest wooden structure in the world. It was indeed big.
There are deer everywhere in Nara, roaming through the parks and onto the streets, begging for food from the tourists. Apparently in the old days if you harmed one you were executed. It's probably what Scottish Natural Heritage would like to do in Perthshire. I think I may have missed out one or two temples, but that, as they say, is enough temples. And so back to the marbled splendour of our own temple-hotel, the Miyako in Kyoto.
Another meeting with Dr Tani; some observations on political correctness; experience the pleasures of naked communal bathing.
Up early to go to the Zen stone garden at Ryoanji Temple, so admired by Mr Hata. Just a few island rocks in the middle of a sea of raked gravel surrounded by a clay wall. It's been there, unchanged, for nearly 500 years. We were almost alone, and it was incredibly peaceful, sitting in the warm morning sun contemplating the simplicity of it. Taeko said you could think of it as a sea with islands, or a sky with clouds, or indeed a mother tiger with her cubs. There are said to be 15 separate rocks, but you can only count 13. Soami, the artist-gardener who made it, said that showed that you could never be certain about anything in life. Round the corner is an exquisite, and more conventional Japanese garden, with a pond full of mandarin ducks, trees perfectly framing it and a landscape beyond. The term 'borrowed landscape' comes from China. But the Japanese have perfected it, using the hills, the trees, even the skies beyond, to complete a perfect image.
We then had to get back to meet the ubiquitous Dr Tani who had promised to show us the treasures of the To-ji Temple. This turned out, against all expectations, to be hugely enjoyable. Dr Tani's considerable status means that people literally run when he appears. At the hotel the manager and his top staff turned out to bid us farewell with the lowest bows ever seen, and the chauffeur ran like a lamplighter to open every door he could find on cars which weren’t even needed. At the temple we were greeted by a beaming Buddhist monk who ushered us into a large reception room with bright red sofas, where we drank green tea, and he talked about the role of the temple in dispensing advice, mainly to broken families. The collapse of the Japanese family was, said our host, the worst thing that had happened in recent times in Japanese life. Dr Tani started to point out how Korean blue celadon might be able to help, but we were interrupted by a far more senior monk at this point who was the director-general of the entire temple. He agreed about the family, and said that last year there had been 33,000 suicides in Japan. Can this really be true? (Apparently it is).
Then we were taken into the secret precincts of the temple, past a path which only 15 monks were allowed to use, where there was a red carpet and two tiny red slippers, monks for the use of. Thence into the imperial section. That is, the apartments for use only by the emperor. There were just two red cushions in the room – one for the emperor, one for the empress. Full marks to Dr Tani, he invited Taeko, and his assistant, and the running chauffeur to come too. It was quite a privilege. The emperor's room (last used nine years ago) was, like all the others, completely bare, with paper screens, painted most beautifully by an artist in the 1930s, using that very spare brushwork to paint very simple branches, animals, birds and ponds. There was no treasure as such, just finely proportioned rooms, which we tip-toed through in our socks – even slippers had to be removed. No treasures as such until we were ushered into an ante-room, and there in a recess stood a small buddha – in Korean blue celadon. Yes, it was the work of Dr Tani, the only artefact, so far as I could see, in the imperial quarters. I imagine his role in the next incarnation is well-assured. We went back to the room with red sofas, to be given lunch of noodle soup, a present of textiles from the temple, and a farewell from the beaming monk. Finally, too, it was good-bye to Dr Tani who promises, however, to come to Edinburgh very, very soon. I fancy we have not heard the last of Korean blue celadon.
On political correctness: the Japanese are not strong on it. Their attitude to women – see above – is still male chauvinist to an extent that would be quite unacceptable in Britain (less so in Scotland!). Taeko said that it is almost impossible for a woman to get a senior executive job, even if she dedicates herself to a career and forgets about babies. They are expected to raise families and spend a lot of time in the kitchen. The husbands, according to Taeko, are never seen dead in the kitchen, and are best kept out of it in any event. The Japanese smoke like chimneys, and have clearly never heard of passive smoking, though the trains are mainly cigarette-free. Even Taeko said that there was a lot to be said for cigarette smoking, since it was a good way of relieving stress. They are not nearly as safety-obsessed as us, and it is amazing, in a modern nation which is notoriously clean, to see electric wires criss-crossing back streets, with dubious-looking connections wrapped in insulating tape which would render any health and safety officer in Britain apoplectic.
After Toji, we were chauffeured off to see Kinkaji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, which is indeed golden, and stands amongst trees reflected in the mirror-surface of a lake. It was completely rebuilt after it was burnt to the ground by a mad monk in 1955 because it was said to be too perfect to exist in this wicked world. Yukio Mishima wrote a novel about it.
The main attraction is the garden which is immaculate, particularly the mosses round the edge of the lake, the reflections of the pavilion, and the pine trees which look as if they have been painted onto the sky. There is a bonsai tree, planted by an ancient emperor, which has grown into a full-size tree, and therefore has to be propped up by an elaborate series of frames. The extraordinary thing about it is that, despite its size, it still looks like a miniature tree.
We went to see Nijo Castle, where the Shoguns stayed when they were in town – huge and imposing, with marvellous wall-paintings of trees and animals, and the 'nightingale floor' – wooden planks which 'sing' as you walk on them to warn the Shogun's guards of an approaching stranger. We drove back through tiny streets with some fascinating miniature gardens, one with a little moss-covered mill wheel, turning slowly, while enormous carp swan in tiny canals, just beside the pavement. But the last thing we saw in Kyoto was probably the most remarkable of them all: Sanju-Sangen-Do, or the hall of 1001 Buddhas. One huge golden Buddha sits in the centre of a hall which is supported by 33 pillars. Behind them, in a long gallery, in row after serried row, are literally 1001 Buddhas, bronzed, five or six feet tall, each with 20 arms holding a variety of symbolic objects, each different, sculpted in the 12th and 13th century. They are guarded by huge and fearsome statues of the Thunder God and the Wind God at either end of the hall, and then, in front, 28 guardian deities, scowling, menacing, threatening or simply standing. It's one of the most extraordinary sights I have ever seen.
Just in time to catch the 3.12 train to Hiroshima, hence to be whisked in yet another limousine onto the ferry to the island-shrine of Miyajima, which has a huge Shinto gate, the Otori Gate, standing in the water at the entrance to the harbour, painted orange-saffron.
We were booked into a traditional Japanese inn or Ryokan, a relief after the empty extravagance of our other hotels. It's a Japanese inn, no English spoken or written. Simple, with plain walls, a few simple paintings, tatami, or reed mats on the floor, and sliding paper screens. You take off your shoes to go in, remove your slippers in your room and change into a yukata – or Japanese dressing-gown, tied of course by an obi, with a loose jacket on top of it. My room had just a low table, a room with a basin screened off, a loo and cupboards.
The maid comes in, lays out dinner on the table – delicious, and beautifully presented with flowers and a flowering twig. They have a wonderful capacity for understatement. Taeko joined me for dinner. We sat on the floor while the courses were brought in by a succession of talkative and cheery girls, totally different from those geisha hostesses in Kyoto. After dinner, the maid comes in again, clears the table, pushes it to one end of the room, then unfolds a 'fouton' – actually just a double quilt from the cupboard – lays it on the floor, spreads a sheet and a downie, and hey presto, I have a bed.
I go down to the communal bath-house in the basement. You wash before you get into the bath – it's bad form to take even a soapsud into the bath. So you sit naked on a little stool, and wash and shower, rinsing yourself from a wooden tub which you fill with water. Then you get into a big square hot bath, in which various other naked males are lounging. After a while you get out, dry, put on your yukata, and go to bed. I slept better than I have the whole time I have been here.
Sobering visit to Hiroshima; reunion with Mullay-San, who say nothing happening in Asia this week.
Up betimes, to have breakfast, Japanese-style, downstairs. Everyone in yukata. Breakfast is not unlike dinner – bits of fish, seaweed, soup, egg, served in bowls and boxes, and dishes and plates, to be picked at with chopsticks. Then we headed down to the shrine – a wooden structure jutting out into the bay, like piers, surrounded by water at high tide, with a plain Shinto altar where you throw money into a slatted box, bow twice, clap twice, pray and bow. No paintings or human figures depicted, but the shrine is guarded by two Korean lions, one with its mouth open, one shut. The letters of the Japanese alphabet begin with the open Aaah, and end with the closed Mmm. There are at least 3,000 characters. Back to the inn, into the bus, across the ferry, to Hiroshima.
Hiroshima is the best laid out city in Japan, for rather grim and obvious reasons. A memorial park, somewhat impersonal, with a modern sculpture in the form of an arch, ends in one of the few buildings to remain standing – a place once used for industrial exhibitions, now a ruin, with a twisted dome at the top, and crumbling walls. It would have fallen down or been pulled down years ago, except that it has been reinforced and propped up, and will now last forever – probably longer than some of the modern buildings round about it, because it stands as a memorial to the bomb.
When you go round the exhibition, explaining and illustrating in pitiless detail what happened, it takes some adjustment to grasp the enormity of it. There are some new pictures, which show in panorama the destruction of acre upon acre, an entire city flattened. But actually, the photographs I saw of Tokyo were as bad – and in fact more people were killed instantly in Tokyo – 100,000 as opposed to around 70,000 in Hiroshima. But the figure usually quoted, of 200,000, includes all those who died later of radiation. There are some horrific images, pictures taken in the immediate aftermath, of shocked groups of survivors, clothes torn and burnt. People have brought in shoes, shirts and trousers belonging to their children, caught in the blast, coming back home to die, and pieces of wall or roof which literally boiled in the heat. The steps outside a bank have been preserved, with the outline of the person who was sitting on them who melted into the stone. In the end it becomes almost meaningless, and the endless dedications to world peace seem somehow trite alongside the evidence of mass destruction.
Two theories – one advanced by Robert Whymant, Times man in Tokyo, one by Murray Sayle, ex-Sunday Times, long-time investigative reporter. The Whymant (and best accepted) version is that the bombs were dropped to prevent further useless loss of life – the Japanese regime had dictated that every Japanese must fight to the death to preserve the fatherland, and, while the emperor and his ministers had carefully defended bunkers deep underground, ordinary people would simply have died in the streets in their thousands, fighting to the death.
The Sayle theory, set out in a long single issue of the New Yorker, reveals a more sinister motive. The American war machine was determined that the bomb should be used before the end of the war at all costs. It was vital that it be tested because otherwise there would be no means of demonstrating its potential. The argument that it would bring a speedy end to the war was used as a cloak for the scientists to carry out the ultimate live test. Their formula was simple and deadly: one plane plus one bomb = minus one Japanese city.
After that, off to the airport, only to find all flights cancelled because of fog. Our wonderful chauffeur, who had deposited Taeko and me at the airport had hung around to check that we were all right, and was able to drive us back in time to catch a train to Tokyo. Taeko later said there were three things she liked about my visit: one, that I listened to her commentaries about Japan; two, that we were given lunch in the Toji temple rather than having to waste time and money having lunch with Dr Tani; three, that the chauffeur stayed behind at Hiroshima airport so that we didn't miss the Tokyo train.
An event-free journey back, then I joined Jenny and Murray Sayle at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
Murray is one of the great journalists of our time. An Australian, straight-talking, intolerant of the normal conventions which govern lesser men, he has always struck out on his own. He began in Britain on the People, around the time they were exposing the Messina Gang in Soho, and Jack 'The Spot' Valenti – remember them? Murray's hero was Duncan Webb, the reporter who first coined the phrase 'I made my excuses and left' when exposing what were known in those days as 'vice girls.' He was said to have worked at a desk surrounded by a bullet-proof screen because he 'feared for his life' at the hands of the Soho protection racketeers. Murray liked larger than life characters, and he is certainly one himself. He wrote a brilliant novel about the People called 'A Crooked Sixpence' which was never published because of libel. The paper insisted it was pulped. I remember seeing it and the quotation at the front: 'There was a crooked man and he walked a crooked mile, he found a crooked sixpence and it wasn't enough.'
Murray covered wars and famines and Vietnam (he backed the Americans) and Bloody Sunday, and then sailed round the world in a single-handed yacht and wrote some terrific pieces for the Sunday Times. But he fell out with Harry Evans, didn't like the team journalists on the paper and left to go east, taking with him Jenny, whom I remember as the very sweet Insight secretary we all doted on. He worked for Newsweek in Hong Kong, and was said to have lived on a junk in the harbour without a telephone. The story is told that when Newsweek wanted to get in touch they had to send a boy down the pier and out in a sampan, to say 'Mullay-san, Newsweek say anything happening in Asia this week?' and the message would come back: 'Mullay-san say nothing happened in Asia this week.' Anyway that didn't last long, and he moved to Japan with Jenny.
Unable to afford a house in Tokyo, he bought a house in a village on the slopes of Mount Fuji, about two hours outside the capital, and wrote long and brilliant, and always controversial pieces for the Spectator, Literary Review, New Yorker about Japan, the Far East, etc. Disaster struck when their house burnt down, and they lost everything. The villagers rallied round, raised £13,000 to help them out, and found them a new house. They have three children, Japanese educated and bi-lingual, and I had not seen either of them for more than 20 years.
Seeing him again, he didn't disappoint. He was wearing a battered fisherman's hat, and chewing his trademark matchstick. Jenny, whom I remember as rather dumpy, was looking slim and elegant. I was amazed that she had survived (a) Murray, who must be a difficult man to be married to, and (b) Japan. But she has done both and, it seemed to me, got the measure of them both. Murray, who usually never stops talking, shut up whenever she interrupted him. And while she speaks good Japanese, he doesn't. 'Well, I'm the one who has to buy the food every day, I have to,' she said.
We went to 'the best sushi restaurant in Tokyo' where there is a live shark swimming in a tank, and gossiped endlessly about the old days, Japan, and points East. Amongst many riveting facts about Japan, I remember these:
Japanese education was originally known by the phrase meaning 'studying Barbarian books' – that is, they learnt about foreigners because they were impressed by some of the things they had done, particularly Britain because of their success in the opium wars. But they always thought of them as Barbarians, to be kept at arms length.
(2) The purpose of the Japanese economy is to maintain its social structures, not just to make people rich. The disparity between rich and poor is less in Japan than in any comparable capitalist country. 90 per cent claim to be middle-class.
(3) Work in Japan is the purpose of life. O-shigoto, meaning literally 'honourable work' is what defines you. To be out of work is therefore more than just being jobless. It means you are a non-person, and not part of society. Maintaining employment is therefore a natural part of being a civilised society.
Accused of being a very clever journalist; experience a Japanese joke at first hand.
Interview with Japan Foundation, equivalent of the British Council. Not very interesting. Did some shopping at the Oriental Bazaar. The thing about Japanese souvenirs is that, unlike those of most other countries, you actually want to buy them. I told Taeko that I wanted to see some modern wood-block prints and we finally tracked down a gallery where there were some wonderful prints by an 86-year-old called Toko Shinoda. They were abstract and minimalist, but clearly Japanese in style and influence, with simple brushwork and strong lines. I spent the best part of an hour going through them and basically wanted to buy them all. But they were very expensive, and in the end I got one small one.
Then on to see the top brass of Yomiuri Shimbun, the biggest selling newspaper in Japan – and that means big. They have a circulation of 10.2 million, make a profit of 460 million yen, run a baseball team and a symphony orchestra. They have a newsroom the size of an aircraft hangar, and more journalists than I ever hope to see collected in one place. They no longer wear uniforms, however. They showed me their mission statement which stresses things that we in Britain have long since discarded as hopelessly old-fashioned and fuddy-duddy – such as trust and being believed by their readers. Being a right-wing newspaper, the people I spoke to were not at all impressed by the need to jump on board the internet bandwagon or catch up with information technology. One of them said he thought Japan should give it five to 10 years and allow change to be introduced slowly over the next 50 years. I said I thought that things were moving just a little faster than that, and they might risk being overtaken by events. 'Aha – you are very clever journalist, you ask difficult questions,' he said.
That evening there was a reception at the British Embassy for a visiting minister called Janet Anderson, apparently minister for tourism. In the middle of the throng she came up to me and said, you won't remember me but I was Peter Wilsher's secretary on the Sunday Times! The fact is I didn't remember her, but Peter Wilsher was the business editor, and I remember him very well. It appears she went on to work for Barbara Castle, then Jack Straw, then was persuaded to stand for parliament in some Liverpool seat, and the rest is history. The British ambassador delivered his speech in fluent Japanese, including several jokes which had his audience in stitches.
Back to the hotel. Since it was quite early I went out for a meal, and decided to go to a sushi bar which is said to be so popular that you have to queue. Actually I didn't, because there was one place at the bar – next to a girl with her mother, who had come to visit her from the island of Kyushu. The girl spoke quite good English, was completely unshy and talked about her life in the big city in the most relaxed and uninhibited way. 'Men are terrible,' she said. 'They are only looking at your body.' And: 'I would tell you what I am doing in medical research, but I think I wait until you have finished eating.' And: 'Bad things are happening, like that kidnap case in the paper this morning.' I told her that I had been out to dinner with a geisha and she was very impressed. What did she do?, she asked. I said she filled up my glass with sake. At which the mother reached over and filled my glass with sake. 'I be geisha tonight,' she said. A Japanese joke, no less.
An observation: you rarely see fat people in Japan. A matter of diet? Genetics? Or both? Don't know, but it's true, and may be related to the very low incidence of heart disease in Japan.
Learn about the Japanese underclass; leave puppet show at the interval, preferring to write an article for the Times of London.
I had cancelled the planned visit to the Sony exhibition centre where I was due to have been shown the latest in electronic technology. Instead I was taken shopping by Taeko, then back to the Foreign Correspondents Club where I had lunch with Robert Whymant, and a curious little Japanese journalist called Ryu Otomi who works for Le Monde, and talks very fast and almost entirely incomprehensibly. I caught about one word in five. Clearly what he was saying was extremely interesting, particularly about the Burakumin, the never spoken about Japanese underclass, often Koreans, who are segregated and discriminated against. Japan's racial and social prejudice, he said, may be buried beneath the surface but it is real and unpleasant. He also said something at one stage which I thought was very Japanese. He had been rather dominating the conversation at one point, and he apologised. 'I'm sorry for being extrovert,' he said. Robert said that the Japanese have a real fear about the younger generation not following in their footsteps and breaking the familiar mould. A terrible story had been in the papers about a mother who had killed her daughter because she was refusing to take a job in the local company and wanted to go abroad instead.
We were then joined by Alex Sayle, the 21-year-old son of Jenny and Murray. He is an articulate, self-possessed young man, studying computer science at Sydney University, but also working for an internet service company in Tokyo run by Japanese. Brought up entirely in Japanese schools, he speaks Japanese as his first language and English as his second. He is fluent in both, though I was intrigued both by his accent, which sits somewhere between Aylesbury and Alice Springs, and the fact that he sometimes had to reach for a word that would have come naturally to most of us. He has gone to university to learn more about computers and could end up in Australia or Japan – or indeed anywhere. He's obviously bright.
In the afternoon, interviews with a modern Japanese dance group, and the head of the Cultural Affairs Department. There was then a theatre visit to Bunraku, which is the Japanese puppet theatre – rather like Kabuki on sticks, highly stylised. There is no pretence that the puppets are not manipulated. In fact each one has three people – a puppet master who moves the head and the right arm, and who is well-known, and two assistants, with their faces draped in black, who operate the other limbs. The audience were all grown-ups and applauded the puppet-masters as they were introduced. Again it was about a lovelorn couple who commit suicide by jumping into a well. Don't the Japanese have any other story lines?
As luck would have it, the first interval came after only 20 minutes, and though Taeko was rather shocked, I suggested we make our excuses and leave – I had to get back to the hotel to write my column for the Times. The rest of the evening was spent trying to knit the sheer accumulation of impressions I had gathered over the past 10 days into 970 words of crisp prose.
An exchange of gifts. A final bow.
Early departure from the Imperial – Taeko is there to pick me up and whisk me to the airport. I present her with the customary gifts of a departing honoured visitor, and she is embarrassed at not having anything to give in return. I assure her, however, that her gift to me has been the communication to me of her encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese history and culture. She insists that when I come again I look her up and she will be happy to escort me again. We bow deeply to each other and I go through passport control. When I look back she is still bowing.