So Mr F and I went to Japan on a tour. The tour was advertised in the Guardian as a ‘Guardian Holiday’ so we booked it under the impression that we would be travelling with a group of diverse, culturally interested, cheery souls who would regard me as an amusing old fellow. I looked forward to making friends from the black, transgendered and vegan communities. I was worried that they might want to cycle a lot. In practice they were mainly a cross section of English ‘Leave’ voters, and I was positively young and spry among these essentially benign but elderly and often grumpy folk who, at one point, showed interest in finding an Irish pub, in Kyoto.
But Japan, well Japan was amazing.
The tour manager was Paul, a blokeish Londoner with a great hearty laugh, who was able to talk about English football, Scottish politics and Murakami in one breath. And on day 1 (‘Tour of Tokyo’) he introduced Ted-san, an ageless, smiling Japanese man in a hat, who was our ‘local guide’.
Ted said: ‘My name is Ted Watanabe, thank you very much. You will all have seen Ken Watanabe, the famous Japanese actor. Well I know Ken Watanabe very well. Of course, he does not know me. Thank you very much.’
Even before we met Ted, Japan was different. On the plane from Edinburgh to Heathrow, we were in the back row, next to the service area, and two stewardesses talked loudly all the way. My God, I know more about one of these women – where she lived, why she had decided on a career change, what kind of dog she had, why she had decided never to have children – than I do about some of my close personal friends. Mr F clutched his noise-cancelling headphones to his ears and smiled. On the flight to Tokyo, smiling ladies in beautiful uniforms glid among the passengers, concerned only for their comfort, discussing in detail the food choices, as if you were their ancient father. I do not speak Japanese, but I know that every word they said was about doing their job properly. When we left the airport and sought out our coach, we passed along a narrow lane created on one side by a construction site. The foreman stopped the work and bowed, and another man said ‘We are sorry for your inconvenience’ repeatedly as we walked by. It may have been the journey, but it made me want to hug him.
Thus was it always in Japan. Anyone who served you seemed to want to serve you, to make you happy, to like you. As you approached reception in a hotel, the person there would come out from behind the desk, running, and greet you halfway. Back in Heathrow, twelve days later, the bossy, angry, wee woman I asked for help with my luggage tag, declared ‘It’s easy enough if you read the screen’ and I sank into a well of despair. Why isn’t she doing it for me and thanking me for letting her?
Everything, everything, was very beautiful. I mean obviously the Golden Pavilion was astonishing, obviously Mount Fuji was lovely, obviously the famous Japanese garden of Korakuen was rather better than my own garden…but well, let me give you an example. In Hiroshima we bought some cream puffs. The cream puffs came in a box that was elaborate, functional and beautiful. When we returned to our room, we opened the box to discover two things – a tiny ice pack, to keep them refrigerated and a flexible loop of cardboard, to hold them in place in the box –the cream puffs were deliciously cold and in perfect condition. Think of all the battered cakes you’ve put up with. Things came in boxes too lovely to throw away, or wrapped in cloths. Sometimes, in a shop, it would require two people to wrap your purchases, particularly if you were buying a gift. There was really no distinction between art and commerce: visiting a food court in an upmarket department store was like visiting an art gallery.
Ted said: ‘..and one other Japanese delicacy you must definitely try is fugu, which is called ‘blowfish’ in English. It is very highly poisonous, thank you very much. But if a person is trained to cook it, then it will be safe. So if you go to a specialised restaurant, it will be safe, thank you very much.’ Pause. ‘Another great thing in Japan is our hospitals, which are very good. Thank you very much…’
We all know that Japan has an ageing population. Once I had been there for a few days, it was clear why. The food is very healthy, they don’t drink much, there is virtually no crime. They respect old people, bowing to my fellow passengers as we crumbled our way towards another gorgeous shrine. But young people are also everywhere – particularly schoolchildren. Everywhere we went there were school parties of immaculately uniformed, cheerful and QUIET young people. There must have been 600 15 year olds in the Peace Museum in Hiroshima, a harrowing place. In some ways it reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, sharing its emphasis on the individual stories of victims and survivors. But, my goodness, the silence in Hiroshima of these crowds and crowds of kids. I wanted to seek out their teachers and shake their hands, but I don’t expect they would have thought this behaviour needed remarking upon. And young people abound in hotels and restaurants, highly skilled individuals who have chosen to leave school at 15, and start work, rather than plodding through boring courses they don’t want to do which lead to meaningless exams they don’t want to sit.
Ted said: ‘The Buddha said “I have to be hidden from the eyes of my people”. This is completely different to my wife. Thank you very much’.
There is lots more to say soon.