Japan: Ted Talks Some More

Ted said: ‘We are now in the famous Tokyo district of Akihabara, thank you very much. This district is very popular with young people because of the technology shops. It has lots of cafes, some of them animal cafes where you can stroke an animal while you drink tea – so there are cat cafes, owl cafes and hedgehog cafes. Also there are maid cafes, where girls dress as maids and say things like ‘Hello, sir, how may I serve you today?’. These cafes are very popular with single men, thank you very much. I did not go to one ever when I was a single man, but when I became a tour guide I went to them to do research, but I did not tell my wife, thank you very much.’

Japan is a shock. So much beauty, so much…oddness. So much contradiction. On the one hand Japanese people seem intensely private – so much so that on the bullet trains, while the aged grumblies in our party sat and talked about, Christ, more or less everything except Japan, the Japanese people in the other half of the carriage dozed, or held their phones an inch away from their faces, to avoid eye contact. On the other hand, Ted was perfectly happy to give us a detailed account of the different ways that Japanese people wipe their bottoms, his own personal choice being ‘the elephant trunk’. Incidentally, I want a Japanese toilet, please, Santa. Even in the Hiroshima Peace Museum, as we listened, rapt, to a talk by a survivor, a girl of five when the bomb went off, this trim, honest, engaged little woman, touching eighty, held up a picture of a camellia and spoke softly to Ted, who translated ‘Because of the radiation I was very sick. My anus was like a camellia.’ I wonder if any octogenarian in Scotland has ever compared their bottom to a flower, and if so, which flower it would be…I cannot imagine my grandmother ever saying, ‘God, today my bum is like a calla lily. Still, better than yesterday when it was a bunch of thistles.’

At the Meiji shrine, seeds fell from the tall trees on the wedding party. There, and at every shrine, you could buy charms, which varied in price from about a fiver for ‘good luck in driving’ to fifteen pounds for ‘good health in old age’. They were pretty things, made of paper and ribbons. Next to the stalls selling them were bins for you to put them in so they were instantly recycled. I got the impression it was a thing you did rather than believed in. More like avoiding going under a ladder than praying.

Ted said: ‘Religion is complicated in Japan. When you are young, you believe in Shinto, then when you are approaching death you are interested in Buddhism. Plus a lot of young people like to have Western style marriages these days. So my own son got married in a Christian church so he and his wife could have a Western style marriage. They are called Nescafe Christians, because they are only Christians for an instant. Thank you very much.’

At the Senso Ji temple you paid 100 yen then shook a box which contained wooden skewers with numbers on them. One of the skewers would eventually shake out of a little hole in the box and the number corresponded to a little drawer nearby. In the drawer was your fortune. Mine was all good things – I have a very lucky life, so I am told. Most of the slips had bad news and they were to be tied to wires and left behind. Mr F’s said ‘If you dare to sail, the boat will be swallowed by high waves’. This was a little worrying as the next step on our journey was ‘a scenic boat trip down the Sumida River’. But we bravely pressed on, though we sat inside the boat.

Ted told us about all sorts of things: the Japanese tax system, Sumo tradition, Samurai, tuna, ikebana…one of the most surreal moments came on the long journey from Hiroshima to the beautiful garden at Korakuen. This was Ted’s last day with us, and he was in frivolous mode (I think, difficult to tell) so having had us chant Japanese numbers (very simple – he explained how peculiar he had found ‘eleven’ and ‘twelve’ in English – why not just ‘ten plus one?) he led us into karaoke. Meanwhile two of the grumblies, among the few single travellers and thus pushed together, were having an argument about the precise cost of the single supplement.

The song Ted taught us was ‘Ue o Muite Arukou’,  a number 1 smash hit for Kyu Sakamoto in 1963, and the only Japanese language song ever to get into the Billboard 100. It’s an anodyne earworm, but most of us gamely sang along, while the grumbly antagonism grew in volume to match –

‘Ue o muite arukou’  (I look up as I walk)

‘Namida ga kobore nai you ni’  (So that the tears won’t fall)

‘No, it was £568. I’ve got it written down somewhere…’

‘Mine was more than that. If I can find my specs….’

‘Omoidasu haru no hi’   (Remembering those spring nights)

‘Hitoribotchi no yoru’   (But I am all alone tonight)

‘I mean it’s all a bit much isn’t it?’

‘Oh there they are. I’ll just clean them, then we’ll see’.

At the garden, we took lots of photos in the bright sun, water everywhere, irises just coming out. We ate plum ice cream, then said goodbye to Ted, who gratefully accepted the special money envelope we had bought for the purpose, which Mr F, culturally sensitive, presented to him as an offering he could, if he wished, refuse.

We had been to Mayakama Island, which we approached on a ferry, which, parochial to a fault, reminded us both of the ferry from Largs to Millport. We passed the Tori Gate, like a rusting oil rig, the one thing that didn’t seem looked after properly in the whole of our trip. In the ‘floating temple’ which alas, was not floating that day for tidal reasons, Ted pretended to be a priest. Solemnly he intoned ‘Evil away. Evil away’. Pause. ‘Oh no, my wife is still here’.

We had been told on leaving Tokyo that we must wave out the bus window to the staff of the hotel until they were completely out of view. Ted took this to extremes, running from one spot onto a bridge to wave to us when we were fully half a mile away. A tiny man, waving his hat, then boarding the train back to Tokyo, and Mrs Ted, who I am sure is in fact a really lovely person.


1 Comment

  1. Wonderfully witty as always. Brings me back to when I first visited Japan a few years ago.

    I’m sure you already know about some of the other not so happy aspects about the country. It helps maintain a balanced view of the place.

    Much hope to return soon now that my Japanese is a lot better I can hopefully discover some of the deeper aspects of this wonderful country!


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