We had four nights in Kyoto, a very good piece of planning, because Kyoto is very beautiful, and it is a good place to shop. On the last morning, before we boarded the bullet train which would take us back to Tokyo, the airport and home, I was standing in a stationery shop, which started selling washi paper and other astonishingly lovely things 400 years ago, and I felt like crying because I wanted to buy everything. Everything. Some of the greetings cards opened up into three-dimensional origami flowers and had a tiny ceramic disc, with a floral scent, hanging behind the flower on a silk thread. Aaaaaaah.
Ted and his hat having gone, we were introduced on our first day there to Meg-san, our Kyoto guide. Meg-san was a clever, trim, attractive woman who didn’t smile much but was very funny. She suggested things we could do, including a dance show – ‘some people think the show is very touristy but you are tourists so there you are.’ She had a refreshing approach to the elderlies, often disappearing from view if she felt they were going too slowly; they were addicted to wearing the ‘blue boxes’ the earpiece of which fed us whatever Ted or Meg was saying. Meg talked less and when an old biddy said, ‘I don’t think my box is working,’ Meg said, ‘That is because I am not talking’ and gave a rare and gracious smile. At the Fushimi Inari shrine, famous for its 10,000 orange gates, which stretch for a mile and a half up a hill and back again she said ‘You will notice the black characters on each gate. They translate as “please give more money”’. Someday Mr F and I will return there and walk the whole walk.
Her reductive style was actually very Scottish. She was divorced and spoke often about men, specifically her ex-husband (‘As is traditional in Japan, he expected me to walk a few steps behind him and I did so, because I found it easier to control him from there’) and her son, who was six, and who travelled to school every day on the train, by himself. This, of course, made me sigh as I thought about the endless stream of Scottish kids twice his age who would never be allowed to do that. She was good on life in Japan – ‘Tokyo has a low crime rate but is full of perverts’.
Here is a thing that sticks in my mind. Golfers in Japan take out insurance against getting a hole in one. This is because if you get a hole in one you are expected to pay the green fees for all of your party, then take them for drinks and dinner. At a later date you must hold a ‘hole in one event’ for a larger group. This characterised something about humility in Japan – one of the biggest sports is baseball, but the ‘man of the match’ is always the losing pitcher. On a short walk to the Kyoto Craft Centre (another retail frenzy) we passed three Shinto shrines, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church and a group of very serious boys, maybe ten years old, at baseball practice. Four religions in ten minutes.
So, finally, here are ten things I will remember about Japan:
Mr F constantly saying, admiringly, ‘You could eat your lunch off that.’
The things I ate at breakfast. We had 11 hotel buffet breakfasts in Japan and, speaking as something of a connoisseur of the hotel buffet breakfast, I tell you they were the 11 best ever. I ate jellyfish in citrus and yuzu; fried aubergines in ginger; salted pickled apricots and plums (like small bombs going off in your mouth); cranberry and matcha pastries and a little dish of something sticky, sweet, julienned and orange. Mr F eventually decided it was called Kiribashi, but I think he’s a film director. Oishi. Oishi. (delicious).
The silence of large crowds. I saw one drunk man in twelve days. He was being escorted by the police to a place of safety.
The woman with the bicycle who helped up find the restaurant we were looking for by going into a hairdressers’ shop and demanding the answer. Mr F constantly bowing to her, from a great height.
Ted-san and Meg-san. Their benevolence in the face of the British. Meg-san said ‘These mythical statues represent fish and are called sobi. They are there to stop fire. But they do not work. This building burnt down twice.’
How clean the roads were. Someday I will take Japanese people on the slip road to Kinnaird Park off the A1 and they will gaze in wonder at the way we desecrate our environment.
The simplicity of the numbered stations on the Kyoto subway. One would never get that in London, because, of course, everyone knows where Chalk Farm is…
The old lady in Hiroshima talking about the discrimination shown to survivors of the bomb. They found it difficult to marry and could not get work, because it was expected that they would be infertile and sick.
The sign on a toilet wall saying ‘Do not wash your shellfish here’.
The very last thing I heard one of my fellow travellers saying after 12 days of travel in this curious and beautiful country… ‘Well, there are a lot of Japanese people in Milton Keynes’.