Feelings for Japan

It is only a week now until we depart for a week’s holiday in the Kansai district of Japan. I am currently part way through Pico Iyer’s The Lady and the Monk about the author’s year in Kyoto, one of the cities that we intend to visit on our trip.

The Lady and the Monk is a lyrical exploration of foreigners who arrive in Japan looking for answers to their self through Zen Buddhism or perhaps just for the companionship of a local lady. It also describes Japanese, especially the lady of the title, Sachiko, who seeks to escape from the formal confines of her role as a Japanese wife through her friendship with the author.

This will be our fifth trip to Japan. What draws us back? What are we searching for? I admire the elegance of Japan, the quality and essence which they imbue into their creations. Yet I cannot be, do not desire to be, Japanese, confined by tradition and society into fixed roles in life.

Our first trip to Japan was in 2003, also during early September. We based ourselves in a plain business hotel in West Shinjuku, Tokyo, spending a couple of nights in a ryokan in Kyoto. Although I enjoyed myself, I felt like something was missing, did not feel connected to the essence of Japan. The land outside the window of the train looked plain green and boring. The boxy architecture drab, the food nothing special.

In Kyoto the humidity and the difficulties of navigating through an unfamiliar land left us with less than happy memories, until at the evening of the second night when we stepped on to the Tetsugaki-no-michi, the Path of Philosophy. There we found peace walking under the trees beside the stone-lined canal, giant carp guarding its stretch of territory. No other tourists, just locals on an evening stroll.

The next day it was a struggle through the heat and humidity to climb the castle at Himeji, then a dreary ride back to the madness of Shinjuku.

A couple of years later, in 2005, we found ourselves back in Japan on a stopover from Europe. On the outwards trip we had flown via Singapore, on the return we could have stopped there, or in Bangkok, Hong Kong or Tokyo. We chose the latter as it was somewhere familiar and safe.

After three weeks in Singapore, London, Spain and France it was pleasant to walk around a country without fear of pickpockets. My Japanese language skills were also somewhat better than my non-existent Spanish and poor French. I think that a good hotel also made a difference after the clean, but basic, two stars rooms of Europe. I could stare out across the magnificent neon canyons of Shinjuku from the window of our hotel room without the crowds.

We also made a trip out to Nikko. The tiny train, the ride through mountains of green and autumn reds and golds, walking under the trees past the most ornate temples in Japan, maybe I found some of Japan’s essence there. And after the incredible colours and designs of the mudjehars and Gaudi in Spain, the rich ochres and yellows of Provence, perhaps the simplicity of Japanese ceramics soothed the eyes, for we bought plenty.

As I stared out across Shinjuku on the night before our departure back to Australia I realised that I had fallen in love with Japan.

Fast forward a few months into 2006 and I knew that I needed to return to Japan. For two weeks we walked under cherry blossoms in exquisite gardens, joined the crowds watching giant wooden festival floats, felt the spirits of farming families gathered around the hearth in the old thatched farmhouses, bowed to temple deer and travelled through narrow gorges flanked by snow covered mountains. We slept on a futon on a straw tatami mat floor after soaking away the chill air in a hot Japanese bath, sipped on green tea, ate soba and skewers of Hida beef. And at the end of it all we returned to the insanity of Tokyo and joined in the party. For two weeks we forgot our normal lives and lived, not as Japanese, but as ourselves. And again I did not want to leave.

One year later we were again in Japan, this time at the end of three weeks in Hong Kong and China, the orderliness and manners a welcome tonic to the pollution and poverty of the world’s most populous nation. A walk through the hills above Kamakura, under cedars, maples and cherry trees, past temples and shrines gave me a feeling of peace that had been so lacking of late.

So though I have left Japan for now, Japan has not left me. I have tried to introduce some of their aesthetics into my life, simplicity for stressful times. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of cheap fares, how could I refuse another opportunity to experience Japan again?

I want to return to Kyoto, Pico Iyer’s city, and try to understand it better this time. I think that experience has taught me how to see more of Japan. I might see a plain concrete house, but I also see the small pots, the bonsai, the topiary of the garden giving it life, seeing beauty hidden in simplicity.

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