Chapter 34: Wider Prospects

A 2001 article speaks of ‘Unspoilt Japan - the last vestiges of an ancient world’. This comment leads me to extend my story of forty years earlier.

In our second September, Sheelah and I set off for Japan in a Douglas DC6B. This age of transition from propeller to jet aircraft was a pleasant one for travellers. Every few hours the earlier breed would land for a fuelling stop, often in an attractive place. One could stretch one’s legs, take some refreshment and watch the changing groups of fellow travellers. Approaching Saigon in South Vietnam we crossed a grassy landscape with small farmsteads before landing. The American Airforce was in possession, busy with the Vietnam War. We approached Hong Kong in darkness with a glittering picture of island lights below us. As with all flights for many years to come the run in was dramatically low over the town and glittering water before landing at Kai Tak airport. We were told that typhoon Irma was moving off to the south and should not impede us in the morning. The overnight stop was restful and we were able to contact friends.

Our continuing flight in a larger aircraft took us first to the Island of Formosa, as Portuguese sailors christened it in 1590. Though it looks small on one’s school atlas, it is some two hundred and fifty miles long with a population of over twenty million. It is now called Taiwan.

Sighting Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan, we landed at industrial Osaka before flying on to Tokyo. Our first impression was of bustle and fantastic ever-changing neon advertising beyond anything previously seen. There were feelings of total isolation in a whirlpool of activity. In 1960 little English was spoken and there was no way we could read or speak Japanese. Before leaving our Hotel on any occasion we would list first the name of our Hotel and then the names of the places we wished to visit. Our Hotelier would then write the Japanese equivalent alongside each name. Thus prepared we would point out the appropriate name on our list to a taxi driver and would be taken there. If in trouble we could at least get home by this means. General MacArthur had endeavoured to impress some American style street and avenue structure on the city with street names or numbers. In many areas the street pattern was far too complex. For some areas we would be driven to the Police post for what might once have been a village and our driver would get advice on how to find a particular address. Having solved this problem it was time to go and see John Figgess, the Military Attaché, the best possible person to give advice on what to see, or so said our adviser in the KL Japanese Embassy. How right he was. He had been in business in Japan for five years before the war. Commissioned into the Intelligence Corps he served in India and Burma until the Japanese surrender, before being attached to the UK Liaison Mission in Japan. He was an authority on Oriental ceramics and in due course knighted for his services.

We were invited to his house, warmly welcomed and had a plan worked out that would make the most of our stay. He then launched us on an especially Japanese experience at a restaurant whose owner was a fourth generation eel broiler. We were introduced with much bowing and smiling and then abandoned with the ordering done. We would have to get by on bowing, smiling and sign language. Shoes removed we were led along shining floored corridors and upstairs to a little room of our own. It is assumed that one set of diners has no desire to see another. We sat either side of a foot high table with a drink whilst our eels were caught and prepared. Eventually a girl padded down the passage, laid the tray on the floor, opened the sliding door and bowed. Lifting the tray she shuffled her kneeling way to the table, bowing again before arranging the dishes. All entries and exits were carried out in this manner with its ritual of bows and smiles. We ate with chopsticks off rough hollowed tiles, the food being served in red lacquered containers. Our menu was soup, slim eels in six-inch lengths and speared together, rice, sliced vegetable, pepper and spice. Soya sauce came in a tiny teapot and tea in bowls. It was a wonderful introduction to Japanese ways for the surroundings, the ritual and not least for the food itself, richly filling.

Tokyo provided fine museums, evening shows and the exploration of big department stores, with the bowing of courteous young ladies with the words ‘thank you for coming to our store’. The theatre layout Hi-Fi Cafés were an interesting innovation. Coffee was provided whilst high intensity Beethoven poured out of high power speakers. A Japanese young man at a nearby sat, with eyes closed, energetically conducting the whole performance.

Heading north by train for a couple of hours brought us to Nikko. We met for the first time the Japanese preference for expeditions in groups of twenty or thirty. Everyone had a camera and a personal ‘transistor’. The leader carried a rallying flag so that no one could get lost. At any pause in their progress cameras would come out and ever more group photos taken. Progress was slow and gave us the advantage that even modestly energetic expeditions soon took us away from the crowds.

We were heading for a mountain resort on Lake Chusenji, travelling by bus with thirty hairpin corners on the steepest incline. Many were the cars halted with heat exhaustion or other troubles as we crept by. Yet it was not many years before Japanese cars were amongst the leaders in the world and their ship builders were robbing us of a trade in which we had excelled for generations. Is there some advantage to losers in a major war that drives them towards new enterprises rather than rewards for those who brought about victory for our nation?

Our hotel stood on its own beyond Chusenji and a product of the substantial lake was displayed by a 9lb brown trout suspended in some preserving liquid by the entrance door. The area was a forested area with the Ryuzu Falls nearby. Substantial rapids rush dramatically down 1100 feet of steep bedrock. The next day brought our first major expedition. We would climb Mount Nantai, an expired volcano 8500 feet high and we were already above the height of the top of Ben Nevis. As we climbed the trees thinned and views improved. Suddenly we were alone in open woodland with silver birch, maples and ferns and higher to pine and juniper. Rough paths and log bridges brought us to autumn colours, reds, browns yellows and half greens, a delicate patchwork. From the top Fujiyama could be seen, 100 miles away and remote in a cloud sea.

Later in the day we were to experience the first of a number of simple acts of spontaneous kindness by Japanese women. During the descent Sheelah caught her cotton skirt on some protrusion and it ripped down a side seam. We were waiting at a bus stop for a lift back to our hotel when a kimono-clad woman noticed Sheelah’s plight. She reached into her sleeve for needle and cotton, knelt down and repaired the damage. We smiled and bowed, as she did, the only common language that we possessed.

The next morning Sheelah enquired hopefully, from beneath four layers of blanket, if it was raining. I told her that there was fog, rain, thunder and a promise of snow, but that we were setting out all the same. We stopped at a small hotel on our way to Tachiki Temple. The mainly American inmates were complaining of the cold, with some justification in a building constructed of wood and paper. The Temple as fine with its massive bronze bells, urns and figures but there were better to come as we travelled and the sight of the day was a short walk away at the Kegon Falls. Here a solid jet of water 35 foot wide descends in an unbroken arch to a pool more than 300 feet below. Its picture is much used in tourist advertising. There was more walking, lakes and waterfalls and the addition of sulphurous hot springs in our day’s wanderings. It was a good day for wildlife, a huge owl, eagle and buzzard, wild duck and a nuthatch dressed all over in the newest and shiniest of pale blue-grey suitings.

The John Figgess first suggestion had provided a marvellous start. It was now time to move on to Atami on the coast to the south of Tokyo. It was the Monte Carlo of Japan though John said that we might find it more like Brighton. However there was a ‘don’t miss’ instruction from our far-away guide. This took us to the Toshogu Shrine. There in an area half a mile wide we were taken back to the earlier religious life of Japan. Some buildings dated as far back as the 12th century with stately three hundred-year-old cedars shading the area. By contrast the buildings, and there were many of them, were glittering jewels of ornate work in gilt, gold leaf, enamel, lacquer and all the media of the trade. This was a fitting end to our first excursion.

Arrived in Atami we read our hotel instructions. Number five stated -

Any visit of women of ill fame is not welcomed at this hotel. Your co-operation in this matter will be highly appreciated.

The morning brought bright sunny skies, the conditions in late September resembling the best of a British June. Strolling to an extensive beach it was notable that the great Pacific Ocean provides different conditions from our milder shores. Slow, heavy rollers pound the beach producing a giant sized shingle. Climbing up to a wooded hill and beyond to a wonderful viewpoint perched at the top of newly-scythed grass for our picnic. Life was good. There was little mechanisation. Women scythed and carried away their product in cotton sheets.

As intended, Atami was only a short stop on our way to a famous destination. We moved on early by bus, over the Ten Provinces Pass and down to Hakone to breakfast at the foot of a great lake of this name. From our hotel room and even whilst having a bath we could see the magnificent Fujiyama at the head of the lake through the picture windows. Lesser mountains enclosed the lake on all sides.

With increasing fitness we set off to circle the lake and climb Mount Koma on the way. Trees gave way to rush-like bamboo and eventually open views. Fine gentians were growing close to the path to enhance the mountain atmosphere. We had the climb to ourselves and discovered that lesser mortals had arrived by cable car at the restaurant close to the site where we picnicked. The clarity of the morning gave way to mistiness in the valleys that produced the picturesque appearance of mountains hanging in the air. It showed that Japanese paintings of their mountains and cloud effects, though strange to us, were based on their own reality.

Our next aim was to reach the head of the lake to catch a ferry back to our hotel. This proved to be a more severe test than expected. We began to realise how lucky we were in most European scenes where any reasonable choice of route turns out to be manageable. Here we found rush bamboo anything from knee to shoulder height with berberis more formidable still. We cut across to some woodland and found a path reaching Togendai and the ferry that would carry us home.

Our busy programme had us on the move again in the morning; first a mountainous bus route then a train, followed by a flight to Osaka. Even this was not the end as a further train journey took us to Kyoto, founded in the 8th century; it was the Japanese capital city for more than a thousand years. Though the first impression was of another very large city it turned out to contain many important treasures.

The Tozenkaku Hotel was designed to introduce other nations to Japanese living. We remove our shoes at the door of our room and step up on to the platform of our living level. A hall and two rooms are contrived with separating sliding panels, oiled paper in wooden frames. A six-inch high platform supports flowers, the telephone and the radio. One kneels to wash at the basin. Unfortunately the mirror on the wall cupboard, useful for shaving, can only be seen when standing up. At night bedding is taken out of a wall cupboard and spread on the floor. Ready for bed I cast myself gratefully, if not gracefully, onto the bed provided, whereupon three of the sliding screens, each six feet three, collapsed on me in turn. Sheelah appeared from the bathroom to find me completely concealed. So much for Japanese living!

Kyoto is full of treasures. First we visited the Silver Pavilion which is a small and ancient structure of great antiquity in a charming garden. Its purpose was to provide a suitable environment for the tea ceremony for nobility. Many of the old buildings of importance are made of wood. Practical good sense maintained their style by replacing exhausted timber when needed without altering design. As in other gardens trees and shrubs are trained, pruned, shaped and barbered with artistic skill. These are the trees that one sees in Japanese paintings. There are streams with waterfalls and pools with fine big golden carp. The Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavilion were less impressive and overshadowed by later garden discoveries.

The two main features of Japanese gardens are that they are entirely unproductive and that flowers are unimportant. The Ryuan or Zen Stone Garden is outstanding. It carries the lack of vegetation to an extreme, having no trees, shrubs, grass or water. To say that it consists of five large groups of stone set in a border of the large grained Pacific sand raked into simple furrows does not enhance the picture greatly. It is better to think of it as five great mountains in miniature rising above a cloud base. The result is peaceful and surprisingly effective. You sit quietly on the step of a pavilion and contemplate the garden that is surrounded by a plain tile topped composite wall. The pavilion itself has several rooms with good paintings including one with a gibbon admiring the reflection of the moon in a pool as he hangs by one arm from a bough.

Nearby was the Katsura Imperial Villa with three acres of gardens with pools, islands, stone arrangements, trees and shrubs, hillocks and a variety of arbours and teahouses. Its great delight is the variety of new vistas as one walks the narrow paths. The main pavilion includes a moon viewing platform and finely painted sliding screens.

John Figgess was not finished with us yet as we ticked off his itinerary item by item. The Kokadera Moss garden also had to be seen and deserved a high rating. Pools, streams and stone gardens abound. The whole area of several acres is carpeted with more than a hundred varieties of mosses of various shades and character. It is exhausting even to read of all these activities, but we were younger then.

A train journey took us to the Byodoin to see a fine example of an 11th century religious structure. The Phoenix Hall, as it is called, has a roof decorated with two of these fine birds. There is a nine-foot high Buddha seated on his lotus flower and many other good figures, mainly of musicians. In a separate tower hangs a bell renowned for being the most beautifully shaped bell in all Japan! We were now in Nara and had earned ourselves a good night’s rest.

Although we were into October the sun was shining and warm as we walked to the Kokuji Temple with its imposing five-storey pagoda. Its Treasure house, dating from the 7th to 13th centuries contains elegant sculpture in wood and lacquer that was of the highest standard back to earliest times. Its figures varied from the serene Buddha to frenzied kings or guardians stamping on evil spirits. There were also lifelike images of real people, patriarchs and priests. Moving on we reached the Todaiji Temple, claimed to be the largest wooden structure in the world. Apart from being artistically very satisfying it contained an engineering miracle of its day. A Buddha, over 50 feet high, had been cast in bronze in 752 AD. It weighs some 500 tons.

Whilst feeding some carp outside the Temple there were signs of a procession forming. There were priests in their robes, men with weird masks, portable shrines and best of all little boys and girls, beautifully dressed up with artistically painted faces. In the lead was a drummer and towards the tail a couple of minor dragons. We later discovered that this was the date of the Moon Festival. We had noticed a fleet of about 30 model boats, floating on the Sarasuwa Pond. Each was some two feet long, high at the bow and square at the stern. Amidships small square lanterns were mounted, their four glass sides being decorated with pictures or writing. Long poles suspended metal baskets over the water containing kindling and firewood. As darkness came the procession reappeared and two boats pushed out, placing candles in the lanterns of the model ships. The fires were lit over the water and our entertainment was complete.

A short train journey next day took us to Osaka, where we prepared for the journey home. That evening we attended a dramatic play in a 2000-seat theatre with moving staircases to take you to your row. The play lasted over five hours and we saw much of it. People came and went at their leisure. It was reasonably clear from gestures, expressions, emotions and sword play that some great and long-past episode was being re-enacted; a final addition to our Japanese education.

It was time to return to Kuala Lumpur, physically stressed, but mentally refreshed.

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