There’s something about Japan…

Why did I visit Japan?

I expected to enjoy the food and the scenery; I anticipated seeing cutting-edge technology; I already knew from working with them that I liked Japanese people. The country seemed slightly exotic without being intimidating. A tour of Japan felt like a suitably ‘special’ holiday to mark my retirement, especially as we chose the cherry blossom tour which takes place around the time of our wedding anniversary.

Many Japanese celebrate cherry blossom season with a hanami party, which is a picnic under the cherry trees. On day two of the tour, our group was going to enjoy its very own hanami party! Unfortunately, the weather was poor, cold and wet, and we picnicked in the rain. Our tour guide had prepared copies of a traditional Japanese cherry blossom song for us to sing, and provided a recorded accompaniment. We sang it. It all felt a little silly.

Until the next day.

We took a boat trip on the Sumida River, and there, in the background, was the cherry blossom song, ‘Sakura, Sakura’, we had sung the day before. Suddenly, the symbolism of cherry blossom made perfect emotional sense. I don’t think I can explain it; it’s something you need to experience before you can even begin to understand it. It goes way beyond the obvious reading of the transience of beauty.

Then, a few days later, Mount Fuji. What is it about that peak that makes it so potent? I’m not Japanese; it’s not a national icon of mine; and yet seeing it evoked a sense of awe in me. And it wasn’t just my response. We were travelling by bus, and the whole busload of us  gasped (and I really mean that – you could hear the sharp intake of breath) as we first saw the mountain.

Mount Fuji 2 170413

In the afternoon, I walked a short way along the ancient Tokkaido highway, which is planted on either side with 400-year-old cedars. There was one especially majestic tree. I stopped and rested my hand against its trunk. Abruptly I felt…disrespectful. I felt as though it would have been more appropriate to have bowed to the tree.

The next day we saw the Miyako Odori. I have rarely watched a performance of such intensity. I understand some of the theatrical devices that made it so powerful, but there’s more to it than that. Once again, it leads back to cherry blossom, the exquisite beauty of the world that humans are privileged to share for a short period.

Miyajima 170413

This holiday has changed me. A small part of that change is that I feel more tranquil. I haven’t changed my religious belief; I’m certainly not a Shintoist, or an animist; but I’ve experienced emotional responses that go beyond my ability to understand or describe them more than superficially. I’m glad of those experiences; I’m the richer for them.

It was a good holiday. Thank you, Japan!

A picnic in the rain

The weather forecast today for Tokyo was for rain and a maximum temperature of 6°C. It helpfully added that 6°C would feel like 1°C. So where was I at 12:30? In the Imperial Palace Outer Garden, eating a picnic in the rain, on a plastic sheet, with no shoes on. Yes, you read that correctly; I had no shoes on. To be fair, the food was both tasty and filling.

Tokyo cherry blossom picnic 170401

And we were, too, under a magnificent cherry tree in almost full bloom. I am sure this will bring me enormous good fortune over the next twelve months, just as soon as I’ve recovered from the pneumonia. We sang a song about the blossom

“Sakura, sakura, yayoi no sarawa miwatasu kagiri

Kasumika kumokanioi zo izuru, izaya izaya mini yukan.”

In the morning we had visited the Tsukiji fish market. This is made up of an outer market, which has unrestricted public access. It’s a maze of literally hundreds of small retail outlets, which are not food stalls exactly, but I struggle to call them shops, as they are completely open to the street at the front. They sell fish, fish derivatives (like flaked bonito tuna), fruit and veg, processed fruit and veg, and general small items. And there are lots and lots of micro-eateries mostly with disproportionately long queues. It’s crowded.

Tokyo fish market outer 170401

The inner market is where the serious business takes place, with £15m of fish being traded every day, and a where a large tuna can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars. Public access is restricted to a period after 10:00, when the busiest time is past. Again, it’s crowded. It’s also hazardous, with motorised trolleys whizzing unexpectedly round corners. They have de facto right of way; pedestrians must dodge! The visit was very worthwhile, because it gave us a view of some of the things that happen behind the scenes to enable visitors like me, and of course the residents of the city, to enjoy our daily life. Here are people working in cold, wet, crowded, hazardous conditions, for not very much money. For them, life is hard, and we could see that it was.

After our picnic, we strolled in the Imperial Palace Eastern Garden.

Tokyo cherry blossom 170401

There are castle ruins, a pond with koi, and a small museum with woodblock prints. And some of them are beautiful, indeed, one of them is amongst the most beautiful objects I’ve ever seen in my life and I shall never forget it. It depicted rain at dawn on a shrine. The light from the rising sun was wonderfully captured, and the shrine glowed translucent. Utter perfection!