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!

Theatre – Miyako Odori

I fear that you, my gentle readers, are going to feel that I cannot write without the use of superlatives. But it’s that sort of trip; the experiences that we’re having can only be appropriately described by superlatives.

Today we travelled by shinkansen, the bullet train, to Kyoto. It’s a train. It’s very fast. It’s very smooth. No, it no longer deserves superlatives, even though it travels at well over 150 mph, and we haven’t built anything that fast yet in the UK.

The countryside through which we travelled is interesting, but not particularly noteworthy. Think of the foreground being Holland and the background being Switzerland and you’ve about got it.

We ate a really pleasant okonomiyaki this evening, washed down with beer. Superlatives unnecessary.

But this afternoon. This afternoon we went to the Miyako Odori. This is a traditional theatrical art form performed by geisha. It has elements of straight theatre, opera, and ballet; and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 170405

I expected to see beauty. I expected to see grace. I expected to be moved emotionally. What I didn’t expect was drama of such intensity that the tears were running down my cheeks. It was a simple story of loss set in the context of the continuity of human life, and performed with a hypnotic focus and skill that was shattering.

Kyoto Miyako Odori 002 170405

It’s invidious to pick out individuals because it was the effect of every contribution together that made the performance so memorable – but I’m going to do it anyway!

The principal singer was superb. An astonishing voice, and such amazing projection of emotion. The flute soloist accomplished remarkable effects and her intonation was wonderfully precise even when using microtones. The little details were perfect, like the snowflakes in the winter grieving scene, which were small paper discs. When illuminated by warm light in the finale, they were revealed as pink cherry blossom underfoot.

So I have yet another memory that I shall cherish until the end of my life. And if I have time on my deathbed to think of this, I shall remember the cherry blossom and die with a tranquil spirit.