Notes on Japan I (March 16-28, 2024)

Genderless/Luxury/Texture/Experiment (Department store display translation of a product descriptor, Osaka, Japan).

March 16 (Saturday). London. 9.00 am: There are just a few taxi drivers who don’t offer the courtesy of opening the vehicle’s boot and helping you to load your heavy suitcases into it. Well at least this one turned up on time. That’s a big plus. 9.30 am: Due to yet another landslide between Shrewsbury and Wellington, London bound trains were rerouted via Crewe. And so the adventure began. There were delays (due to staff shortages) and overcrowded trains (with inadequate luggage room) from Shrewsbury and beyond. Arrived in London on time. And that’s another big plus.

An afternoon with family and an evening watching Hayao Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Tortoro (1988). All part of the pre-Japan prep.

March 18 (Monday). 9.00 am: From Putney to Waterloo to Tate Modern (via Google Map’s creatively circuitous route) to see the Yoko Ono: Music of the Mind exhibition. I’d discussed the work she’d undertaken with the New York Fluxus group in my Art/Sound module, some years ago. Now 91 years of age, she continues to make a contribution to the fields of visual and sound performance, as well as global activism. In the UK, however, her reputation has been, until recently, almost entirely eclipsed by that of her husband John Lennon, and as the woman who split up the Beatles. On the contrary, she expanded their creative boundaries. Ono (along with producer George Martin — who was the true fifth Beatle, if ever there was one) introduced ‘the fab four’ to ways of thinking about sound and recording technology that, in my opinion, shaped aspects of the group’s approach to The White Album (1968) and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band (1967), significantly. Her Morning Piece (1964) was performed on the rooftop of a property in New York in 1965. Four years later, the Beatles held their final performance on the on the rooftop of Apple Corp., London.

6.30 pm: Having arrived at Heathrow Airport and done battle with an ailing self-service boarding pass machines (there’s no replacement for an informed biological entity), I sat in Departures and reflected upon the weeks ahead. This would be my longest journey with the greatest time difference from GMT. I’d be almost completely out of sync with the UK, and likely suffer the mother of all jet-lags.

March 19 (Tuesday). Osaka, Japan. Hereafter, time and space became meaningless. The flight took off around 8.30 pm, ascended in an arc over northern Europe, the Middle East, and China, then, descended towards Seoul, South Korea (where I remained in transit awaiting a plane for Japan). I resolved to observe my usual sleep pattern as far as possible, going down at 10.00 pm GMT and waking at 11.00 pm, Seoul and Osaka time. I landed in Japan at 8.00 pm; it had been a ‘long day’s journey into night’ (once again).

The final stretch to Osaka took an hour and a half. Japan is notoriously officious. We had to complete two arrival forms (poorly designed as are they all, everywhere in the world) before entering Arrivals, where our elder son met us. This is the most foreign country I’ve ever visited. Nothing can be taken for granted. Western instincts are redundant here. The signage is dense and the words are orientated vertically; the Metro route maps are indecipherable at first without assistance. My son and daughter-in-law live in a flat overlooking the city in the Kita Ward on the right of the Yodo River, which passes through Osaka. Their windows are reinforced in order to endure earthquakes.

March 20 (Wednesday). I woke at 8.30 am, phased but otherwise ready for action. Jet-lag appears to have passed me by. After a long and warm conversation with my daughter-in-law, we explored the locale. It was earthy, downbeat, and unspoiled by tourism. Almost everything I encountered was unfamiliar, fascinating, and required interpretation. Some things remained an enigma. But a sense of mystery enriches life. Overhead were complex networks of criss-crossings telephone and electricity cables and transformers. Gorgeous! In an earthquake zone, you simply don’t bury them underground.

I ate a wonderful raman in a small shop that felt like a film set. Thereafter, we walked the Tenjinbashisuji shopping street in the Tenma district — the longest covered arcade in Japan. Among the many raman shops, budget barbers, smokers’ bars, luggage sellers, and pastry and shrink-wrapped turtle stalls, there were restaurants offering ‘British food’. The latter is illustrated by unsavoury plastic replicas of meals, displayed in the windows. Omelette coated with a liberal dollop of ketchup (resembling a nose bleed) is very popular, I’m told.

There was a Panchinko slot machine arcade on one of the street’s avenues. There must have been over a hundred machines simultaneously shooting small ball bearings, accompanied by desynchronous electronic noises and tunes overlaid upon one another to create a wall of fierce and complex sound. Quite intoxicating. It reminded me of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (1975)

7.30 pm: After tempura at a local restaurant, I visited the Osaka Tenmangu Shrine. It’s devoted to Tenjin, the Shinto deity of scholarship. The original shrine was founded in the 10th century CE.

March 21 (Thursday). Japan is full of sound. On waking in the middle of the night, I heard up to four distinct siren tones made by the city’s police cars, ambulances, and fire tenders. One is was of a lower pitch, and slow to ascend and descend — like an air raid alarm. They arose in the distance and defined a sonic line and conceptual distance across the city-scape as they approached and departed from my location.

The Metro stations have a soundscape of repeated jingles and chimes, recorded announcements, and muzak.

We headed for a city center complex of shopping malls and the neighbourhood of Shinsekai-Ebisuhigashi. Sensory overload: billboards, eateries, and gaming stalls abounded; pop songs, hawker calls, and karaoke bars sounded.

One of the more disconcerting features of this area is the conspicuous presence of so-called ‘mayfly’ and ‘maid’ girls. They’re uniformly petite, dressed as dolls (like characters in a manga graphic novel), and appear to be too young for comfort. Legally, they serve in bars and cafes as ephemeral and purchasable social companions for lonely and socially-inept males and females. Illegally … . We finished my daughter-in-law’s informed guided tour at an old cinema that still displays hand-painted billboards for each week’s films. Napoleon (2023) was showing on the ground-floor screen and Japanese pornography in the basement. All tastes catered for.

My first (unconscious) experience of sound and Japan was the anime Gigantor (1963), when I was five years of age. It was about a giant metal robot controlled by Jimmy Sparks, the son of its inventor. The soundtrack was distinguished by electrical noises, and spatial reverberation. In retrospect, the show had a significant impact on my sonic sensibility.

March 22 (Friday). 9.30 pm: This was my first day without the stablisers on the bike (my daughter-in-law’s guidance through the city). Whenever it was possible to take a wrong turn, Metro line, station, and exit, I exploited it. I arrived at Nara Park after travelling twice as long as the guidebook predicted. The entrance to the park was peppered with ambling tame deer that, once I’d brought a pack of bespoke feeding crackers, gathered round me like pigeons at Trafalgar Square eagerly seeking offerings. Several tugged at the hem of my jacket to attract attention.

For all their charm, they can be combative when provoked, and (so the noticeboards suggest) appear to have a particular penchant for confronting senior women and young girls. (Shame on them!)

The Todaiji Temple houses one of the largest bronze Buddhas in Japan. Made in the 12th century CE, at 15 meters it’s taller than my house. Magnificent, while darkly forbidding. The temple offered tourists the same types of cheap and glittery religious tie-ins as many Cathedrals in Europe and America. Among the requests posted on the prayer board was the following affecting plea. (Intercessions by students wanting to skip a grade and get better exam results at school were conspicuous.):

In the evening, we ate out as a family at a local yakitori restaurant. In essence, all the dishes are served as barbecued kebabs. The meat dishes exploit almost every part of the animal: heart, liver, kidneys, tongue, trotters, and ‘diaphragm’ (whatever that refers to). (Chinese cooking also offers pig’s intestines and fallopian tubes.) This type of cuisine probably originated among rural peasants whose straightened circumstances forced them to be resourceful and waste nothing. ‘Oishi‘ [delicious], as the Japanese would say.

March 23 (Saturday). In Japan, lunchtime begins as early as 11.30 am and ends around 1.30 pm. Thus, we ate early (for us): a simple bowl of soba noodles at a diner where seasoned locals sat cross-legged in booths. On, then, to the malls to buy clothes that would cost considerably more in the UK. Thereafter, I enjoyed some father-son time in the electric guitar and vinyl sections of a department store. The city centre was busy, but in an orderly way. The sounds of advertisements bled onto the streets, traffic signals beeped, buzzed, and chirped like electric birds, and people moved swiftly through the rain with their umbrellas raised. In my head I could hear: ‘A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure’ (Blade Runner (1982)).

On crossing the road, having visited the largest photography and electronics store that I’ve ever been too, I turned to see the Tunashiki Tenjinsha Otabisha shrine, squeezed between commercial high-rise buildings. People turned from the streets and climbed the steps to bow in prayer and clap before images of deities, before returning to their terrestrial business.

Dinner was taken at a conveyor-service sushi restaurant nearby. A new and memorable experience, for me at least.

March 24 (Sunday). It has been so unseasonably cold in Japan this year that the sakura (cherry blossom) has not yet emerged significantly, as is expected at this time of the year.

My elder son toured me from a patisserie to a local community college, where my daughter-in-law was representing England and englishness at a fund-raising event. En route. I came across a drinks vending machine, the design of which incorporated a portrait that was a spitting image for Terry Riley. Riley, who is one of the pioneers of American Minimalism in music, decamped to Kyoto after the death of his wife.

Many vehicles used for commercial purposes play recorded tunes or songs and speech through a loudspeaker to announce their approach. Only ice creams vans do back home. It’s charming. Sounds such as these a very much part of the city landscape.

We visited the grounds of Osaka Castle. The original building commenced in 1583, and was subsequently rebuilt several times due to fires and enemy bombing during World War II. The present restoration is from 1997. Many landmark buildings in Japan that were made of wood, and therefore combustible, are reincarnations of their original selves.

On, then, towards the city center and a teppanyaki/okonomiyaki restaurant in Sonezaki. I’ve yet to experience the same type of cuisine twice. We sat around a very hot plate gingerly picking up food. In the evening we attended the Royal Horse jazz club in Toganocho. The band were competent but safe — like watching a caged wild animal. They didn’t deviate from the script. ‘Pretend jazz’, in my book. But it was good to hear live music nevertheless.

March 25 (Monday). Kyoto.

Spent some nights in old Kyoto / Sleeping on the matted ground

David Bowie, ‘Move on’, Lodger (1979).

When you reach Kyoto send a postcard if you can

Brian Eno, ‘Burning Airlines’, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) (1974).

10.30 am: And so began a four-day stay in Kyoto — the cultural capital of Japan. Having taken the stopping rather than the express train (in error), it took nearly one and a half hours to get there. I’ve only today noticed that carriages have what appears to be a votive image tucked away above the overhead luggage rack. Perhaps it’s a perpetual prayer for safety during travel. Religion permeates Japanese life, in sometimes unobtrusive ways.

12.45 pm: Having dropped-off the luggage, the remainder of the afternoon was spent exploring the side streets and markets in the vicinity. Lunch was put together in instalments. One of the many laws regulating social etiquette is a prohibition on eating while walking. Thus, takeaway food is eaten near the place where it has been bought. A cucumber on a stick may not appear to be a hot prospect, but in reality it’s delicious. I gave sparrow a miss, along with baby octopus on a stick. The Japanese like their French patisseries. There were several on each street. The market arcades were choc-o-bloc with tourists looking hungry, wide-eyed, and bewildered. I was in good company.

3.45 pm: Back at the hotel, I caught up with myself, my family here, and friends in the UK (before they awoke.) In the lobby there’s a prayer wall where, for ¥100, you can hang a petition like fruit on a tree. Imagine a noticeboard for prayer requests in a UK Premier Inn.

March 26 (Tuesday). At the back of my hotel room is a sign that reads: ‘Clean up. Please’. This isn’t directed at the hotel service staff but, rather, to the occupant. My breakfast was a postmodern melange of western and local cuisine: traditional fried chicken, scrambled eggs, bacon, toasty, and loads of salad.

Today, it poured until 2.00 pm. At the Nijo-jo Castle, there’s a nightingale floor. It produces sounds that resemble singing birds. Rather, remarkable in its own way. The effect is made by dried boards and the movement of nails binding against the clamps that secure the wooden floor together. No intruder could sneak over the surface without causing it to chirp.

Once the rain had stopped, and after a bowl of simple soba noodles in soup at a very earthy and homely ramen shop, I visited a number of the twenty-two sub-temples at the Zen Buddhist Daitoku-ji Temple complex. They’re huddled together rather like Oxford colleges. I walked onto the walkway of the Ryōgen-in sub-temple’s rock garden and stopped, almost involuntarily. Strange to say, but there’re times when I hear a voice in my head, quite distinct from my own, that announces: ‘Here is a sound’. Raindrops dripped percussively from the roof tops onto the pebbles surrounding the gravel area. In the background and against the ambient silence could be heard the distant and irregular beat of a monk’s wood block. I was transfixed.

The Zuihō-in sub-temple was the family temple of the feudal warlord Ōtomo Sōrin. He converted to Christianity in 1578, and was thereafter known as Christian Daimoyo [warlord]. The rocks in the ‘Garden of the Cross’, designed in 1961, are arranged to form the motif of a Christ’s cross. I would’ve liked to have discussed with him how he’d managed to syncretise Buddhist and Christian concepts and values.

There’s a garden in the Daisen-in sub-temple that has no rocks. It’s made up of one element only: gravel. In their place are two virtually identical cones of gravel surrounded by raked concentric circles and other wave-form patterns: an ‘ocean’ in which two ‘salt’ mounds (resembling mountains) arise. This was one of several examples that I’d seen today of what could be described as Zen minimalism. Had I been in that garden alone, I would have wept. These days, few visual phenomenon — either natural or contrived — move me. This one overwhelmed, profoundly. Presently, I hardly know how to express it’s impact upon me in words.

The shrine operated a blanket prohibition on photography. Therefore, I had to confront this proposition long enough to be able to clearly recall it after I’d departed. The garden, for all intents and purposes, was unphotographable. In an age when almost all things can be consumed by the camera, the limitation was liberating. (There is a photograph of the garden available on Wikimedia Commons. I choose to honour the restriction and look at it in my mind’s eye.]

Later, I recalled having much the same aesthetic/spiritual experience before Mark Rothko’s Black on Maroon (1958) at the Tate Gallery (as it was known) back in the late 1970s. Two painted forms (figures) emerging from a backdrop (ground), likewise made of paint.

Afterwards, I recovered myself with green tea and aburi-mochi taken at the Ichiwa and Kazariya sweet stores (a term which has entirely different connotations in the west). ‘Aburi-mochi is rice-flour cake that has been rolled in kinako (soybean) powder, grilled over hot charcoal and finally coated in a sweet sauce made from white miso paste’, explains the website. It’s sweet, and reminded me of toffee apple. After visiting the Imamiya close by, I was punch-drunk with shrines and Zen gardens, and returned to town to buy dinner.

March 27 (Wednesday). ‘Doors closing. / Doors opening’, announced the elevator. There’s great wisdom in this aphorism, for those who have ears to hear. 7.45 am: Breakfast.

9.15 am: On the day I heard that the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra had died yesterday, I confronted a Kogetsudai in the Ginkaku-ji Temple (Silver Pavilion) gardens. This is a large flat-top cone of sculpted sand that symbolizes Mount Fuji. I cannot think that Serra didn’t appreciate this embodiment of Zen Buddhist formalism. The surrounding gardens, designed in 1482, are extraordinary. Well composed from every perspective: a Japanese landscape painting in three dimensions. In camera, the several moss gardens and shrubs appear like a landscape as seen from far above.

‘Here is a sound’. In a souvenir shop on the road that led up to the Pavilion grounds, I positioned myself between three musical boxes playing different tunes, and remained transfixed.

11.15 am: On, then, to the Kyoto City Kyocera Museum of Art, where I took lunch. Established in 1933, it’s the oldest museum of art in Japan. Unfortunately, the collection rooms were closed and the special exhibition was of cubist art from the Pompidou Centre, Paris. I hadn’t come all the way to Japan to see european painting. The museum is a very fine example of public architecture, with an extensive garden at its rear.

Over the road is The National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. (The two institutions are still rather confused in my mind.) There were some engaging examples of Japanese artists who’d come under the influence of european styles — early twentieth-century Expression, in particular — a decade or more after they’d played out in Germany and France. The so-called ‘civilising effect’ has a slow gestation.

From there I travelled to Gion (‘old Kyoto’) by bus and legs, following a shallow canal towards the Gion Tatsumi Bridge. Gion is the city’s Geiko (Kyoto’s term for ‘Geisha’) and Maiko (apprentice Geiko) district. These are female artists who perform traditional art styles. ‘Geiko’ directly translates as ‘woman of art’. They’re NOT sex workers or escorts — as westerners sometimes assume. They can be seen walking gracefully along the streets of the traditional machiya merchant houses. It’s forbidden to take photographs of them in the afternoon.

The final stop was at the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. The grounds were teaming with tourists who were attracted more by the many food and craft stalls, it seemed. I escaped and found ramen restaurant in the city centre. Opposite me was a couple from Kilkenny, Ireland. They, too, were retired academics, and had both worked in Cardiff University. The husband, like me, had a gluten intolerance, and appreciated the menu’s list of gluten-free noodle alternatives.

March 28 (Thursday). 7.45 am: Breakfast. A recording of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, played on what sounded like a koto (a 13-string instruments), provided the background muzak. Bizarre!

My final day in Kyoto. 8.30 am: I headed for the  Arashiyama bamboo forest. A great many other people had had the same intent. It was like Oxford Street in the sales, raised to the power of 10. Progress through the forest was impeded by teenagers dressed in kimonos taking self-regarding photographs for their TikTok or Instagram profile. Everyone wants to nail the ‘Japanese experience’. Many tourists’ first encounter with the new is mediated via their mobile phone cameras: life lived to be shared immediately with others who aren’t there. The forest would’ve been a place of quiet contemplation and grandeur had it not been upstaged by the slow moving river of bodies and rickshaws that coursed the upward road.

The Tenrhyu-ji Temple and gardens, which lie just below the forest, disappointed. I’d seen far better examples of both at the sub-temples. Moreover, their resonance was unsettled by the many foreign tourists (of whom I was one) traipsing across the tatami floors, looking but not seeing, reading but not comprehending.

3.15 pm: Having had my fill of crowds, I returned to the hotel, retrieved my suitcase, and took the train back to Osaka.

See also: Intersections (archive);  Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021)Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey (main site); John Harvey: SoundFacebook: The Noises of ArtXInstagram.

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