Notes on Japan II (March 29-April 9, 2024)

Lost in translation: ‘Take away nemu’ (restaurant notice, Tokyo, Japan).
Ambiguation:’Please be ready to get off before the train stops’ (Shikensen train announcement).

March 28 (Good Friday). Kyushu. 10.45 am: Our family travelled on Japan’s famous Shikansen (Bullet Train) to Beppu, on the southern island of Kyushu. Prompt departure, generous and bookable luggage space and leg room, and stability and speed in motion. Drivers and guards on Japanese railways dress like naval cadets. They exude an air of professionalism and pride. Guards bow before and after leaving each carriage: an expression of respect for, and service to, their passengers. The use of mobile phones is prohibited in carriages (cars). There is, however, a telephone booth between carriages in which passengers can make calls. This is so civilised.

The train stopped at Hiroshima, en route. I was reminded of those times when my Carlisle to Edinburgh train stopped at Lockerbie station. Both are places of historic significance, atrocity and outrage, sorrow, and wounds that will never fully heal. On the day of Crucifixion, I witnessed the passing landscape of contemporary Hiroshima, uncomprehendingly.

1.15 pm: Arrived at Beppu, which is a combination of seaside resort and industrial town that evokes, for me, a conflation of Penang, Malaysia and California. Having dropped our bags at the hotel, we headed for the observation deck on the Beppu Tower, to survey the landscape before exploring. The ticket checker, cafe server, and shop assistant were one and the same. In the background, a melody looped endlessly, as though her and our lives were on permanent hold, awaiting a response at the other end of the phone.

We took a local bus to see several of Beppu’s ‘hells’. These are hot spring water and mud pools heated by magma below the earth’s crust. The smell of sulphur (which I’d experienced more pungently in Iceland) drifted with the breeze-blown steam. At times, the slowly morphing white clouds and the low-toned roar of steam under immense pressure summoned a Lynchian state of high anxiety. I ate an egg boiled in the 100°C water nearby.

Due to the ambient heat, the sakura here was in blossom. As we left to catch the bus back into town, coach loads of tourists arrived eager to sooth their feet in the warm waters and drink the salty water, which tastes like a light soup base. They were quickly marched around the various pools by guides who appeared to know what they were shouting about.

March 30 (Saturday). 10.00 am: We took breakfast at a café nearby. ‘Hot sand and mackerel’ was on the menu. (Raised eyebrows.) ‘Sand’ is short for ‘sandwich’ here, I later discovered. I ate toast with cheese, black pepper, and honey. (A combination that I’ll summon again when back at home.) The milk in Japan is wonderful. ‘Have a nice day!’, the waitress commended as I left. I’d never thought that this trite Americanism would sound so comfortable in the ear.

We explored the back streets on Beppu, and came across a traditional bathhouse established in the nineteenth century. The present building was erected in 1938. Takegawara Spa is still operational. Later, I discovered a turn of the century photograph showing the interior of its women’s room. I thought of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ painting of the Turkish Bath (1862).

At the centre of the red-light district is a shrine. Several had gathered for worship. On this occasion, the doors were open, revealing a strikingly bare space and a room beyond that could be seen only through a lattice. I was reminded of the Tabernacle’s interior in the Jewish Bible: a room divided in two — the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, wherein only the High Priest entered.

By car, we travelled to Yufuin. The village appears to celebrate nothing other than its own villageness. Once again, tourists were out in number. There were, however, two places that made the visit worthwhile. The first was a shop that sold chopsticks made from the wood of the sakura, which is native to this area. The process of transformation from tree to implement takes five years.

The second was Yufuin Dream Museum of retro, at which I met a childhood hero face to face: Gigantor. The collection represented the period from the Second World War era to the 1980s, chiefly. There was an atmospheric recreation (using authentic period objects and furnishings) of a 1950s bar. It’s the type of place that a man would’ve visited to forget a woman.

From there we travelled through the Japanese countryside to Kurokawaonsen — the small village where we were staying overnight at a traditional, Japanese-style accommodation.

The village has a quality somewhere between film set and dream world. Portmeirion, Wales, was my touchstone in this respect. Hayao Miyazaki animations of rural Japan summon the same resonances of magic and cosiness.

For evening meal, we ate a multi-course Kaiseki around a hot bed on which we cooked some of our meat and vegetables.

Later, I showered in a private bathroom. It’s one of the oldest parts of the hotel, going back two hundred years. I’ve rarely been in a place that I’ve wanted to get out of so quickly. The space was profoundly unsettling; like a scene from David Lynch’s Mulholand Drive (2001). In the low light, the bath water was almost black, and with no discernible bottom. (Had someone drowned here in the past?) Inexplicable animal-like sounds emanated from the rafters. I felt as though something else was present with me.

March 31 (Easter Sunday). 9.30 am: A final walk through Kurosawaonsen, and some sound advice:

From there we drove through a caldera region. In the distance, there was the Mount Aso range. In its midst, the smoke plumes of the active Mount Nakadake volcano could be seen through a dense haze.

The grassed- and burnt-over mounds and hills of lava and ash in the area reminded me of reclaimed coal tips in South Wales during my youth. In both places, the landscape has/had been turned inside out. (I’d seen the same formations in Iceland.)

Having visited the observation area, we headed for  the Kamishikimi Kumanoza Shrine. There are 200+ steps to the top, up an avenue of tall trees with moss and lichen covered sculptural lanterns either side of the path. At the shrine, pilgrims tossed coins into a box, bowed, rang a bell, and clapped. In Japan, religion and nature hold hands.

We journeyed upwards to the Kusasenrie Observatory (viewing point). From here we should’ve been able to survey Mount Eboshidake. Instead, we looked out upon the ‘emptiness of reality’, as Zen Buddhists say.

We arrived at the Ryokan Minawa, Minamiaso, the night’s accommodation, around 5.30 pm. It’s at the centre of the island and boasts excellent views of the Kumamoto landscape.

The evening kaiseki meal took place against a backdrop of heavy rain, thunder, and lightning:

After dinner we decamped to the bar. Through the window, the illuminated stage of a pagoda was visible. Across the surface of the pond below it, a  faint smokey vapour — like gossamer-thin ectoplasm — snaked slowly. In an earlier time, perhaps, this phenomenon might have been interpreted as a water spirit.

April 1 (Monday). Minamiaso/Hiroshema. Sometime in the middle of the night, a cat made noises at the rear of the building we were staying in. In Japan,  they cry ‘mian’ rather than ‘miaow’. 6.30 am: I was woken again. this time by the early morning light entering through the paper screens.

At checkout, the accommodation’s receptionist presented two bags of bread — a  gift of hospitality to nourish us on our onward journey. This is a tradition to be cherished.

10.00 am: We headed north towards the Kikuchi Gorge. It’s like Artists Valley back at home, only writ larger. The cascading water falls provide a sonic backdrop of brown noise, punctuated only by the unusually loud croaks (or, better, ‘creaks’) of tiny frogs.

12.30 pm: Our onward journey took us  through areas where the Sakura had blossomed, towards Kumamoto. It’s suburbs are what I’d call ‘small-town Japan’ — places like those I’ve seen in many Japanese films about ordinary life outside the cities and on the boundary of rurality.

2.45 pm: We boarded the Bullet Train to Hiroshima. My lunch was Spam sushi. The chairs rotate on this train, so you can face whatever direction you wish.

Hiroshima has a history before and after 8.15 am on August 6, 1945, when an American Boeing Superfortress detonated ‘the Little Boy’ atomic bomb above the city. 70% of the buildings were destroyed, and a further 7% were severely damaged. But it’s the human toll from this obscenity that appalls most: up to 140,000 were either murdered immediately when the bomb detonated, or died as a result of radiation burns and poisoning later. The name ‘Hiroshima’ will be forever soiled by the offence committed against it. Today, however, it’s a thriving ‘City of Peace’.

Yesterday, the US Republican Congressman Tim Walberg stated that the Gaza problem should be dealt with like Nagasaki and Hiroshima — metaphorically speaking, he later clarified.

6.15 pm: For dinner we tasted Hiroshima’s famed take on okonomiyaki. In essence, the dish is a pancake sandwich with everything in it and sweet mayonnaise on top.

April 2 (Tuesday) Hiroshima/Tokyo. We set out early to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum before the tourist hoards descended. The curation was excellent: well paced, clearly and simply explained, and abundantly illustrated with authentic artefacts, photographs, artworks, and animations.

It was an emotionally exhausting tour. The plight of the children was especially affecting. They and adults were represented by tattered and radioactive black-rain spotted clothes, as well as personal histories, portraits, and narratives of their experience.

There was a wall clock that had stopped at the moment the bomb detonated. There’s a clock in the National Museum Wales that, likewise, had stopped the moment the coal tip slipped down and buried Pantglas Junior School, Aberfan, Wales, at 9.13 am on October 21, 1966.

Two walls in particular served to embody in, different ways, the destructive impact of the nuclear device. One preserved — as a kind of perverse photograph — the shadows of those who were standing against it, as the blast of heat and light whitened the stone work surrounding them. The other bore the indentations of broken glass that had been thrust against it with enormous speed and force.

Walking past the Genbaku [Atomic] Dome on a warm Spring day, some 160m from the epicentre of the explosion, it was impossible to envisage the catastrophic moment that had taken place nearly 80 years earlier. I looked to the sky and to where the entire world changed 600m above my head when a great evil was released into the world. (A second Fall from innocence.]

In an interview, the American Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock reflected that after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, artists could no longer work with the old forms of the past. Reality and humanity had been fundamentally transformed.

Jackson Pollock, detail of drip painting (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

3.00 pm: After lunch in the park we took the train to Tokyo. 7.00 pm: Arrived. This is a city on an altogether large scale than any one we’d visited so far. We headed for our hotel in the Shinjuku district.

April 3 (Wednesday). I’ve had far better views from my bedroom window this trip:

Here, money is king. Outside of major department stores, most retailers deal only with cash. And you can forget about using a smart phone wallet to pay by credit card too. Which is curious for a country so enamoured with technology. Cashiers hand you your change with both hands, like they’re bestowing an gift. You, in turn, receive it with both hands, in an act of gratitude. The ritual expresses a sense of human to human transaction, interaction, and touch, one that we’ve lost with plastic and tap-and-pay technologies.

We toured a local department store. The stationary section sold types of merchandise like I’d bought in Singapore 30 years ago. It rained and rained and in Japan (as distinct from the UK) everybody carries an umbrella. It makes negotiating the crowds a challenge. Not far away was the red-light district — the downbeat and debased underbelly of the city. Godzilla peered over the roof top of a cinema menacingly; a dog cafe offered therapeutic patting/petting; a shop sold miniature kittens and puppies for the price of a car in Japan; and a large digital, trompe l’oeile cat looked down from a curved screen set high above us.

Later we found (after much wrangling with Google Maps) Tokyo’s iconic Shibuya Crossing. It looks very different at street level from the aerial views shown in films and documentaries. The surrounding area was like Times Square, New York, but with a multi-layered and loud soundscape of kinetic advertising billboards and TV and film previews. This truly was Blade Runner territory.

In the evening, we met up with an old friend who’d studied at Aberystwyth Univeristy some years ago. We had a lovely meal and conversation together in a department store restaurant that provided a spectacular view of the city below and beyond. Her office is next to our hotel, coincidentally.

April 4 (Thursday). Thank goodness for Google Translate. I’ve needed it to convert labels and instructions and explain to pharmacists the nature of a complaint.

On my phone, I’ve a list of 10 common Japanese courtesies for everyday use. Unlike, ‘hello’, ‘please’, and ‘sorry’ in English, the Japanese equivalents are a delicious mouthful.  ‘Thank you’ = ‘arigatou gozaimasu’. And in Japanese, this expression of gratitude is used extremely frequently. This is no overstatement. Every passenger who alights from a bus having paid their fare, is thanked personally by the driver. The Japanese language is frighteningly complex and notoriously hard to acquire. However, my elder son’s dexterity after only 6 months’ residency here  is already very impressive. I wish I had his gift. Immersion and necessity: it’s the only way.

10.15 am: Off to the Tokyo National Museum, by train. The stations rarely have an indication of their name on the platform. So you have to keep your wits about you and attend to the in-carriage information board. At 11.16 am there was an earthquake of 3.9 magnitude when we were travelling and another, while we were in the museum building, an hour later. The latter’s epicentre was the Fukushima coastline (near the site of the nuclear accident in 2011), with a 6.0 magnitude. I felt neither.

The museum’s Japanese Gallery represents the development of art and craft from the country’s earliest times to the 19th century. The collection articulates how Japan assimilated influences from China and the Korean Peninsula, and created their own distinctive forms and style from them. In the 19th century, as Japan opened up to the west, western modes were absorbed into its cultural mix, just as the west was influenced by the country’s prints and music. That process of integration and transformation continues today.

A box of pink sakura blossom, in remembrance of happiness, knowledge, and generation while in  Japan.

On, then, to Ginza and the Happy Pancake café. Afterwards, shopping beckoned. On the rooftop of one department store there’s a small shrine. Those who visit it will be blessed with good fortune. We’ll see.

April 6 (Friday). Tokyo/Osaka. 9.00 am: Into the suburbs by train for some niche shopping. These areas of the city are more or less the same the world over. An overcast sky and cold temperature. Many department stores in Japan play jazz — good jazz — over the speaker system. It pervades the loos too. (Most have heated toilet seats.) Fine by me. It jazz lubricates the monotony of buying.

A single, street advertisement.  The section above is for a restaurant and the section below, for a pet shop. No comment.

We made our way via wrong ways, mis-advised ways, and ways that were too difficult to rationalise back to Tokyo Terminal,  where we’d catch the Bullet Train to Osaka. Every station looks alike and has many confusing exits and a great deal of conflicting signage. Even those who live here say so. Woe betide the foreign tourist.

2,30 pm: Our train left Tokyo for Osaka. 6.30 pm: My elder son took me on a tour of local hospitals in search of an A&E (ER) department that just might have an on-duty ophthalmologist to discuss my on-going eye problems. Out of hours, there was no chance. On our return to home turf, we ate at my favourite ramen bar on the Tenjinbashisuji shopping street.

April 6 (Saturday). 8.00 am: it’s strange how Osaka has, during these last weeks, become a ‘home’ to me after returning from my wanderings elsewhere in Japan. First thing in the morning, my eyesight is a blur and haze presently, like living in a steamed bathroom after a shower. I’m also experiencing photophobia. An emergency GP and ophthalmologist appointment will be secured on my return to Wales.

We took a boat trip down and up the Yoda River. The Sakura is in full bloom: vivid white and pale pink blossoms. A singer and pianist struck up as we set off from shore. (That would never happen on a cruise down the Thames.) Talk about a captive audience. We couldn’t have hoped for a more lovely day.

Lunch was taken at 11.30 am in Osaka Castle Park. There were families and friends picnicking under the blossoming Sakura trees. Idyllic. Le déjeuner sur l’herbe  — Eduard Manet and Claude Monet would’ve adored the scene. We ate with friends and family whom son first knew when visiting Japan on a secondary school exchange trip. They’d brought with them a banquet, and fine introduction — if ever we needed it — to a breadth of Japanese delicacies.

The husband and wife in the group (who’d lost their 18-year old son to a rare blood cancer some years ago) drove us to Osaka International Airport (Itami Airport), outside the city,  to stand with a crowd of enthusiasts — some holding the arrivals and departures timetable in their hands — who were plane spotting. This was a first for me. We awaited the landings like the assembled believers for the passing  of alien spacecraft in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Pure sonic pleasure. I could feel the roar of the engines through my feet. Staring at tons of metal falling out of sky just above your head makes you appreciate just how remarkable the third law of aerodynamics is — far more than when landing inside a plane.

On, then, to the Overseas Jazz Club. In contrast to our previous jazz excursion, this occasion was ‘good jazz’. It’s an intimate venue. The pianist was taught by Tommy Flanagan who, in turn, played with Miles Davis. The ensemble was tight. Once the musicians had warmed to their task, the music played itself through them.

Afterwards, we ate yakiniki locally. On the way home, I bought a ‘fruit sand’ [which]. A new love. This one looked like a painting by Terry Frost.

April 7 (Sunday). I first fell in love with the Japanese language listening to David Bowie’s ‘It’s No Game’ — the opening track on his Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) (1980) album. The music begins with — what sounds to a western ear like — a fierce and angry diatribe spoken by the performance artist Michi Hirota. I’ve never looked up the English translation; I prefer to hear her voice as an abstraction. If ever I set myself to learn a foreign language, it will be Japanese.

11.30 am: We revisited a specialist knife shop at Ebisuhigashi to purchase implements for cooking. The owner spent an hour explaining and demonstrating their use and maintenance, and how the quality of the cut could improve the taste of the food. His knowledge of the craft and communication skills were exemplary.

12.30 pm: We ate fried food on skewers at the narrowest restaurant I’ve ever squeezed into. Although ‘restaurant’ (like ‘cafe’) is a term associated with European rather than Japanese cooking. It’s more of a shop, or diner, or bar. The English language doesn’t have a word that corresponds precisely. In Japanese, they’re referred to as ‘ya‘. A TV suspended from the ceiling showed programmes without sound. In the background, a recording of popular Japanese music from the 1950s and 60s played. Photographs alone convey, at best, only 50% of the experience of moving through Japan.

2.00 pm: An elevator ride (and that 2001: A Space Odyssey experience) to the 60th floor observation area of the Abeno Harukas. It’s the third tallest building in Japan, with a 360-degree view as far as they eye can see. From here  you can appreciate just how dense and extensive the city and its environs are. 20 million people lived below us. At some level, the mind can’t grasp that reality.

3.30 pm: On to the Nakazakicho district. Its many old and dilapidated buildings had been slated for demolition. But artists moved in, repaired them, and set up studio spaces and small galleries. Thus the area was rejuvenated. Now its Osaka’s bohemian district and a centre for the arts. At the Jokata Temple, the breeze blew through the branches of the sakura in the courtyard and made the blossom snow. The cherry trees are now past their peak.

7.30 pm: After another father-son bonding session in the vinyl record shops, we made for the Uniqlo. Here, as in other department stores in Japan, the assistants work at their stations while repeating a chant of exquisite musicality, as though — like Sirens — to draw customers to them. You can hear several assistants ‘singing’ at any one time, like birds calling to one another from different areas on the ‘forest’ floor.

The overlay of structures, signage, traffic signals, and electrical and telegraphic cables finds its correlative in the city’s soundscape of street calls, announcements, gingles, shop music, and the chatter of the crowd. For a good part of the last three weeks, we’ve lived inside a constantly changing collage of sound and vision.

April 8 (Monday). My final full day in Japan. A time for gearing down in preparation for the return home. On weekdays, the trains operate ‘women-only passenger cars’ for those who would prefer not to be compacted together shoulder to shoulder with men during busy periods.

A final shopping expedition. Stickers as a cultural index:

A land of multi-flavoured KitKat; a day of intriguing Google Translate misfires; an occasion to explain hay fever and the location of Wales to a store assistant; and a ‘famous salad’ with sushi, taken at a café that looked like a 1980’s sci-fi previsioning of future world. 

2.30 pm: On the way back, I received my reward for a morning’s shopping. In a small, old-school vinyl record shop situated on the second floor of a building, I found a new copy of Miles Davis’ Agharta (1975). The album captures a live recording he made on February 1 that year at Osaka’s Festival Hall. The current venue, rebuilt in 2008, is just down the road from where my son and daughter-in-law live. The performance was presented in the afternoon on that day. The evening performance was released as Pangaea (1975). These were his final two albums, and among the last live gigs he gave before physical pain and spiritual and creative exhaustion forced him into temporary retirement. 5.00 pm: Later, I walked (in the rain and without an umbrella) by the side to the river to visit the Festival Hall, to pay homage to the great man.

6.30 pm: A final (and second) visit to one of my two favourite ya on the holiday, for a pork, beef, and spinach curry. The other is a at a ramen ya, close by. I’d revisit Osaka just for these meals.

April 9 (Tuesday). Osaka/Seoul/London. 4.00 am: I awoke after a restless and humid night. 5.30 am: Suitcases secured, we headed into the rain, which had not let up since yesterday, to  catch the airport train.

The journey from Check-in to entry to Security to Immigration to the gates was almost effortless and acceptably swift. And certainly nothing like the cattle-herding humiliation I’ve experienced in some UK airports. 9.00 am: On the plane, exchanging final messages of fond farewell with family and friends. Before me were 535 miles and one and a half hours to Seoul.

The only benefit of opting for gluten free meals on this airline is that I get to be served first. The food makes the school lunches of my youth taste like Michelin-starred cuisine. (The second leg of the journey was better in this respect.)

Attempting to fill a water bottle from Seoul Airport’s horizontally oriented water spouts is like trying to pee into a hole halfway up a wall. 12.30 pm: Transit over, I now faced the 14-hour long haul to London Heathrow. ‘I must not watch other passengers’ films through the gap between the seats in front of me.’ Although, having spied on a number of action movies nearby, I’m appalled by how alike they are in ideas, clichés, predictability, and directorial dullness. 12.00 pm GMT: We were over the halfway mark.

7.00 pm GMT: We arrived at London Heathrow 20 minutes late. ‘Welcome to the UK Border’, proclaimed the banners. The greeting rang hollow. We spent the night with our younger son in London.

Last night at dinner in Osaka my elder son asked me what aspects of Japan would I miss most. It would be the people rather more than the place. I’ve been touched by their courtesy, consideration, conscientious, modesty, and generosity. At a push, I’d also anticipate grieving for the country’s ubiquitous heated-toilet seats. Oh! … There is one other thing.

In Osaka, an old house stood close-by to where I stayed.  Just before nightfall, its porch lantern was turned on, and a dim yellowish light shone behind the wooden slatted windows. I neither saw any one enter or leave nor noticed movement within. The solid doors were always closed. It’s the type of house that children quickly walk passed on the other side of the street, not daring to look back. The type of house where only spirits abide. The type of house that may not be there in the morning. I don’t ever want to know what went on inside that house.

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.

5 Comments. Leave new

  • Aislinn Knight
    April 12, 2024 9:36 pm

    John, I so enjoyed reading that, it was beautiful. Thank you for sharing.
    Ais x

  • Junko Burton
    April 15, 2024 2:22 pm

    Hi John,
    I thoroughly enjoyed reading Notes on Japan I and II. Having lived only in Tokyo (between Shinjuku and Shibuya) until moving to the UK, I read the parts about Osaka with interest and curiousity of a ‘gaijin’ while viewing the scenes that are more familiar to me through eyes. Most surprising thing, though, was the effect the sound clips had on me! They evoked the memories of ordinary life in my home country despite the fact most of them were what I had considered as noises from which I escaped. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • johnscriptorium
      April 15, 2024 2:38 pm

      Hi Junko
      I thoroughly enjoyed being a ‘Gaijin’. Although, I was never made to feel other than very welcome. I miss Japan already. The insistence of the sounds was like nothing I’d ever experienced. Something of a paradise for me. However, it did feel like being trapped inside a musical box at times. Thanks for your comments.

  • Karen Pearce
    April 15, 2024 9:45 pm

    I enjoyed reading this very much, thanks for lots of smiles and lots of interest.


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