Arrigato Japan

I need a movie camera right now. I am standing in my wrinkled travelling clothes in the middle of the Tokyo Central railway station at 8am, tired after travelling all night on a plane and firmly clutching my suitcase handle. I want to capture forever this moment - thousands of human missiles are shooting towards me, black-suited business men and women ricocheting off an invisible force field around me as they speed from every imaginable direction, never making contact and all resolute in their frenetic rush to their destinations. I might be ready for sleep but Japan is ready for work.

Tokyo station was to be my first encounter with an amazing place. We rushed through the subway system to find the Shinkhansen – the bullet train south-bound to the old Capital, Kyoto – the destination of every sightseer to Japan. There were just enough English characters on the signs in this big city. The bullet train – reputed to travel at speeds of up to 350km per hour – gave you no “thwack” back into your seat, no curling of the lips back across the gums and no flattening of the brow because of the intense speed – just a gentle rocking, then steadying and a quiet glide on super slick rail tracks. I was disappointed. Out of the window though, we gawped at kilometres and kilometres of apartment blocks, stacked like Lego across the horizon and housing the millions of people who live in this tiny country – twelve million of whom live in Tokyo alone.

Japan was to be a “painting” holiday – no rushing around for us, we vowed to stay put and paint each day to capture the essence of the country. I packed all my arty essentials, revised them for the new terrorist restrictions and then revised them again by the weight of my suitcase. By the time I left, I had narrowed it down to an A5 notepad, three water-soluble pencils and a pocket watercolour palette.

My artistic intentions, predictably, dissolved the minute I arrived. You just have to see everything. I reasoned that I would collect reference photographs and not waste all that money paid to get here by just sitting around! I’ve heard myself say this before. One part of an afternoon we sat briefly amongst a throng of sightseers in a shrine’s garden – forced to stop because our legs had given up. We painted quickly to capture the smoky atmosphere while sitting balanced on the end of a rocky stool and sipping “free” green tea in the hot sun - people milling around us wanting the luxury of a seat too. And for all the other days, I now have a ridiculous number of photographs to wade through.

Japan is not usually a “must-see-before-I-die” tourist destination. But Japan is an experience I will never forget – both the people and the place. Before I left Australia, I was feeling environmentally glum – we seemed so overdeveloped, the rampant spreading up and out of our cities with an attitude of developing everything possible. When you visit Japan though, you return with a “lucky” feeling. We have single storey dwellings surrounded by a garden of some sort and of all things, we have clotheslines. A single storey Japanese house would be uneconomic, inefficient and greedy. Many live in multi-storey dwellings (ever fearing earthquakes) with pocket handkerchief sized balconies for the occasional pot plant garden and for drying the washing. Natural green is what you pay to see in a public garden – the providence of a wealthy historic past and not a God-given right. But you also return from Japan with a feeling of fear – is this where we are heading as our population explodes? Is this luxuriant green we see only transient?

Before I went, Japan meant state-of-the-art technology and the Geisha. Now my Japan is a country on the move – fast, efficient and on-time, waiting for no man (or tourist). A million bicycles easily share the streets and footpaths. And there are thousands of trains on lines that are interconnected, disconnected, public, private and multi-storied. Trains are people–gobblers – scooping up the unbelievably orderly two-by-two rows. Japan is busloads of tourists (the Japanese are prolific tourists even in their own country!). Japan is ‘spit’ clean, shiny taxis with lacy pristine-white interiors. Japan is a clever tiny car parked in a clever tiny place.

Japan is the rite-of-passage Fire festival of the young men of Kurama and a three hour Jedai costume parade. Japan is the faceless Bobo good-luck charm. It is the sculptured public garden with eloquent topiary and raked white stones, the arching mossy bridge across the tippling stream and the Buddhist monk selling tourist paraphernalia at the entrance. Japan is plastic food in the restaurant window (see before you buy – an honourable art form now in its own right) and the garish modern soft drink dispenser on every second corner. Japan is smoking in restaurants. Japan is complex technology but complicated, messy overhead wires too.

Japan is respect – rows of shoes on the doormat and softly slippered feet within. It is reflective moments on the stoop as you swap footwear. Inside there’s the tatami mat – a standard size carpet alternative. Japan is staunch tradition - Kimono, prayer wheels, candles and prayer notes tied on strands of string. Thirteen thousand lanterns. Japan is Saki in barrels and beautiful bottles. This is the land of the pastel coloured umbrella and the ancient multi-tiered temple. It is the minshuku and the ryokan – traditional homes, open for tourists with futon spread on tatami.

Japan is red – found in the traditional arches and pillars. Or just visit in Autumn. The fragile volcanically-young and earthquake-prone hillsides preclude the urban sprawl which has reached their lower edges. For a short while each year, these untouched hills are covered with an unbeatable autumn splendour. This is the true colour of an original Japan and a vibrant reminder never to be complacent. Japan is definitely worth your time.

Arrigato (thank you) Japan.

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