Japan: Why everyone should experience life with the perfect hosts
As the Rugby World Cup kicks off, Paul Whitington explains why everyone should experience life in the Land of the Rising Sun
The opening game of the Rugby World Cup between Russia and hosts Japan is hardly the kind of fixture that sets the pulse racing. It's an unavoidable side effect of the nature of international rugby that all World Cups are beset in their early stages by lots of these dead rubbers.
Still, there'll be plenty to entertain those lucky enough to be there, even during the dullest game. Firstly, the weather, which sometimes gets interesting in the autumn, and we hear a couple of bracing Pacific typhoons may be headed the tournament's way.
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Then there's the country itself. With its rich history, bewitching and bewildering cities, stunning natural beauty and unfailingly hospitable people, Japan is one of those few places left on Earth that makes you feel like you're a million miles from home.
Well, 6,000 or so to be exact. I spent a year there in the mid-90s, wandering from north to south along the ever-changing archipelago, eking a living by stringing articles to anyone who'd listen (not many) and working in what I'm pretty sure was Japan's first ever Irish bar, Murphy's of Osaka. It's still there as far as I know, but I started far from the bright lights of Shinsaibashi, in the country's wintry north.
Aomori province sits right at the top of Honshu, Japan's main island, just below Hokkaido and on a latitude with Siberia. Icy blizzards grip the land in winter, freezing sea and lakes, and sending locals into semi-hibernation. They don't seem to mind much: they have the best fish to feed on, and the province boasts some of the finest sashimi in all Japan.
I stayed in Aomori for several months, in a smallish town called Goshogawara, sleeping on the floor in the tiny box house of a friend who was teaching English in the local high school. At the time, there were only five or six Caucasians within a 50-odd mile radius, and I became a local oddity. When I went running, kids would run after me pointing and shouting, "Gaijin da, gaijin da!" - "look at the alien!". People actually asked me in for tea out of curiosity, to view at close quarters my blue eyes and large feet.
Though things have changed somewhat since, older Japanese houses tended not to have showers and baths, which made the 'sento', or public baths, an important social hub. The first time I got in the hot bath, everyone else got out: I have freckles all over my arms and shoulders, and the locals assumed I was in the latter stages of some dreadful contagious disease. When I kept coming back and didn't die, they got used to me, and would buy me beers and invite me to watch sumo with them on television.
One night, while we were having dinner at home, I noticed the overhead light shade begin to move, shuddering at first then flapping back and forth off the ceiling in inexplicable fashion. Was it haunted? Then Hitomi, my friend's Japanese girlfriend, smiled politely, put down her bowl of rice and went to stand in the doorway.
It was an earthquake, I eventually realised, 8.3 on the Richter Scale, and when we followed the silent but unflappable Hitomi outside, we were greeted by the disturbing sight of the snow shifting and moving about as though there were some great beast beneath it. The traditional Japanese explanation for quakes was that a giant catfish slumbers in the seas below Honshu and occasionally stirs. Later we read that a prosperous man on Hokkaido had been admiring his chandelier at precisely the wrong moment, and died when it fell on him.
Onsen, or natural hot springs, pepper the Japanese islands: bathing in them is a cherished and quasi-mystical local pastime. In Aomori, we drove into the hills and climbed a mountain on skidoos to reach a remote ryokan, or traditional inn, that boasted a piping onsen. We would lie in the steaming waters by night, sipping illegal yellow saké and occasionally getting out to make our skin fizz by rolling in the snow. Later we saw snow monkeys keeping warm in the same way - minus the saké of course.
That spring, I travelled south by train, along Honshu's snaggled western coast towards Kyoto, where I would mainly live.
Kyoto is an antidote to the Bladerunner-ish modernity of the capital. Unlike Tokyo, it was never bombed, and is studded with historic temples and shrines. You come across them by accident, down side streets, in quiet suburbs, or on the wooded hills that ring the town. Kinkaku-ji is probably the most famous. It sits lost in a sleepy suburb and takes time and patience to find.
Kinkaku-ji means Golden Temple and the low, two-tiered building is literally that, its walls covered in glittering gold leaf. Sitting on the edge of a tiny, man-made lake, it is unsettlingly perfect, but it is not real. An unhinged monk burnt the original to the ground in 1950, providing the inspiration for a book by Yukio Mishima, who subsequently and famously became unhinged himself, and committed seppuku after mounting a failed coup.
I lived in a tumbledown house just to the north of Gion, the old geisha district that I often walked through on my way to the train station, and work. Gion is all closed doors and secret signs, home to an ancient heritage westerners cannot be a part of. You see them walking sometimes in the evening, ornate creatures with sculpted hair and painted faces who seem to have descended from another planet. On Hanamikoji-dori, handsome wooden buildings still function as teahouses where the geisha hold court. At nighttime, red lanterns hang eerily above each doorway, making them seem still more mysterious and inaccessible.
Spring is a big deal in Gion, and Japan. When the Hanami, or cherry blossom bloom, everyone takes to the parks in a time-honoured, but seemingly spontaneous, transnational picnic. A crowd of us gaijin decided to join in, spreading a blanket in a Gion park and sharing a few bottles of precious red wine (surprisingly difficult to come across in Japan at the time, though not now). The wine aroused much curiosity, and soon neighbouring picnickers were offering us expensive saké in return for a taste.
Out of a strange sort of duty, I took a bullet train to Hiroshima, a few hundred kilometres west along the coast of Honshu. Outside the busy station, I boarded a bus bearing the legend 'A-Bomb Dome'. After about 10 minutes, the driver pulled in at an innocuous stop and waited patiently for me to descend. Then I saw the famous dome, a cone-like shell that was a bank until the morning of August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb dropped from the Enola Gay exploded directly above it, transforming the city to Hades in a flash. The bomb and the ensuing radiation ultimately killed approximately 140,000 people.
The rights and wrongs of dropping it aside, just being in a place where such a nightmare took place is a strange and unsettling experience. In the A-Bomb museum, you can get an all-too vivid idea of what the explosion actually did to people on the ground. Perhaps the most poignant exhibit, though, is a watch, frozen forever at 8.15am.
Outside, as I wandered in the Peace Park, I remember being startled by the sound of laughter. In the shadow of the memorial, and in full view of the A-Bomb Dome, a group of office workers were toasting Hanami.
Hiroshima, and Japan, have long since reinvented themselves.