JA­PANESE JIG­SAW

Ky­oto and Kanazawa are cities of small dis­cov­er­ies, not all of which make sense to out­siders, ob­serves Michael Ge­bicki

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

IAM eat­ing a chrysan­the­mum leaf that has been fried in a light bat­ter, tem­pura style, pre­sented to me as a gar­nish on a bowl of noo­dles. The chrysan­the­mum leaf is not go­ing to take the culi­nary world by storm. It tastes of al­most noth­ing, yet its sym­bol­ism is sig­nif­i­cant. In a sin­gle mouth­ful, it sums up the as­ton­ish­ing pe­cu­liar­ity and the down­right weird­ness that is Ja­pan.

Ja­pan is not easy. The trav­eller here must pay an ad­mis­sion price to the po­lite and re­fined world of tea cer­e­monies and tem­ples. I must learn to buckle my feet into con­tor­tion­ist po­si­tions be­neath the din­ner ta­ble, be sure to make lit­tle bows, re­mem­ber when to take off my shoes, learn sub­tleties of man­ner and style that are to­tally for­eign. But the re­ward is re­newal. In Ja­pan I am a trav­eller re­born, let loose in the world for a first ad­ven­ture. Ev­ery­thing is shiny and ev­ery­thing is new.

From the time I wake to a warmed toi­let seat that also dou­bles as a bidet un­til the mo­ment I lay my head on a pil­low — buck­wheat on one side and what feels like mar­bles on the other — I am sur­prised and en­ter­tained by this land of de­li­cious para­doxes.

The day be­gins with a visit to the Kamig­amo-jinja Shinto shrine in Ky­oto, and if you’re shop­ping around for a re­li­gion at the mo­ment, can I di­rect your at­ten­tion to Shinto? Let me has­ten to add that Is­lam, Ju­daism, Catholi­cism, Hin­duism and Zoroas­tri­an­ism all of­fer per­fectly good and ad­mirable tem­plates for liv­ing your life but Shinto, the orig­i­nal re­li­gion of Ja­pan be­fore it was usurped by Bud­dhism, brings fun to faith.

‘‘ We have more than 400 cer­e­monies ev­ery year,’’ says the priest who shows me around and, right on cue, a dozen Shinto priests file past in bil­low­ing robes, on their way to clap hands in uni­son and bow be­fore one of the many hun­dreds of deities that make up the Shinto pan­theon.

If you like dress­ing up in out­landish cos­tumes with puffy sleeves and funny hats, whack­ing big drums, knot­ting pa­per wishes on to pine branches and wor­ship­ping springs, ran­dom rocks and trees, Shinto may just be your cup of (green) tea.

It was in Ky­oto that the Zen gar­den took shape and one of the best places to see this mir­a­cle of Ja­panese re­fine­ment is at the city’s Myosh­inji Tem­ple, also one of the cru­cibles of Ja­panese Zen Bud­dhism, founded in 1337. Myosh­inji is a com­plex of tem­ple com­pounds, a sub­urb within the city, and since ad­mis­sion is free lo­cals use it to steal a private mo­ment with a lover, walk the dog or take a short­cut to school. One of the haz­ards of Myosh­inji is emerg­ing from a tem­ple in a state of tran­scen­den­tal bliss and get­ting splat­tered by a speed­ing cy­clist. But its gar­dens are a de­light, built around a cas­cad­ing stream that top­ples over rocks and ends at a large pond where fat carp wag­gle their tails lazily around a tea pavil­ion. In keep­ing with the pared-down sim­plic­ity of Zen thought, there are no flow­er­ing plants but, even so, in the full bur­nished glory of its au­tumn splen­dour, this is a scene that brings a sigh to the lips.

To the monks who live within the tem­ple, it’s not all sighs and win­some scenery. The monk who shows me around has just re­turned from a train­ing ses­sion that lasted sev­eral months. At one stage he had to stay awake for a week, mostly in a state of med­i­ta­tion. Any monk who shows signs of drop­ping off dur­ing med­i­ta­tion gets a whack on the shoul­ders from the stick of mercy, a long, flat plank of wood. This seems en­tirely rea­son­able to him. You can’t reach en­light­en­ment if you are sleepy, is his ex­pla­na­tion. At the end of his train­ing, he walked more than 600km back to Ky­oto wear­ing straw san­dals.

At the con­clu­sion of my tour, he takes me to see a scroll paint­ing, ap­par­ently a copy of the ear­li­est brush paint­ing com­pleted in Ja­pan. It shows a man hold­ing a gourd and look­ing at a large fish swim­ming in a river.

This is an il­lus­tra­tion of a Bud­dhist koan, the para­dox­i­cal Q & A ses­sion be­tween a teacher and an acolyte in­tended to short-cir­cuit the ra­tio­nal thought process. In this case, the man on the bank is hun­gry and it’s a big fish-small gourd co­nun­drum.

Pon­der­ing a koan is deeply sat­is­fy­ing — the sound of one hand clap­ping — or slightly less in­ter­est­ing than watch­ing a new browser down­load via a dial-up mo­dem.

The next stop is Kanazawa and, al­though it is smack on the Sea of Ja­pan, the city has a fierce win­ter cli­mate that re­quires an un­usual hor­ti­cul­tural tech­nique known as yuk­it­suri. Many of the city’s trees have been en­cour­aged to de­velop the ex­trav­a­gantly elon­gated limbs favoured by Ja­panese gar­den­ers. Come win­ter and those limbs would break un­der the sheer weight of snow, so a bam­boo pole sev­eral me­tres taller than the tree is in­serted into the ground. Ropes sus­pended from the top of the pole are tied around each of the boughs, pro­vid­ing vi­tal sup­port dur­ing snow­storms.

Es­pe­cially in the city’s famed Ken­rokuen (Gar­den of the Six Sublim­i­ties), the sight of may­pole-like yuk­it­suri is one of the un­in­ten­tion­ally po­etic mo­ments that Ja­pan pro­vides in abun­dance. In an­other, in what was once the samu­rai quar­ter of the city, flared bam­boo cov­ers are erected to act like a skirt, pro­tect­ing the moss grow­ing on the lower part of house walls from snow. (This is the na­tion that has no com­punc­tion about slaugh­ter­ing whales, re­mem­ber.)

The ryokan or tra­di­tional inn is an ex­pe­ri­ence not to be missed. How else will you dis­cover joy­ful de­lights such as sleep­ing on the floor with a pil­low about the size of a wadded nap­kin, not to men­tion strolling around in a ful­l­length cot­ton yukata (robe) feel­ing like Hugh Hefner, which is pretty much what hap­pens when you set foot inside a ryokan.

There are strict rules that ap­ply in a ryokan , even to the ty­ing of the koshi­himo , the waist sash that pre­serves one’s mod­esty when wear­ing a yukata . Af­ter ex­plain­ing this care­fully, my host­ess kindly of­fers to un­dress me. Even for a tall, svelte and charis­matic man of the world, this is not an of­fer that comes ev­ery day. For me it’s com­pletely un­known and I ex­pe­ri­ence a zest­ful, Hefner-like rush of ex­hil­a­ra­tion, but there are just enough oxy­genated red blood cells left in my head for good sense to pre­vail, so I po­litely de­cline and shoo her from my boudoir.

My next stop is Takayama, a city of con­sid­er­able charm and grace hoisted amid the splen­dours of the North­ern Alps, but here I par­take of a culi­nary ad­ven­ture that I feel obliged to warn you about: a sin­is­ter break­fast prod­uct that goes by the name of natto . Made from fer­mented soy beans, natto con­sists of small brown pel­lets float­ing in a gooey paste, which forms strings as you try to hoist it into your mouth. The smell is dis­tinc­tive and the taste is not eas­ily forgotten. Natto is the Vegemite of Ja­pan. You don’t have to be born here to like it, but un­less you were, chances are you won’t.

Back in Ky­oto at the end of the trip, I set out for a night stroll around the Gion dis­trict, the charm­ing old quar­ter of the city. Since Arthur Golden’s best­seller Mem­oirs of a Geisha was turned into a movie, an evening of geisha spot­ting in the back streets of Gion has be­come es­sen­tial to any tour of Ky­oto. The tiny square with the wil­low-lined stream, the lit­tle bridge and the Tem­ple of Lit­er­a­ture that formed the nu­cleus for much of Golden’s novel can be found on the north side of Shijo-dori, west of Hanamikoji-dori.

It’s an area of de­lec­ta­ble charm, en­hanced at night by the lit­tle vi­gnettes that present them­selves in the restau­rant win­dows that over­look the stream. Tonight I am walk­ing be­hind a small, el­derly man who is col­lect­ing drink cans and bits of loose pa­per with a pair of long tongs and putting them in a sack.

The streets of Ja­pan are scrupu­lously clean, but I am im­pressed afresh with the civic-mind­ed­ness of the av­er­age Ja­panese cit­i­zen.

What a so­ci­ety, I am think­ing, what fine col­lec­tive spirit, what an ex­am­ple for us all. I’m still smil­ing my ap­proval at his back as he reaches Kawa­bata­dori and crosses. I’m catch­ing up as we reach the bridge over the Kamo River and, as I pass, he turns to smile at me while si­mul­ta­ne­ously reach­ing out to drop his sack into the river.

Even for Ja­pan, this was a sur­pris­ing mo­ment, and I re­alise that al­though I may eat tofu and sleep hap­pily on a fu­ton, though I may one day write a pass­able haiku or even de­velop a taste for natto , I will never re­ally come within a cooee of un­der­stand­ing the land of the ris­ing sun. Michael Ge­bicki was a guest of the Ja­pan Na­tional Tourist Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

Check­list

Ja­pan Air­lines op­er­ates flights to Ja­pan from Cairns, Bris­bane, Syd­ney and Melbourne: www.jal.com. The main tour op­er­a­tor for Aus­tralian trav­ellers in Ja­pan is Jal­pak, which sells good-value Ja­pan Rail Passes: www.jal­pak.com.au. In Ja­pan, JTB is the main op­er­a­tor of tours in English: www.jt­bgmt.com/sun­rise­tour. More: (02) 9510 0100 or (03) 8623 0000.

www.jnto.go.jp Ja­pan un­folded: TheIn­ci­den­tal Tourist — Page 5

Pic­tures: Michael Ge­bicki

Paths to peace: Clock­wise from left, colour comes from leaves in Ja­panese gar­dens, such as the one at Natadera Tem­ple in Ko­matsu, near Kanazawa; a boy in tra­di­tional dress; Shinto priests; and a tem­ple stall in Ky­oto

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