Floored by a low-fly­ing way of life

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Alis­tair Jones

BE still, my shak­ing knees, you’ve sur­vived. Af­ter a week of trav­el­ling through­out Ja­pan, it’s some­thing of a re­lief, a wicked plea­sure al­most, to sink into a full-sized arm­chair in an in­ter­na­tional-scale ho­tel room. And there’s a desk and chair that suit a per­son 182cm tall and a bed at grown-ups’ height with read­ing lamps. As Goldilocks would say, this one’s just right.

I’ve be­come a fan of Ja­pan: the land of 1000 lit­tle kind­nesses, among other things.

The Ja­panese take on pop­u­lar cul­ture is in­ter­est­ing and the food is great. But it can be hell on the knees and in­volve more floor work than a bad night of con­tem­po­rary dance.

Who nicked all the furniture, I won­der, as I stand in my socks on the thresh­old of that first room in a tra­di­tional ryokan . It’s bare ex­cept for a thin fu­ton with a tiny pil­low on the tatami mat­ting and a side ta­ble that comes up to my an­kles. There’s an over­head light and a hook on the wall to hang my coat, but ev­ery­thing else is at ground level.

The more up-mar­ket ryokan throw in art­works, flo­ral ar­range­ments and a per­sonal maid to dart in and out with pots of tea and to roll up the fu­ton, gen­er­ally just as you’re about to have a nice lie-in.

They also of­fer fab­u­lous multi-course meals, eaten cer­e­mo­ni­ously and, yes, while you’re sit­ting on the floor. And when I’m led steam­ing and a bit floppy from a pre-din­ner bath, wrapped only in a cot­ton ki­mono, there doesn’t seem to be any way of low­er­ing my­self into the cross-legged po­si­tion with­out the gar­ment gap­ing open at the front to re­veal more of West­ern cul­ture than the maid needs to know.

Worse than in­dis­cre­tion are the crack­ing noises my joints and lig­a­ments make as they stretch side­ways into unfamiliar shapes. Will my travel in­sur­ance run to air-lift­ing me out if I lock up in the lo­tus po­si­tion?

Tra­di­tional din­ing rooms in Ja­pan don’t have a sunken area for your legs un­der the low ta­ble. Most mod­ern restau­rants do have a sec­tion with a few con­ven­tional ta­bles and chairs, but I usu­ally perch on a stool at the counter, watch the chefs at work and drink sake with other din­ers. All very so­cia­ble. But when th­ese seats are un­avail­able, the tatami looms. The wait­ress can tell it’s not go­ing to be easy and pro­duces cush­ions. Man­fully I as­sume the po­si­tion, but be­fore long one leg starts to straighten. I list, head­ing for a sprawl. This is not look­ing good. I come to hate the priest at the next ta­ble, so per­fectly, perk­ily up­right. The wait­ress reap­pears with a re­lieved ex­pres­sion to tell me a seat has been found at the counter.

I feel most for the shamisen play­ers who ac­com­pany bun­raku, an old form of pup­petry where sui­cide is pre­sented as the ul­ti­mate ex­pres­sion of sin­cer­ity. Sit­ting cross-legged is not good enough for th­ese pluck­ers of an­cient three­stringed ban­jos. To earn their stripes they en­dure years of ex­cru­ci­at­ing, pu­ri­fy­ing pain as their pelvic bones are trained fur­ther for­ward by spe­cial blocks. No won­der the twang of the shamisen sounds so an­guished.

The most com­fort­able seat in Ja­pan, al­most ridicu­lously so, is on a mod­ern toi­let, a must-have for ur­ban homes and good ho­tels. It’s heated, pam­per­ingly plumped up and comes with a con­sole of but­tons that launch warm, cleans­ing jets of wa­ter with un­canny ac­cu­racy. Quite a star­tling ex­pe­ri­ence at first, but one that may well ex­plain some of the gig­gling at bus stops in the morn­ing. A lit­tle burst of lux­ury to set you up for an­other day on the floor.

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