Floored by a low-flying way of life
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.