Cherry blossom, aka sakura. This is what Japan is famous for. Apart from sumo wrestlers. And Mount Fuji. And sushi.
Okay, cherry blossom is one of the things Japan is famous for. Several friends asked before we came here if we would make an effort to see the cherry blossom. If I’m honest? No, it wasn’t an important part of my plans. I’m not horticulturally inclined and I don’t like pink. But I didn’t feel I could disappoint them, so this weekend past we went to Kawazu, a town about 100 miles south of Tokyo, notable for being the first in the country to see cherry blossom each Spring. This year the pink prettiness was even earlier than usual, prompting a somewhat hysterical demand on my part that we hoof it down on the train to take a look.
The sakura is very pink. And it is very pretty. But, other than the country’s first bloom of cherry blossom, Kawazu is a town that has little else going for it, although the rolling mountains that border it on one side do make for an impressive background. And yes, there is the sea on the other side. But apart from all this natural beauty, Kawazu has little going for it.
Which might be something of an unfair judgement, since all we did was walk the trail along the cherry blossom, assaulted by the shouts of the street vendors and the smells of their wares, and concentrating on weaving our way through the hordes of other visiting tourists. But it seemed a grey, spartan, unattractive little town, lining the river with extremely industrial concrete walls.
It was very, very busy. The Japanese are proud of their cherry blossom. We were one small battalion among many armed and dangerous with cameras and smartphones. The day, unfortunately, was our first in Japan without bright sun and primary blue sky, so my amateur shots of the flowers were washed out and uninteresting. I’m not convinced the trip here was worth it – I’m pretty sure we’ll encounter sakura elsewhere in more congenial places while we’re in Japan.
Having said that, part of our journey south was made on the shinkansen, which, from now and for the rest of my life, will always be my favourite way to travel. (Unless I get a Tesla.)
The street stalls selling a variety of food stuffs were far more interesting – are they seasonal, do you think? Are they manned by locals who set up tents for a few weeks each year to make a fast buck off the tourists? Or are they professional caterers who tour the land, hunting down visitors to each festival? Either way, I had a tub of black udon noodles decorated with the garish, fluorescent pink, grated ginger that is endemic to the food here, and which I love, and a bonkers fish-shaped concoction that was alleged to be a sort of cherry-flavoured pancake mix, stuffed with sweet bean curd. Bloody delicious it was, too.
The only real disappointment in this visit was the performing macaque show – a captive monkey, dressed in a ridiculous tutu and bow, trained to jump small fences and climb bamboo poles, controlled by a rope round its neck, on a small stage on the roadside. I stopped to film this, just for the record, and was disturbed to hear my children laughing at the monkey’s antics. This is, of course, why such a show is still popular here. It’s funny. The macaque has been trained to refuse the jump, to smack the trainer’s head, to pretend to limp, to engage in a number of anthropomorphic gestures that it doesn’t understand, but which the crowd misinterprets and applauds with delighted laughter.
I can understand why this sort of entertainment was funny in the 19th century. But not knowing how this animal was trained – via reward or punishment – and in any respect not giving a shit how it was trained but being appalled by the concept of an animal wearing a tutu for our entertainment… I was close to tears and soon had to walk away.
Better entertainment was the group of children who stopped husband and engaged him in excited conversation. I had been warned that our visit to Japan would see us, and especially my blond, blue-eyed children, regularly stared at. This hasn’t happened so far. I’m offended because my children are ridiculously gorgeous and should be stared at wherever they go. But in Kawazu, it was 6-foot husband who was stopped in his tracks, photographed and interrogated. “Engurish?” demanded the children. “Ie, watashi wa Sukottorando-jin desu,” said husband. “Ah Guinness! Guinness! Guinness!” shouted the confused children. Husband delighted in the attention, and despite neither side having a clue what the other was saying, an altogether amiable conversation lasted about 10 minutes. Children and I stood grinning in the background.
So. Trains. Love the trains. There are tons of them, reliable, clean, well-used, clean… Clean, so clean! Regular travel on the London Underground used to leave me blowing black snot into my tissues. Somehow, the Japanese trains are almost antiseptic in their cleanliness. (By the way, how the city stays this clean I have no idea, since there are no bins anywhere. Hundreds of toilets, yes – you will never be caught short very far from a public toilet – but when you want a bin? None to be seen. Oh! Apart from the ones next to the also ubiquitous vending machines, which are as numerous as the toilets.)
The train system, however, is slightly more complicated, since different companies own each line, and you have to buy different tickets to travel on each line. Imagine travelling the London or Glasgow Underground systems and having to buy a separate ticket to travel on the Central and Jubilee lines, or the… er… Inner Circle and Outer Circle. There is also the JR (Japan Rail) train company group, which manages most (all?) of the national rail system, and also the Yamanote line (in essence the Circle line) around Tokyo. Living close to the Yamanote is the holy grail of Tokyo living (for tourists anyway), since you just need a JR rail pass and you don’t have to worry about working out which ticket to buy for which destination.
I was caught out when I travelled alone to meet husband and children at Tokyo Dome City, an entertainment and fairground hell. Up till now I had meekly travelled everywhere with omniscient husband, happy to concede all knowledge of the train system to him. He instructed me on the basics for this occasion, when we were to be separated.
I approached the ticket machine in the train station with confidence, and checked the price of the ticket for my destination. I bought my ticket. I went through the barrier. I walked down some stairs, then about a mile along a train platform, up some more stairs, into another station concourse… where I was met by another barrier through to the platform I needed. (This is all essential information.) I put my ticket into the barrier – and it did not open. I turned and approached the guard in the ticket office.
“Eigo wa hanase imasuka?” I asked. Do you speak English?
“Sukotti,” he replied, thin-lipped and stern. I stared. How did he know I was Scottish? And how did he speak Scottish…?
“Mita line?” I said, stupidly. “Ticket?” I proffered him the rejected ticket.
“Not ticket,” he said, taking it off me and giving it the merest glance. He then explained in Japanese, but in such a way that I understood perfectly, that the ticket I had bought was not valid for the Mita line. I felt helpless. I looked helpless. Without saying another thing, he took money from the till and gave me the difference between my invalid ticket and a correct one, printed out a new ticket and waved with boredom at the gate I was to go through. I went. I felt slightly less confident.
(And then I realised he hadn’t said “Sukotto”, he had said “Sukoshi” – a little.)
At this point I should like to redress what I am slightly concerned might be seen as a patronising attitude in some of my last posts. I have mentioned, I think, how lovely, kind, polite and patient the Japanese have been so far. In case this comes across as being a sweeping generalisation about an entire nation, I shall now redress the balance, starting with that unsmiling train guard. Okay, so he paid me back my money and gave me a new ticket with no slowly enunciated, loudly spoken beratement. But he didn’t smile. And he didn’t nod his head at me. So that counts as unfriendly.
And in the German beer hall in Hakodate, the waiter looked at me sarcastically when I pointed at the menu to show him what I wanted, as if to say, I can speak English you know, I can understand what you’re saying. And on the Shinkansen, the man sitting next to me, having gone to the toilet or something, then pushed me out the way to sit down again, because I was standing up to talk to daughter behind me, and must have been infringing on his space.
And when we were sat eating outside the food counter in the local park, a smoker sitting in the designated smoking area hoiked up a lungful of tarred phlegm and gobbed it on the floor, right in front of us.
So there you go. That’s four instances of vaguely human behaviour in the past two weeks. You can’t accuse me of being condescendingly ignorant now.
Of course, we did yesterday have the bloody lovely television licence man ringing our doorbell and telling us that we had to pay him for the two months we would be living in the apartment with a television we barely watch since we don’t understand it. Despite his lack of English and our lack of Japanese, he managed to intimate to us that his company was like the UK’s BBC, and demanded licence fee payment for ownership and use of the telly. He was relentlessly patient with our slowness, and gave us stickers for the children. Frankly I want him to be my granddad.
Then there are the guards on the Shinkansen who bow to each carriage as they enter and leave it. And the driver of the electric car who bowed and smiled at me when I finally, after I don’t know how far, realised he was behind me and that I was in his way, moved to the side.
Look, that’s it. I don’t care if I sound patronising. The Japanese are lovely, kind, polite and patient.