Our reaction to the first sighting of Mount Fuji was perhaps a bit over the top, since it was the merest remote view from the bullet train, and all that we saw was a snowy peak, hovering in the very far distance above closer mountain ranges and utilitarian little towns.
But that snow-capped peak is so famous, so iconic a shape, that to see it in real life had all four of us clambering over each other to peer out the tiny windows, fumbling with cameras and smartphones, oohing and ahhing like American tourists. I say all four of us – that’s not true. Daughter was oblivious to our hullabaloo and continued watching Big Hero 6 on her tablet. She’s so over sightseeing.
I hope we are able to take a closer look at Fuji-san (as it is respectfully known in Japan) at some point in our trip. Not to anthropomorphise a mountain, but the merest glimpse of that white peak gave me a sense of a not altogether benign elder figure, standing watchful guard over the land, peaceful, beautiful, wise and calm but ready to erupt at the merest provocation.
“They should call it Mount Fuji, not Mound Fuji,” said son. He insists he was joking.
This train journey in particular was to Kyoto, once Japan’s capital city. A hazy recollection of the brief history I read on a sign said that the emperor, whose seat was in Kyoto, upped and moved to Tokyo because there was so much ninja tribal battling going on. Don’t hold me to this. I read stuff and forget it immediately.
Kyoto had the feel of a city older and wiser – or perhaps more lived in – than Tokyo. Many of the residential buildings in the little back streets were alarmingly narrow, and built within a foot of one another. The place was crawling with character – and also electric cables, which were spun above the buildings like a hazardous web.
The intention was to take in the rich cultural heritage of the city. To see temples and shrines and stuff. We managed one temple garden – the Toji Temple – a beautiful, serene plot with not one but three shrines that each housed an enormous statue of Buddha; and then spent the rest of the day in the Railway Museum. Not quite the culture I’d been thinking of, but it turns out I can do trainspotting with the best of them, and got ridiculously excited by the pristine models of old engines. Japan really knows how to do museums and modern celebration of ancient history.
Overnight accommodation was not in Kyoto, alas, but in Nara, a train ride away. And Nara was an unplanned, brilliant find – and also Japan’s capital from 710ad until 794ad. I don’t know what prompted its fall from the seat of power. Probably more ninjas. Anyway, Nara is a gorgeous wee city, with narrow back lanes we cycled around with a total disregard for personal safety: not a helmet in sight, and daughter perched on the pannier rack thing at the back of husband’s bike, seated on a towel to protect her wee arse from the bumps. I spent almost the whole time laughing, with joy or hysterical fear, I don’t know.
My thirst for temples and shrines and stuff was quenched in Nara, since there’s an entire park full of them, all within easy walking distance of one another. The park is also home to “wild” deer. I have given their wilderness quote marks because they followed the hordes of tourists around, begging for food. Some bizarre habit has been instilled in the deer, whereby they nod their head at you, in a weird animal interpretation of Japanese bowing, to ask for food. I don’t know who originally taught them this behaviour, but it’s quite disconcerting.
The train journey back to Tokyo was broken up by a dinner time stop-off in Nagoya to meet up with a friend of a friend who lives nearby. Conversation inevitably included chat about earthquakes and tsunamis, the developing and improving architecture to withstand quakes, the greater destructive power of ensuing tsunamis… (Ooh! At which point I need to reveal the reason for the ugly concrete linings of the river walls, for which I criticised Kawazu! Apparently they’re barriers that channel tsunamis up the rivers, with the intention of causing less damage to villages. So there you go. Sorry Kawazu.) Son, quietly but lethally, lapped this up.
Later, back at the apartment, son came rushing into the sitting room from his bed. “I felt one!” He said, in a low but urgent tone. “I felt it. An earthquake.” No, no, I said, it was just a train passing by, you were falling asleep and mistook it. He was adamant. I was dismayed. Great, now he’d never sleep again.
It really was the train, I insisted. I really thought it was. “We need a chainsaw,” said son. “To cut open the doors if they get stuck.” “Shall I just leave your door open?” I asked.
The next morning, husband confirmed that son had, in fact, felt a tremor. There had been two minor earthquakes in the north of the country, whose vibrations had also been felt by him. “At least he knows what it feels like, and that nothing terrible happens,” said husband.
When I told son he was right, he was bloody delighted.
If you are considering ever visiting Japan, I strongly recommend you spend two years learning the language before you go. As stated in previous posts, husband and I
endured enjoyed three months of intensive Japanese lessons, also learning the hiragana character set. I was pretty damn proud of myself for learning this whole new alphabet:
あか さ た な は ま や ら わん
え け せ て ね へ め れ
い き し ち に ひ み り
うく す ぬ ふ む ゆ る
お こ そ と の ほ も よ ろ を
My pride was misplaced. Learning hiragana will allow you to read about one fifth of any given sentence you see on a sign, on food packaging, in newspapers… Hiragana, it turns out, is essentially just the pronoun stuff. The important information is hidden in kanji, the complex and beautifully scripted Chinese characters; and katakana, a sort of Japanese transcription of foreign words and letters. Katakana is what we should have learned first. Then we should have spent the next two years learning kanji. Then we might have been able to make some semblance of sense from the things we read here.
Other than the odd occasion when we desperately need to know where to go or what to do, and we can’t find out because we don’t understand the signs, this linguistic ignorance is actually quite exciting.
It makes eating and drinking snacks purchased from vending machines and newsagents interesting, for a start. We’ll get a vague idea from pictures on the snack packets what it is we’re going to eat, but the final details of ingredients and sweet or savoury remain a mystery until we take the plunge and stuff the goods in our mouths. We’ve lucked out so far.
For me the biggest risk taken in linguistic ignorance is using the washing machine in our apartment. The owner has kindly put stickers on the buttons that say “wash”, “wash + dry”, “dry”, “start”. You’d have thought that was enough, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong. As with most Japanese electrical goods, the washing machine is a swish electronic touchscreen number. When I hit the “wash” button, I am then presented with several choices on screen. Choices in hiragana and katakana. I don’t know what they are. I press a button and the next screen pops up, with another choice. I press a button. Then I hit the “start” button, more in hope than confidence.
I have done about six loads of laundry since we’ve been here and nothing has shrunk and no colours have run. I win again.
Yes. So. Vending machines. Keep up, those were mentioned a few paragraphs back. I have been asked by a friend who lived in Tokyo for a while what I think of the vending machine culture. What I think is that there doesn’t seem to be a “culture”, whatever that’s supposed to mean, but there do seem to be a ridiculous number of vending machines. Seriously. On every street corner. Outdoors. On the streets. For no apparent reason. Full of an astonishing variety of drinks, both hot and cold. This is baffling, and intriguing. It’s not as though there’s a queue of people at every vending machine, waiting to purchase their fix of, I don’t know, cold sweet tea or fruit-flavoured water. But there they are, at every turn – machines that will cater for your every liquid desire. Why? Please, someone enlighten me.
(I was told the other day that an American journalist caught hold of a rumour that Japanese women were dressing up as vending machines to avoid being harassed on the street. Gotta love the sense of humour of whoever fed him that line.)
Ah, but this would explain the pleasing yet puzzling number of readily available public toilets. The Japanese clearly spend so much time guzzling down an enormous amount of liquids from the numerous vending machines, they constantly need a pee.