Japan: complex, mysterious and isolated

Toji Temple in Kyoto, serene and less commercialized, has the tallest pagoda in Japan.

Toji Temple in Kyoto, serene and less commercialized, has the tallest pagoda in Japan.

By Jean and Peter Richards

Japan surprised and grew on us.

We were surprised to learn that a country with such global reach could still be so insular and homogeneous.

It was something of a shock to be in cities that value cleanliness, efficiency and good manners. We saw no litter, no graffiti, no tattoos or body piercings and no end of well-dressed people, polite teenagers, spotless taxi cabs, sparkling windows and orderly queues.

Tokyo is not a pretty city. Bombs and earthquakes obliterated much of its architecture in the 20th century. That which replaced it is often functional and banal. A point of pride amongst locals is the Tokyo Tower, a 1,093 foot orange and white monstrosity modeled on the Eiffel Tower and built in the 1950’s to carry broadcast antennas. The most interesting new designs we saw were along Omotesando, a leafy avenue in the Miniato district. There, a hodge podge of buildings of modest scale by name brand architects house the expensive handbag and shoe shops the Japanese have helped make so profitable at home and abroad.

The best shops we saw were underground — the extraordinary food halls of Japan’s traditional department stores. Matsuya on Ginza where the staff gathers on opening to bow to incoming customers, became our favorite because it seemed to concentrate most on the broad range of Japanese taste, on freshness and on tempting in-store treats and takeaway.

Typical plastic display showing selection on offer at department store.

Typical plastic display showing selection on offer at department store.

Food, like so many things we found in Japan, reflects a complicated and ritualistic approach. The fundamentals of preparation can boggle the mind.

Westerners seem to love Japanese restaurants at home, but in two weeks we seldom saw a non-Asian in any place where we ate and were conscious of being curiosities amongst shoppers in the fascinating markets and food halls.

Never have we seen so many ingredients that we couldn’t identify or been in so many restaurants resistant to accommodating foreigners. Still, we found places where staff or customers went out of their way to instruct us in the many styles of cooking from Ramen, Sushi, Sashimi, Yakitori, Tempura  Tonkatsu, Teppanyaki, Shabu Shabu, Kare Raisu to Shojin.

One of Tokyo’s gastronomic cathedrals will soon disappear. The cavernous Tsukiji Fish Market where the legendary tuna auction takes place is a study in chaos and a model of efficiency. Motorized carts zip over cobbled lanes dodging stacks of styrofoam boxes, blocks of ice and the flashing knives of fish cutters.

Slicing tuna at Tsukiji Market.

Slicing tuna at Tsukiji Market.

“You are very lucky,” a security guard told us in a rare burst of English. “You know that the market is broken in two years.”  The clang and clatter of commercial history could be replaced by the clink of the cocktail glass in a casino if some have their way. Construction of the new market site outside the central city is moving forward on land claimed to be toxic.

Given that we have early childhood memories of World War II, Pearl Harbor Day seemed a slightly perverse time to visit the controversial Yasukuni Memorial to Japanese who died fighting for the emperor, but we did it anyway. Just standing next to the the Zero fighter plane and a locomotive from the infamous Burma line in the shrine’s museum had a chilling effect.

Strings of wishes left by worshippers at Yasukuni memorial for war dead.

Strings of wishes left by worshippers at Yasukuni memorial for war dead.

The East Asia War, as it is known, is not forgotten in Japan. At the temporary but very informative exhibition of Tokyo’s urban history in the Edo Museum we stood silently beside a middle-aged Japanese man solemnly reading the Instrument of Surrender aloud to a young boy.

Treasures abound at the the Honkan Museum in the National Museum complex at Ueno Park and at the Nezu Museum where the harmony so important to the Japanese aesthetic is achieved in the building, the garden and the extraordinary collections of bronzes and the objects associated with tea. It is a serene and beautiful place.

This exquisite piece is used by the Nezu Museum as its signature.

This exquisite piece is used by the Nezu Museum as its signature.

Early December weather tempered our exploration of northern Japan; we headed south on the fabulous bullet train. The world’s busiest high speed rail network, the Shinkansen turned 50 in 2014 but it still seems young, fresh and innovative. On a clear day, the clean windows of the sleek train to Kyoto offered sensational views of Mount Fuji and tea terraces along the way.

Kyoto is at its fashionable best in Spring when cherries blossom and Fall when when maple leaves color. We caught the last bit of brilliant red color and happily missed the leaf peeping hordes by a week. There was an occasional nip in the air the second week in December and the weather, more invigorating than hampering for us, was obviously chilling to the local geishas-in-training running errands in Gion. The famous old district seemed contracted, tattered and a trap for young women and tourists.

If you can eat it, you can find it at the Nishiki Market.

If you can eat it, you can find it at the Nishiki Market.

Nearby and more interesting is the venerable Nishiki, one of the world’s great covered markets. The stalls in the five-block galleria brim with temptation – an amazing array of pickles, a shop for pepper that gives new definition to the word hot, glistening fish and freshly roasted spices and strange mixtures for sprinkling on rice. Small soy donuts warm from the fryer at Konna Monja disappeared quickly when the oil was fresh in morning, but were a disappointment later one afternoon. At Kyo Yasai Kanematsu two perfect strawberries can cost a small fortune, every vegetable is treated as a work of art and a very good luncheon can be had in the restaurant upstairs. Serious cooks stop at Aritsugu whose family members have been forging metal since 1560 and still set the standard for knives. Their knives are handsome, sharp and very expensive.

A penchant for obliterating some aspects of the past infects the ancient imperial capital these days but not in its preservation of hundreds of temples. They are so prolific that choosing a few amongst many becomes quite a chore. The best advice came from friends familiar with Japan and a  woman at the Tourist Office on the second floor at Kyoto Station. She jabbered in English like a French woman in a frenzy, but gave terrific advice: avoid the tours because “they take tourists to the temples where they can shop at souvenir stands. Walk over and see the Toji Temple which is nearby. You will like it.”

Part of the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.

Part of the famous rock garden at Ryoan-ji in Kyoto.

We loved Toji for its beautifully proportioned pagoda, splendid grounds and lack of commerciality; Ryoan-ji for its magnificent dry rock and moss gardens; and Fushimi-Inari, touristed as it is, for its long line of Chinese red gates.

“Hello. Hello. Where are you from?” chirped students from Omuta as they approached.

Westerners become accustomed in Asia to being politely accosted by clusters of children eager to practice their English. Enthusiasm usually outstrips ability, but the encounter is sometimes the first with a foreigner and forms a lasting impression. Hand-drawn souvenirs were given in thanks.

The unforgettable red gates at Fushimi-Inari/

The unforgettable red gates at Fushimi-Inari.

The young and squeamish squeal with fear and delight in 8th century Nara when tame deer aggressively nuzzle visitors en route to the Todai-ji temple, home to one of the biggest Buddhas in Japan. It and Nara’s park and other temples are perhaps more appealing to the pilgrim or day tripper than the traveler seeking historic enlightenment.

A surprising number of museums were closed during our stay. The National Museum in Kyoto’s stunning  and intelligently mounted collection of Buddhas and bodhisattvas was a fortunate Sunday morning excursion. The very modern new wing evokes in its grayness and spareness a traditional Japanese construction using metal, glass and water rather than wood.

The setting and the objects at the Miho Museum are spectacular.

The setting and the objects at the Miho Museum are spectacular.

We ended our stay at the Miho Museum, I. M. Pei’s masterpiece set in a dense forest an hour’s drive from Kyoto. The Chinese-born architect literally moved the earth and put it back in place for this museum approached through a tunnel, set mostly underground, funded by Mihoko Koyama as a venue of “virtue and beauty” for followers of her cult-like spiritual organization and stocked with Han bronzes, Achaemenid gold, Bactrian silver, Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian rarities from a splendid buying spree.

It has a spectacular site, a stunning entrance, a magnificent design and a superb collection and is as complex, mysterious and isolated as Japan itself.

© 2015 by Jean & Peter Richards

At the temples in Japan the worshippers burn slips of paper with wishes on them and waft the smoke toward their faces.

At temples in Japan the worshippers burn slips of paper with wishes on them and waft the smoke toward their faces.


About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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