THE FAR HORIZONS
CHAPTER ELEVEN: JAPAN
It was cold in Tokyo, for Japan in late February is Just like England in late February, and I quickly found that I needed that “hairy animal thing”, as Steve had once described my Afghani fur coat. There was ice and frozen slush on the streets, and after passing through jungles and monsoons I needed time to get acclimatized.
There are well organized youth hostels all over Japan, so accommodation was no problem, although I unfortunately had no time to travel beyond Tokyo. This capital city of Japan reminded me very much of London, it was similar in size and area, had approximately the same number of spacious green parks, had a similar weight of traffic, a similar modern facade of office blocks and high buildings and an almost identical rush-hour crowded subway system. The bright lights of Ginza formed Tokyo’s Piccadilly Circus, and the stylish department stores nearby could equal any in Bond Street. In fact, London were to be drained of its bowler-hatted city gents and filled instead with busy, but politely smiling little Japanese, then what remained, providing it was draped with Japanese shop signs, would look like Tokyo. Even the weather was the same.
Tokyo's highlights were the Tokyo Tower, the tallest iron in the world which carried all the city’s radio and TV masts, and offered sky-high views all over the city; then the Imperial Palace, hidden behind a series of high stone walls and dark moats; and finally its Shinto and Buddhist temples tucked away into unexpected corners. Personally I found most of the temples colorless and uninspiring after the glories of Bangkok, but I was told repeatedly that if I really wanted to see Japan s heritage then should have gone to the ancient capital of Kyoto.
Alas, there was no times and most of sight-seeing was broken up by the frustrations and delays of organizing my journey home. I needed visas to travel through both Russia and Poland, and both consulates demanded at least four photographs plus endless completed forms and details. Then they had to cable Moscow and Warsaw respectively, (At my expense), in order to get the final seals of approval. All this needed a minimum of seven days, and I had more trouble with Russia’s Intourist Travel Agency who handled all travel arrangements through the USSR. It had been necessary to change all my sterling Area Only travelers cheques into Japanese yen before leaving Hong Kong, but the Russians didn't want Japanese yen, they wanted to be paid in Uncle Sam’s mighty green bills,
(probably to pay their ridiculous spies in the West.) The snag was that I was running to a tight, margin-less budget once again and I couldn't afford the loss I would have to suffer on the exchange rates. Finally, after lengthy arguments I was allowed to pay two thirds of the total fares in yen, but they maintained their insistence upon dollars for the remaining third. With this concession I was just able to scrape through.
Once that was settled, and while I waited for my visas to be approved, I decided to visit Fujiyama for a few days. It only took a few hours to get there and I stayed at a youth hostel at Gotemba at the foot of the sacred mountain. However, it was a complete waste of time. The weather was at its miserable worst, it rained continually all the time and Mount Fuji never once showed its face from behind a drab curtain of sodden grey skies. I waited three days in the optimistic hope that it might clear and enable me to go climbing, but finally I had to return to Tokyo in disgust.
However I did meet and make friends with a number of students from Tokyo University who were also staying at Gotemba while I was there. There were about thirty of them, and although only a few could speak a smattering of English they all had a quick and infectious sense of humor which made a good substitute. When they were not skylarking they had an almost Welsh tendency to sing in harmony, and performed ''Sukiyaki'' and “Danny boy',” continuously for my benefit. They invited me to their farewell party on the last night they were there and we all sat on cushions on the floor and drank warm saki poured into dainty little cups from big teapots. Everybody sang a song to provide the entertainment, and by the time they called upon me I was sufficiently saki-happy to give them a few rousing choruses of the sea shanty “Santy Anno.”They all applauded lustily, but I suspect it was the eternal Japanese politeness showing through again, for it's no secret that I have a singing voice like a flat avalanche in a gravel pit.
To finish the party everybody stood up and the class leader conducted them in a grand finale. It was the most dramatic conducting I have ever seen with a lot of chest-thumping and arm-flinging that was more like the mating dance of a proud gorilla. Somehow he found the energy to shout out the verses of the song at the same time, and the massed company roared back a mighty chorus that must have rattled the gods huddling in the rainy darkness high up on Mount Fuji. The only thing that excelled it was the approving uproar when I made my final speech. I had a two-minute warning in which to polish up a few gems of philosophy and wit, but nobody could interpret them. It didn't matter because I was the novelty turn of the evening anyway.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of that night at Gotemba was the fact that the student with the best command of English was an attractive young lady named Hiromi. Consequently she became my personal interpreter for the night. The others teased her and called her “China girl”, which was some kind of joke I didn't understand for she was as Japanese as the rest of them. Her cheeks had a healthy glow and she was always smiling despite the shyness in her dark oriental eyes. She looked prettier with every sip of saki and not for the first time I found myself wishing that my inconsiderate brother would postpone his wedding for another year, a prolonged stay in Japan seemed more inviting every minute and not only for the mere joy of seeing the cherry blossoms bloom in spring.
I saw her several times in Tokyo, but sadly I never succeeded in isolating her from her student friends. They were also my friends and showed me over most of the city and time ran out far too quickly. However, before I left she wore a gorgeous blue and silver kimono and invited me to her home for the traditional Japanese tea-making ceremony.
It was a long, kneeling ritual of welcome, with little cakes offered and eaten with little slivers of birch wood forks, and when the tea was finally made and offered to me in a ceremonial bowl it tasted and looked like thin, green pea soup. It was a polite but not wholly serious affair, and although part of Japanese tradition for over five hundred years its origins were vague.
All my student friends had an insatiable desire for English conversation, for they admitted that their chances of a worth- while future career would be badly hampered without a fluent command of the English Language. Consequently they accompanied me everywhere and talked endlessly. Several times we visited Shinjuku, which they called the poor man's Ginza. It was another neon jungle of bars and night clubs, plus endless amusement arcades and cinemas. Vice was freely available and the whole area was plastered with little red stickers advertizing the price and business telephone numbers of the local call girl organizations. They were tacked to lamp-posts, taped all around the public telephones, sprinkled on all the window ledges, and hopefully tucked into the windows of parked cars. The slogan was always very simply 1000 YEN. OK!
In Shinjuku we also went to a traditional Japanese restaurant where we all sat at a low table on cushions placed on the floor. The center of the table was a large grille plate where customers prepared their own food. A whole mountain of dishes was brought out to us by a succession of smiling, bowing waitresses, each one wearing an elegant kimono, and I watched helplessly as Hiromi and the others demonstrated their abilities as cooks. The first course was oysters, tastefully arranged on a giant platter filled with sliced leeks, carrots, bamboo shoots, and a host of other vegetables. The whole lot was tipped on to the grill table and turned over and over until it sizzled deliciously in front of us, and then it was shared out on to tiny saucer plates and eaten with chopsticks. The plates only held a small amount so that the food could not go cold, and were refilled endlessly from the hot grill.
The second course was similar, except that sliced kidneys replaced the oysters as the main ingredient. Then came a third course with tasty pieces of octopi and edible Jelly fish. Three successive but different forms of omelet followed, each one rich with eggs, meat and vegetables. The seventh course was Chinese noodles, and finally we fried our own pancakes and rolled them in warm honey. At the end of it all I had difficulty in getting up from the floor.
My Japanese friends also had the embarrassing habit of showering me with little presents and souvenirs, and refused to let me pay for anything while I was in their company. I was invited into their homes where bottles of saki and Japanese brandy were always produced, and the tables were always set with oranges, plum cakes, cheeses and rice biscuits. Their hospitality was overwhelming, and I reflected that the Japanese not only knew how to work hard, they also knew how to live well. They were very generous indeed, and I can only hope that the help that I was able to give them in polishing their English was at least some small return.
On the last night that I saw her Hiromi wore another beautiful kimono of very dark, wine red silk, and over it a short loose coat that was colored a light bronzed pink. To complete the outfit she wore scarlet slippers over her white- booted feet, and she could have had my vote for the world's most exquisitely dressed woman any day of the week. Of course all the others were also there to say goodbye, but I wondered afterwards whether it really was my imagination that gave her final ''Sayonara'' such a sad and wistful note.
I had to travel down to Yokahoma was to board the ship that was to take me to Russia, and so I departed from Tokyo a day early in order to spend a few hours at Kamakura which was just a little farther down the coast. It could have been a pleasant day, for Kamakura faces the Pacific and is another ancient and once-important capital of Japan, with a great number of historical shrines and temples. But again I was cursed with grey skies and drizzling rain as soon as I stepped down from the train. In Tokyo the weather had been cold but bright, but it seemed to change for the worse every time I stepped outside the city limits.
However, there was no prospect of a future return so I persevered, and went to see the giant Daibutsu, one of the two largest statues of Buddha in Japan. This huge Buddha figure weighs one-hundred and twenty-one tons, and is seated in the usual pose of meditation with the hands clasped upper- most in the lap. It stands forty-four feet high and there is a distance of thirty feet between each massive knee. The figure has stood for over seven hundred years, surrounded by pine- shaded gardens, and small shrines and temples at the foot of a wooded hill, and now the original bronze had turned green with age.
The most colorful temple in Kamakura, and the most central, was the Hachimangu Shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Guardian God of Warriors. The approach led through a superb red traditional arch, guarded by two white stone lions. Beyond lay a long avenue of cherry trees, the branches now bare but still forming a tunnel overhead. Then came a second Japanese arch, a graceful little humped bridge between two lakes, and a final avenue leading to the temple shrine and pavilions. All the buildings were painted bright red, with curving Japanese roofs with overflowing eaves, and made gay splashes of color against a wooded background. I tried to picture the scene with the cherry blossoms shedding white and pink flowers and the lotus blossoms floating on the lakes, and wished again that I could stay until April.
There were many other shrines, temples and monastery compounds in Kamakura, but it began to rain so hard and the skies were so grey and depressing that I gave up my attempts to see them all. I took a train back to Yokahoma and found the local youth hostel, which was aboard an old passenger freighter called the Hikawa Maru, moored along the seafront opposite the Yamashito Park. It was still raining there so I had nothing else do except explore the ship, which was also a show ship with stray tourists wandering over her silent engine room and the deserted bridge. One deck had been turned into an aquarium, and another had been filled with shooting galleries, slot machines and a juke box. In the evening I had to go ashore to find a meal and got soaked.
I left the Hikawa Maru early the next morning and walked down to the south pier to board the Russian vessel Baikal which was waiting at the quayside. She was a small, white-hulled passenger liner, with a golden hammer and sickle emblem on the red band around her black-topped funnel. After the inevitable customs and immigration delays she sailed at eleven am, and Yokahoma and Japan faded gradually into the past, my memories, and a drizzly grey mist.