v 17

Notes from Japan

Notes from a trip to meet clients in Japan

A sense of claustrophobia.

The claustrophobia of not speaking a language, verbal or body. And of feeling trapped by a lack of spontaneity. This is not a culture to say Oh, hang it.

A different claustrophobia in the Park Hyatt, Lost in Translation on the 45th floor, where the windows don’t open. So how did those two get onto their terrace? Only their terrace is moving, and it is a gantry and they are window cleaners. Add vertigo.

But at least there are windows. At Naoshima art island there is an amazing view out there and there aren’t. And you can’t take photos; the memory must stay within the walls, within your head. Normally I’d appreciate this, but jetlagged I am worried the experience will be lost.

I want to set Monet’s waterlilies free.

Teshima: perhaps all good art should make you feel like a child.

The Hoshinoya Hotel outside Kyoto: booked impromptu [a word for which I suspect there is no Japanese translation, except perhaps the word for ‘mad’ or ‘foreigner’] after forgetting I’d be on the plane and double-booking my first night. Arrival is by boat up a creek until it becomes unnavigable, then through a magical gate and up a cobbled ramp into the trees.

I am convinced Frank Lloyd Wright came here: I used to look at Fallingwater in uncomprehending awe in the (only) architecture book in the school library, but seeing this hotel, which has been a hotel for 100 years hovering over its creek, I get it.

I bathed well in my wooden bath. Did I sleep well on my futon in my perfect tatami-matted paper-walled cocoon? No. They sneak green tea into everything: Here is a welcome yuzu juice Thank you With green tea infusion D’oh.

The Katsura Imperial Palace. Can I come back please. At night, to watch the moon.

People were forbidden to travel abroad in the Edo period (1615-1868).

On the way to Kawai Kanjiro’s house and studio, an amazing pottery. Making hideous pots, demolishing that theory. Kanjiro’s house is how I would like my house to be.

I’ve just remembered what Japanese residential streets, with their plastic stick-on bricks and earthquake-indifference, remind me of: the static caravan park in my childhood village. The smarter the streets try to be, the more reminiscent. There was probably a Japanese bonsai garden around one of the caravans, and if there wasn’t, there should have been.

This realisation means that thoughts along the canalside Philosopher’s Walk, named after philosopher Nishida Kitaro’s morning walk to the university, are not of high philosophy but of childhood reminiscences. Perhaps the walk should be done as Kitaro’s, first thing in the morning, as if on a commute. Either way, it should be walked in April, not May; it would be an amazing experience in cherry blossom season.

The path is quite uneven so actually most thoughts are of watching my step and not falling into the canal.

At Kennin-ji in Kyoto my first gravel garden. And a moss garden in the next courtyard. I spend the morning moving between the two, in delight. The claustrophobia lifts.

Then to Ryoan-ji. I have more philosophical thoughts in the early morning taxi drive to Ryoan-ji than along the philosopher’s walk, despite the Parkinson-suffering driver holding on to the steering wheel to calm his tremors.

Tokyo, city of nine million inhabitants, is silent. Except for a repeating big-brotheresque Ding-pause-Dong at all railways stations. To keep you awake?

A long neat queue outside Starbucks. Which isn’t open yet.

Cars in Tokyo do not rev or race. They glide.

The remote taxi opening and closing door thing is really creepy. I think because it is on a lever pulled by the driver, so it has a human movement; it would be fine if electric and accompanied with the sound of a quiet motor. Instead it is the welcome of the childcatcher.

I have seen one police car – literally – the whole trip. And one Ferrari and one Maserati – very out of place. Law-abiding, yes; La dolce vita, non c’e.

There is no theft, ergo no pickpocketing. The freedom of not having to monitor your phone and wallet is curiously more distracting than the paranoia of checking they are still there. I didn’t know I did.

Oddly reassuring to see fashion-sufferers in the fashion district of Tokyo and not just in London.


Good things about Japanese culture:

Only use mobile phones at the end of train carriages.

At the end of the line train seats turn around so everyone faces the direction of travel. Why isn’t this global? Trains in suburban Kyoto are in plum lacquer outside with polished chrome numbering; inside emerald green velvet on faux woodgrain Formica. The window-to-frame junction, which on a British train is where the Daily Mail resides, is grimeless.

Bad things:

Drunk Japanese are worse than Brits, which is pretty bad.


You can understand the urge to recreate Zen gravel gardens. But they should stay in Japan.

Ditto the C19th obsession with Japanese culture. Edmund de Waal’s netsuke. Arguably they should have stayed in Japan too.

The light is very particular: even. Equanimical.  

Definition of Buddhist belief from a temple guide: that the inherent suffering of life can be transcended through equanimity, wisdom, and compassion. Amen to that.

I have left it late and the Aman luggage-boy takes me all the way to the platform for the train heading to the airport. I give him my remaining yen. I still haven’t worked out if this is 40p, £40 or £4,000.