is what travel is supposed to do, but does it? Unequivocally yes in my case, whether it’s been staying in gites in various parts of rural France, driving between guesthouses in the Black Forest and environs, or getting to know Italy on bus tours with friends or on our own. We’ve learned such a lot through being immersed in the life of the communities we’ve stayed in, however briefly. These places I’ve mentioned so far have been in Europe, our local patch (I am a confirmed and unrepentant citizen of Europe). Further afield, I’ve enjoyed poetic trips to Lithuania and Quebec. But I’ve also visited some more exotic destinations, where the cultures have been radically different from that in my home patch.
Experiencing these places – Japan, China, Tibet – really did open my eyes to different ways of living, although I was already steeped in Japanese art, culture and religion before we went there in 2003, having been a practising Zen Buddhist since I was a teenager.
I keep travel journals, always have done, and they’re invaluable for recreating journeys, being far more reliable than memory. This series of blog posts will be based on my travel notes, but the first one is developed from a haibun I wrote after our Japan trip. I called it Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, and I’ll post daily segments from it. Here’s the first day:
Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, Day 1.
After an uneventful early morning flight from Edinburgh to London we board the 747 to Tokyo. We fail to sleep while flying over Russia. It is extraordinary to look down from the plane’s nose camera at a frozen Siberian river – I believe the Amur. Overflying the mountains of Japan is very spectacular then, unexpectedly we get a view of the top of Mt Fuji as we descend towards Tokyo.
ice snake far below
grips the frozen ground –
merge into clouds –
Fuji poking through
Narita Airport is 50km outside Tokyo city. After a very forbidding and stern passport control we retrieve our baggage and it is loaded onto a truck by porters wearing white gloves. Many workers in Japan wear white gloves – bus and taxi drivers most obviously. We meet our Tokyo guide, who said we should call him Smiley, and he entertains us on the two-hour bus journey to our hotel by explaining some facts and figures about Japan and the Japanese people. He’s a delightful guy, with a good sense of humour, but we don’t quite follow the commentary about the different prefectures we passed through on the way. The city is vast and sprawling – same traffic congestion problems as the rest of the world. We go over the Rainbow Bridge, and realise we’re high over the dockside area, but it’s too dark to see much. There are several artificial islands, made from landfill.
We check in to our hotel then walk out to look for a meal. On the way down the steps outside we hear cicadas in the trees. It is very warm compared to the Scotland we left behind that morning. We find a Yoshigawa restaurant (distinctive orange shop fronts identify this chain) and dine well and very cheaply on salmon, thinly-sliced beef, miso soup, pickles and rice. Then we stop at the convenience store next door to buy mochi cakes – gooey rice flour balls stuffed with sweet bean paste. They are tasty, more so than another local speciality (below). The politeness of the shop assistants is wonderful.
soft rice-paste balls
on a stick –
sweet-glazed and soy-salty