In the Netherlands they give you a biscuit with your coffee. In Japan they give you a wet wipe. You don’t really need that biscuit, do you? You do, however, if you are anywhere near as messy as me, need a wet wipe. That’s what it is like in Japan – you get what you need and no more.
You need somewhere to wash and so, in the AirBnb we rented in the suburb of Tofukuji, one stop from Kyoto station, we found the smallest bathroom we had ever seen. A basin so tiny and at thigh height that it would ensure small children would find it easier to aim their tooth-cleaning spit. For adults it proves trickier but then we should know better. The steel bath sunk into the floor was little more than a kitchen-sink for grown-ups. Water reached our shoulders. What more could we need?
You need somewhere to sleep and so, bedrooms were equipped with beds and bedding. No more. We could live out of our suitcases. We grew rather fond of the plaited tatami mats that form their wall-to-wall carpeting. Should a section wear out then that section only is replaced. No one needs to waste money.
We were in Japan to see the autumn colours. After three years in the tropics we craved seasons and Malaysia’s trusty no-frills airline was the only carrier to fly from KL to Osaka. We were going for four nights, which we thought would be just enough to see what was necessary and our first stop was Hiroshima. There was no way we could visit Japan without experiencing such a sacred place.
The first thing that struck me was the silence, only this was not an eerie silence but the sound of peace. But first I needed a cup of tea. It had been a night flight and we’d had little sleep, which is one of those times when only a cup of tea will do. We took the bullet train and the trolley girl ploughed down the aisle every half hour. She spoke no English but instead handed us an English menu and left us to point at what we wanted. It was perfect solution and one that we’d be glad of several times during our trip. No hot tea? Just hot coffee. But once we reached Hiroshima we began to notice that this is a land of vending machines. They are everywhere. People even have them in their driveways. They sell water and juice, of course, but they also sell beer. I put my hand to the front glass. It was warm. Who knew? Some shelves of the machine held hot drinks too, and there on the shelf was hot tea! Green of course, in a bottle, but at that moment nothing was more delicious.
We took a ferry over to Miyajima island. Deer roamed the cobbled streets and stood in the doorways of the quaint shops that sold beautiful things in beautiful packaging, like individual bean-paste filled cakes shaped like autumn leaves. Trees, perfectly spaced, were pruned into neat bonsai shapes, simple stone pillars carved with phrases had been placed on gravel of pale stones. Wooded hills rose all around and the sun was warm. This was when it struck me. While we need food, shelter, transport and somewhere to wash we also need to feed our souls. Japan does soul-feeding big time.
The last building to remain after the A-bomb in 1945 is floodlit at night. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been preserved. It stands beside a fountain and gentle trees, the skeleton of its dome a web of pale steel, rubble left where it fell. Here was a peace that passed all understanding.
Back in Kyoto we visited shrines and temples, like you do, but it was for the gardens that we had come and so that’s what we put at the top of our list. So, it seemed had everyone else. There are a lot of people in Japan and people need to be corralled. Or is it maybe just gentle guidance? There are signs on station platforms, marked with neatly placed pairs of feet, that show you where to wait for the next train and then, just beside, where to wait for the one after that. If you don’t quite wait in the right place a white-gloved man in a serious uniform, taps you on the shin. They paint arrows on the stairways, three up, one down, showing where you are allowed to walk. Men and women in green or blue livery carrying light-sabres, ensure you wait at road crossings on the pavement not the road and only cross when the green man appears. More chaps ensure you wait in a line of exactly the right dimensions and in the right place for a bus, that you queue in the right direction to order food. And that you follow the prescribed route round the gardens, only stopping to take photographs at the best spots for a fair length of time before someone with a stick and a smart uniform shouts at you to move on.
But those views, those colours, the exquisite juxtaposition of russeting Japanese maples, their miniature leaves turning the next shade of ginger, cinnamon or rose at exactly the right moment. The reflections in the pools and lakes, the rocks, the moss, the laurel, ferns, azalea and acer, more beautiful than anything our Capability Brown could have dreamed up on an English country estate. Oh Capability, you have been usurped by the zen garden masters who knew exactly the meaning of ‘just so’ four hundred years ago. Like the practical yet tiny houses, this country’s motto may be ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.
And as I return to the topic of needs, there is now a new need to add to my list of must-haves. I need a Japanese lavatory. Never before have I emitted a delighted sigh each time my nether regions descended on the pre-warmed loo seat. Now, having experienced this in our AirBnb, at the airport and in many other public places, I will be bereft without it. Alongside the seat you’ll find a plethora of touch-sensitive buttons, to squirt water at the required angle, to play music, to disguise the tinkle and to perform a variety of back massages (that last one’s a joke).
Back to the gardens and the reason for our trip. They elicited in me a final need that could only be assuaged by poetry. The more I wandered down those prescribed pathways, the more the poet inside me came to life and there was only one art form that befitted such a place – the haiku. That prescribed Japanese form of five then seven then five syllables, coupled with its twist of theme. And so, as I leave you with some photographs of our trip, I leave you too with my feeble attempts at haiku.
Bonsai and blue sky
both silent and disciplined
they queue between lines.
The temple is gold
leaves fall like spent coins.
Close but not touching
willows weep by the river
selfies at the lake.