Japan by the Book

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th May 2007.

I've always appreciated the sort of guidebook that takes you by the hand, as if you were a friend. Venice for Pleasure by J G Links comes to mind. "We will pause in the campo for a coffee, and contemplate the church," Links tells his readers. We are happy to obey..

'Like exquisite birds from a cage, doll-like geisha, white-faced and silk-wrapped...'

And now here we are at Tokyo's Narita Airport, clutching just such a book but, even better, one written especially for us, which orchestrates our trip day by day. We are first-time visitors to this most perplexing and different of foreign countries, and the guide doesn't just hold us by the hand, it throws us a lifeline. With it, we can move around the country with the minimum of hassle and maximum use of our time. Without it, we would be, if not lost in translation, certainly bothered and confused and not nearly as adventurous. "Where's The Book?" becomes a familiar cry between the three of us, panic rising if it can't be found. A spare copy is kept, like some sacred text, in the secret compartment of a suitcase.

Admittedly it's a modest affair, The Book, but this neatly bound collection of computer-printed pages displays our names and destination on its cover - Fiona, Andrew and Serena: Japan Sea Coast - and instructs us on everything from rail travel to such weighty matters, via amusing strip cartoons, as how to use a Japanese loo, and how to behave in ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and onsen (public hot-spring baths). It includes chapters on the hotels and ryokan booked for us in advance and on our transport arrangements, plus useful facts, restaurant recommendations and comprehensive sightseeing information. We rarely resort to the regular guidebook we also brought.

We begin in Tokyo, surveying the city from our calm rooms in the Mandarin Oriental, on the 33rd floor of a sleek new tower. A frenzy of flashing neon, the massive urban sprawl stretches away to the distant hills, where we search the horizon in vain for a site of elusive, iconic Mount Fuji.

Later, I am swimming alone in the vitality pool of the hotel's 37th-floor spa, with nothing but a wall of glass between myself and infinity, when the clouds suddenly rise from the hills to reveal the snow-covered, perfectly cone-shaped mountain bathed in the red glow of sunset, a sight so marvellous that tears prick my eyes.

"In Kyoto" says The Book, several days later, "witness the clash between the frantic materialism of today and the purity of Japan's Shinto and Buddhist heritage, and the way that modern life exists side by side with tradition". No more so than when, at the end of a day filled with soothing temples and gardens, we search for a taxi in quiet surburban streets near the Philosopher's Walk. Suddenly we spot one just as it releases its passengers, like exquisite birds from a cage: two doll-like geisha, white-faced and silk-wrapped, who are greeted at the door of an upscale house by a servant in a kimono. Perhaps these two geiko (children of the arts) as the refined, classically trained geisha of Kyoto prefer to be called, are there to hold a tea ceremony for the master of the house.

Kyoto, as Serena puts it, is lifting with temples. By now we have walked maybe four miles in a long sweep of them along the edge of the hills, plus cobbled streets, old wooden houses, shrines and gardens (stroll gardens, dry landscape gardens, paradise gardens, tea gardens, pond gardens). Night is for thread-like Pontocho Alley, lit by lanterns, where even in a hip modern bar the waiter kneels before us to proffer hot, damp towels with two hands. For dinner, The Book suggests Moritaya, where we sit creakily cross-legged on tatami mats and cook sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, perfectly matched by a couple of bottles of cold Chablis (purely medicinal: we need it to tame our rebelling body clocks into sleep). Neither the meal nor the wine are particularly expensive, and many things, such as taxis and petrol, are much cheaper.

Courtesy, order and cleanliness are what strike us most about our first brush with Japan. You could eat off the station floor; your bottom is automatically washed for you by loos with heated seats, some with an integral basin and a tap for hand-washing that leaps into life when you flush; no one crosses the road on red, however empty the streets; anyone with a cold or allergy (disconcerting, this) covers their face in a white surgical mask. And everyone bows. The deeper the bow, the more respectful. The car-hire man practically scrapes the pavement with his head; so does the petrol-pump attendant. The train guard, in snow-white gloves, bows when he takes our tickets in two hands, bows when he returns it, and turns and bows to the whole carriage when he leaves. We like this a lot: in fact, we want it on the trains back home.

"Today," we read in The Book, "your car-hire voucher will be waiting at the hotel reception" Will we cope? But driving (on the left, and with The Book's detailed maps) turns out to be no problem. At Amanohashidate, a renowned beauty spot, we take the cable-car and survey the view, like everyone else, upside down with our heads between our knees to see if the two-mile sandbar called the Bridge of Heaven really looks as if it is floating in mid-air. Sort of, is the answer.

Maiko dancers, or young Geisha, in Kyoto

Later, we arrive at Kinosaki Onsen and our first ryokan, one that has been operating for more than 250 years. It has its own communal bath, but Kinosaki, on the Japan Sea Coast, is one of the country's many popular hot-spring resorts, with seven public baths to choose from. The Book has told us what to expect: we knew it would be very different to staying in a Western hotel - but not how completely we would be taken over by Japanese order and cleanliness. Inching along streets filled with people wrapped in cotton kimonos and clutching towels, we pull up outside the ryokan and are instantly swept up in a demanding, centuries-old ritual that "makes prep school look like a hippy colony", as Andrew mutters darkly under his breath.

Any false move is immediately spotted. Shoes off at the front door, not a step farther. Hotel slippers on, but off again at the bedroom door: socks or bare feet only on the tatami mats inside. In the loo, exchange your slippers for special bright red plastic footwear with 'W C SLIPPERS' emblazoned on them (and don't, whatever you do, forget to take them off and appear downstairs in them, as I did once).

Then clothes off, all of them. Yakata (cotton kimono) on, then tanzen (outer robe), plus tabi (split-toe socks for the sandals). Don't cross your yakata from right to left (reserved for funerals; me again) but from left to right. Take towel and plastic bag provided, plus umbrella because it's raining. At the front door, slippers off, wobbly wooden sandals on and away we go, shuffling and giggling, to the baths. Undress, shower, then quietly enter the bath with all the other ladies and don't, as Serena and I do, yelp in shocked surprise at the heat of the water.

Back in the ryokan, feeling very, very clean, we are served dinner at a low table in our paper-walled room: a multi-course feast featuring the local speciality, a long-legged crab, plus many other delicacies. Our bossy, matriarchal, kimono-clad maid hardly leaves us alone for a moment, but when she's out of sight, we behave like naughty children, sprawling on the floor instead of kneeling, abandoning chopsticks and attacking the crab with our hands, and (Serena's brilliant idea) surreptitiously cooking quivering, unidentifiable raw things in our hot miso soup in order to get them down.

The rugged Japan Sea Coast, which we now drive along, is an impressive jumble of headlands, cliffs and crashing waves, punctuated by unappealing modern towns and an extraordinary expanse of sand dunes at Tottori. Off the normal sightseeing trail, it is little visited by foreign tourists: the only other geijin we meet are young British and American English teachers, some of whom have stayed on and married local Japanese. Everyone, Japanese or geijin, is unfailingly polite and helpful; we only have to pause for a moment before an English speaker offers assistance.

By now we are, if not old hands, much more at ease. The Book, though still vital (without it, we would never have ventured this far) holds less power over us. In Matsue, we are entranced by the graceful 17th-century Samurai castle, and by the incomparably beautiful gardens at Adachi Museum, seen as a series of vistas from inside, rather than walked in. Tucked under a thick quilt for warmth, we take a boat ride around the city's backwaters, watching cormorants and snowy heron, and listening uncomprehendingly as our guide sings folk songs in a high-pitched wail.

We stay in another ryokan, a simple one, and this time we know just what to do. Over breakfast of dried fish, rice and miso soup, our twinkle-eyed host copies out a folk tale in flowing Japanese characters on delicate paper. Handing it to us as a keepsake, he explains that he is a trained Noh actor, and proceeds to give a riveting solo performance of the story, complete with imaginary drums, pipes and chorus.

It's a highlight of our trip, and one that even The Book hadn't reckoned on. We express our thanks properly in Japanese for once, and say goodbye in the right manner, and somehow, as we leave, we know that we have turned a corner. Next time, we won't need our hands held so tightly, but Fiona, Andrew and Serena: Japan Sea Coast will join Venice for Pleasure on our shelf of all-time great travel guides.

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