Old bent pine

leans on his stick

softly stirred by

warm Kanazawa

breeze

No – of course it’s not a real haiku. But it’s hard to resist the impulse to try summoning a mood, a scene, a feeling, in seventeen syllables. In Kanazawa, in the Kenroku-en gardens, there are many ancient trees propped up by wooden stakes.

Seventeen syllables

do not a haiku make

necessarily

 

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Tentatively, you slide apart the wooden doors between the hanging paper lanterns, and are met with a warm aromatic smack and a scary roar from behind the counter. The roar makes you want to quietly slide the doors back together again, but actually, it’s a sort of greeting as far as I can make out – probably something like “Welcome – sit down – have a beer – this is your friendly neighbourhood café/bar and every visitor is personally important to us!” Still a bit scary though. But it’s not just us: locals are greeted the same way, and sent on their way with a similar shout. There are three chefs behind the counter, and it’s their greeting. And it is a very friendly place, the izakaya.

We’re just here for a beer, really, but looking over the counter we can see the food cooking – and smell it: it’s a split aubergine on the griddle, scooped out and mixed with miso paste, and now the chef’s cracking a quail’s egg into it. “I’ll have one of those, please” – I would say if I could speak more than the shamefully few words of Japanese I’ve learnt. So I just point, look up, spaniel-like, and nod hopefully. Actually it turns out that the chef speaks good English: he worked in a Yakitori restaurant in New York. In between shuffling the pans and cracking quails’ eggs, the chefs are peeling daicon into long paper-thin strips with their very sharp knives, and it’s folding down, concertina-like, onto the worktop. You could read through it, it’s so thin.

I haven’t got my sketch-book with me, so I find a biro and start drawing on the paper place-mat. But dribble quail’s egg onto it. And a bit of miso paste – not to mention the beer.

An elderly woman is praying at an outdoor shrine, tenderly stroking the Buddha’s hand, and a large crow alights on the branch above, cawing four times… In the Kofukuji temple grounds, the deer are everywhere, weaving into the crowds, sniffing foor food. Clusters of schoolchildren tease them with sembai they buy for 150 yen, and the deer get stroppy and prod the children, who giggle and wiggle and shriek nervously. Elderly women in white overalls, sun hats and masks, sell the crackers, and sweep up the results from the ground around.

A man engages us in fluent English: where are we from? where are we going? These are not polite questions: they are philosophical ones. He’s a writer, a poet, a thinker. Then: Why are we going to Koyasan? Because it’s in the Lonely Planet guide? “Publishers are worse than pimps! People flocking from place to place because the books tell them to! Guide books are EVIL!” He taps the bible he carries – “Most people are sparrows, but some… some are falcons!” (He’s getting quite exercised now). “The printing press was THE WORST INVENTION EVER!” (I start to bluster, but…) “You must follow your heart.” (Yes, in general…) Now, would we like to make a donation for his writings? he asks, offering his printed pamphlets.

Still raining. The bus brings us to Shirakawa-Go, to ‘encounter a Japan that vanished long ago’, says their brochure. We trundle our luggage across the narrow footbridge over a raging creamy-caramel torrent in the teeming rain, into the World Heritage village of Ogimachi. On a plateau near the foot of sacred Mount Hakusan is an enclave of gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old. We’re looking for Yokichi, the house where we’re staying tonight.

The houses are made completely of wood, with steeply-pitched thatched roofs. A roof can be completely re-thatched in two days, by 200 local people. The shape of the pitch is said to emulate hands pressed together in prayer.

Our hostess speaks no English and our Japanese is limited, shamefully, to about five phrases, but she makes us very welcome, and we go out again in borrowed umbrellas and gum-boots. The tour bus takes us miles, it seems, through tunnels and over bridges, and drops us just a few hundred feet above the plateau, so we can walk down the path into the village. This is the Viewpoint, where umbrella’d tourists – all Japanese, no westerners – stand in a line, under the cherry-blossom, snapping away through the mist and rain.

I’m standing, drawing the Toyama Family House, a museum now, its upper floors previously inhabited by silkworms. Its eaves are exquisitely knotted together with thick rope, hardened by smoke from the cooking fire. And the view of this house, with its gurgling stream running fast beside the wooden walkway, in the mist and rain, gives me a feeling that is almost, well, quietly transcendental.

Yet another beautiful and refined meal: Salt-crusted trout, Hida beef steamed in leaves on individual stoves, soup with mushrooms, mountain vegetables, pickles, and an egg-custard with a shoal of tiny eel-like translucent fish, eyeing us rather pitifully.

.

Tsumago is a Protected Area for the Preservation of Traditional Buildings, and modern intrusions into its traditional appearance are not allowed – telephone wires, aerials etc. Though as we walk in, we pass a reasonably hideous intrusion into the village’s beauty – a small hydro-electric power station – so we suspend judgement until we’re into the (almost) car-free street – and it is beautiful. Low wooden houses, a rich dark-red, slatted fronts and overhanging eaves, and everywhere the sound of rushing water in the gutters covered by stone slabs. 

Down the street we come to the sculpted tree that you see in nearly all the views of Tsumago: heavily pollarded, with a large knot at the fork like an eye, looking alarmed at the passer-by. In our guest-house we have a traditional tatami-mat room, two cushions to sit on, the customary big thermos and teapot, and a very warlike mini-samurai display: a mini-suit of armour, quiver of arrows, and a small katana, all beautifully-mounted. If you like that kind of thing.

But the evening meal we are presented with by our hostess is staggering: raw slices of salmon, pickled lotus root, pickled fern, spinach, sesame paste, shredded daicon (a turnip variety), a small whole trout marinaded in soya sauce, tempura vegetables, an exquisite clear soup with mushrooms – there are 12 dishes with 23 parts – each. And – glistening in a small white bowl – a few grasshoppers, their thin serrated legs tucked into their bodies. I’m very nervous about this dish, until I taste them. They’re absolutely delicious, sweet and nutty.

And while I`m on the subject, the toilets in Japan are a joy. They take comfort and function to new levels. The characters at the top are in the Hiragana script, and mean (I hope): TOILET, or similar. These aren`t just rich people’s toilets – they are very often public lavatories too.

The symbols above are on buttons attached to the facilities – well, I think they probably give a fair idea of their function. The wavy lines button indicates the dryer. The music button actually generates a flushing sound to cover any bodily noises, but seems to be found only in the Ladies. The seat is, of course, always warm to the touch, and there is sometimes an automatically-dispensed and not unpleasing aroma.

The orange button means STOP (whatever’s happening at the time). I mistakenly pressed the FLUSH button (not shown here) instead of STOP, at one point. I’ve learnt, though.

I’m standing on the old Edo trade route, or Kisoji, on the way to Tsumago. Gill is shrieking at me, her face a mask of horror. This is our second day in Japan, after leaving Sydney, and we are walking the lovely old road from Magome. The weather is beautiful – immediately after the chilly autumn of Australia, we have flown straight into the late spring of Japan, where, here in the mountains, the cherry blossom is heavy on the trees.

I was apprehensive about the Japanese part of the journey – and the autumnal Sydney day had a back-to-school feel. But I had an email from someone called Owen, apparently from Lewes, who’d seen my blog on VivaLewes, and is currently living in Sydney. In fact, coming to King Street in ten minutes! We met in the street, and of course, I know his father. He knows our son. A small world, indeed. He told us about his life in Sydney, learning to be a baker, fruit-picking in Orange, living eco-consciously, and enjoying life. A very impressive young man.

The only drawback about this Kisoji trail seems to be the bears. It’s easy walking, the signs are very explicit, parts of it are even paved. But every kilometre or so through the woods, there’s a brass bell hanging, with a sign that tells you ‘Ring the bell hard Against the bears’ (sic). There are black bears roaming the woods and we really don’t want an encounter. So we ring them really hard and hurry on to the next bell.

So – Gill is yelling my name at me while I’m thinking about the bears, but I’m on a wide paved bit of the path, and I can’t think what the matter is, until I see her pointing at my feet, and I suddenly get the dread realisation that I am, in fact, standing on a five-foot long green snake. And I do a sort of strangled gulping scream of my own and a sort of shuddering, scissor-kick little jump sideways – and the snake slithers off into the ditch. On the Kisoji there are also well-appointed toilets from time to time; and yes, they have heated seats.

In Sydney’s Botanical Gardens there’s a perfect rainbow over a tree full of sleeping fruit-bats. I can’t help myself – I clap my hands, and their furry foxy heads jerk out of their hanging bag-shapes, indignant at being woken. They squabble a bit, then tuck themselves back into their sleeping-bags.

We get to to the Art Gallery just as it’s closing, so we walk on down MacQuarie Street, and turn into Alfred Street – and there, set up in front of the Customs House with its royal coat-of-arms, is a big TV screen, beaming images of the beginnings of the Wedding Of The Century, intercut with interview footage of the Happy Couple, to the throng. There’s an enclosure set up in the square, with several bars, and seats, and hotdogs. There are three TV networks, cameramen and technicians, and at least three nicely-coiffed blonde presenters in very high heels, getting ready to do their pieces to camera. Lights, cameras, and, any minute, action. A big fruit-bat flaps by, over the screen.

A young woman in an attempt at a naval officer’s uniform, topped by a grim rubber ‘Prince Charles’ mask, is strolling around, chatting to the TV people, and there’s a stall promoting gay marriage. We’re transfixed by this scene, and watch for rather too long; a crowd of after-office-hours drinkers are watching from the bar under the Customs House portico. Eventually we stamp off, scornful, and go back to Newtown, where we watch the Wedding on Neil’s TV. I’m allowed to make comments only on the proviso that they are funny. None of them are. We switch over to a programme about Stalin.

We’re not paying $40 for a Japan guide book! Outrageous! So we make for the State Library in Melbourne to steal the information we need: in the imposing surroundings we surreptitiously photograph page-spreads for our journey.

But there’s an excellent exhibition there about the making of the State of Victoria. And I am drawn to the story of the legendary bushranger, Ned Kelly. Here’s his helmet, and body armour, beaten from ploughshares; here are his letters in elegant handwriting; his rifle; and here, spotlit, is his death-mask, head shorn of hair and beard, a slight smile on the lips.

Outside stands a grand statue of the Library’s founder, in his robes, in 1854. Sir Redmond Barry also founded the University of Melbourne, and the Royal Melbourne Hospital. And he was the judge who later hanged Ned Kelly.

“Such is life…”, said Ned, before he dropped through the trap. Redmond Barry died twelve days later.

It’s a sunny day, I’ve just eaten a prosciutto-and-babaganoush sandwich at Ray’s, and I’ve come in here for a haircut. Here is Clip’N’Shave for Men, on Victoria Street, Brunswick. I’m waiting for my turn, when I realise that the music playing is The Wanderer, the classic unreconstructed single by Dion & The Belmonts, but without Dion – it’s just the backing track.

The barber’s name is Michael, too. He tells me he makes up backing tracks from the original rock’n’roll records, then sings and plays against them at functions. He used to play in a band, but these are lean times for live music, and you don’t make much in an 8-piece band. This I know. So now just he and a friend play at Italian/Australian weddings – “It’s easier than a band these days…”

On the walls are lots of pictures of Elvis. Michael is a big Elvis fan. There’s a guitar in the corner, leaning against a child’s car-seat. There’s an Elvis clock, with pendulum-legs swinging. Michael’s into Kenpo, a martial art that Elvis practised. In fact, Michael’s Kenpo teacher taught Elvis! I shake his hand. He obviously has shaken his teacher’s hand. And, it must follow, his teacher would surely have shaken Elvis’s hand! I am 3 steps from Elvis.