Friday, May 26, 2006

Home is the Hunter

After a fantastic break in Japan, once again I am greeted by the flickering screen and some time to fill it. As a trip, I think it would be hard to match Japan for the variety of things to see and do. The temples of Kyoto or Nikko truly are serene and beautiful. The gentle shrines of the nature worshipping Shinto faith contrast with the astonishingly ugly urban sprwal of the major cities.

Tokyo was a far more pleasant city than I had imagined- its many attractive parks providing relief from the dramatically urban skyline of Shinjuku or the Ginza. The different districts of the city: Akasusa, Ueno, Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, the Ginza and so on provide contrasts, so that Tokyo is not a uniform urban environment but, rather like London, it is a fusion of different villages. Osaka was more uniform and therefore less interesting.

The style of the Japanese was an unexpected surprise. The, almost Italian, sense of the bella figura was remarkable- well dressed and elegant, the look of the people was enhanced by the fact of there being very few fat people in Japan. The excellent food was another slightly Italian trait. Certainly it was very difficult to eat badly - even on a budget- and if pushing the boat out, Japanese haute cuisine is as good as anything in Europe, and considerably healthier. Mind you it is certainly possible to spend vast sums of money both on food and accommodation, should you so wish. However, the secret of Japan is that it is not necessary to spend a great deal of money.

The legendary timekeeping of the transport system strikes one almost as miraculous, coming from the sloppy and underinvested transport world of the UK. The fact that it is not only the Shinkansen- "Bullet"- trains, but all trains that run exactly to time is a great pleasure after the uncertainties and discomforts of the British Rail system. As a tourist its is easy and quick to travel a very large distance- in Europe, only the Swiss seem to combine the punctuality and cleanliness that the Japanese take for granted in their lives. There is a sense of order and organization, despite the almost Gothamesque urban sprawl that renders Japanese suburbia a reflection in blah.

The shock of the trip was Yakusuni- the shine where the millions of Japanese soldiers who have died fighting "for the Emperor" have been enshrined in the Shinto tradition. The museum that is part of the complex contains in its English language commentaries the most partial and one sided account of the actions that led up to the Japanese involvement in the Second World War that it could be possible to find. The aggressive militarism of the Japanese regime is disregarded completely- it seems that only Japan had legitimate interests. The disgraceful prosecution of the war- the Rape of Nanking, for example- is ignored. Personally I am unsurprised by the venom with which the Korean and Chinese regard this shrine. It is an unworthy monument that fails to give a truthful and adequate account of why and how so many young men were sent to their deaths- and the horrors that Japan visited upon her neighbours. Accustomed to the measured and balanced museums of Europe, I left the shrine feeling a cold anger that should a partial account could be left to stand in the face of the accusing eyes of millions of dead. The Atomic bomb did not fall upon an innocent Japan, but a country that had surrendered itself to brutal militarism and an alliance with the vile regimes of Mussolini and Hitler.

Yet, the fact is that Yakusuni is controversial even within Japan, and my overwhelming impression was of diversity (surprising perhaps, considering the reputation of the Japanese for conformity) . Japanese culture, with its sense of the aesthetic, is both beautiful and unique. In enjoyed myself greatly. Despite the large numbers of Japanese tourists, the fact is that Japan does not take in very many visitors from overseas. Gaijin are not common away from Tokyo and the major tourist centres. Indeed, last year it seems that even tiny Estonia had more foreign tourists than Japan. Ah yes, Estonia- well regular readers will know that it is hard for me to get away from this subject. In fact on this trip I was traveling with two Estonian friends. Since an Estonian is a new star in the field of Sumo, we could not avoid going to the Sumo Basho to support Baruto, as he is known in Japan. It was a fun experience- and indeed Baruto justified his star billing- in only his first major tournament he came third.

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