Naoshima, Goro and Gundam

IMG_0469Meiji dori, Harajuku on a drizzly morning. It is, of course, a queue. But you can’t see either the end or the beginning of it. The end is 100 metres along from what is visible. The beginning turns a corner and runs another 100 metres and stops here, at a shop in Omote Sando with no signage. This may be incidental, but Omote Sando contains the most expensive real estate in Tokyo which is to say Japan which could be to say the world.IMG_0470Every day except Wednesday when the shop doesn’t open it is the same, and this has been the case for six years.

We know this because after getting tantalising but not quite intelligible responses from a member of the queue (who was just about to turn into Omote Sando and was distracted and very anxious about his prospects of getting into the shop) we accosted a statuesque young woman with a clipboard and a pen, the buffer from which the queue emanated. ‘What’s happening?’ I said. ‘It’s me dad’s shop’, she said in an accent that could easily have been Australian. ‘It’s like this every day.’ When I asked her where her accent came from, she said all over the place.

She was issuing wrist bands which allowed you to get in, but not to everyone, because Goro’s chooses its customers. Goro Takahashi makes the silver jewellery that you can see on many of the people in the queue (if you are using a computer and you click on the photo). It’s a lottery to get in, and then only four at a time. No one new comes in till all four leave. After you’ve made your choice, even then the staff might not sell you the piece you’ve chosen because you haven’t got Goro style. They will make that decision. Our first contact had a Goro necklace and wrist band but wasn’t sure that that would be enough to make the cut even if he got in.

Six years. Every day but Wednesday. You need to be there no later than 8 in the morning for a good chance. They open at 1.00. You mightn’t get to the front of the queue. You mightn’t be allowed in. You mightn’t be allowed to buy. Still they queue. 

imagesThis is Goro. His background is misty but he certainly spent some time in America with a group of Navaho. Native American is the defining influence of his product. Social media thinks he may be dead and may not really be producing the silverware being sold. His story is embellished in print. a0283003_15173527

This is the sort of thing he makes.2013-08-15_1376585394

If you want that, queue up.

This is Gundam.IMG_0415

I wanted to decrease the size of this photo, but it would be wrong. He’s big. Enormous really. On show here at Diver City Tokyo Plaza on the reclaimed land at Odaiba.

How big is Gundam? Huge. The International Gundam Society is the first ever academic institution based on an animated TV series. Gundam figures make up four of the top five anime models sold in Japan. So? Gundam earns its source, Gunpla (Gundam Plastic Model Company), around ¥20billion annually. That would be AUD235million or USD200million. Gunpla has 90 percent of the Japanese plastic model market.

What is he? It? A ‘mobile suit’, a large bipedal humanoid-shaped vehicle controlled by a human from what might be called the cockpit or, if you prefer, the codpiece. It began life as ‘Freedom Fighter Gunboy’ which became ‘Gunboy’ then ‘Gundom’ (from Gunboy Freedom) and then ‘Gundam’ to suggest a unit with a gun big enough to hold back powerful enemies like a dam holds back water.

And why is he needed? The Minovsky particle pervasive in Universal Century interferes with radar-guided long-distance cruise missiles, anti-aircraft guns, missiles and early warning systems, with weapons systems having to rely on human eyes. The space-based Principality of Zeon rebels against Earth Federation, requiring a weapons system that can function in zero and normal gravity and be able to open and close air locks, plant demolition charges, and engage with enemy tanks and planes. Obviously.

In 2015 a clip showing that the Japan Self-Defence Forces were already equipped with several Gundam was included in a report on Japan’s military capabilities aired on China Central Television. Chinese social media responded to this news by saying with Gundam ranged against it China will certainly lose any armed conflict. The clip was actually from an ad for Nissin Cup Noodles.


We’re talking about marketing here. It should never cease to fascinate us because it keeps burrowing into the heart of human motivation. Further and further. The pay-offs, commercial and otherwise, can be enormous. What is Goro’s playing at? Participation in the creation of scarcity and exclusion. Be part of our tiny gang. You pay quite heavily, and only in cash, for the privilege. To follow a theme, join our gated community.

The strategy with Gundam might be the antithesis. Find your market: boys. What are they interested in? Robots. War. Spread your media as widely as possible. Games, toys, movies, TV series, media appearances. Build a constituency beyond boys. Make the ‘creature’ possibly loveable. Make it important. Make it save your world. Enlist it for your armed struggle in the real world.

La Forêt is a shop of shops within a couple of hundred metres of Goro’s. It opens a very large window onto the heart of Japanese women’s clothing soul. I was absorbed. If you’re under 40, you can buy clothes like these.IMG_0472

But on this rack are clothes that 75 percent of Japanese women would be happy to wear.IMG_0479 They are readily accessible, reasonably priced and no one will stop you buying them.

So here is another strategy which describes perfectly the continuum between fashion leadership — the out there stuff, the exclusives, the Comme des Garcons and Vivien Westwoods — and another form of commerce, where you let popular opinion and choices drive your activity. Who cares if it’s rubbish — and the clothes above are not rubbish — as long as it sells?

Right here we have run into a fundamental issue, so fundamental it guides all public choices. Democracy or benevolent dictatorship for example? Should we care about scientific investigation or just go with what we think? I recently read a long article in a thoughtful leftist publication praising Lee Kwan Yew and his contribution to Singapore to the skies. He was not a democrat. But let’s move to something more local to our interests here.


After we finished our walk we caught the ferry for Naoshima, one of the countless islands in the Inland Sea, distinguished by massive investment to draw tourists to its art exhibitions.

If you Google Naoshima you are bound to get an image of one of Yayoi Kasuma’s pumpkins. (That link is definitely worth a look a propos of what follows.) But Naoshima has several identities. Conceptually and practically, its 14 square kilometres are divided into three: Mitsubishi smelter and materials processing plant takes up the north; the middle slice is where the locals live; the south is mostly the Benesse Art Site, although there is a nice little set of holiday villas on the beach the other side of security.

It also has a history. Like many of the Inland Sea islands it has/had an ageing population once sustained by a fishing industry that has now relocated. The Benesse Corporation whose fortunes are built on educational testing and text book publishing provided the seed money for some significant buildings designed by Japanese architectural giant Tadao Ando. One of these houses some of the private collection of Tetsuhiko Fukutake, the founder and chair of that company, who wanted ‘to provide a place where children from all over the world could gather’. The initiative was also strongly supported by Chikatsugu Miyake, then mayor of Naoshima, who seems to be a person of great vision and long-sightedness.

The goals: ‘Our fundamental aim is to create significant spaces by bringing contemporary art and architecture in resonance with the pristine nature of the Seto Inland Sea, a landscape with a rich cultural and historical fabric. 
‘Through contacts with art and nature, sceneries and inhabitants of the Seto Inland Sea region, we seek to inspire visitors to reflect on the meaning of Benesse’s motto – Well-Being.
‘In all our ongoing activities, we are committed to foster a relationship of mutual growth between art and the region, aiming to make a positive contribution to the local communities.’ You’d be pretty mean to argue with that, wouldn’t you!

And this was the view from our room, looking over to Shikoku as it happens.IMG_0118You would be a curmudgeon to complain wouldn’t you. Well I’m torn about this but here I go.

We paid approximately a zillion dollars to stay at Benesse House. The meal, a very good meal and we didn’t stint, in very nice surroundings with attentively brisk service, consumed one-eighth of what we took to spend in Japan in 30 days. That sort of zillion. The men at the front desk were grumpy and helpful in a ‘here you are you idiot’ sort of way. We left early after our second night, having to catch the ferry before breakfast was accessible. We’d paid about $110 for breakfast. No refund. Not a hint of a refund. The women were far more pleasant.

IMG_0264But the art. That’s what we were there for.

There are three sites in the Benesse area. We walked to the Lee Ufan Museum (2010), a Tadao Ando concrete bunker built into the side of a hill with a sheet of slightly bent steel, two rocks, one room each, one with projections, six paintings of a type and a room where we were invited to take our shoes off and meditate and read about the artist. IMG_0269I listened to the girl, one of the several, underground, tell us that and thought she’s had to say that three hundred times today and that’s her only job. That suggests I didn’t have my mind on the job. I also thought how did they get that rock in here? They must have built around it. And that’s when I thought the art here is embalmed in concrete 40cms thick. You can’t change it. Lee Ufan Museum is only going to be changed by a calamity of immense proportions.

We moved on to ‘Ando’s masterpiece’, Chichu Art Museum (2004), which as its name suggests is built in its entirety into the top of a hill with a series of basic geometric shapes the only evidence of its existence.
chichu_topThree artists — James Turrell, Walter de Maria and Claude Monet. Ten things to look at. Expensive. Built in. No change since 2004 except perhaps for dusting. I watched Turrell’s sky for a while but refused to take my shoes off to walk into his Blue Room. De Maria’s offering was a (very) big shiny ball of marble in a big room attended by variations on the theme of cricket stumps. And then the Monets. Well. I had to take my shoes off again to worship at the altar of someone I believe to cling to the lower rungs of Impressionism. I won’t go on about this but I have seen the waterlilies MOMA in New York holds (a solid 6/10), and I’ve seen the Rouen Cathedral series in the Musée d’Orsay (a confident and exhilarating 7.9/10) but Christ knows what I was looking at here.IMG_0272

There seems to be a general and very good rule that you aren’t allowed to take photos in Japanese art galleries, (waived at the artist’s request by Yasumasa Morimura in Osaka) so you are looking at the consequences of an illegal act. It can only hint at the carelessness and lack of artifice of the big painting which was surrounded by sketches someone had got out of the dumpster after Monet had left for work (1.2/10).

Here are the toilets. (Stainless steel!)IMG_0275

Here’s the corridor of the gallery.IMG_0276

Here’s the corridor of our Ando-designed hotel.IMG_0285

Barracks, bunker, gaol. And, for someone so passionate about the environment, inorganic to the point of being well into the spectrum. But very clean.

The Benesse Museum itself was much more fun. Lots of good things to look at. But reading through reviews of Naoshima I realise there had been only two or three changes in what was on display in the last ten years. They’re looking after the hotel and the shuttered concrete (someone said they were thrilled with the dots, well… try any building site), but no one is looking after the art. I couldn’t help comparing it with the Hakone sculpture park which had been so overwhelmingly, thrillingly impressive. 

Ando is famous for his slits, his framing of nature and environmental surrounds, and yes for sure, extremely clever and interesting. This one was on everybody’s way to eat, framing a moss garden complemented most successfully with a long thin vertical sculpture.IMG_5861

The suspended member would weigh 45 tonnes. (A wild guess, but it’s about 15m x 2.4m x 0.5m. Ha! If it is it weighs 43.2 tonnes!) The junction is cracking. Art criticism at its finest.IMG_0305

We visited the two towns Honmura and Miyanoura to find more art as promised. Paid a lot to see exceptionally little. Turrell’s dark room, ‘The Backside of the Moon’, gets pumped up, but truly really it’s a one trick pony with the best thing about it being its name.

What else are you supposed to love? The environment. If you’d spent the last few days in Tokyo or Kyoto you might appreciate the big slice of low level greenery you get, set into the gorgeous backdrop of the Inland Sea. You might like the car-lessness of the tourist’s version of the island. Its very narrow streets might be deemed charming and picturesque. But we’d been walking in monumental forest studded with azaleas, camellias and rhododendrons, with views to the edge of the world. We had seen not one of Kasuma’s pumpkins but scores, and better. So maybe that’s the problem. Sorry.

The project for the Island(s)? Terrific idea. I’m glad we spent money there and offered our oblique support. And I bet there’s times like the Setouchi Triennial where the whole island lights up like Port Fairy at Folky-time (and nothing lights up quite like that) and there is art galore — new art, mobile art, art that isn’t locked up inside concrete boxes.


Let’s go back. Marketing. We heard about Naoshima, from five or six years ago, through friends and relations who had been there and loved it. We felt we had to go given the opportunity. I had a crisis with the booking and thought we had missed out. That upset me greatly. Where had my expectations come from? Marketing.

I read six or eight reviews before we went. Trip Advisor, Japan Travel, American newspapers, blogs. Sober affairs. I’m always interested to see just what it is people like about a place. They like being out of Tokyo. Naoshima is sort of quaint and unquestionably worthy. [Digression: we ate at a very good izakaya in Matsumoto. It came in very high on Trip Advisor ratings and delivered every single thing promised — friendly service, picture menu, very satisfactory food — and a clientele of people entirely composed of people who read Trip Advisor ratings! Us!! Might as well have stayed at home. When you want to go, it’s name is Sakura, 1-20-26 Chuo, and you’ll think it’s not there but it is.]

I went back and read the reviews again, especially the detailed ones. Here’s what I thought. I’m an American journalist. Someone pays me to go to a very pleasant Japanese island to look at its transformation through good works to attract tourists via art. I am fed outstanding food, both French and Japanese. The view out my window is amazing and I get to my room via a six-seat funicular. No private cars are allowed in my part of the island. The built environment I’ve come to look at is dominated by Japan’s contribution to world architecture, Tadao Ando, and this is some of his finest work. The construction and clever features of Chichu are extraordinary. But even if they were shit I wouldn’t say so. I’d write a review like this one.


Let’s go back again. Marketing is not concerned with honesty. Marketing is concerned with achieving its most immediate goals — selling jewellery, selling toys, selling clothes, selling tourist sites. 

It can also be used to sell ideas. When I was working in Aboriginal education I decided after ten years of painful experience that hard rational approaches were useless. To succeed, to convince Aboriginal kids that it might be good idea to go to school for example, you needed to agree rationally to try something other than rationality; and that the best advice would probably come from marketers, people who know and work on the idea that, ‘We are not won by arguments that we can analyse, but by tone and temper.’ An observation from US Supreme Court judge Louis Brandeis. Try as I might, I could convince no one who mattered in the echelons above me where the money lived of the value of that idea. And yet they themselves got very excited about contact with Aboriginal celebrities.

Where does the public good belong in this process? Does it have a place defined by populism? Should 48 percent of Britons make their own exit from the EU? [Hmm got that wrong didn’t I! But not by much. The result rather emphasises my point. Should this ever have been put to a popular vote?!] Should there be a popular vote about the legality of gay marriage? I can imagine being gay and having a partner I want to marry and saying most emphatically it’s none of your goddam business. 

Let me leave you thinking about that.


This is one way to tell a story.

DSC00716Four women, eight dogs. Top of Omote Sando (Collins St, Fifth Avenue) in Tokyo.

DSC00768The information desk Aqua City shopping mall, Odaiba. And, yes, she is a robot at work.

DSC00843The owners/operators of Hop Frog, Matsumoto. Providers of beer, coffee and sandwiches extraordinaire. Lovely people.

DSC00855The Spring basho (national tournament) was on while we were there. Bouts were broadcast every night on NHK between 5.00 and 6.00. I learnt that there are 96 different descriptions of ways you can win and saw perhaps 20 of them. Hakuho, Mongolian by birth, won with a utchari backward pivot throw, his 37th championship title. Wildly impressive the whole business. (This shot is off the TV. Look at the crowd.)

DSC0088860, 70 and possibly 80 year-old climbers with their ice axes, crampons and helmets who have just come down off the 3000 metre peaks of the Hotaka Range.

DSC00932Chaps sitting on a bench getting their photo taken by young people in the Kanazawa gardens. A moment after this there was a gigantic explosion of laughter from all concerned. No idea why.

DSC00947Generational symmetry. I think Starbucks, but maybe a Cafe Excelsior.

DSC00966Girls walking round Gion dressed in traditional dress so they get their photos taken. Actually at Nanzen-ji (temple): in Kyoto. 

DSC00975ADSC01057 remarkable encounter on the top of Mt Daimonji. She arrived with a flourish and began by offering us honey lollies to keep us going after our big climb. Then told us she had walked from Inari, about 30 km away with some big hills between here and there, among other things picking up rubbish that people had left behind. ‘There hasn’t been much.’ She was on her way to Ginkaku-ji (the ‘Silver Temple’) still a few km away down a very steep hill. Then she revealed she had been in Brisbane the day before and that she was an air hostess. Then she told us a lot of other things about living a healthy and somewhat forceful life. Then we spent quite lot of time trying to take good photos of each other and failing. She wanted Kyoto in the background but the position of the sun rendered this unlikely. 

DSC01030Aux Bacchanales. True, but a misnomer. Anything but. Salads and good French wine. We decided that if you hadn’t been brought up on dairy the true essence of French food would probably always elude you. That’s stopping no one having good time. Downtown Kyoto.

DSC01079 ‘In the spring of the year 74 AD, the Emperor Keikō put a few carp into a pond, and rejoiced to see them morning and evening.’ From the Nihon Shoki, the first chronicle of Japanese history, published in 720 AD. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing going on here. They were big fish and actually climbing over themselves to be fed. We are at Ryozen-ji, Temple no. 1 of the Shikoku 88, and they’d had plenty of practice. It took a good three minutes for the bigger girl to get the hang of things.

DSC01297Hiro and Kaoru at Tairyu-ji, the fifth time we had met on the trail over three days, never intentionally. It was just one of those delightful things. Hiro had completed the trail previously and Kaoru was collecting her last stamp. We would like to see them again very much.

IMG_0004I have dropped cameras down cliffs, let them slip into a rocky slit 10 metres deep, bashed them against walls of all varieties, scratched a lens with a knife, filled the body with so much dust the shutter wouldn’t work, had them fall out of my pocket through a drain grate. But I have never had one stick on full digital zoom so that I could take excellent pictures of carpet fluff but not much else. This disaster happened on the walk at Shiromine-ji. The next day we were due in Kotohira and I thought maybe there might be a camera shop there. And there was. Interestingly all his good cameras were film cameras. They spoke no English but sweated blood to make sure I got something I wanted at a very reasonable price. Bless them. In the meantime Myrna and her phone were taking first class pics.

IMG_0007This could be the only young person in Japan who doesn’t want her photo taken. She succeeded close to perfectly in thwarting my intrusion, importantly with a soft serve (softu crema) covered in balls of some description, tasty for a millisecond before disappearing into the digestive ether. Softu crema were omnipresent rewards for a good day’s walking (and almost anything else). I’d counsel ordinary rather than premium and double flavour if available. Stay away from green tea. What’s the point? You’re after the big sugar hit.

IMG_0028They do have their pilgrim staffs but they’ve only got up 785 of the 1368 steps to the Kompirasan shrine at Kotohira. There’s another hour to go and they do mostly look satisfied with work to date. (Those steps … bloody hell…)

IMG_5581Out of nowhere, in the forest, very early morning. We were coming down from a night in Mountain Top Temple, Senyu-ji. He was amazed that we were Australians and really keen to talk. We took photos of each other. Look at the lens shell of his film Nikon. Battered, I am happy to report.

IMG_0252And, by comparison, look at this gear. A small sample of what this group had. Might have been a photography club with, as a membership requirement, spending a year’s salary on gear. We’re on a ferry between Takamatsu and Naoshima where, of course, the most common activity is to take photos.

IMG_5153‘Flamboyance Vanity’, in wood but I can’t tell you the sculptor. Sorry. Matsumoto City Gallery.

IMG_0480Two gorgeous gals at the Starbucks in Shimokitazawa with Forever My Lovetoxic Style bags. That’s what it was like. Fun of the highest order.


Landscape: Five Thoughts

‘What’s it look like?’ he asked.

Well … like a lot of things. It’s actually quite a big country: 6852 islands, one of which, Honshu, is almost as big as Italy. From Wakkamai on the north coast of Hokkaido to Kanoya on the southern tip of Kyushu is more than 1800km as the crow flies. Socially, Japan is thoroughly regionalised. One reason for that is its mountains. The cone of Mt Fuji at 3776m is 600m higher than any other point. That’s distinctive and perhaps accounts for its deep cultural importance. There are 20 mountains between 3193 and 3000m. One of them, Okuhotaka, features below. But there’s plenty of others, long steep ridges of them which, for example, make it impossible to get from Matsumoto to Kanazawa via Kamikochi in anything other than a series of sharp doglegs. While only 12 percent of the land is farmed (very carefully), most of that land is irrigated. I would be stunned to find a wild river, or even a wild trickle, in the three southern islands.

342px-MegalopolisMost of the population lives in the Tokaido Corridor running from Tokyo to Fukuoka, a series of major plains on the Pacific Coast and bordering the Inland Sea. These night time satellite photos of the east coast of the US and Japan are to scale. The Kanto Plain surrounding Tokyo is the brightest light in Japan and that is probably because more than 40 million people live there.

So why not begin there, with a digression, because I love the photo. Yanaka, north-east Tokyo. You’d probably say ‘inner’ but I don’t know what that means here. Closer to the fish markets? Ginza? The Imperial Palace? The fleshpots? Don’t know what reference point is appropriate. Much of Yanaka, five or six square kilometres, was not destroyed by the bombing and fires of the second world war (or the various earthquakes, and fires to which Tokyo has been regularly subject). This is not a first class example of those buildings, but a renovated coffee shop surviving these periods and therefore prized. I like the sign (privileging English; this is a tourist route), the wood, and the sheen on the new tiles. But I particularly like the gentleman and the sharpness of the crease in his pants, as sharp and straight as his posture. He has an umbrella (two actually, matching), not a walking stick. I like the bus and the block of units behind it. Very Japan. And importantly it has the ubiquitous power lines.DSC00688Local fans of Yanaka would probably prefer this photo, with an emphasis on narrow windy lanes, bikes, flowerpots — and street art.DSC00694Below is a photo collage called ‘More’ by Nanami Sakata. But it looks like nothing so much as the view out the window of our Tokyo hotel window.DSC01025Continuing with art, this is the view out the window from the corridor outside our room: Asakusa Dori, the main route to the next suburb.DSC00745

On, on, to the subject: the first thought — urban streetscapes have a lot of contiguity whether they are in the city (Osaka, off Mido-Suji)…IMG_0320the suburbs (Ogibashi, eastern Tokyo)…DSC00761or a country town (Kotohira on Shikoku) …IMG_0005Vertical accents, signage running amok, power lines: they’re not beautiful.DSC00983Kyoto renowned for its elegance and beauty has streets everywhere much like this off its grand boulevards. (Nishikikoji Dori, 30 metres off Karasuma.) But in this case Myrna is about to head into the Tiger Gyoza Hall, to enjoy one of the great feeds Japan has to offer and these are two of the geniuses responsible.DSC00986 (1)

Second thought. The cultivated ‘countryside’ is not as we know it. It is packed tight. There is no broad acre farming in Japan. Farmland from above Kotohiro.kagawa-14You don’t waste space. Even big houses, and this is a big house with probably a ‘large’ land holding, are islands in a sea of cultivation.IMG_0087You’re as likely to find rice paddies in the middle of a country town as on the outskirts. In fact it might be very hard to define the outskirts. (Newly planted rice in a wind, eastern Shikoku.) Incidentally, note the banks of solar power panels. In the east of the island they were on every spare metre of land. More than 35 percent of the power supply on Shikoku comes from renewable sources.DSC01220

Third thought. The urban suburban and rural development is confined to the plain, packed tight. At a certain contour level it just stops.DSC00972This is a generalisation. The mountain areas have their very small towns, but for such a densely populated country, not so many of them. Roppongi is not the only place there are hills in Tokyo. There is some outlying development in other urban areas, and as we will see there are temples on top of mountains. But from here — the top of Mt Daimonji, including Kyoto to the right, Inari and Nara over to the left, Osaka ahead and, pace the photo, it was a hot but clear day and we could see almost to the coast, perhaps 90km — nothing but houses all the way except where there was a hill or a ridge or an outcrop. In other countries such elevated locations would be much sought after. Film stars don’t live in the San Fernando Valley; they live in the Hollywood Hills. And it was from Okochi Sanso, a former film star’s house and garden that we viewed the same phenomenon from the other side of the Kyoto basin. He was up the hill, but no one else was.

As happens, after this I started seeing it everywhere. Certainly on Shikoku, but for all of our long shinkansen trip from Osaka to Tokyo, mostly on a plain full of houses, the roof ridges of which you could almost align with a spirit level. Any bumps were green and forested.

This might be one of those dumb tourist observations: a) obvious, and b) at the same time wrong. And even if I’m right there are probably perfectly obvious explanations. Stay on the plain if you want to avoid earthquake damage, and make sure some green areas are preserved in this welter of development are two. But then there are hundreds of tsunami stones along the coast line saying don’t build below this point, and I would have thought Japanese architects, engineers and builders would have salivated at the challenge of building on sharply sloping sites.

Next thought. The natural beauty of Japan’s preserved areas is glorious.IMG_0107From our hotel window at Kamikochi late evening, Okuhotaka at the end of the Azusa valley in cloud. Below, the forest floor half way along that valley. Horizontal and vertical accents clearly articulated. None of the messy complexity of the Australian bush.DSC00894wood, water, mountain, rock. Kamikochi again.DSC00875

Last thought, what commentary does the Japanese garden, private and public, so highly theorised and deeply grounded in religion, history and culture, offer on these other observations?

The elements of the gardens are clearly derived from the riches of natural Japan with a focus on rocks, trees and water and not so much on the extraordinary floral abundance. Sand or gravel can substitute for water. Placement of the elements is critical down to suteishi (‘nameless’ or ‘discarded’ rocks) highly supervised to provide a sense of randomness. The last picture, a temple garden in Kyoto designed to some degree for its contribution to meditation, illustrates the drive to abstraction.

Not much room? Make it small. Bonsai is a Japanese art form. None of the gardens below is as small as most gardens we saw: tucked into boxes, run up walls, in pots, so carefully tended. It means I think that regardless of the intensity of urban living, and it is intense, a place must be found for connection with nature. That’s to be celebrated.DSC01210Above an uncustomarily big domestic garden near Ichinomiya with coloured rocks and okarikomi-trimmed vegetation, not just shaped but thinned at the same time to make fluid shapes and transparent views. We watched this happening. What an art form. Below not tent ropes but support for a very old pine tree creeping 15 or so metres horizontally out above this pond at the amazing gardens at Kanazawa.Yukitsuri-standalonepine-02-2006-03-03

DSC00930Kenrokuen at Kanazawa again. A particular form of perfection realised.

Below, we didn’t go here. It’s the garden at the Adachi Museum of Art in Yasugi. It’s here because of its use of sand and ‘rugged’ features.Adachi_Museum_of_Art_Garden_02A Japanese garden. The final distillation.IMG_2801.JPG

Japan 2016

DSC00817.jpgYayoi Kasuma’s ‘Visionary Flowers’ in the forecourt of Matsumoto’s art gallery.


Four weeks. Great weather. Wonderful. Anything else? Let’s see …

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 3.08.07 pmWe got off in Tokyo, bought Pasmo cards to get around, got on a Yamanote Line train and suddenly everything fell into place. Like we’d been here before. A couple of days were spent investigating Issey Miyake’s clothes, art ancient and modern including a Caravaggio exhibition, one of those cobbled together ones where the audience was as interesting as the art. We worked our way through Yanaka and Fabric Town in Nippori, the commercial and art palaces of Roppongi Hills, the shopping malls and oddities of Odaiba, the izakaya (pubs with food) of Ueno — and marvelled again at Tokyo.

DSC00804We went east to Matsumoto (its fort is above) and spent a couple of very satisfying days there, the highlight of which was an exhibition of Yayoi Kasuma’s art at the city’s Museum of Art.

I wanted to go back to the Japanese alps for another look, just a look. So we got a train and bus to Kamikochi, one of Japan’s ‘Natural Cultural Assets’ and spent a day walking up the Azusa valley with snow-topped mountains either side.

We moved on to Kanazawa on the west coast. Once a major city, in fact the wealthiest city in Japan outside the capital in the 17th and 18th centuries, it seems to have missed the post-war industrial revolution (and the bombing) and remains a centre for crafts with more gold leaf manufactured here than the rest of the world combined! There now; sit back and marvel. It also has Kenrokuen, one of the ‘three great gardens of Japan’, and so they were. Japanese people spoke of Kanazawa with great fondness and an intimation that something different and delightful was contained there. Everyone’s second favourite team. I felt right at home.

From there we took the train to Kyoto. Why did we go to Kyoto? It was on the way to Shikoku. We climbed Mt Daimonji the difficult way, found the Tiger Gyoza Hall and consumed its products two nights in succession, investigated the Disneyland that much to our surprise is Arashiyama, bought some walking gear, watched a film called ‘The Eichmann Show’ which, despite starring Martin Ferguson and Anthony LaPaglia, will be very little seen. Kyoto. It might be important to go there once, perhaps for a week. After that not so much.

This is likely to be my only chance to include a photo of the Japanese synchronised swimming team with whom we shared the Kyoto Aquacentre twice. They’re clothed and not even doing their tricks — which were completely amaaazing.DSC01022Then the reason we went to Japan, and unquestionably the highlight, a 10-day walk following some of the Pilgrim’s Trail on Shikoku to see how just how Myrna’s three month-old hip was. Great seems to be the accepted answer. Taken in entirety, this walk of 1200 (or 1600) km. (which includes a lot of possibly boring kilometres) would be sacrificial. We did about an eighth of that and Oku Japan had exercised its usual skill in picking out excellent bits. Are Buddhist temples still interesting after the 25th time? And how steep were those hills? You’ll just have to read on to find out. I will reveal that on Shikoku buses don’t necessarily run on time, that there is both rubbish and rubbish bins, and that there is very little Romanised signage and very few willing English speakers, but a truck load of charming and helpful people.

We came back to Tokyo via Naoshima, the ‘art island’, located conveniently for us between Shikoku and Honshu’s railway stations which would take us firstly to Osaka and then back to Tokyo. I’ve got a lot to say about Naoshima some of which runs against the grain of prevailing opinion. That may be because of the juxtaposition of that experience with the walk. Or it might all be a bit of rip-off. Just a bit. IMG_0315It does have its Kasuma pumpkins and we did have a swim in the Inland Sea that was lovely.

Osaka is a bustling thrill-a-minute city where we could have spent much more than two days. A bit less stitched-up than the rest of Japan? Another highlight was seeing a major retrospective of Yasumasa Morimura’s work which I would have difficulty explaining but which I found conceptually and in craft terms as interesting as anything I’ve ever seen. In the same gallery at the same time was a collection of Ikko Tanaka’s graphic art which in any other circumstances would have been a top 50 lifetime art experience.

Here is Yasumasa, being Frida Kahlo. What can I say?IMG_0349Back in Tokyo we stayed on the other side in Shibuya, mooched around, looked for presents, went to the Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, explored Daikanyama and Shimokitazawa (the South Yarra and Fitzroy of Tokyo) and found a very good place to eat on our doorstop. We also saw ‘Deadpool’ in a theatre (monster Japanese sound and screen) with 800 or so others, maybe 20 of whom had a chance to get the verbal jokes. We celebrated our departure by revisiting where we’d been on the first day walking through Yanaka and Ueno Park, coupled with a visit to the National Museum in which every exhibit is a treasure and where the bento boxes are a feast.

How do you tell that story successfully? I think, in bits.

We met dozens, scores of people, who contributed in various ways to making the trip memorable. Till just now I had forgotten the pilgrim who accosted us on the descent from Kakurin-ji who was thrilled to discover we were from Australia.


‘Murray Rose. He still alive?’ Murray Rose, six Olympic medals, 15 world records, but in 1956-60, plus he went to live in America. Still … ‘Died quite recently. He was nearly 80.’ [Actually 73, but that’s okay. We’d been walking for several hours up a steep hill and then down most of another one.] ‘Sorpo. Jan Sorpo!’ ‘Ian Thorpe? Thorpedo? Still going.’ ‘Morgan Freeman?’ ‘Mmm…’ ‘At the Olympics!’ ‘Oh yes. Cathy.’ ‘Kenneth Rosewall?’ He was casting through as many possibilities as he could to make points of connection. So many people were.

DSC00923Then there was the landscape. I started thinking about it on the train to Matsumoto, when only after 50 minutes of high speed travel had we come to anything I’d think of even vaguely as countryside. Again at Kamikochi where all the prizes of natural Japan were on display. Again from Mt Daimonji where we could see the flood pour of the vast Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe conurbation, defined almost exclusively by a contour line. And then the conceived, constructed landscape — gardens, private and public, traditional and contemporary. There is a story about relationships with nature there.


We were wandering through the temples of commerce in Harajuku and ran into a long queue standing quietly in light drizzle and we wondered why and decided to investigate. The answers prompted thinking about markets and marketing, in Harajuku, in Naoshima and in life more generally.


I mightn’t get round to writing about this but I also thought about the Japanese notion of kawaii, which can be translated as ‘tiny’, ‘cuddly’, ‘sweet’ or often, with pop world overtones, ‘cute’. IMG_0473 Like this (above) is soap and these are girls. She’s a pop star and she’s a pilgrim. It’s on the T-shirts; it’s everywhere. It has an unparalleled place and life in Japanese culture. And I think it helps a great deal in explaining the strange notes in Haruki Murakami’s novels. This last was a revelation if one that I could have trouble persuading other people to be interested in.

But we started with Issey Miyake or really Miyake Issey, and we stayed with him as a representative of Japan’s inventiveness for all sorts of things but straying constantly into engineering and infrastructure. I’ll see if I can explain what I mean.

And the walk. People want to know about the walk. It needs some narrative as well as how, and why.

Let’s finish with another Yayoi. I am standing in a closed mirrored room ‘Filled with the brilliance of light.’DSC00834