Yayoi Kasuma’s ‘Visionary Flowers’ in the forecourt of Matsumoto’s art gallery.
Four weeks. Great weather. Wonderful. Anything else? Let’s see …
We 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.
We 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.Then 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. It 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?Back 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.
Then 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’. 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.’