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  • Living

A taster of Japan

Wednesday, 3rd October, 2018 9:51am

Story by David Burke
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A taster of Japan

THE great Torii (gate) at Miyajima at low tide.

A taster of Japan

THE great Torii (gate) at Miyajima at low tide.

THE last thing you’d expect on a visit to a Japanese temple is to be bitten by a deer. Deer are those shy animals who run a mile at the sight of a human, aren’t they? But in Japan they were historically regarded as messengers of the gods, which is why you won’t see venison on the menu any time soon.
Because of this exalted status, deer wander freely among the crowds around certain temples, and if they think you might have food for them they are not shy.
Which is why I was bitten. Not bitten really, more nipped by a young buck who wanted a deer biscuit and didn’t appreciate it going to the doe on my other side.
Getting up close and personal with the local wildlife was not on my agenda for the trip to Japan I had been anticipating for decades. But the deer featured memorably, as did the monkeys — more about them later.
Anyone I ever met who had been to Japan seemed to use the same word to describe it — amazing. I’d have to agree. It’s like nowhere else on Earth I have ever experienced, a blend of high-tech Western civilisation with an ancient and very proud culture.

Not that pride is obvious: the entire thrust of Japanese etiquette is humility, putting the other person first, and it manifests itself in total politeness in the most mundane interactions.
Where we might shake hands or simply say “Hi!”, Japanese people bow. There is a wide range of bows, from a simple incline of the head to the deep bow from the waist of someone who has made a terrible mistake and is apologising for it.
It is a very civil way to greet people, and even clumsy westerners like myself slip into it with surprising ease.
Our trip was organised by Riviera Travel, a UK-based company with an office in Dublin, and it was our first time to be part of a tour group.
From being the ones to look slightly down our noses at gaggles in anoraks following a flag-waving guide, we became those “bloody tourists”. For a first-time visit to a foreign culture, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
It’s all very well to be an independent traveller if you have lots of time on your hands to make mistakes, miss transport connections and generally learn things the hard way, but if your holidays are limited to a couple of weeks, the organised tour is the way to do it.
Heathrow to Tokyo is a 12-hour night flight, arriving on a Friday afternoon (which is early morning according to your body clock — the time gap is eight hours).
Tokyo is everything you have seen on TV or in films. It’s a high-rise, high intensity, neon-lit metropolis whose citizens’ main activity seems to be shopping.
Whole buildings, eight or ten storeys high, appear to be devoted to consumption of everything from Hello Kitty and other cutesie merchandise to electronic devices produced by companies we have never heard of.
But while the streets may be crowded, nobody bumps into anyone else, and there is a sense of total security. The crime rate is very low, and in restaurants people leave their wallets and handbags at the table when they go to the toilet.
Apart from shopping, why go to Tokyo? Well, there is the National Museum, with a very easy to follow timeline through the nation’s history; the Modern Art Museum, with fascinating examples of the first works by Japanese artists adopting western styles in the late 19th century; and the gardens of the Emperor’s Palace, a haven of tranquillity in the world’s biggest metropolis.
And endless scope for people-watching.
Our group visited a Shinto shrine there on the Saturday and were lucky enough to see a traditional wedding, and on Sunday went to the Asakusa Buddhist temple.
That is dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of compassion, and pilgrims prayed, burned incense and lit candles. We added a few to the candelabra ourselves, just to be on the safe side.
The approach to the temple is lined with stalls selling everything from food and traditional clothing to crafts to devotional items: think Knock multiplied by 100 and you get the picture.
Knock reminds me of Croagh Patrick, our holy mountain and extinct volcano. The Japanese equivalent is Mount Fuji, another sacred cone five time as high as the Reek. Pilgrims climb that too, but many fall victim to altitude sickness.
Fuji was our first stop after Tokyo, and as usual the mountain was shrouded in mist. We did get a glimpse through a few breaks in the cloud before the fog closed in like a very wet blanket, and all of a sudden Japan felt just like home — except that the rain was warmer.
There were sighs of relief the following morning as the sun shone for our next journey, by Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima. It was like being in an aeroplane at ground level, reaching a maximum speed of 291 km/h (181 mph).
Hiroshima, the first city to be destroyed by a single bomb on August 6, 1945, has been totally re-built. Apart from the Peace Museum, my most vivid memory of it is the island of Miyajima, a short ferry ride away, but a different world.
Miyajima is a sacred island, where the Torii, the traditional gateway to a Shinto shrine, rises out of the sea at high tide. It was a sight I had longed for all my adult life, and it was a privilege finally to experience it. The tide was out, so the effect was not as dramatic as I might have wished, but it gave the opportunity to walk out to the massive structure and photograph it from many angles.
This is the first place we encountered the sacred deer, and there and then decided that if ever we are lucky enough to return, we’ll spend a night there. No island can properly be appreciated on a day trip.
The highlight of the tour was to be Kyoto, the capital of Japan up to 1869, and on the way we stopped at the beautiful Korakuen garden at Okayama, where in one corner tea is planted, in another rice, and the teahouse serves green tea-flavoured ice cream in a large sundae style cup. A mother and two adult daughters invited us to try a spoonful of theirs: surprisingly refreshing!
Kyoto was the best blend of new and old Japan we encountered. Its astonishing modern railway station includes a broad flight of steps about three storeys high which after dark becomes a screen across which dance animated figures. You can only see it by looking up from the bottom of the stairs, when people walking down look like part of the animation.
On the other hand is the Gion district, full of wooden houses in the old style, where if you are lucky you may spot a geisha in her regalia. Were it not for our Japanese guide, Meg, we would not have known we were walking past geisha boarding houses, or restaurants where only regulars are admitted.
Kyoto is famous also for Nijo Castle, where the deliberately squeaky floors betrayed intruders; the fabulous Golden Pavilion, covered in gold leaf and magnificent even in the rain that marred our visit; and the bamboo forest of Arashiyama.
Across the river from here and up a 120-metre hill is the monkey colony. Here Japan’s native macaque monkeys go about their daily business, ignoring the visitors. That is until the tourists go inside a hut with grills for windows and feed the monkeys slices of apple or banana, and peanuts.
The people in the cage and the animals in freedom outside is a nice reversal of the usual set-up, and it means the monkeys do not pester the visitors as they share the space on the hilltop.
There was so much more to this trip: space here permits only a fraction of the story. Food, history, culture — all are fascinating.

 

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