It’s often said that one shouldn’t return to a place that one has loved. I realised the truth of this when I returned to Japan after a long absence. I went there originally as a bride-to-be, and when we were first married, we lived in Higashi Nada-Ku, Kobe, in a small newly-built apartment house with eight apartments, though the last one was numbered 10. In Japan, numbers 4 and 9 are considered extremely unlucky, and post office boxes and so forth with these numbers are given to foreigners. We were just down the road from my husband’s parents, in a charming area with several classy, old-style houses, 3-4 temples, a beautiful walk to the station and a friendly policeman on the corner. I was fascinated by the itinerant peddlers passing by with their various note-perfect cries – selling bamboo poles for washing lines, food, flowers, food and so on. But the vacuum truck that used to career madly round the corners to the Scottish folk tune of ‘Comin’ through the Rye,’ collecting the contents of the old-style toilets in the older houses, is best forgotten about.
However, when I returned after all those years – plus the Kobe Earthquake – everything had changed. Try as I might, I couldn’t find our former home in the new maze of streets, though I noticed a large new temple nearby, dedicated to those who’d lost their lives in the earthquake. A search for my in-laws’ house proved equally fruitless, as the estate agent could find no record of their property. So I wandered up and down near the probable site of their place, calling out softly, “Okaachan, O-kaachan (Mama, Mama),” but there was no answer, only the sight of many, many new houses. Some of the old covered markets were still there, however, and the supermarket where Okaasan and I sometimes shopped together.
Rules were made to be broken, it seems – even in Japan
The weather had changed, too. I went there in summer and stayed with friends – Sadamu and his wife Takako – in Osaka, where the average maximum was 35 to36 C, and there was no evening breeze such as that in Karachi. The oft-repeated TV weather reports advised us to stay indoors and keep our air conditioners going, which my hosts willingly did, though it was anathema to me. Another disappointment was the absence of old friends, some of whom had left this world, while others were holidaying in cooler places, either abroad or in northern parts of Japan. As Takako San was ill, there was no evening meal cooked in their house. So every evening at 7 pm, Sadamu and I would walk down to the nearby departmental store under the railway lines, buy the dinner from one of the counters selling prepared food and carry this and various groceries home. But with so many escalators – from station to department store, from floor to floor and back again till we reached terra firma – by the time I returned to Karachi I was suffering from centre-of-balance disturbance. Where were the slow and graceful elevators of yesteryear, manned by pretty young university graduates, and the staircases with their elegant, highly polished banisters? However, railway station and departmental stores notwithstanding, the house where I stayed was in a quiet area.
On the way to the station area, we saw signs forbidding cycling on the footpaths, some painted on the footpaths themselves, where one couldn’t avoid seeing them. There were also bicycle parking areas, with parking meters. Even so, there must have been a lot of illegal parking. One day, in front of my hosts’ house, two City Council trucks came by, having confiscated many bicycles, despite the reputation that the Japanese have for politeness and cooperation. Well, rules were made to be broken, it seems – even in Japan.
One day we decided go to Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture, to see once again the Ohara Art Museum, despite the knowledge that the maximum temperature would be 37C. This is the oldest such museum in Japan, dedicated to Kojima Torajiro – whom Ohara San sent to Europe three times to study art, and to help him choose pieces for the museum – which specialises in works of the Impressionist period. But there was no straight run through this time from Osaka to Kurashiki, though the trip was comfortable enough. Had the route changed? And where were all those lovely old farmhouses, with carp standing at either end of the roofs? And on the way home we had to change trains three times – from air conditioned comfort to boiling platform!
In the museum, we could view the works of Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Signac, Segantini, Cezanne, Monet – some 100 Impressionist artists – and of several more modern artists, both Japanese and foreign. Actually, the story goes that the ‘Water Lilies’ piece that one sees in the museum is not the original, and that Ohara San argued with Monet over this, but the artist refused to part with it, promising to produce a similar one for him. Nowadays the museum is divided into departments, but with smaller and smaller seats as one progresses through the collection, until at the last point they are less than knee high.
Owing to the heat, one didn’t feel like exploring the town, though we enjoyed the sight of the magnificent museum building, of the tourist boats and ducks on the stream running through the town, also of the jinrikishasan (rickshaw pullers) trying to lure customers into their vehicles with a singular lack of success. We stayed in the air conditioned Ivy Square Hotel, once a spinning factory, but now the oldest and best hotel in town.
A few days later, Sadamu drove us to Tamba, formerly a bucolic, picturesque village in the green mountains of Hyogo Prefecture, where people displayed hand-made Tambayaki, in the form of tableware, and animal figures on their front verandahs. Now, however, it was a fairly large town, with huge showrooms and a museum, displaying all kinds of ceramics except what I wanted to see. We got lost twice on the way, as the car navigation system was sometimes silent at crucial junctures. You can’t beat the good old map, viewed with concentration!
The day we drove through a thunderstorm to Mt. Shigi, on the border of Osaka-Fu and Nara Prefecture, to see Chogosonshi – the temple of the god of war – was an absolute disaster. The god of war is Bishamonten, also guardian of the places where the Buddha preached. It is also called Tiger Temple, because about 1,400 years ago, Prince Shotoku Taishi stopped on Mt. Shigi on his way to attack Kawachi Inamura Castle, and prayed for victory. Bishamonten appeared in the sky in the hour of the tiger, on the day of the tiger, in the year of the tiger, and led him to victory. Out of gratitude, the prince ordered the construction of a temple on the mountain, to house an image that he had carved of Bishamonten. It is a beautiful temple, rich in history.
In the Ohara museum, we could view the works of Henri Rousseau, Henri Matisse, Signac, Segantini, Cezanne and Monet amongst others
The path that we took to walk to it was most picturesque, progressing up gently sloping staircases, mostly lined with stone lamps on pedestals – some lamps emitting light – and with beautiful greenery. Sadamu, despite being 86 years old, walked rapidly along, and up the steep staircase (signifying spiritual progress) to the main temple, at which point he said, “Follow me!” and promptly disappeared. I called his name many times: to no avail, but to much dismay. There were so many paths leading here and there, and with thunder rumbling in the distance – no umbrella and nowhere to sit – what was I to do? I wandered down to the point where I thought we had left the car, which, of course, was not there. Seeing me standing there alone and disconsolate, a party of teachers and students asked me the cause of my distress, and then approached a kind young monk, who soon brought my errant host to me.
But that wasn’t all. On the way home, the said errant host took me to a really posh traditional restaurant, where he ordered shabu-shabu, a dish in which one swishes thin pieces of beef around in gently boiling water until it is cooked, then dips it in a special sauce. But every piece of beef exhibited a wide border of fat, enough to shock many an epicure, especially if he eats only white meat, and the host is a doctor!
I wandered up and down near the probable site of my in-laws’ place, calling out softly, “Okaachan, O-kaachan (Mama, Mama),” but there was no answer, only the sight of many, many new houses
But eventually, walking down an unfamiliar street one morning near the house where I stayed, I realised that after all, Japan had not lost its charm. There before my eyes was a magnificent wooden gate in the traditional style, entering which I found myself in a large and most beautiful park: in fact, one that is considered to be one of Japan’s most beautiful, with a view of Osaka Castle and the moat that surrounds it, wisteria-covered pergolas over seating areas, broad green lawns, beautiful trees and well maintained paths. This was Fujitate-ato Park, which along with Fujita Museum in the background, was bequeathed to the city of Osaka by Fujita Denzaburo, the first commoner in Japan to receive the title of baron. He was evidently a sharp businessman, but also a cultivated person who collected art and ceramics, and practiced the tea ceremony.
The museum houses about 5,000 articles, including excellent Chinese and Japanese calligraphy, sculptures and laquerware, but it is only open in the spring and autumn. A particular treasure is the Genjo Sanzoe, a set of twelve picture scrolls depicting the life of Xuanzang, a Tang Dynasty Chinese monk, who made an arduous journey through Central Asia to collect Buddhist scriptures and artifacts in India. The wonderful surprise discovery of this park and museum did much to resurrect my image of Japan, after all the mishaps and disappointments.
“All’s well that ends well,” as the Bard of Avon wrote.