Four days in Japan

On our first morning in Japan the sun rose outside our window in a fierce orange glow. It looked to me as though the day would be hot, only we were well past summer and the nights had turned chilly, or so my daughter told me, and she should know. She lives in Tokyo with her partner, both now able to make themselves understood in Japanese after eighteen months of life here.


On that first day we visited the Senso-Ji Temple in Asakusa and made a small offering to which ever gods require such tokens, a few yen in return for the opportunity to shake a wooden cylinder with a hole at the top.


After a good shake, I slid out a wooden rod around which someone had scrolled a small sheet of paper on which my fortune was printed.

I copped No 54. Bad Fortune.

Your body is one but with 2 different kind mind, so everything goes out of order. Just like lunar eclipse make the sky dark all will be dark. Though fortune approaches to you, but you can’t get it.

Just like a fish can’t meet water, there may be so many possibility to be a bad case for you.

 *The request will not be granted. *The patient will be unhappy. *The last article will not be found. * The person you wait for will not come. *Let’s stop build a house and removal. *Any kind of marriage, to start a trip, new employment are all bad.

My husband, on the other hand, drew out a rod whose message No. 21 included Good Fortune.

Washing off all bad things in the past, now everything is clear and clean.

The brilliant light and glorious flower came out clean again being washed so well.

What you desire will finally gets profit, which means everything around you comes out quite well.

Time passing by, everything turns out to be better, just like the sun shines all day long. *Your hopes will turn out to be real. *Recover from sickness, but if careless might be serious. *The lost thing will be found and the person you wait shows around. *There are no problem of building and moving house. *There are no worry about marriage, travel and employment.

I am not given to superstition and yet this dose of bad fortune stayed with me. I feared I’d have evidence of it soon enough. Our plane might crash during our return flight. Our health might fail. Something dreadful would happen to confirm the worst of my situation.

One afternoon as we marched along the platform after getting off a train and headed for the exit stairs, I knocked a young woman’s mobile phone out of her hand as I brushed past. I stopped momentarily to apologise guilt stricken that I might have damaged her phone but she picked it up and said nothing.

‘Don’t worry’, my daughter said. ‘These things happen. The woman’s okay. She’s not cross.’ It was not a case of bad fortune, just circumstance but still a jolt.

On day two, in quiet moments in my daughter’s apartment on the tenth floor of her luxurious apartment that overlooks Tokyo proper and on clear days gives a view of Mount Fuji, and with a toilet that flushes itself by sensor, I took to reading books from their small library.

I feasted on Murakami and found myself immersed in the Japanese world on the page. Somehow the writing helped make sense of the culture shock I had experienced during those fast few days in this other part of the world.

Several times over on our third day in Tokyo we walked through one of the busiest intersections in the world in Shibuya. All those bodies at cross purposes, half walking in one direction, the other half in the opposite and of those halves some walk on the perpendicular to get across through the middle of the intersection that runs in something like five directions.

Worse still there are folks who stop mid centre to take selfies that set them forevermore in photo form bang smack in the middle of the world’s busiest intersection. It seems they intend to say: I was here in this over populated place, my life in my hands, like hanging over the lip of the Grand Canyon or putting down your flag on the top of Mount Everest.

I found myself hating the crowds, but relishing the strange sense of pleasure I felt every time I remembered my daughter’s words: the Japanese are so polite and Japan is one of the safest places in the world.

That third night reading Murakami’s words before we went out for dinner I found myself in rivers of tears, unstoppable tears, all the way through the subway.

The people on the train are too polite or tuned out or singular within themselves to notice this western woman in tears, whereas here in Australia I suspect people would cast furtive glances in my direction. There in the Tokyo metro no one looked my way. No one noticed that I was distressed, or if they did, they ignored it.

This distance offered a strange sort of protection against embarrassment, but also left me feeling isolated. As if I was surrounded by people, and yet entirely alone.

Now I find myself caught between two ideas. The one which Alain de Bouton describes in his book, The Art of Travel, where he writes about the pleasures of expectation as distinct from the fact of arrival.

In our imaginations we anticipate a place of immense pleasure riddled with expected signposts – the Eiffel tower, for instance, fields of tulips in Holland or the eyeblue seas of the Greek islands – but once we get to our destination, we find our signposts might well be there but there are also other unwanted aspects, including the fact of our own troublesome bodies, our tiredness, our headaches, our conflicts with loved ones.

De Bouton describes the experience of one Duc des Esseintes, the hero of a J-K Huysman novel written in 1884.

Des Esseintes had for years wanted to see Amsterdam and Haarlem in Holland, based on his appreciation of the paintings of Rembrandt and other great masters, for their ‘nice brick courtyards’ and their ‘pale faced maids pouring milk’. But when he arrived in Amsterdam he found ‘these gems were blended with the ordinary images (restaurants, offices, uniform houses and featureless fields), which these Dutch artists had never painted.’ These other unwanted aspects diluted the pleasure of his travel.

‘Des Esseintes ended up in the paradoxical position of feeling more “in” Holland – that is more intensely in contact with the elements he loved in Dutch culture – when looking at selected images of Holland in a museum than when travelling with sixteen pieces of luggage and two servants through the country itself.’

And then there’s the other notion that travel broadens the mind.

Des Esseintes found himself longing for the loveliness of Paris from pictures he’d seen but after his venture to Holland, he decided to stay at home and enjoy his imaginings untarnished by the ordinary and unwanted aspects of real life.

On the other hand, these tarnished realities create the learning experience, and broaden the mind more than the stereotyped grandeur we see in photos and in films.

By day four, I was ready to go home. And filled with fear that I might be like the character Satsuki in Marumaki’s short story: Thailand.

‘That night lying in her pristine bed, Satsuki wept. She recognized that she was heading towards death. She recognized that she had a hard, white stone inside herself. She recognized that a scaly, green snake was lurking somewhere in the dark. She thought about the child to which she never gave birth. She had destroyed that child, flung it down a bottomless well. And then she had spent thirty years hating one man. She had hoped that he would die in agony. In order to bring that about, she had gone so far as to wish in the depths of her heart for an earthquake. In a sense, she told herself, I am the one who caused that earthquake. He turned my heart into a stone; he turned my body to stone. In the distant mountains, the grey monkeys were silently staring at her. Living and dying are in a sense of equal value.’

And the ripples of the earthquake that hit Fukushima on day four rumbled below but I was asleep and felt nothing, with no inkling of the bad fortune that was to follow.

7 thoughts on “Four days in Japan”

  1. I am not well-travelled. Even within the UK I’ve mostly stuck to Scotland’s central belt. I’ve visited all Scotland’s cities bar Inverness although I did drive by it and regretted not having the time to take even a brief detour. The farthest south I’ve been as an adult is Morecambe in Lancashire. I’ve never been to Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Hull or London. Only twice have I left these shores, once to visit Carrie’s family to prove I was real and not some kind of axe murderer and once to Dublin to do research whilst working on ‘Milligan and Murphy’. And that’s me. Always I’ve been underwhelmed. I imagined you were with Glasgow. I wracked my brain thinking where I might direct you but all Glasgow is made up of is shops and it’s all the same shops. I remember the first time I went to Newcastle how scunnered I was because it was just like walking down Sauchiehall Street. I did like the accents though. I remember when I was in Thurso (which is at very north of Scotland) wandering into shop after shop to buy anything I could think of just to listen to the accents, so different to the aggressive Glasgow accents which are thick and guttural; it was closer in tone to the melodiousness of Welsh.

    Japan I only know through the media. I’ve gone out of my way to read a few Japanese authors so I would tick them off my list but none of them excited me. They were perfectly readable but unmemorable. The same goes for Japanese cinema although I cope better with that. I don’t have an especially visual imagination and so pictures help a lot. I do like the idea of Japanese culture—oddly enough some of it reminds me of fifties Britain—but as much as I’m fond of order there’s a side of me that doesn’t like to be ordered around; if I choose to go through the same routine every day that’s my business but tell me I have to and that’s another thing entirely. I think, like you, four days in Japan would do me for a lifetime.

    As far as luck goes I always come back to the scripture: “time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.” It’s all probability. That I get. I loved when I first learned the mathematics of probability. Maths up until then had always been so reassuringly precise, unlike words which, let’s face it, make up the rules as they go along. And then you toss a coin in the air and there’s no guarantee it won’t land on its side and upset everyone.

    1. I’d hardly call myself well travelled, Jim, and yet I can say I’ve been to Holland, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France, London, Scotland, Ireland, Bali and now Japan. Not bad for a preferred stay-at-home. Though my trips have always been brief and except for that first one to Holland and England, which lasted six weeks,I’ve generally stayed away little more than two weeks at a stretch. I decided after six months living in Canberra as a young woman when I first met my husband that I wanted to stay home and I’m sure I’ve told you my reasoning before: that I sensed my mother’s homesickness from my earliest days and decided I’d avoid that sense of loss if ever I could. And by and large, I’ve succeeded. Japan to me is a fascinating place, more so than I’d imagined and that sense of safety there despite the huge numbers of people made it particularly so. You’d maybe enjoy it, not that you’re ever likely to go thereabouts. There is more to be seen in fact that on the screen as I’m sure you’d know, though we can kid ourselves that we’re better off at home, and maybe we are. My children do enough travelling for my husband and I combined. Thanks, Jim.

    2. I know it’s all case of luck, or probability or what ever other unpredictable forces exist, Jim, but still when I copped that promise of Bad Fortune it triggered something primitive inside and my daughter’s visit to the shrine came not out of her own beliefs or expectations but as a comfort to me. None of my kids, nor I, are superstitious, but we can get sucked into horoscopes, as so many do. You know the notion: you take what you want to hear, about probable future good fortune for instance – winning the lottery and the like – and ignore the rest. Only trouble my Bad Fortune in Japan was worded in such absolutes and with a bad English translation it took me by storm. For the rest, I’m on the mend and determined that as far as I can help it – through I know much of that is out of my hands – I’ll leave further Bad Fortune behind. Thanks, Jim.

  2. How unsettling but what a profound experience, Elisabeth. No wonder refugees and immigrants can struggle to settle in a new place if they find the differences so acute.
    I love being in the moment when I travel but always find a juxtaposition between the difference yet sameness of many places. Does that make sense?

    1. Travel has its pleasures, Karen as you suggest, but it’s also fraught as I recognise. And at least we can do so voluntarily. I agree the experience for refugees must be ten times more fraught. Thanks, Karen.

  3. You’ve conveyed the discomfort of being alone in another culture really well in this piece, Lis. I was reminded of the times I’ve travelled outside of Australia—which aren’t many—particularly to countries where I don’t speak the language, and although I’ve enjoyed the sightseeing, I’ve felt like a fish out of water and longed for the familiar. Then when you get home, you appreciate all that you saw!

    1. A fish out of water, indeed, Louise, and to some extent stressful even while we were escorted around the whole time by our beloved daughter and her partner, both of whom knew all the ropes. I can only imagine it’d be far worse if we travelled alone, but then I suppose we’d have been far less adventurous and not seen half of what we managed to see in such a short space of time. The memories will stay with me forever. Thanks, Louise.

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