In praise of Japan
Married to a Japanese national and having spent many years working in the land of the rising sun, a real enthusiast shares his experiences. Interview.
The art of over-crowding
To begin to understand Japan, I recommend having a look at a geography book: the country extends over an area which is two-thirds the size of France but just a third is habitable. And on these confetti-like islands, 120 million habitants are packed in - twice the size of France’s population. This over-crowding explains Japanese behaviour which is often misunderstood: politeness in this country prevents people from treading on each other’s toes. It’s all about form! Content is secondary! People greet other people even if they don’t like them and if you ask for directions in English, it’s not unusual to be given instructions with a smile - in the wrong direction! Nobody says “no” in Japan. Every day is a performance.
When I was younger, I was more interested in Indonesia and South America. When I first went to work in Japan, I was really struck by the huge crowds and criss-crossing motorways. I found it all quite ugly. Over time, as a “Gaijin” (“foreigner”, ed) I explored the country’s beautiful islands with temples, gardens and houses. I saw huge contrasts and amazing architectural ideas. Real creative freedom with no fear about destroying monuments. Japanese temples are periodically rebuilt because the experts have inherited ancient techniques. In contrast, with its romanticism, France has inherited a real taste for ruins.
Ryokan, kaiseki and Noh theatre
kaiseki, a culinary tradition from the Kyoto court which is ideally eaten in a ryokan. My wife and I often visit these traditional inns. Given that the Japanese arrive at 5pm and leave at 9am, we stay for two days to enjoy an empty ryokan! The day begins by putting the futon away to transform the bedroom into a living room. We eat our breakfast in the bedroom or the main hall and we take a dip in pools at different temperatures, in wooden and stone barrels and even in streams: the natural surroundings create a timeless feel. The highlight of the day is dinner, which we eat in our room: kaiseki combines delicious dishes with an age-old ritual - once again, the content is a part of the form! In some ryokan, particularly in Kagaya, we then watch a Noh theatre performance. But don’t worry: anyone who wants to can log on with 4G internet!