Sean O’Toole ﬁnds that Japan is best explored by bike, with an open mind…
It was our fifth day in Japan and, frankly, even I was now worried. Gregor hadn’t been to the toilet yet. A day or two after arriving in Matsuyama, a coastal city nestled on a flood plain between spiny, forested mountains, I had suggested green tea. No luck. We did a casual cycle up the devilishly steep Misaka Pass near Matsuyama to one of the mountaintop temples that are a cultural asset of the island of Shikoku. Not even the avuncular Buddha was able to help Gregor, who was beginning to grimace. Perhaps it was the curry. Since our arrival in western Japan, he had largely stuck to the sweet curry. The other stuff, the noodle and fish dishes displayed as plastic models outside restaurants, terrified him. Japan can do that.
During my two years living in Japan in the late 1990s I had been scared stiff a few times. Once I was caught speeding on the freeway on my motorbike: I had been doing 100km/h when motorcycles were supposed to go 80km/h. It was early into my prolonged residency and not speaking Japanese helped. I received a stern warning from two Playmobil-like uniformed policemen (who also giggled intermittently). Dealing with Gregor’s dilemma posed similar anxieties. Although possessed with some skill in Japanese, I didn’t know the word for laxative. A game of charades in a pharmacy seemed, well, inappropriate. Luck interceded. Gregor’s knot in his tummy untied itself. Mister Stinky left the building.
There is a reason I mention this sordid detail from one of my numerous cycling trips across western Japan. The shock of the country can be extreme for first timers. That we – by which I mean anyone who isn’t Japanese – are lumbering and graceless is starkly emphasised in Japan, where everyday rituals and customs undo even the most composed individuals. Things such as bowing just so, and not looking like an idiot, or removing your shoes when entering a private home, or, just as simply, using a local toilet, can be a complicated affair. Typically, it comes in two options: a porcelain hole in the floor or the fighter-jet chair replete with function buttons.
Fixtures, as anyone who has done a round of improvements will know, are one thing; orchestrating them to function as a harmonious whole is the real art. To tile or not to tile can here suddenly become an existential question. This dilemma once confronted the Japanese novelist Jun’ichiro Tanizaki who, in the early 1930s, ‘spent a great deal more money than I could afford to build a house’. His home included a sunken hearth in the lounge and custom-designed window frames, simpler choices than awaited him elsewhere. ‘In the bath utility can to some extent be sacrificed to good taste,’ conceded Tanizaki, who preferred traditional wood to tiles in his bath area. ‘In the toilet somewhat more vexatious problems arise.’ Of all the elements of Japanese architecture, insisted Tanizaki, ‘the toilet is the most aesthetic’. It was, after all, ‘a place of spiritual repose’.
Tanizaki, author of the celebrated novel The Makioka Sisters (1948), wrote his famous treatise on house building and toilet design in 1933. ‘In Praise of Shadows’, as it is known in English, originally appeared in two instalments in the general interest magazine Keizai Orai, and for the first time in English in 1954, a decade before Tanizaki’s death at age 79. The legacy of this essay, a good-humoured but also melancholic deliberation of the frigid elegance of traditional Japanese aesthetics, endures. Ralph Rugoff, the New York-born director of the Hayward Gallery in London, lists it as part of his ‘ideal syllabus’ for every contemporary art student.
Contemporary art is a good reason to visit western Japan. The Lee Ufan Museum on the small island of Naoshima is a remarkable update on classical Japanese architecture. Opened in 2010, the museum forms part of an intricate complex of small, island-based private contemporary art museums in the Seto Inland Sea, which separates Shikoku from the larger Honshu Island. Designed by architect Tadao Ando, the austere design includes freestanding shuttered concrete walls that celebrate nature while also disciplining it, a quintessential Japanese design attribute. Writing in a recent issue of Casa Brutus, a Japanese architecture and design magazine, Ando remarked: ‘If asked to find one word to describe the essence of the architecture Japan has created since ancient times, I would choose grandiosity.’
While I have searched out some of this grandiosity, for instance visiting a small circular concrete temple building with a lotus pond roof and staircase cutting through the middle that Ando designed, I have mostly returned to western Japan to cycle. Cruising on my bicycle, mostly alone, be it around Shikoku, a 1 000-year-old Buddhist pilgrimage route, or up the Pacific coastline to Mount Fuji, as I did a few months ago, I have snuck glimpses of an older and some say lost Japan. What does it look like? Unexpected. It is an elderly priest, on a leave of absence from Kobe, the trading city where the novelist Haruki Murakami was born, enthusing about the local cuisine outside a temple near Matsuyama. (He wore a blue indigo robe and straw sandals.) It is swimming in a stony river on a Tuesday morning in mid summer, watching dragonflies skim the water. It is being spoilt rotten at a traditional inn staffed by shaven-headed female priests. It is seeing neat rows of footprints in the pasty mud of a newly planted rice paddy. It is a stone effigy on the walking trail up Fuji.
That these things have nothing to do with Tokyo or Osaka, the two great rival metropolitan cities, is self-evident. Tokyo is famous for its neon boulevards, media culture, fads and ritzy architecture (Toyo Ito’s building for Italian luxury-goods maker Tod’s in Omotesando is a must-see). Tanizaki thought it a city defined by its pervasive ‘shallowness’. Osaka, by contrast, is brash and unashamedly mercantile. Its curt, no-frills dialect is the staple of Japanese stand-ups, just as its ball- shaped takoyaki snack is an essential part of summer festivals across the country. Sandwiched awkwardly between these two ideals of contemporary living, albeit geographically nearer Osaka, is Kyoto.
Japan’s ancient capital was spared from carpet-bombing by US forces pressing to end the war. Like the lesser-acknowledged Mount Koya, the mountaintop centre of Shingon Buddhism, Kyoto recalls the ‘frigid’ and ‘austere’ elegance of an older Japan. Its restaurants do what Jacques Erasmus has done at Hemelhuijs in Cape Town: they infuse the ritual of eating with a trim and understated sophistication. More prosaically, Kyoto is a nice place to cycle lazily, but as a friend from Shikoku quipped in irritation during a mandatory visit to Kyoto once, ‘this place is meaningless to me’.
Later that day, after marvelling at the antiquities, we returned to his kit house in a suburb filled with prefabricated homes. His lounge has traditional rice straw mats on which sits a dirty pink leather sofa facing a big TV. This is what rural Japan looks like: for the most part, just like Tokyo and Osaka. When I visited again last year, my friends bemusedly greeted me as I arrived on my bicycle out of the green wilderness that hems in large chunks of citified Japan. They smiled at my stories of the things I had seen, which are real and true, but also fading and irrelevant.
This article was originally featured in the April 2013 issue of House and Leisure.