I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. Fascinated by bonsai, tea ceremonies, geisha, sushi and a culture that seems so very, very different to anything I know and truly understand. Well, I’ve been lucky enough to spend 12 amazing days in this extraordinary country. Between my marvellous London Daughter, Lonely Planet and Instagrammer HungryNYC, we have soaked up food, culture and Japan-ness in liberal quantities. The fact is, you really do need a leader on a tour like this: someone who knows that you have to collect you Japan Rail passes from the station before you do anything else; and that you can reserve seats on Shinkansen if you arrive half an hour or so before your bullet train departs; who’s checked out about dumplings and sushi and fluffy pancakes and teppanyake and sprawling markets; who knows about naked bathing in onsen (hot spring baths); and who’s had the foresight to book tickets for the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo before your trip (no tickets are sold at the museum).
I decided to record our trip with daily haikus. I wasn’t totally religious about my application of the exacting rules of haiku which The Poetry Foundation summarises as:
‘A Japanese verse form most often composed, in English versions, of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. A haiku often features an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a specific moment in time.’
Frankly, Matsuo Bashō, the great 17th-century Japanese writer, has nothing to worry about. According to my guide book (not a patch on Lonely Planet) Bashō was so moved by the building of Shin Ohashi (that’s New Great Bridge) in Edo in 1693 that he wrote this:
How grateful I feel
as I step crisply over
the frost on the bridge
Nevertheless, my haikus captured the essence of our days travelling from Osaka to Koya-san, Nara, Kyoto, Hakone, Tokyo and back to Osaka. If you’re going to Japan (or, actually, if you’re not!) I can highly recommend a daily haiku.
Day one: Osaka
A lid is lifted
on a paintbox of colours
our senses are blurred
Jetlagged, we stumbled from our hostel into the streets of Osaka. In Dotombori, neon signs were stacked on neon signs. We hoped for okonomiyaki (a kind of-everything-in, cooked-at-your-table omelette – more later) and tako-yaki (octopus dumplings). In the event we were slightly overwhelmed by this first stop in Osaka but started our Japanese odyssey with a senses-overload wander around the breathtaking Kurumon Ichiba market, too dazed to take pictures or try the sumptuous and frequently startling food that bubbled, sizzled and winked at us as we passed. However, we did have a cracking meal at Mimiu Honten a traditional-style restaurant where we had their famed udon suki and a bento box of delights.
Day two: Osaka to Koya-san
For a country known
for reserve and zen Japan
is very noisy
In Japan there is a sound or melody for everything. Pedestrian crossings make bird sounds, music plays over tannoys, recorded voices speak over one another, there’s a tinkle and bing-bong when a train is arriving and when it’s departing, when the doors open and when they close… you can even play a sound in the toilet to mask any embarrassing noises you may make!
Day three: Koya-san to Nara
Come to prayer early
on Koya-san you may hear
one hand clapping there
The journey to Mount Koya from Osaka is pretty amazing. Using our pre-booked World Heritage Ticket we took the Nankai line which dawdles away from the tightly packed city and begins the steep ascent up the mountain. The final vertiginous climb is courtesy of a cable car included in the ticket. In Koya-san we explored Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and stayed in the most welcoming gorgeous guesthouse where the boys tucked themselves away in capsules. We walked, after dark, through the amazing and vast Okuno-in cemetery to Kobo Daishi’s (founder of the first temple on Koya-san in 861) mausoleum following lantern-lit paths. We went again early in the morning for daily prayers at Kobo Daishi’s temple: we didn’t achieve enlightenment but we did find a pleasing sense of spirituality.
Day four: Nara
sparkling scented in your lap
No pagodas here
cries the woman who has eyes
but no map to see
In Nara we wandered the quaint back streets of Naramachi filled with traditional merchant houses, saw the black and bronze Buddhas encased in the Daibutsuden temple – the largest wooden structure in the world; and we answered questionnaires from just about every school child in Japan. Our favourite foods will be pored over in classrooms across the country! We all loved the many dishes that makeup a Japanese meal: the rice, the meat or fish, the pickles, the omelette and tofu and the miso soup – we won’t mention the miso soup in the lap mishap. In Nara, we got our okonomiyaki (delicious – although not cooked at our table), had lunch at a little café in the woods, met a clueless tourist, and had our first encounter with people dressing up in traditional costume to enjoy ‘a fun day out’.
Day five & six: Nara to Kyoto
hang on pre-fab walls wings spread
like huge butterflies
demand all attention but
beware bikes behind
Through orange arches
to the mountain top to find
peace, truth and nice view
It rained while we were in Japan. A lot. However, dealing with rain is so normalised, it’s almost a pleasure to carry an umbrella. There are machines that dispense plastic covers for your brollies when you enter buildings and shops, and racks outside temples and restaurants to leave them in and collect them when you’re done. Above all, in Japan there are beautifully kept toilets everywhere; most have heated seats and a funky control panel that includes an in-built bidet. Bliss. In Kyoto, we loved Nishiki Market full of (to our eye) weird and wonderful offerings, we met up with my niece and her friend who happened to be in Japan at the same time. We trailed through hundreds of orange shrine gates (and rain and cloud) on the pilgrimage loop of Fushimi Inari-Taisha – I pushed the extra footsteps to witness the ‘nice view’ which, although murky, was at least vaguely visible (the whole sky was muffled by the time we descended). And we managed to escape Kyoto on the fabled bullet train before Typhoon Lan arrived. The niece and her friend were not so lucky. But drowned their sorrows in beer and fluffy pancakes.
Day seven: Kyoto to Hakone
Naked laughter wrapped
pink under trees and hot springs
soothes body and mind
Waiting for Fuji-san
the typhoon below the cloud
could go either way
Every holiday has a blue day. Our arrival in Hakone-en was ours. The cloud was low and the typhoon gusts building. We were deposited in a weird and rather bleak development focused around a hotel complex, The Prince Hakone, on Lake Ashinoko. Planned walks and excursions on the Komagatake ropeway for views of Mount Fuji were abandoned (were we even in the right place to see Fuji-san???)and we ate a rather sulky and dispiriting bowl of noodles (our only mediocre meal) wondering what we were doing here. What a difference a day makes!
Day eight: Hakone to Tokyo
As far as the eye
brimful to the horizon
Tokyo is aglow
Wide high-rise squat streets
bo peeps moist dumplings scenes of
and BIC Camera bliss-out but
watch for Oliver
We headed straight for Roppongi Hills for panoramic views of Tokyo skyline and sunset photos of Fuji-san . Perhaps the most surprising hit of the holiday was the Mori Art Gallery (entry included in the ticket to the tower view). We returned to the Shibuya district and committed sushi gluttony at Uobei Sushi: good-value , high-octane and your dishes are fired at you on mini bullet trains. The Ueno-Yanaka walk was a gorgeous nostalgic blend of market, cemetery, temples, shrines and galleries and a glimpse of how Tokyo once was. BIC Camera was impossible to pass for some members of our party and The Husband revelled in a whole floor of techno toilet seats! We saw cosplay stores and various costumed individuals, but the most eye-catching business around dressing up seemed to be in basement stores where young girls dressed and made-up to take social media photo posts – I think!
Day Eleven: Tokyo to Osaka
Row on row of fish
for sushi, fish for noodles
you taste very nice
The bullet departs
Tokyo for Osaka and
melodies come too
Before leaving Tokyo we had to visit Tsukiji fish market – another odyssey into food extremes – and seek out ikura don (salmon roe rice bowl). With samples being touted and attention-grabbing shouts, this felt like the most touristy market we visited – but was nonetheless thrilling. In Osaka, we met with my niece and friend for our final night. Our huge blowout consisted of teppanyaki in an izakaya (pub/eatery) Robatayaki Isaribi cooked in front of us and handed out on a huge wooden paddle – it was loud, fun and simply delicious. We could eat no more. Nevertheless we made a mad dash to grab the last three of Uncle Rikoro’s wibbly-wobbly cheesecakes.
Day twelve: Osaka to Helsinki to Heathrow to Newcastle to Berwick-upon-Tweed
Anchored in Finnair
view captured in oval frame
Japan. So many things to digest (literally and figuratively) and an on-going desire to eat Japanese food. Forever. So many questions (including the need for a definitive answer about the face mask thing). A longing for a techno toilet, for a rigorous outdoor shoes, indoor shoes and toilet shoes policy everywhere. Also, a craving for one of those marvellous little van/cars that are so practical in such a space-hungry country. And so cute.
I’ve always enjoyed writing poetry. A good poem captures the essence of a moment or idea and satisfies the reader and writer in a way that is quenching.
However, studying poetry during the course of my Open University degree in English Language and Literature (I graduate this year – hurrah!), has made me realise what a poor ear I have for metre.
It’s only when you come to write in classic forms such as the villanelle, or attempt a sonnet in true iambic pentameter, that you realise that you have a natural sense of the rhythms and cadences of language: or if it’s something you’re just going to have to keep working at.
The Husband was an English and Drama student at Bristol back in the day when Brunel’s SS Great Britain was towed across the Atlantic and along the River Avon (it’s now a brilliant museum). The Husband went on to write plays complete with amusing ditties for The Covent Garden Theatre Company. He is a fine linguist and can trip off jolly and clever original rhymes that scan at the drop of the proverbial hat. He has the ear for language that I always longed for. I’m sure being musical helps and, although I love music, I am not music-literate. For years I thought scanning was all about having the same number of syllables in each line rather than the spoken emphasis placed on those syllables.
When you study another language, you develop a bit more awareness of the way syllables are stressed or not, simply because stresses tend to fall differently in other languages. Despite studying French beyond A level, I still get totally confounded by stressed and unstressed syllables in the English language. No amount of da-DUMs and symbols seem to help. Of course there are examples that make it seem so obvious: photographer and photograph (just in case you’re thinking ‘why?’, the first syllable in ‘photographer’ is unstressed whilst in ‘photograph’ it’s stressed – say them out loud). Or try saying ‘present’ (as in the noun ‘gift’) and then ‘present’ (as in the verb ‘giving someone something’). The Wikipedia page ‘Stress (linguistics)’ gives a good basic rundown on the whole thing – or if that seems like heavy going you’ll find a rather jolly guide to stress and metre here (it’s American – so meter rather than metre).
Writing in a so-called constrained form such as the sonnet or villanelle focuses the mind on these aspects and is a good training ground. Here’s how Bill Greenwell explains the villanelle in ‘The Creative Writing Handbook’:
“A villanelle depends on the repeated use of two lines, initially the ﬁrst and third, throughout its nineteen lines. These two lines each make four appearances and are the closing two lines, so the sense of a refrain is very powerful indeed. Here are the rules for a villanelle:
As you can see, there is some working backwards involved in attempting a villanelle. The moment you have chosen the ﬁrst line, you have chosen the penultimate line, and the moment you have chosen the third line, you have the ﬁnal line. You are always going to be working towards that ﬁnal refrain” (2009, p. 229).
And there we have it. Here’s my attempt at a villanelle.It is not ‘in its most exacting form’ or, indeed, perfect in rhythm or metre. However, it was a satisfying exercise and I was relatively pleased with the outcome:
I look beyond the pebbled shore,
where stilted waders peck and pray,
to waves that draw me to their core.
Muscular waves. Sinewed and sure,
binding the turbulent affray.
I look. Beyond the pebbled shore
splashes and bursts of foamy spores
salted colours of ozone, spray
and waves that draw me. At their core,
churning beneath the lithe furore,
fine surface slips on steady clay.
I look beyond the pebbled shore
how dreams are dazzled by the roar,
ripped from their anchor. Slipped away
to waves that draw me to their core.
Waders and waves fret and explore
fresh glistening veins exposed to prey.
I look beyond the pebbled shore
to waves that draw me to their core.
Greenwell, B. (2009) ‘Poetry: the freedom of form’ in Neale, D. (ed) A Creative Writing Handbook, MiltonKeynes/London, A&C Black in association with The Open University.
I wrote this poem following the recent death of my mum. It somehow seems appropriate to share it today when people are remembering those who have died in conflict. My mum remembered World War 2 well: her school was bombed and she was evacuated. We spend our lives trying to make sense of death and yet it always seems to take us by surprise wherever, whenever and however it comes.
Death is dry.
Dry bones sliding
like unruly stacks of kindling.
Death is light as light itself.
Death is a look of surprise and
a long pause where no breath
and a sudden gasped
Death is unfinished business
a glass half empty.
A sip through a straw
that makes you
cough the cough you don’t have the strength
Death is a puff of air
released when your body
Death is men in dark coats
zipping you into a bag on a low stretcher.
Death is your purpled hand
beneath the zip.
Death is a puff of dust
from an urn perched in
a hole in the ground.
A puff of you
free from bones and breath and air
‘I feel terribly privileged when I’m handling human brains.’
Hold the brain, turn it this way and that.
Examine the features and membranes.
Look at the patterns and foldings.
Feel the surface for softenings
which may indicate a stroke.
Wipe away the drops of formalin.
Cut through the brain stem,
home of everyday actions.
Separate the cerebellum.
Take what looks like a bread knife and
slice the coronal sections.
Lay them out like biscuits on a tray.
Inspect each slice.
Check for changes in hue.
Stain the tissue.
Embed it in paraffin.
The marbled world of the brain
stroked and sliced and analysed.
So much unsealed.
So much concealed.
Perfect print of life.
Inspired by a You Tube video (2010) by Martha Henson for Wellcome Trust featuring neuropathologist Steve Gentleman dissecting brains. Available http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMqWRlxo1oQ
Blood splashes the girl’s front.
Life ebbed away.
Meat to look forward to.
Clean the bowls.
Haul the carcass.
Scrub the floor.
Warm water spatters rosy liquid
bringing life to numb fingers.
Glide the knife under the skin.
Slip it off the carcass
like a jacket from the shoulders of a child.
The carcass hangs.
Finally the butchery.
Each portion packed in ice.
Each portion tenderly wrapped.
Some salted and cured.
The village gathers
in the savoury drenched hall.
The hullabaloo clambers into dusk.
Carving knives flash and slice.
Platters pass from hand to hand.
Cider flows. Juices run.
A child calls out.
The ceilidh gathers.
The women return,
rosy faced from scrubbing dishes.
They throw out their aprons to the music
as if they’ll never need them again.
Shadows slip from the walls
collapsed cartoons falling
into sleep-starved minds
to a pinprick of time
when you held me,
blood spilling down my leg
turning to jelly as I sobbed.
You soothe, moved by the tears
that so often rankled.
Layers of mystery.
Muffled banks between us.
Later you laugh at some joke I make.
Stroke my spots and bumps.
Shake the core of the kicked apple.
I, intact, pushing out branches,
as you, imperceptibly, shrink
pip-like to the beginnings and ends
of your time, our time.
On the hospital bed, crumpled, foetus-like
the enema’s work a brown stain on plastic pad.
And the shadows come,
we are here, they say, we are here.
And I say, I am here.
I wrap you and hold you
high like a star
and you, triumphant,
smash the panes of years.
And we see each other
Cleanly. Clearly. Brightly.