If you react to the sight of a temple with “not more Japan!”, you may understand my plight: I’m just a gal with a weakness for red dots. What can I show against millions of online photos? Fortunately, Spouse lived years in Tokyo; she wanted to show me “the Japan I know.” It seems everyone makes their personal Japan, and that’s good enough.
I needed to read and speak enough Japanese to get by. There were two words I knew I’d need: “summimasen”, a deep apology, and “shitsureishimasu”, a polite “I’m being a nuisance.” In the event, I survived, but knowing degrees of politeness helps. In theory, many Japanese have been learning English for the Olympics. Spouse (with apologies to A.A. Gill) speaks fluent Japanese, and many a time we heard “I’m so glad you speak real Japanese.”
When we met young schoolchildren, they practiced on us, briefly overcoming shyness for a ‘hello’ before running away.
I never manage to bring the right outfits. In general, Japanese women dress in loose-fitting clothes (above left…) and do not show their upper arms. As it was cooler than expected, we bought very colorful traditional haori (jackets, closed with ties) from a used clothing store named Chicago. No-one actually wears this but, at least, shoulders and arms were covered.
Most important: choice of camera. I know the M (Typ 240) is compact, light, goes everywhere: I left it at home. I wanted something I could carry in a classy handbag (another weakness), but also hold in my hand for hours (camera straps spoil my lines; one must have standards). What to get? The Leica D-Lux Typ 109. It was just fun to play with, and it even looks fabulous! I only regretted my choice once, in the Gion Leica store: I felt rather déclassé.
We had an apartment in Kita Shinjuku: three major grocery stores within ten minutes’ walk, fifteen to either the Chuo or Yamanote line and twenty to Shinjuku station. Five minutes to the local shrine. We walked. Thus: photos taken on streets.
The Japanese are serious about recycling; gaikokojin (outside land people) are discouraged from even trying. Our building had a very nice young woman, masked and hidden behind protective gear, who helped with the subtleties. The photo shows the size of the task.
These anonymous workers often hung around after work, buying onigiri or some snack, sitting on the curb with ozeki — ‘one-shot’ sake bottles. Cheaper than going to an Izakaya. The haori were a great hit with the street drinkers, who complimented us on our classic look.
It looks like a ‘drinking street’, but it’s a normal street on the way home from our station. No tourists or crowds, pachinko parlors, karaoke. Just locals, stopping for a drink after work, a bite to eat. So normal, it took me four weeks to figure out I should maybe take a picture. Spouse always tells me: pick a street, walk: see things you’ve never experienced before. Look at the white sign on lower left: くじらべコン’ — whale bacon. Japanese are not just like us; the moral code is different. As one of the men we knew said, “We take off our clothes, bathe together, get to know each other.” Oh, I’m so very sorry, we have plans for that evening.
For the record: it wasn’t a proposition; nude communal bathing really is normal. It’s wearing clothing in the tub that’s forbidden.
One slow Saturday, we thought we’d walk to the station, stop for a bowl of udon (noodles), see a street fair. The local stationery store had a sidewalk table where youngsters could practice their calligraphy. I gave it a go, but wasn’t up to the standards of the five-year-olds. We planned a stroll through Shinjuku park, didn’t expect to be overtaken by a children’s Matsuri (festival). Good to know children are still children, even in Japan, and who doesn’t want a gift bag? Now I remember why I needed the 75mm zoom on the Leica.
While living in Japan, Spouse had acquired a family — they considered her part of their ‘uchi’. I hadn’t realized what that entailed until paterfamilias informed us “Our eldest son has just had a daughter. You must visit them in Osaka.” I’d had enough Latin to recognize the imperative mood, suspecting this was not like “Darling, you simply must dine at that fabulous place in Crouch End.”
We met our ‘nephew’ in Osaka. He’d been four when Spouse saw him last; now he was a cardiac researcher at a major university. She’d never watched a child growing up; it was intense. As aunts, we were entitled to treat him to a crab feast. They prepared a special kani-rice at the table; he noted that crab goes remarkably well with green tea. Taking cooked rice and giving it a good soaking in tea was — I must admit — delicious. I took family photos — the Leica performed well in the dark room, sent them on as evidence we’d done our duty.
As we were in the neighborhood, we took a few days in Kyoto. By accident, we wandered into Gion, the old Geisha area. I want to photograph Geisha about as much as I’d like to be photographed as a female curiosity. Looking about, I saw a red dot on a storefront: Leica Gion. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but in fact, Japanese craftworkers had helped design and build it. I’d seen pictures like this; never expected to find it in a store: Japan can surprise you. Even with my relatively inexpensive little Typ 109, the manager was welcoming, and we chatted a bit about working in so beautiful a store.
Shrines and temples
Our second day in Japan, Spouse showed me her hometown, Shin-Koganei. The postwar wooden housing she knew 30 years past was now substantial brick, bicycles replaced by BMWs. The Japan she knew was gone. Of course, the old housing was bitingly cold in winter, and she had to work hard to not hear what was happening in the apartment next over. Even the tofu-yasan was gone. Yet the store where she’d bought kerosene for her room heater was still there; the boy who’d delivered it now the owner. It took a moment before mutual shocked recognition and descent into Japanese reminiscences I couldn’t follow. I did recognize the tears.
On the train back to Shinjuku, I learned how to communicate directions in Japanese. Instead of saying “It’s three kilometres east of …” One says “It’s two stops on the Yamanote line” — a train-centric world-view.
Every morning, we stopped at ‘our’ shrine; apologies for gratuitous photo of Spouse.
The shrine happened to be next to our favorite breakfast stop: matcha cream pastries, obento with grilled salmon. The ‘o’ is not obligatory; it’s a respect marker. Obento, Osake, Ohashi (chopsticks) Otoosan, Okaasan, Ojiisan (older relatives).
While in Kyoto, Spouse wanted to show me Fushima Inari Shrine. Inari is the goddess of rice, and by extension, wealth; hence a quite magnificent shrine. Her guardians are rather fierce foxes (who eat mice which eat grains). The mountain is strewn with dozens or hundreds of smaller shrines, where I had dearly wanted to practice ‘saying something new’ in a photo. Alas, an infestation had broken out: thousands of selfie-snapping tourists. Surely, this would have driven any resident gods deep into the mountains — one thinks of Yeats’ “ceremony of innocence”. I turned away, and…
…I saw an incarnation of the Buddha: on the one hand, the transience of desire; on the other, eternity. Then the moment was gone, and a woman beside me said, “Please take as many pictures of my daughter as you like.”
Just to prove we saw something in Gion other than the Leica store: Kennin-ji Temple, denuded of tourists. A quiet retreat, one of the nicest experiences in Japan. But, second place to this next:
Emperor Kammu founded Heian Kyo (Kyoto) in 794; part of his palace was a 33-acre pleasure garden, including this moon-viewing pool. Heian aristocrats took their refined sensibilities very seriously. The Tale of Genji was set in this environment, boating parties on this site were part of normal court life.
Genji has been called the novel of あわれ: ‘aware’ (ah-wah-ray) the quality of ‘ah, how beautiful.’ But also the awareness of transience, the inevitable fading of beauty. The pond itself is a symbol of that decay: all that remains of acres of pleasure gardens.
What I like: the rain, just beginning to fall, a transient beauty. The way the arc of the bridge leads my eye to the temple in the background. To photograph Japan is to balance on the edge of triteness: millions of tourist photos viewed countless times. This image stays in my mind, a powerful scene.
Life and Friends
The promise is that if you simply walk, you’ll see sights never before seen by man:
The women’s washroom at 0101 (pronounced ‘maru eee’). A bit of a statement, though not particularly grand; Mitsukoshi Nihonbashi has marble and highly polished brass on the escalators. And a 36ft, seven-ton statue of a Buddhist deity at the entrance.
Before leaving, I’d wanted to take our “family” out for a nice fish dinner. On our visits, Keiko-chan would prepare tea (the best I’d ever tasted) and an elegant Japanese sweet. Then she’d disappear into the kitchen. I asked our host (whom one calls ‘Sensei’) why his wife wasn’t eating with us. He looked sadly at me: “Ah, Kathy, I see there is much about us Japanese you don’t understand.”
Quite. We were taken to a small restaurant fitting eight people at the bar facing the chef, and Sensei ordered for us: omakase — chef’s choice. It was ‘Edo-mae’ style, fish from the waters in front of (mae) Edo (Tokyo). It may be that no foreigners had ever been here: we were being honored by even being invited. I was on my best behaviour: no foodie pictures; eat exactly as prepared by the chef, precisely when it’s served, pour drinks for Sensei. But in a restaurant like this, you are not a private party, you are part of a group: your “gumi”. The others across from us asked to take our picture (I set the Leica to ‘automatic’), asked me to try their amazing digital translator (I speak English; Japanese comes out), toasted us with glasses of nihonshu (the proper name for rice wine). As it turned out, the others consisted of a restaurant critic, an illustrator, and a young woman who may have been the critic’s daughter (he said she wanted to be a sushi chef — see the illustration).
Pouring for Sensei worked out too well; when we left two hours later, he was thoroughly liquified. The fish — I’d had several of these varieties in west coast Canada; these were — revelatory. As we ate, Spouse repeatedly looked at me in an oh-my-god sort of manner. The meal finished with fresh cherries. If you know Japan, you know certain farmers raise special fruit varieties and charge outrageous prices. From experience, we knew these would have been 100-200 yen. Each cherry.
Finally, we were served tea. Keiko-san asked what I thought; without thinking, I said, “It’s like Keiko-san’s.” She said I had a very refined taste. Then, before we could move, she paid the bill. There were yet more things I didn’t understand about Japan: as our hosts, they were obliged to take care of us. With perhaps a bit of revenge for the crab feast.
It was a meal I thought only celebrity chefs experience. We may also have passed several tests; when we saw Sensei and Keiko-san last, we were presented with calligraphy scrolls. I got — well, it’s kanji. Like Chinese, from which it’s derived, a character can have many different meanings. Mine could mean ‘complex’, ‘deep’ or ’conceited’.
It must have been the red dot.
The author, Kathy Davis
Kathy Davis is the latest recruit to the Macfilos band of authors.
She is a Professor of Mathematics in America. She’s worked with digital Leicas from the Digilux 2, through the M8, D-Lux typ 109 and M typ 240.
It’s her perpetual hope (she says) that she might, someday, take actual photographs with them. In the meantime, Japan always beckons…