As I watch the cherry trees bloom in London, my enjoyment is tinged with sadness. The gardens of Tokyo, canals of Kyoto and in the countryside everywhere, the Japanese hearts would have been stirring, for it is time to sit under the blooms and enjoy their picnics. This spring, however, they are weighed down by the recent tragedies. What is most apparent while visiting Japan is the peoples’ deep appreciation for nature. They enjoy not just the beautiful light and painted sunsets, but even the dark clouds, autumn’s storms and winter’s snow. It was in Tokyo that I first noted the beauty of uneven, handmade pottery and admired the character in the cracked glaze. The Japanese call it wabi sabi — finding beauty in imperfection. While reeling from the recent tsunami, earthquake and toxic fumes, the Japanese have been admirably strong. Ben Macintyre in The Times talks about gaman, a Japanese trait, “the unflappable stoicism that helps this nation survive whatever nature throws at it.”
There is so much from the Japanese culture that has permeated our lives. As a child, I learned origami, folding paper into interesting shapes. In Japan, when someone is unwell, friends send paper cranes, symbolic of good health and longevity. Over the years we’ve read Haiku poetry by Basho and other poets, plunged ourselves into Haruki Murakami’s novels and watched Akira Kurosawa’s movies. We’ve admired ikebana flower arrangements and the art of bonsai, where trees are trimmed to miniature size. People all over the world have developed a taste for Yakatori, Tempura and Sushi, and it was in Tokyo that I discovered the flavourful, spicy powder, shichimi, which has me addicted. The delicious and nutritious silken tofu is now a regular at our table. Karaoke and Sumo wrestling are two things that have become more popular even outside Japan. My friend and I were invited to lunch with Akebono, a six foot, eight inches tall, five-hundred pound sumo wrestler. He had been the yokozuna or grand champion for three years. “Sumo has become even more popular outside Japan, particularly in Mongolia,” Akebono said over lunch. I was curious to see what all he would order for lunch, but he had already eaten. He sat next to me so the table was pushed so far out to make room for him that I could barely reach my chopsticks.
Over the next few days, we took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto, where we stayed at a traditional ryokan with sliding, rice paper room dividers. Our meals were served by demure ladies in Kimonos, who taught us to drink macha, their special green tea, in exactly three and a half sips. There was so much to absorb and appreciate that the words Arigato Gozaimasu, thank you very much, remained on our lips and minds for a very long while.
MORE TO KNOW
When to go: April to September. April is most memorable, with the cherry blossoms.
Where to stay: Seiyo Ginza Hotel, Chome 1, Ginza.
Where to eat: Fresh Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Nobu for a variety of Japanese cuisine.
What to see: Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Meiji Shrine, Imperial palace and gardens, Kabuki at Kabuli Za, a sumo wrestling match.