I think this has hit at one of the main problems with 'creative non-fiction' -- our experiences are subjective and may be inaccurate, but those inaccurate and subjective experiences are true to us. If the tour guides had made attempts to explain the significance of the places, I wasn't aware of them, and it was true that I viewed the guides with quiet contempt from the first day.
In writing this I've chosen to be true to my experience, rather than offer a factual account of my visit to Japan. To keep things balanced, I have not named the tour company or the tour guides I was dissatisfied with, although friends know which company this is.
The next morning when I woke up I realized that I had gotten a cold. Our first item in our itinerary that morning was Osaka Castle, but we only had the time to linger around its gardens, and I bought a mask because it was rude to cough or sneeze in public in Japan.
We took photographs at Osaka Castle. It was late autumn, and the ginkgo trees that marked so much of the Japanese urban landscape were beginning to lose their bright yellow leaves. All around the castle grounds I saw students in their winter uniforms and tourists. I spotted people in hijabs on the castle grounds and guessed that they were Malaysians.
The grounds of Osaka Castle were much larger than Wakayama's. We needed to cross a lake, then through a park surrounding a hill, then go across a moat. The grounds itself housed large heritage buildings: the main building was built in traditional Japanese fashion, but beside it was another building that looked as though it would be more at home in Europe than in Asia. I did not know what it stands for, but my aunt read the kanji and said it was a museum.
We had been guided to the castle grounds by our guide, who later told us that we needed to re-convene at 9.50 AM, But at 9.45 AM we looked around and saw that no one we knew was on the castle grounds. "I think we were supposed to be at the bus" -- "Did the guide say we were supposed to be here or the bus?" -- "No harm going back to the bus." And so we walked back, across the moat, across the park, along the path beside the lake, until we arrived at the bus. The rest of the group was already waiting for us.
This was the first real altercation that we had with our guides. We were late, but then again, we had paid for a guide who would be communicating in Mandarin, hadn't we? And they had been communicating in Cantonese, taking others not proficient in Cantonese for granted. From then on the guides made further attempt to remind us of the location and time of reconvening. But we would go on to have further issues with them.
We went on. I took as many photos of the suburbs as I could, and of the countryside's red and golden autumnal hills, but my pictures just came out blurry. So I looked at the scenery until I fell asleep.
At first, being in Japan made me feel ashamed. The roads were narrow but they were smooth, and the highway was elevated all the way. Things worked. I tried out the famous Toto washlets, which the hotels we used were all equipped with. The night before, I used the hotel WiFi to connect to Facebook, and saw that back home someone had threatened to rape a public figure because she was alleged to have committed khalwat.
From Osaka we made our way to Nara. (The name Nara was familiar to me too, but then I realized that this was one of the few times when exposure to Japan was not through anime; the domain name BeautifulNara.com had been used by its current owner as a Malaysian celebrity gossip site.) We drove into tunnels and out of tunnels. We drove on narrow roads. Not a single one of them had a pothole; not a single one uneven. No heavy vehicle overtook us at inappropriate speeds. Everything worked as perfectly as they should.
I felt ashamed. Why couldn't Malaysia be this? All this while, I felt as though I have been giving excuses for our nation: we are young, we are only slightly more than fifty years old. We have not known many decades without a form of war on our soil. But the Japanese were the grounds for two atomic bombs in 1945 and experienced seven years of American occupation since then. The common devils that I thought were part of Malaysia's cripples -- the lack of proficiency in English, the feudalism of its people -- did not stop the Japanese from creating a society that worked.
I am not the only Malaysian who have envied the Japanese. Mahathir Mohamad strove to fashion the Malaysian population into a nation of Asians as strong as the Japanese. The government then fashioned five principles for the civil service said to be modeled after Japanese values. But I do not think these methods are successful, or will be successful. Nor would I have been the only person who marveled that this small Asian nation could be so strong, so dignified. Francis Xavier once noted, upon arrival in Japan, that the Japanese were 'most desirous of knowledge...among unbelievers no people can be found to excel them.' He had been hoping to convert the Japanese, but was not successful in turning Japan Christian.
What did the Japanese have that Malaysia did not? What did they not have, that Malaysia does?
We left Osaka for Nara and at one point, I noticed that our tour guide, who had previously been speaking in Cantonese to us -- many of whom had dozed off -- turning to our driver and speaking to him in Japanese. They exchanged a few words. I had watched enough anime to know that the driver was displeased. Something something shiranai, our driver went. My Japanese, unfortunately, never extended beyond the basics, so I could not grasp anything more than that.
Our destination at Nara was a large Buddhist temple made entirely of wood and a park where deer frolicked. Here we would be allowed to do a little sightseeing before proceeding to a restaurant to have our lunch. We went into the temple where again, familiarity with anime meant that I could guess at some parts of the temple: here (I think) are cards where people could write their prayers and petitions and could hang them up (or were they charms and blessings instead?). Outside were tiny white slips of paper tied to the fences of the temple, perhaps prayers.
At Nara autumn was red and rich. I had gone to Japan to experience winter, not realizing that in Japan winter falls in January and not December. But autumn was good too, even though the vegetation in Japan was not the vegetation in England, the place I had been hoping to see autumn in. Born and raised in a tropical environment, I hungered for experiences in temperate climes, for no other reason than the fact that they formed so much of my reading life. One of my favourite poets has a poem that I teach over and over again in class: To Autumn. Superficially read, the poem praises the beauty of autumn. A more careful reading of the poem reveals a darker underlying message -- now it is autumn and it is beautiful, but winter and with winter, death, is coming.
I remember reading an essay on Keats which mentioned that of all of his poems, only To Autumn embraces and accepts the inevitability of death instead of fighting it. I have always read To Autumn as a work that corresponds to the interest in the natural environment that could be found in the works of the Romantics, of whom Wordsworth is the best example for this. I feel that I can now recognize another layer to Keats's poem: now, I think that Keats saw in autumn what would be his life -- glorious, bright, and brief.
After this day, there would be fewer opportunities to enjoy autumn. Over the course of a week, the leaves would fall from the branches and the trees become barren.
From Nara we went to Kyoto. The only introduction I had to Kyoto before this was through Rurouni Kenshin. I remembered how Kenshin playfully battled Misao upon his arrival in Kyoto in the recent film adaptations. Those were gorgeous films, even if the plot did not do enough justice to the comics.
I really liked Kyoto.
We spent our time in Kyoto visiting the great Buddhist temple at the top of the hill. The temple's presence at the top of the hill overlooking the entire Kyoto felt apt, a benevolent presence overlooking life in the city. Perhaps the warmth at the temple contributed to, or was formed by, the many happy faces I saw. I saw people, some dressed in school uniforms, many dressed in traditional attire, making their way up the hill to the temple. Young people, in their early teens, jumped along the staircases at the temple and laughed with their friends in one of the few demonstrations of pure unadulterated glee. Along the sides of the path on the way up and down to and fro the temple were shops selling all sorts of desserts. I spotted Puella Magi Madoka Magica mochi, but did not buy them.
One of the things I noticed at the temple was the presence of people in kimonos and yukatas. Was there a festival going on? I wasn't sure. In any case, it was a really nice place to be. If I ever return to Japan, it would be to visit Kyoto again.
When we got back on the bus I noticed our driver making notes in a book: he was recording the time of departure and arrival in each location. As the bus left, I looked outside and observed the buildings, and noted how many of them looked older, and more beautiful than the places we had seen before. Perhaps many of the buildings were pre-War. The closest comparison I could make to a town I was familiar with was George Town. Kyoto was nearly bombed during World War 2.
From the bus I looked out into the houses and shophouses. I noticed that the Japanese are very neat.
I associate Nagoya, rightly or wrongly, with gaudiness. I think this is because the first time I spotted signs of entering a city -- that I identified as Nagoya, whether accurately or not -- was the sight of bright and garish signboards for hotels that were visible from the highway (and all the highways that we took were elevated, all the way). We had dinner at an All-You-Can-Eat buffet, though I was not sure where it was. I do not think it was in Nagoya yet -- it must have been a suburb of the city, or a town close to the city -- but anyway, I liked it; its orange interior made me feel at home. The food was not great, but it was good, and there were UFO catchers and capsule toy dispensers near the entrance. I played with a Doraemon and Hello Kitty capsule toy dispenser and got one with a sticker inside. The teenage daughter of one of the families in our tour group fiddled with another capsule toy dispenser, but bought nothing.
We ate: barbecued beef and chicken, takoyaki, mochi, pasta and sushi. Midway through our dinner a group of tourists came in speaking Hokkien. I knew they were tourists not only because of the language they spoke, but because they were loud and a little disorderly. One woman called out: "Lai! Lai! Lai!". A child of about two or three started jumping for no reason at all. They took about five to ten minutes to settle down. I laughed to myself at their loudness, brashness, and how they made heads turn in irritation. They were such obvious outsiders, ungraceful against the Japanese obsession with decorum and order. And they made the place feel like home.
(If that was a backhanded compliment, it reflected my genuine feelings of spending a week in Japan. I admired their order, but I also missed the organic spontaneity that the orderliness erased.)
We arrived in Nagoya still in time to wander about the city. I had started to feel better about the cold, but was getting paranoid about running out of medical supplies, so my aunt, her colleague and I wandered about trying to find a drug store to get medicine. It was easy to get around: a brightly lit cross marked a pharmacy. At the pharmacy one of the attendants responded to enquiries in English -- though this was not unusual, as even back in Osaka some of the shop attendants at Wego could communicate in Mandarin -- but I tried to practice my limited Japanese anyway, enough to begin every sentence with 'Sumimasen' and to conclude everything with 'Arigato' (eventually, towards the end of the week, I dressed it up a little, to make it 'Arigato Gozaimasu').
Nagoya was full of pachinko parlours. You can spot them from a long way of: they are brightly lit, garish, loud. One of them advertised an Evangelion-themed pachinko game (so it seems now that the generation that used to watch Neon Genesis Evangelion now lines up to play pachinko). We stepped into one, not to play but to sneak in to use the bathrooms.At the pachinko parlour I saw the saddest and strangest juxtaposition I had ever seen in my life: grown men and women dressed in office attire, sitting in front of the loud, bright and flashy pachinko machines and playing the game in absolute silence.
On the walk back to the hotel I bumped into several young office workers; they were just done with a drinking session. A woman's voice could be heard, she was calling out to a friend. We had been warned of drunks at night, but they were not unpleasant; if anything, they seemed affectionate and happy. It felt less secure walking at night in Melbourne.
I did not think of it then, but I think now the sight of the men and women at pachinko altered my view of the Japanese as the perfect Asian nation somewhat slightly. For me, there was something wrong in utopia if one preferred to spend the night after work in a pachinko parlour instead of at home, with one's family. Later, I learned that it had been a Friday night -- so it was not wrong, wasn't it, to spend an hour or two at pachinko? But my admiration of the Japanese had already changed.
I did not see much of Nagoya during the day; the next two days was spent in rural Japan.