During my sophomore year of college, in the mid-seventies, I took a stroll after class one day with my Japanese teacher, an accomplished and, as I'd learned, complex woman in her mid-forties who'd come to Boston from Tokyo the year before. I was in the first blush of a love affair, not with her but with her country, and I genuinely felt that in everything from eating habits to interpersonal relations we Americans were in need of training from the enlightened Japanese. As we walked, I remarked that in Japan people seemed to understand harmony in a way we Westerners probably never would.
A long silence followed, and I began to consider what I'd said. My teacher was not only childless— unusual for a Japanese woman of her age— but also divorced. She had quit a university appointment in sociology to come to the United States because she could no longer bear living in Japan. In a moment she turned to me, wearing a knowing smile, and asked, "Do you really think so?" But by then I already understood the problem. She'd said a great many things critical of her country, and yet, blinded by my fantasies, I'd heard only what I wanted to hear.
In the years since, I've come to enjoy the challenge of understanding Japan, and explaining it— as I tried to do in certain ways in Memoirs of a Geisha. So you can imagine how I felt 18 months ago when I was invited to come along as a cultural guide on a Butterfield & Robinson bicycle trip in Japan. Eleven days, from Tokyo to Kyoto, with mountains, hot springs, and famous gardens in between.
In case you've never heard of Butterfield & Robinson, they're the ones who invented the luxury bike trip, where the bike isn't so much for exercise, but to lend the proper pace to a tour through the countryside. We began in Toyko not on bicycles, however, but on subways and in taxis. Tokyo may well be the ugliest prosperous city in the world, and the rewards of pedaling around it are too few. The problem isn't just the traffic, or the dreary overhead wires and concrete façades, but the monotony of the landscape. I first visited as a college student and found that Tokyo had so few hills and landmarks that I couldn't form a mental map of it. Even the rivers and streams weren't much help; they offered too little frontage and often slipped between buildings, almost the way a rat might.
But I was smitten with Tokyo's intensity. Even now I'm awed when I see the crowds pour from the city's office buildings in the early evening, a river of dark-haired, well-dressed men and young women spilling down into subway stations, pooling at intersections where— particularly in the rain— the diamonds of headlights and the rubies of taillights give the scene an astonishing and unforgettable urban beauty. How you react to Tokyo is perhaps the true test of whether you love cities or merely the amenities they offer. For my part, I feel a thrill even on the bus from Narita Airport, as the bumper-to-bumper traffic on three levels of highways squeezes into an architectural corridor of concrete and glass.
I'll confess I worried that the two dozen or so travelers wouldn't share my enthusiasm, but three other guides were there to smooth the way. In the group's first meeting, over brunch on the top floor of the spectacular Park Hyatt Tokyo, we looked out through the pyramid of glass around us onto a gray haze lying across Tokyo, whose expanse reached all the way to the horizon. To make matters worse, the rain timed itself to begin just as we did, and it stayed with us until we left the city. But during those two days, we walked under umbrellas through the Shibuya district, crowded with teenagers and pachinko parlors; rode the elevated trains of the Yamanote Line; ate lunch at noodle bars; learned about pearls and woodblock prints; and visited the Tsukiji fish market at dawn, where the mist rising from the flash-frozen tuna hovers so beautifully over the floor that it seems almost a staged effect.
In Takayama ("high mountain")— a half day's train ride from Tokyo— the group had its first experience of the Japanese countryside. I'm sure everyone expected to be struck by the natural beauty, and there was certainly plenty of that. I doubt they were prepared for the same sort of reckless modernization that gives Tokyo its peculiar look, and yet you see it wherever you go in Japan. Westerners often suppose that the Japanese, with their love of nature, have kept their landscape unspoiled. In truth, any quiet spot in Japan is virtually doomed the moment it becomes famous: first the concrete resorts spring up, with parking lots for the tour buses, and soon the paths through the woods have metal handrails and overflowing garbage cans. Our hotel stood with other developments in a giant scar across the mountainside, and the first leg of our afternoon walk took us along an unappealing roadway until we finally reached our hillside trail.
But Takayama's allures aren't hard to find. I still remember the magnificent smoky aroma of a house in the Hida Farm Village Museum (Hida Minzoku-mura), a collection of centuries-old dwellings arranged around a large pond. Nails were rarely used in traditional construction, and the ropes holding roof beams together were kept dry and taut with the help of smoke from the kitchen hearth. I have a particular fondness for glimpses of the past so vivid I'm made to feel out of place in tennis shoes. Along with Versailles, the U.S.S. Constitution in Boston, and the imperial Forbidden City in Beijing, Takayama's village museum ranks among my favorites.
In the town we shopped for leaf-shaped dishes and bamboo-shaped vases, all of lacquerware, toured a sake microbrewery, and ate soba noodles before our first bike ride. We also paused for the second in a series of impromptu lectures that came to be known as "Arthur Talks" even though the other guides often pitched in. I've been a teacher for the past decade, but my subject has always been fiction writing; I taught about Japan only once, years ago. So here was my chance to indulge myself. During the trip, we ran through a quick history of Japan's modernization, talked about how Westerners often bow poorly because they try to maintain eye contact as though they were shaking hands, and discussed the way Japanese vocabulary draws on Chinese, much as English draws on Latin. Some of the subjects probably sound a little dry, chief among them Karl August Wittfogel's hydraulic theory of Oriental despotism— not as turgid as you might think. It goes like this:
The population of Asia has always been denser than the West's, since more people can subsist on an acre of rice than on wheat or rye. Rice requires that the fields be flooded during the growing cycle. The control of water on a large scale depends upon cooperation from the entire village; this requires some sort of ruling body, and— voilà!— the groundwork is laid for despotism. Wittfogel's book is hundreds of pages, but that's all I can remember of it.
The town of Takayama put on its best face for our bicycle ride, with blossoming cherry trees sagging over the lovely canal against a background of pristine blue sky. Our 12-mile route took us through neighborhoods where, to American eyes, the houses and back yards look as if they've been shrunk, then past the occasional gas station, and finally into the hills and rice fields of the countryside. On the return trip through Takayama's alleys, we walked our bikes past wooden façades straight out of a 19th-century photograph; they looked otherworldly in the late-afternoon light.
At dinner one evening in Takayama I met up with the aspect of Japan I like least. We'd gone for a meal of teppan-yaki, well-known among Americans for the knife-twirling antics of chefs at Benihana. Real teppan-yaki generally involves no knife twirling, however, and can be outstanding. When our chef presented an appealing heap of fried garlic, I asked in Japanese if he thought one of the two sauces best suited it. He looked puzzled, and answered in labored English— "This sesame sauce, this ginger sauce." No matter how I tried, we never managed to communicate; he refused again and again to speak to me in Japanese. Before you conclude that the fault was mine, I assure you that my rusty Japanese is more than up to the task of talking about ginger sauce versus sesame. In truth, this chef's behavior is the curse that any foreigner who speaks Japanese must learn to live with. Tourists are praised endlessly for saying, "Good afternoon," but those who really speak the language are often treated as intruders.To cite the example foreigners in Japan often use: How would you react if a dog inquired in perfect English where to catch the No. 7 bus?Perhaps it's an exaggeration to suggest that Japanese regard foreigners as dogs. But not much of an exaggeration, and prejudicial treatment is rampant. A Brazilian reporter recently won a case against a jewelry store that refused to let her shop based on her nationality.
OUR BIKES WERE WAITING FOR US THE NEXT DAY in the town of Wakura Onsen, on the Sea of Japan. After a pleasant loop through wooded countryside and rice paddies overlooking the ocean, we all traipsed off to the baths in the enormous Kagaya Hotel. The Kagaya has rows of shops in the lobby that sell Japanese wares, and an entire floor of banquet halls, not to mention crowds of Japanese (we were the only foreigners). But thanks to the spacious, tatami-matted suites, attentive staff, and a banquet that ranked among the most sumptuous of our trip, it almost felt like a small inn. In any case, the Kagaya is worth a visit just for its four floors of hot-springs baths.
The Japanese bath is one of those things that ought to export well but, sadly, probably doesn't. To begin with, you have to wash before stepping into the tub, and the water has to be so hot that after immersing your foot for just a moment, you seem to be wearing a red sock. Even so, the true pleasure comes only later— well after you've rinsed with icy water to close your pores, put on a cotton robe, and settled down in your room to drink a few sips of beer. It comes at the moment when dinner is spread before you, an array of dishes on a low table, and along with the lustrous sense of relaxation the bath has brought you, you have the satisfaction of knowing that nothing awaits you for the rest of the evening, not even an elevator ride to a restaurant; so much exertion would surely break the spell.
OUR FINAL STOP BEFORE KYOTO WAS THE picturesque village of Kanazawa, home to a historic geisha district and to Kenrokuen, one of Japan's most renowned gardens. Rain that kept us from our bicycles gave the trees and shrubs in Kenrokuen an extra layer of lushness, and made for a cozy if damp tea ceremony in a nearby garden pavilion.
I must confess that I have a heretic's view of the tea ceremony. The tea master's self-conscious movements— folding his cloth just so, giving a ritualistic wipe of the cup rims— have always struck me as more tedious than inspiring. Assuming I haven't simply missed the point, and many would claim I have, the question is, Why is it revered so?
From about the sixth century a.d., the Japanese began to transform their culture, influenced by contact with China. Because their islands were so isolated, the Japanese weren't overrun by China as many other Asian cultures were. But they adopted a great deal by choice, including the layout of their cities and the structure of their government. Think back to the early 1980's and a similar, though less prolonged, cultural homage, when we Americans believed we should emulate the Japanese. If you recall nationalistic grumblings in bars, or the American auto workers who took sledgehammers to a Japanese import, you can imagine the cultural protectiveness that developed in Japan many centuries ago. The Japanese are certainly not the only people inclined towards nationalism, but they have a particular need to believe in the refinement of their own culture and its impenetrability to outsiders. This can lead to a peculiar mysticism: a scientific study conducted several decades ago purported to show that certain "uniquely Japanese sounds," including temple bells and the rush of flowing water, affected the Japanese more profoundly than Westerners, as evidenced by brain-wave activity. My encounters with the tea ceremony have left me with the conclusion that it's one of those uniquely Japanese sounds.
KYOTO IS THE PIÈCE DE RÉSISTANCE OF MOST trips to Japan, and for good reason. Founded in the year 794, it has some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 270 Shinto shrines. But it's also Japan's seventh-largest city, and an industrial center, so you'll see more bank buildings and taxicabs than cherry blossoms and tiled roofs. Visitors tend to shuttle from the rock gardens to the most exceptional temples without being bothered by the long and charmless blocks between. And who can blame them?
The city almost deliberately obscures its true character: just as we in the West historically think of Japan as the land of inscrutability, the Japanese themselves see Kyoto that way. And if the Japanese consider the average Westerner loud and obnoxiously direct, that's just how residents of Kyoto feel about the average Japanese. How can you tell when someone in Kyoto is angry with you?He or she suddenly begins speaking more politely. Think of our own Southern belle.
Butterfield & Robinson arranged for our group to spend its first night in two exclusive ryokans, or traditional inns— the Tawaraya and its competitor, the Hiiragiya (neither one could take us all). The Hiiragiya contrasts with the Tawaraya in being perhaps a touch run-down in an old-money way. Both offer an exceptional level of luxury, though Westerners must understand that ryokan luxury is more about creature comforts than cater-to-your-every-whim services. You're on your own if you want a snack at 10 p.m.; the help will have gone home.
It was at the Hiiragiya that I got the idea for a practical joke. One of the B&R guides, a delightful fellow named Michael Slinger, had given me his cell phone number in case of a problem. During our time together, I'd discovered that he and I spoke Japanese at about the same level, which meant I knew exactly where his weaknesses lay.
I called Michael's cell phone, put on my best old-man accent, and said something that might translate like this:
"This is Okada at the Hiiragiya. That guest of yours— I'm sure you know which one I mean— he's been overding slinker in the forden blat ever since he checked in."
If that doesn't make sense to you, it didn't make sense to him either; I was inventing Japanese-sounding words as I went along. After a pause, Michael managed to respond with the equivalent of "Right!"
"So," I continued, "really it's a matter of gloring in the flizzer, maybe with an embolated wumper, or otherwise we're in real trouble, if you follow what I'm saying."
I went on like this for some time. Finally Michael responded with a pause so long I could almost hear his brain cells whimpering, and I dissolved in laughter.
"Oh, you son of a bitch!" he said good-naturedly. "I'll get you for this!"
He meant it, too. But sadly, when he called a couple of months later pretending to be from the White House, he forgot to disguise his voice.
PROBABLY MY TWO FAVORITE HISTORIC BUILDINGS in Kyoto are Kiyomizu Temple and Nijo Castle. I was desperate to weave them both into my novel, but my characters had no occasion to find themselves in either place— unless I was willing to resort to a ruse like, "My goodness, something terrible has happened! Quick, meet me at Kiyomizu Temple and I'll tell you all about it!"
Kiyomizu, perched on top of a hill, may be the most famously beautiful temple in Japan. From the main hall veranda, built on stilts high above the mountainside, you can see why "like leaping from the deck of Kiyomizu Temple" is a well-known Japanese expression for taking a wild risk. As for Nijo Castle, erected in the early 17th century as the Kyoto residence of the shogun, if you ask me it's one of the most spectacular buildings anywhere. Despite the stone ramparts and modest moat, it's not so much a fortress as a palace. Windsor Castle would dwarf the place, but once you've grown accustomed to the petiteness of Japanese dwellings, you'll appreciate the formidable power of the shogun that Nijo Castle once conveyed— and the terror it must have inspired in those summoned there. Its design— wooden beams, sliding doors, straw mats— is fairly commonplace. But there's nothing common about the carvings of phoenixes, hawks, and pine trees that adorn doors and transoms, or the sliding doors painted green and gold by famous artists of the age. The walkways linking the rooms chirp with the weight of anyone who steps on them; these "hummingbird floors" were designed to warn guards of even the stealthiest assassin.
People who know Japan understand that almost anything is possible with the proper introduction; relationships outweigh rules every time. In 1992, when I went to Kyoto to learn about geisha, I wasn't able to wrangle a visit to the Ichiriki, the best known of all the teahouses where geisha entertain. But Michael Slinger and the other two guides pulled off a real coup: drawing on a brief business relationship with the mistress of the Hiiragiya, and playing up my novel and Steven Spielberg's plans to film it, they arranged for all of us to visit the Ichiriki on our last night. We would be the first Americans to attend unchaperoned by a Japanese in something like 17 years.
That afternoon, we strolled through Gion, the part of eastern Kyoto where most of my novel takes place. My protagonist, Sayuri (who is wholly invented, not real as some readers imagine), often describes Gion's beauty— the alleyways connecting wooden houses, a stream where the tendrils of weeping cherry trees make rings in the water.
That was true 60 years ago. Today Gion looks like any other urban setting in Asia. I myself was a bit taken aback by its dreariness. After peering so long at old photographs, I'd forgotten how overrun the place is with tacky stores and video arcades. Only one street, in the tiny section known as Shimbashi, gives a vivid sense of how the area once looked, with wooden houses perched over flowing water, their windows demurely covered by sliding paper screens.
That night, after an enormous farewell dinner of shabu shabu (boiled beef— much better than it sounds), we climbed into minivans for our trip to the Ichiriki. Even the drivers were impressed by our destination. The Ichiriki plays a role in the most celebrated legend of the samurai era— the Forty-Seven Ronin, about a group of conspirators whose leader lived in the Ichiriki disguised as a drunkard while plotting revenge. For me, the meaning of the Ichiriki is extremely personal: I chose to have Sayuri entertain there more than at any other teahouse. As I wrote my novel I spent hours imagining myself in the Ichiriki, though I could only guess how it must actually look inside.
It stands on a prominent corner in Gion, a splendid building with a tiled roof, apricot-colored earthen walls, and a courtyard garden. Most teahouses resemble traditional inns— airy and somewhat delicate in dimension, often with blond wood and white walls. But the wood in the Ichiriki is nearly black, and the walls are in dark earth tones. Nothing I saw looked like a room of my own invention that Sayuri describes in the novel: "The walls were covered with a pale yellow silk whose texture gave a kind of presence, and made me feel held by them just as an egg is held by its shell."
We were led into a spacious room with walls of bittersweet orange, and tables of four set with beer and sake. We fell into a kind of breathless awe when we caught glimpses of the four geisha and two apprentices outside the door. Soon they filed in and distributed themselves at the tables. Only three of us spoke Japanese, but there wasn't much to translate. We asked the geisha mundane questions about their lives— where they lived, how often they worked— and they gave answers, but nothing we couldn't have guessed. Then they asked about our trip, and we explained what fun we'd been having, but nothing they hadn't heard before.
They poured sake; we poured some for them. And yet honestly, I think for all of us, the two hours seemed to pass much too quickly; they stand out as one of the high points of the trip. Perhaps it was the beauty of the geisha, though I doubt it, because not all of them were beautiful. Perhaps it was that charm with which they create the illusion of an easy intimacy. A few moments with the gracious Mamecho, her face so lovely and expressive, helped us understand how a man can lose all perspective and sell his house to support a geisha. Whatever it was, something in the moment had a peculiar resonance. Perhaps we had all heard that uniquely Japanese sound.
Butterfield & Robinson's nine-day Japan biking and walking expeditions take place in March, April, September, and October. The cost of $5,750 per person ($700 single supplement) includes all accommodations, most meals, and a bicycle. Call 800/678-1147 or 416/864-1354, fax 416/864-0541.
HOTELS AND INNS
Park Hyatt Tokyo 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 81-3/5322-1234, fax 81-3/5322-1288; doubles from $455.
Kagaya Hotel Yo-80, Wakura, Nanao, Ishikawaken; 81-767/621-111, fax 81-767/621-121; doubles from $504.
The Tawaraya Fuyacho, Oike-Sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75/211-5566, fax 81-75/211-2204; doubles from $678.
Hiiragiya Ryokan Fuyacho, Anekoji-Agaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75/221-1136, fax 81-75/221-1139; doubles from $678.
Hida Farm Village Museum (Hida Minzoku-mura) 1-590 Kamiokamoto-machi, Takayama; 81-577/334-714.
Kenrokuen Garden Kenrokuen Park, Kanazawa; 81-762/215-850.
Kiyomizu Temple Kiyomizu 1-chome, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto.
Nijo Castle Horikawa Nishi-Iru, Nijo-dori, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto; 81-75/841-0096.