Two weeks ago I arrived back in my gaff in Kansai, Japan. My memory grows ever hazier but I think it's about nine years since I was last in Japan at this time of year, having settled into a confirmed pattern of biannual spring and autumn visits. My impression of Japan in winter is not necessarily the best. As a student in 1989, my most miserable Christmas ever was passed alone in a tiny, shanty town-esque single room by a railway track in Tokyo, an experience of solitude compounded by the arrival on Christmas morning of a large box of presents, all wrapped in loud colourful paper, from the folks in England. The unpleasantness of that experience taught me to never again spend Christmas away from home; and also that I urgently needed to get out of Tokyo. On New Years Day 1990 I loaded all my belongings onto a shaky bike and cycled to Kamakura, continued on down the Izu peninsula and from there peddled to Kansai, not looking back. Those magical New Year's days of cycling in brilliant winter sunshine with mikan oranges hanging from trees, opened a world of happiness unknown in Tokyo. In the intervening 25 years I have been back, briefly, to Tokyo only twice.
But still, New Year and Japan were not necessarily the best mix. With a genius for timing, I flew in again at year end 1994 just in time for the massive earthquake in Kobe. The building containing my couple of tatami mat rooms in Rokko, not far from central Kobe, narrowly avoided complete collapse. Or again, in 2004, I flew in from Dubai the day after the Boxing Day tsunami, serenely oblivious of the scale of disaster which had just occurred in South East Asia. But then there were the good times too: being kidnapped by a friend whose home I visited in Sakai, south Osaka, at New Year and who kept me there for three days inisting that I meet all his friends and visit all his favourite places; or the bonenkai (end of year party) I was invited to by a super rich benefactor at his Atami villa - worthy of a James Bond set - with the most sumptuous foods and sakes laid on.
This time round, coming back as a family of five with three small children, things seem a little more prosaic, and indeed after reaching our little home after an 18 hour journey, we discovered to our horror the floors in the kitchen and lounge were completely covered with black cockroach droppings, which either in the winter cold or summer heat, had cemented onto the woodwork. Finding yourself horribly jet-lagged and down on your hands and knees scrubbing floors before your barefooted children walk all over it, you do for the briefest of moments question whether it is really worth the 6000 mile pilgrimage.
But of course it is. For one thing, if you were not in Kansai in December, you could not go and see the Kaomise Kabuki in Kyoto and for me the journey is more than worth it just for this pleasure alone. If you live in Tokyo I guess you pretty much have Kabuki on tap at the glittering new Kabuki-za, but if, like me, your entire world is Kansai, then you need to watch the Kaomise in Kyoto if you wish to see top class Kabuki in the Kansai area. The 10.5 hour performance, split into morning and afternoon shows, comprises parts of the Kabuki repertoire dating from the early 1700s to the post war era, and is a peerless theatrical experience. What makes it extra special however is the unique atmosphere of the Minami-za in Kyoto, built at the actual site where Kabuki was invented in the 17th century. The ritual of reading through the exquisite programme guide, listening to the earphone commentary, enjoying a quality bento lunch box and a variety of other delicacies during the various breaks while the odd geisha bustles about you, is the type of magical, immersive experience you simply cannot achieve in England. The closest comparable in Europe is perhaps the wonderful evenings in the opera houses of Munich and Vienna where during numerous breaks the tuxedo-ed theatre-goers dine in style or quaff glasses of champagne.
My only minor disappointment this year was that the Kaomise programme did not include my favourite play <a href="http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanjinchō">Kanjincho (The Subscription List)</a>. I jump with excitement whenever I get the chance to view Kanjincho which for me is as great a piece of theatre as has ever been written, more intensely dramatic than anything in Shakespeare, as protean and powerful as Aeschylus' Oresteia. Never mind, this year we were treated instead to two acts from Kanadehon Chushingura (The Loyal Retainers), the most popular play in Japanese dramatic history and surely also the longest. These two acts alone took 2.5 hours to perform and I was reminded that there are another NINE acts in the play as a whole, meaning that its complete performance would consume an entire day.
On the train to Kyoto from Osaka, it was gently snowing and the usually fairly drab suburbs suddenly appeared quite beautiful framed against the snowy mountains in the distance. On this trip too I have come to rediscover the hidden delights of Kyoto, not least due to following some of the walks suggested in John and Phyllis Martins excellent book, 'Kyoto: 29 Walks in Japans Ancient Capital'.
Once having got back into the swing of being in Kansai - recovering from jet lag and taking shelter from the cold for a few days in the self-enclosed worlds that are the vast shopping malls of Grand Front Osaka and Nishinomiya Gardens - the list of delights to squeeze in is seemingly endless. There have to be strolls around Kitanoku and Harbourland in Kobe; there have to be nights out in Shinsaibashi, Osaka; there has to be lunch at
my favourite Dojima restuarant in Osaka followed by a tour of the exhibition at Osaka City Art Gallery. If Christmas Day was a little underwhelming this year - I dined on mushrooms on toast for Christmas dinner - there was the rare pleasure of a Boxing Day lunch in the opulent surroundings of the Oriental Hotel, Kobe (picture of me, above) followed by a tour of the excellent Ancient Egypt exhibition at Kobe City Museum next door.
I'm not quite sure how my children have taken it all - they did suspiciously enquire how Santa Claus would be dropping off their presents since our house has no chimney - but all in all I think I am now a convert to the pleasures of Japan at New Year and may have to do some re-scheduling of the annual calendar. The good lady of the house however - having lugged over from England 44kg of baggage containing endless boxes of mince pies, Christmas puddings, bottles of sherry, blue cheeses, enormous amounts of butter (don't forget there is a butter crisis in Japan), all mostly uneaten so far - may perhaps have other ideas...