Monday, 29 December 2014

New Year in Japan

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 la
st 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="ō">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...

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Japan Times Review

Very nice review today in The Japan Times of my biography of Yukio Mishima.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Penetrating the Occult

I know an elderly gent who is into the supernatural in a big way. He lives in a four-storey house on the next street and rarely goes out. He has a large library of books on mysticism, the occult and the black arts. He’s an expert on the subject. His shelves bristle with tomes on the I Ching, Tibetan sutras, Sufism and the Kabala.

He only lives nearby, but when I've been round to see him, it’s like entering another world, or perhaps another dimension. He's retired and lives a simple life, eating porridge for breakfast and very often the same thing for dinner night after night.

As a young man, he and his brother worked in the navy and travelled to every corner of the world, arguing with each other as to who had been to the most remote island. Later on he married and worked in a laboratory, but was forced to retire after narrowly surviving an accident, which left him walking with a limp. Afterwards he became interested in property, renting out rooms in houses.

But these days, his world has shrunk to the ground floor of his own home and he spends most of his time reading the Bible in Hebrew and has an armchair in a corner of his vast lounge where he ensconces himself for most of the day. The interior of the house is painted in very dark colours – navy blue and mahogany. He takes snuff and always has his snuff box by the side of his armchair.

The first time I visited him, he started talking about the Devil. Somehow or other we were talking about gambling and he informed me that he had special powers which allowed him to win at gambling, but he didn’t like to use them. He said he was in a casino once and he saw the Devil standing behind him, but he decided not to invoke his powers.

Whereas many of us live in a world governed by issues such as the performance of the economy or technological change, to this retiree the chief thing is the eternal battle with the Masons. It's the Masons who have all the power, he tells me, but only a very few understand the mysteries of their organization. None of the lower-ranking Masons have an insight into the huge power of those at the top – you have to go very, very high up before you can break into their inner sanctum, he says.

He views the Masons as the agents of world evil and himself as a great anti-Masonic force. He tells me that the Masons know who he is and can instantly sense his powers when they are in his presence. Once he showed me a very secret sign that must be used with great care. He suddenly stood up out of his armchair and bent his chest forward while raising a couple of fingers into a strange crooked shape as if doing shadow art on the wall. This represents the horns of the evil one, he said, and the Masons were terrified by it. If you were to make this sign towards one of them, you had virtually signed his death warrant. It must be used with great care.

Sometimes he will talk to me as a complete novice and once lent me an introductory book on the dark arts. But another time when I was seated opposite him on the sofa he looked at me suspiciously and said,

‘You pretend not to know much about these things, but it’s easy to see that you too have some powers. Are you sure you’re not a Mason?’

Looked at from one point of view, it might be said that this person is at best a little eccentric. Yet on the other hand, talking to him is quite fascinating. It offers a way of looking at the world from an entirely different perspective, of offering access to a dark chamber of knowledge I have never entered.

The more you listen to him, the more you begin to think he might have a point. After all, a visit to the Freemasons’ Temple in London (pictured left, image courtesy Eluveitie) is a salutary experience. It is an enormously sumptuous building worth several hundred million pounds. It is adorned with all the weird paraphernalia of Freemasonry – the all-seeing eye, the bizarre juxtaposition of Greek mathematicians and Biblical prophets, of men dressed in aprons and giving secret handshakes, and has details of the Masonic lodges spread out in their hundreds across the world.

But it is not just the Masons. I know so little of the mysteries of the Kabala, of Sufism, of Tibetan sutras – you could spend an entire lifetime looking into such things. Clearly some people find an awful lot of truth in such esoteric mysticism.

There seems to me nothing odder in this than an attachment to any of the mainstream religions. After all, if you believe in the Bible, you can hardly object to there being anything strange about seeing the Devil. The Bible is full of stories about the Devil’s appearance and his taking possession of people.

Of course personally I don’t believe any of it. I don’t believe in God, never mind all the paraphernalia of religion and mystical sects. But I do think there is much of interest to be discovered about some of the very odd societies in the world and that these things all connect in quite intriguing ways.

If I had the time, I would love to look into the subject more and have promised to one day write a book with the old man as hero, pitted in a grand battle against the dark Masonic forces. You never know, it could just be that everything he has been telling me is the absolute truth.

After all, his favourite phrase when explaining these matters to me is to say,

‘And these things are in no way imaginary. They are very real.’