Sakura and Makota, a Japanese love affair (Spring 2019)
Posted:30 June 2019
Written by Liz Bradshaw
Two days into the Garden House tour of Japan my spirits soared. We had admired the temples and gardens of Kyoto, and now we were on a sturdy wooden boat on the Hozegawa river. It was manned by two stong but laughing Japanese men alternating on the oar and a pole to steer us through the rapids. The water was sparkling clear in the sunshine, the cherry blossom dotted among the greens of the hill side – and the political chaos in England had been truly left behind. In the boat were 22 keen gardeners many of whom had previously been on courses run by our leader, the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Bridgette Saunders, and all followers of our guru, Monty Don. On TV Monty captured the beauty of Japanese gardens – the tranquillity of the Zen gardens with their neatly arranged stones, and the profusion of the cherry blossom of the Sonei-Yoshima contrasting with the variety of spring green of the maple – all truly glorious.
The Japanese also seemed to have lost their natural reserve. Many even knew about ‘Cherry’ Ingram , the British saviour of Japan’s cherry blossoms. They waved to us first with one hand, then with the other, and the children with their whole bodies. It was truly a celebration of a natural wonder. My favourite garden in Kyoto was the Silver pavilion temple . Here was the peace, the ladies in their conical hats removing the grass from the moss, the garden blending with the foliage of the hillside and the gentle meandering stream.
All was not gardens however. One morning was devoted to Sushi-making and an afternoon to the ritual Tea Ceremony. I had not realised that the latter was begun by the Japanese warriors, the Samurai. In Japan, people often wear masks because sneezing and coughing are considered very rude, but noisily slurping the Macha tea (much like pond weed), is considered polite. All this and more was explained by our huggable guide Makota. As the days passed how we appreciated his impeccable English learned on the West Coast USA without a trace of an accent, his unflappable organisation, his quiet humour, and above all his Japanese modesty. If he described a new experience as ‘quite nice’, it was going to be stunning.
Hiroshima was such an experience. The children’s monument made of paper cranes in memory of those dying of leukemia was deeply touching. We visited the flame of peace at the same time as some VIP orange clad monks with a large security presence. The whole message is about peace and never again suffering such an horrific atrocity. That evening we sampled Okonomiyaki. We sat at a counter where the chefs made a pancake generously filled with vegetables, bacon for the non-veggies, finished with seaweed flakes and a sweet sauce , perfectly accompanied with Japanese beer.
We had a Scottish mist day when we visited the famous and iconic Itsukushima shrine on the island on Miyajima. I wore my beret which blended in with the little statues of Buddhist disciples all wearing crocheted hats.
By this time we were getting accustomed to the renowned Japanese bullet trains. On the 103 to Hiroshima, we were fortified with a bento box of Japanese treats, and now we were on the 732 to Shin- Kurashiki. The British commuter is awestruck by the time keeping, the cleanliness, the trolley service with a bow before and after leaving the compartment in addition to the speed. Should it ever happen, please let the Japanese run HS2!
We admired the Sakura – cherry blossom – along the canal at Bikan. I chatted to a group of laughing Indonesian nurses caring for an ageing Japanese population; Makota lost and we picked up one of our group frightened and disorientated by diving into shops, a nightmare for tour guides.
Then back on the train to the hot springs of Hakone. I was in heaven. They are gender specific and your nakedness is protected by a small towel with a large towel for drying afterwards. Here high on the volcanoes I was soaking in a natural hot pool with snow flakes gently falling on cherry and magnolia blossoms. A morning visit to the pool, and I was prepared for the amazing sculpture park which boasts a Henry Moore round every corner, a Gormley prostrate on the damp ground, and Picasso ceramics lovingly displayed in a beautiful gallery space. All this followed by a natural steaming footbath for tired feet.
Tokyo was our final stop. By this time I was a devotee of Japanese public transport and ready to try the subway, but not before our guided tour. Makota introduced us to the Imperial Palace – and to the concept of the ‘Japanese Shower’ where you start at the top of a store and shop downwards. In the department stores there is a Japanese toilet complete with birdsong at each level. Eventually tired of the ‘cult of the cute’ we were off for free time. Take no notice of the advice to buy a subway day ticket in a department store, as there are smiling uniformed ladies happy to help you at all the stations (this could have been because of the Olympics in 2020, and the Rugby World Cup).
Tokyo is best appreciated from the top of a skyscraper. It is a vibrant city scape. We were reminded of the American film ‘Lost in Translation’ with Bill Murray forever hailing cabs. Our destination, the Shibuya crossing, one of the busiest in Tokyo and the area for the young and trendy. We could not get close to the well-rubbed nose of the sculpture of the Akita dog, Hachiko – which even after his owner, a professor, had died, met the train each night, waiting for his master.
Then we had our ‘Lost in Translation’ moment – we just wanted pizza but the waiter said ‘not for 90 mins.’ But why, we questioned? Luckily other customers and a Japanese man who had been in Oxford came to help. Yes , we could have a pizza but we couldn’t stay longer than 90 minutes. Cue, lots of laughter and bowing.
Our holiday ended with another delicious Japanese dinner, hosted by one of Bridgette’s Japanese student lodgers who, in their modest Japanese way , had kindly given so much advice on what should not be missed from our itinerary.
The following day the coach took us to Narita airport via the Bay, with it’s many huge container ships at anchor, possibly because of disputes? It was with sincere regret we said farewell to Makito, hoping he would visit us in England sometime soon.
Back at Gatwick, as I walked down the toilet-less, grubby corridor to the baggage claim, I wondered what would be Makito’s first impressions. Would ‘quite nice’ be his tactful comment?