Wednesday April 1st and Thursday April 2nd
I saw an enormous curved ramp from the elevated motorway in the night sky, wending its way around a block of flats, several stories above my head, and I finally had to admit this wasn’t a dream or a nightmare - I was lost. Either the ramp shouldn’t be where it was, or I shouldn’t be where I was, and frankly I had no idea where I was.
It seemed sensible to assume that the ramp had every right to be where it was, whereas I had no business at all being somewhere I shouldn’t be, wherever it was. Being under that ramp was no part of my plans, back at the point of leaving Mukogawa station, looking to stroll the mile or so back to my apartment. Memorising the route and the general directions I’d need to take had seemed easy - or so I’d thought.
Still - there was no need to worry. I still had the map in my rucksack. I took it out and consulted it under a nearby streetlight. On this particular street there were no people. Back in London in the dead of night on an unknown street with no-one around I’d have been starting to feel slightly worried. No need for that here, though - surely Japan has no petty crime and no crazy street gangs, armed to the teeth and looking for easy pickings?
The map had seemed easy to read yesterday, at the point of knowing exactly where I was on it, and where I needed to get to. Now that I’d somehow departed from the straight and narrow, and no longer had a clue where I was, the map was useless, on account of the fact that it was entirely in Japanese, and so were the actual street signs -assuming I could eventually find one or two of them. Trying to memorise the look of the characters on the road signs and then scour the map for the exact same Japanese characters would be a nightmare, standing there in the chill wind of the Spring darkness.
After a couple of minutes pondering how on earth I’d gone away from the proper route, I noticed an old guy coming slowly along the street, for all I knew having had a few drinks at a nearby bar. Not feeling at all optimistic I held out the map and said in English, “Excuse me, I need to get back to this place and I don’t know where I am.”
He looked down at the map and muttered something in Japanese, and immediately shuffled off in the direction he’d been heading. I didn’t feel I could blame him - there was no way we were going to communicate, and I doubted that he could read or understand the cluttered little photocopy of a map that had on it only the names of the main roads, and in very small characters.
And then he was suddenly back again, standing next to me, holding a pair of reading glasses, having gone somewhere to collect them. So much for my intuition and my faith in humanity. Of course - he couldn’t read the map because he couldn’t focus on it properly! After a couple of moments he looked up and pointed in the general direction I’d need to go in.
And then he pulled on my arm, clearly saying, look - come here - I’ll show you. He not only walked with me to the next intersection where I’d need to turn left - he came with me for several blocks till we reached a main road, from where it was obvious where I should go to complete the journey. Then he shook my hand, bowed, and went off home.
It had been a fitting and affirmative ending to what had been an excellent day. Yoko had phoned early and asked whether we could meet at 9.00 instead of 10.00, as it was a beautiful, bright day and we should make the most of it. We agreed it should be possible for me to catch the two trains I’d need to take to get to central Osaka station, assuming I had my wits about me, and in the event I caught one that went all the way through.
Kayo was waiting for us when we arrived at Kyoto, two more trains later. And then it was down into the underground for a train that took us from north to south, and out into a windy street to wait for the ‘community bus’ that was in effect a shuttle bus to the Daigo temple complex we intended to explore - a bus that was about the size of an average American taxi but able to contain about forty tightly-packed humans, obviously with most of them standing and strap-hanging..
Yoko said she could tell from the accents that a great many of the people who were flocking to the temples this cherry-blossom time were from the Tokyo area. It was interesting that there were virtually no Euros or North Americans.
And finally we had confirmation that this was the very peak of the 2009 cherry blossom season - the vast majority of the blossom on the trees in the temple gardens was in full bloom, and there was absolutely none of it down on the ground. Neither had the new green leaves burst from their buds.
There’s no point trying to describe the cumulative effect of the blossoms in the gardens and the temple walkways - it was just sensational. The atmosphere was festival-like, but quiet and respectful, and suitably in awe of nature’s amazing display. New wonders came into sight with every turn and with each fresh vantage point. Thousands of photos were being snapped, and hopefully some of them will do justice to the spectacle, and bring back some of the feeling of the day.
We went from one meditation hall to the next, higher and higher up the mountain, past streams and ponds, over bridges that looked down on slow-swimming Koi carp, past raked pebble gardens and waterfalls and a huge pagoda, past pine trees and leafless Japanese maples.
Truly a memorable and incredible experience, never again to be repeated. I can’t imagine ever again being able to coincide a trip to Japan with the very peak of the cherry blossom season.
Next week I’ll go back and take photos of the blossom scattered like a carpet of snow on the ground, and floating in the ponds and streams, having drifted down like snowflakes.
I keep getting flashbacks of the journey to Japan. I guess I’m still recovering from it.
Last night I had a very sharp memory of the shiver of dread that ran through me at Heathrow when I suddenly had a thought- is Emirates a DRY airline? Holy fuck! Was that the reason it was the only airline that still had seats available to Japan in the cherry-blossom season? How bad would that be! More than 16 hours flying time via Dubai - without any free booze! Aaaarrrggghhhh!
Calm. Calm. Worst case scenario. The best case scenario was that there was unlimited quantities of top-class beer, wine, spirits and liqueurs to help pass the hours in a haze of well-being and olfactory delights.
When I asked the steward for a second can of Heineken he said, “I’ll give you two more.” Now that’s what I CALL an airline.
So - three cans before dinner, wine with it, and a generous glass of Hennessey to follow.
The spicy chicken and basmati rice, salad, bread, cheesecake and coffee weren’t bad either.
The double-decker Airbus 380 - 800, the biggest damn passenger plane in the world, and in the entire history of the world, sailed smoothly on at over 1,000kph, and every single man, woman and child in its massive cabins, and no doubt in its similar cabins upstairs, was sitting in front of an individual flat screen on which was playing a UNIQUE image.
No two images or programmes the same. It was unbelievable. The plane had more channels and films on tap than my home cable TV service. Plus a constantly updated map of where we were on our journey, and exactly which bit of which country we were flying over. Plus a constantly updated notification of airspeed, groundspeed, outside temperature, time at destination, time at point of departure, etc. Incredible.
Plus - the ability to touch the screen to change from a video image of what’s directly ahead of the plane to what’s immediately beneath it, to what the entire plane looks like from a video camera mounted at the top of the tailplane.
Yesterday I went to look around the university and to attend a seminar that involved a colleague of Yoko plus three of Yoko’s post-grad students - Kayo, Tomoko and Megumi. The subject was the history of education and the progressive movement in Europe the late 19th and early 20th Century. These guys know a damn sight more about it than I do - Dewey, Montessori, etc.
At the end of the session I asked if I could do a video interview with them as a group. I had four questions. Why are there so many women-only universities in Japan and what do they feel are the advantages? What did they think were the main benefits of the Montessori approach to early years learning? What could they tell me about wabi sabi? Why do most Japanese people seem to know very little about (and care even less about) Zen?
When I find the time I’ll try to transcribe the discussion from the tape. Interesting.
In the afternoon I managed to set up my laptop for Internet access in Yoko’s office via the uni’s network, with the help of one of Yoko’s very pleasant colleagues. No sign of anyone having a guitar to lend me as yet!
We then went back to her new house, which I was visiting for the first time, and made dinner whilst trying to get the gist of what was at that very moment happening live in London - the G20 demonstrations. Felt very annoyed to be missing such events in my adopted city. Oh well . . .
I have to write a speech for the start of year faculty meeting at the university tomorrow, so here goes.
Good morning everyone. Ohayo Gozaimas. I’m sorry I don’t speak any more Japanese, but I’m going to try hard to learn some in the next three weeks. Professor Yamasaki has very kindly bought me this Instant Japanese book - so I hope it will be instant!
I’ve only been back in Japan for a few days, but I’ve already decided I don’t want to go home to London. Being in Japan at cherry blossom time is very exciting and a huge thrill for me. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. Yesterday in Kyoto was wonderful beyond description. I wish I could show you the two thousand photos and one hour of video I took! I guess you have lots of photos of your own at home!
I’m missing the G20 meetings and demonstrations in London this week. My generation of students grew up in the 1960’s, so I have a fondness for political demonstrations. I haven’t lost my belief that by working together, people like us can help to make a better planet.
My home is in east London, which is where the next Olympics will take place in 2012. The main stadium’s construction is now reaching its full height. You can see it on internet webcams. Or feel free to come and see the games in 2012. I’m not sure I’ll be there myself though. I may have to escape to Japan for a more peaceful life.
I was a Primary teacher in London, and was then a headteacher of a Primary school for 20 years. My school was well known as a place where progressive child-centred education was pioneered in a State Primary school in the 1960’s, and onward.
I have now been happily retired from headship for two years, and these days I’m running my own educational consultancy, working with associates who are able to offer to schools, universities and local authorities advice and support on children’s wellbeing, personal, social and emotional intelligence, creativity, and pedagogy for child-centred education. I can give you a web site reference if you’re interested in knowing more.
I look forward to meeting some more of you and getting to know you better in these next three weeks. I’d like to thank those of you who have already been so welcoming and helpful. And I’d especially like to thank Professor Yamasaki, who wrote an academic paper with me and published it in Japan a few years ago.
With her help and support I’ve been able to develop my 3 Dimensional model of human intelligences, and it’s thanks to her generosity and continuing friendship that I’ve been able to return this year to Japan, a country I really love, yet again.
I wish you all a very happy and productive new academic year. Take care of one another, and enjoy life together.
Thank you all. Arigato gozaimas.