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Japan: lost in a dream

Published May 12, 2015


Kyoto - On a cold, drizzly day in March I’m standing on the banks of the Kamo River Delta in the heart of Kyoto. The river neatly intersects this quaint, smallish city, quickly establishing itself as a landmark on our brief visit.

It’s just before 10am when we descend the path to the river bank, waiting.

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And on the hour, three speakers on the river’s edge start broadcasting Susan Phillipsz’s The Three Songs, the high-pitched voices from Kabuki Theatre blending with Thomas Ravencroft’s Pammelia (1609).

It is eerily haunting and surreal to hear the songs; and the atmosphere is broken only by a group of Japanese schoolchildren skipping across the river stones under the Demachi Bridge. Accompanied, one supposes, by a teacher, they sweetly proceed to pose for a group selfie against the low-lying bridge and the grey sky. We watch, more people come, including a woman with her lapdog trotting beside her in its doggie jacket. It is, and isn’t, a typical day in Japan.

It’s only my third day in this fabled country and already I’ve seen a gamut of contrasts: from the hi-tech city of the future, built in layers, Tokyo, home to more than 8 million people, to the decidedly more sleepy and charming city that reaches into the past: Kyoto. Encircled by mountains and lying in a valley, the city bakes in summer and freezes in winter, I’m told.

I’m here as part of a group of writers invited to Japan to attend the Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015, a trip to Kanazawa and finally some days in Tokyo.

What we’re watching is all part of the Parasophia art fair taking place in the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and in locations around the city.

It’s a case of art taking over the place and being eagerly anticipated and lapped up by Kyoto citizens.

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After hearing the eerie but melodic tunes of The Three Songs, our next stop is the Horikawa Housing complex, where we’re to see installations set up to show housing built in the 1960s when the majority of Japan’s citizens lived in poverty.

Taking off our shoes to enter, we step on to tatami mats in the small, cramped flats.

Two rooms are bisected by a folding screen. There’s a small, basic kitchen and a single toilet. Here families lived, ate, and slept, bringing their futons down from storage areas against the walls.

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There were no bathrooms. Instead they visited public baths. Video installations play in the sparse rooms.

Our guide, Noriko Moriyama tells us that some people in the rural areas still live that way today.

I ascend from flat to flat, three in all, on three levels, opened up to artists for Parasophia. It leaves me moved, and quite humbled, seeing how people lived not so long ago, making do with so little.

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These installations are in contrast to those seen the day before on our arrival in Kyoto. With the main exhibition being at the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, the Parasophia Art Exhibition, which showcases the work of about 40 artists from around the world. It includes South African artist William Kentridge’s 2013 Second Hand Reading.

We’re on a whirlwind tour through three cities – so there’s enough time to go only quickly through the exhibitions.

A middle-aged woman in a wedding dress smokes a cigarette, blowing the smoke determinedly in Lola Montez in Berlin by artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. The images are unsettling, not a comfortable watch – and that’s so often the role of the artist – to unsettle, to make us question the world.

Later that night, and in the days after, we all return to the “white room” of Keiko Kurachi and Satoru Takahashi’s Ornament and Crime: Sense/Common (2015) a bare, icy space – ceiling, walls and floor are an Arctic white. A few black rocks, symbolising a Japanese rock garden, and a series of jail-like structures break up the monotony. We are asked to take off our shoes to enter, so as not to disturb this white world. We talk about the starkness of the room. One political journalist is reminded of the time he spent in prison, I feel strangely calmed and enervated by the white.

One journalist misses the white room entirely – and for days afterward will experience the room through our interpretations, another way of entering the space, you could say.

I’m intrigued, too, by the work of Belgian visual artist Ana Torfs, who, in Family Plot shows a selection of 50 framed black-and-white atlas prints of the world as it was known by famous people in past centuries, from American statesman George Washington to Swedish botanist, physician, and zoologist Carl Linnaeus to John Tradescant the elder (1570-1638), an English naturalist, gardener, collector and traveller. Australia is unknown, US a barely-there mass, and Europe and Asia look strangely packed together, a huge mass dwarfing a tiny Africa. Fascinating to see how European knowledge of the world grew with each exploration as the centuries progressed. Walking along the line of prints brings the world back into focus.


Then lunch. We go to Daruman, a traditional restaurant serving obanzai, light Kyoto-style home cooking with boiled vegetables and marinated morsels.

The buffet looks exotically colourful with its variety of vegetables and potatoes. There are sweet potatoes, instantly recognisable, and other tubers, long, crinkly fried roots, and so much that can’t be guessed. The descriptions are in Japanese and our guides are telling us what each item is as we pass along, choosing our dishes. Tofu, fish, green jelly-like cubes. And a small bowl of almost sweet cubes with a sweet black sauce that Keiko Okawa from the Japan Foundation enthusiastically pours for us.

Such a sense of strangeness, and unfamiliarity, and that’s what I love about Japan, despite jetlag, exhaustion, and the early mornings. There’s something wonderful about seeing the world anew again, as a child does. About not being able to read anything, about so many new and unexpected tastes, about the world being slightly magical again, and full of surprises.

That’s what travel offers, despite the hardship, the time spent getting anywhere, the frustration, the bewilderment, the lack of sleep.

What you get is a constant rush of stimulation, a taking in of differences, a surfeit of newness, and you’re forced to look at the world afresh.

It opens you, fires you up, makes all your senses come alive again.

A rainy afternoon follows, and we are visiting Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), a Zen garden and a final temple, the Kiyomizu-dera.

At the Golden Pavilion we walk under umbrellas, the rain a steady drizzle as we circle the golden place. Despite the weather it’s overrun by tourists also rushing to see the sights. A member of our group lights a devotional candle, its flame joining others flickering in the inclement weather.


There are other still moments at the Zen Rock Garden. Our shoes are taken off once more as we join others in the crowded jumble of footwear, putting on slipper-like shoes provided at the garden. I find a space to squeeze in between the tourists – the garden is grey-white in the rainy weather, the gravel intersected by the arrangement of black stones. I try to imagine serenity among the tourists, with the rush, the clock ticking, and take photographs instead.

The temple, the Kiyomizu-dera, is found at the top of a hill and dates from the 17th century. The water flows down from the mountain, and if you take it, it’s reputed to lead to better health, wealth and everything you could wish for. Tourists, a member from our party and a woman in a kimono take the water.

A couple aged about 20, she in a kimono and he in traditional dress, ask if I will take their photo.

I wander down the hill. The light is blue dusk, contrasting with the brightness of shops selling everything from Hello Kitty paraphernalia to chocolates and pancake-like sweets.

I weave in between tourists and residents, some in kimonos, which I will also see on the streets of Japan.

Later, I ask our guide, Noriko Moriyama why some women wear kimonos, and she replies that women dress up for traditional ceremonies or special occasions at times.

Supper is at Junsei, a tofu hot pot restaurant set in beautiful Japanese gardens, with ponds where koi swim to the surface. But it’s dark and raining, and we hurry through, taking off our shoes again to pad lightly on the tatami mats.

Dishes of beautifully presented tofu are presented to us in delicate bowls, surrounded by brown sauces. Our chopsticks are wrapped in paper depicting ancient Japanese stories.

Mine is delightfully resonant, talking about stones, love and romance. Last year I had a dream where I saw “blessing the stones” emblazoned across a hill. Waking, I discovered that this was an ancient marriage tradition where wedding guests bless a couple with stones.

The wrapping around my chopsticks says: “Koi uranai-no-ishi (Love fortune-telling stones) are found at the Jishu Jinja Shrine in the north of the Kiyomizu Main Temple. In legend or tradition, it is believed that closing your eyes and walking from one stone to the other will bring you true love. If you fail to receive this, your heart must not feel defeated, as you can also pray to the deity. The god of Jinhu Jinja Shrine, Okuninushi no Mikoto, is one of the most famous for marriage.

“There is also Yasui konpira Gu, a shrine about 15 minutes’ walk from Jishu Jinja, that is known for breaking off relationships. This shrine will not only break off love relationships, but habits like alcohol, tobacco, illnesses and gambling.

“If you visit the Yasuui konpira Gu shrine to break off a bad relationship, then you should visit the Jishu Jinja shrine to pray for a new romance.

“Is that asking for too much?” Is it?

We take taxis home. There are antimacassars on the back of the seat and Japanese lettering all around. One of the journalists remarks that even the taxis are exotic. She echoes my feelings.

Japan is a gentle push against the senses – a world where everything is strange and new, always, and the sense of strangeness continues, from food to language to the mad spillage of words that you can’t read on billboards and buildings and in subway stations.

Speeding through the dark, wet streets, I hear Keiko talking to the taxi driver, answering with “Hai” which is like our English “yes”, but stronger and used more often, apparently as a way of emphatically punctuating conversation.

The next morning we take a bullet train further south to the city of Kanazawa. We eat at a sushi restaurant. Shoes off again, and I eat eel for the first time, despite instinctively expecting a slimy eel yuck factor. But it is delicious, soft, flaky, a little like kingklip, although slightly more moist and oily.

At the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art I take in a cold room in dusky pink, designed by the artist James Turrell. The top of the ceiling is open, as a space to “watch” the sky, an experience that soon palls in the cold.

A favourite among the visitors to the packed museum is The Swimming Pool (2004), a replica of a swimming pool by Leandro Erlich. From the top the gel-like water ripples with the shapes of the people seen “beneath” the water, their shapes twisting and warping as you look from above.

Go underground, into the bottom of the empty “pool” and look through the “surface” to the people on top, wavering above, as they would if you were under water, looking up at them.

Also popular is an installation outside the museum, a collection of semi-circular curves of coloured plastic that intrigue and delight. People pass through it, the colours distorting and changing the world for them as they turn, walk, run, and laugh through the space.

We move on to the Japanese botanical gardens, which are highly formalised and stylised. Another impression of Japan that lives up to expectations. The formal shapes of the trees, the koi in the black waters, the reflection of trees on water.

We take a quick look at the Emperor’s Palace opposite, a stark, cold, black-and-white structure, with a curving pagoda-like roof, steeped in centuries of time.

Dinner that night is in an izikaya, a Japanese pub. Again we are asked to remove our shoes, to protect the tatami mats, and are seated around low benches around a table. The decor is eclectic and vibrant, colourful banners are draped above the tables, and there are cartoon-like drawings on the walls with Japanese text. Tempura vegetables we have no names for. And people smoking. It’s another strange thing to get used to: smoking isn’t outlawed in restaurants, and is accepted as part of the dining experience.

We walk back to our hotel along the street, past brightly lit shops and posters for movies.

Food features again when we are back in Tokyo the next day, after returning by air.

We go to a restaurant called Kiji, in tbe central business district, that serves Japanese pizzas. Delicious, these pizzas are more like a cross between a fluffy omelette and a pizza. Toppings on a fluffy base, set on a sizzling grill to keep warm, and shovelled up with our chopsticks. I never thought I’d become adept at using chopsticks or use them to eat pizza.

Further adventures on the surface of another culture come later that afternoon when we decide to take the peak-hour subway to Tokyu Hands, a Tokyo department store that sells everything. I’m exhausted – sleep-deprived, mind chock-a-block with new experiences – but I summon up the energy.

Noriko helps us buy tickets for the train – help we sorely need. The train station is a rushing, buzzing hive of activity, with commuters rushing with purpose to their destinations, sure-footed in this warren of tunnels. On the trains headphones are muted; a polite distance between commuters is maintained.

The area of Shibuyu is a riot of colour, light, billboards, shops, and Japanese lettering. Up narrow streets, past umbrella stands, the rain is coming down this Monday night.

The department store is open until late, and I’m smitten by the sheer variety of stationery that is available. There are notebooks and diaries, linen, suitcases, furniture and more, up five floors. Later I stand outside with another journalist waiting for the others. The security guard proudly sweeps a synthetic, green grass-like carpet free of water. It’s pouring again.

We walk to a Starbucks, overlooking Shibuya station, waiting and warming up. It’s packed, and it’s hard to find a table. We stand at the counter; one woman has staked her claim to seat by leaving her scarf and bag on it. I am not as incredulous as I might have been days earlier. This is Japan. A place of extraordinary politeness; where even in the subway you feel protected and safe. I watch a young European couple at a table, drinking coffee and determinedly reading their Kindles.

We stand looking out at the Shibuya Crossing, where five streets meet, with five zebra crossings. Like clockwork, when the lights turn green the pedestrians stream across, umbrellas raised against the weather. Everything is so orderly, as though choreographed. A few moments later we’re among them, among the choreographed masses, as we cross to the trains.

On our last day in Tokyo we visit a number of art museums, trying to take in as much as possible of Japanese art from centuries past to more contemporary work.

At the Tokyo National Museum we go through an exhibition of art from previous centuries, jostling for space with a group of Japanese schoolgirls in sailor-like blue uniforms. There are exhibitions of clothing, from Samurai outfits to clothes worn by women of the court. There are delicate paintings of geishas and a showcase of masterpieces of Japanese sculptures from northern Japan.

I’m fascinated by the work of the artist described as the “father of Japanese art”, Kuroda Seiki, depicting men and women in traditional dress from the end of the 19th century in broadly modern strokes.

There are some early cherry blossoms and we stop in delight to take pictures.

We walk through Ueno Onshi Park on our way to lunch. Faint music rings out from speakers. The next day is the anniversary of the 2011 earthquake, and there’s a poster on a tree relating to this.

We stroll through, taking photographs, the wind nipping us, past statues, the ubiquitous vending machines, and down steep stairs that remind me of the streets of Montmartre in Paris. Past a garish-looking shop, signs screaming in pastel and bright pinks, a gambling den, I’m informed.

Lunch at Sensuzu consists of tempura vegetables and giant tempura prawns on a pile of sticky rice.

As always, it’s delicious, followed by green tea ice cream – a strangely astringent yet pleasantly different taste.

At the National Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art we’re introduced to more contemporary art. There is an installation by Kishio Suga, a wall of twinkling lights, a photograph, Breath on Piano by Gabriel Orozco, catches my eye: it shows a pool of water on a piano.

We leave as Tokyo descends into darkness, its night lit by a profusion of lights. I take a last look at a city I have barely touched.

Tokyo flashes past the window: people walking the streets, riding bikes, some with young children strapped into the baskets on the front of the bicycles, glimpsing the river and bridges, a city of endless skyscrapers, and the red of McDonald’s arches. A curry restaurant. A pharmacist sweeps the front of his shop, watching us as we pass in our bus, while the wind is flapping the signs every which way.

I remember my first night in the city.

Lights blazing all around. I turn on the TV – there isn’t a single English language station, even at a hotel. Just station after station of Japanese drama, game shows, some news.

My room is small, there are controls for the radio built into a panelled headboard, and just a single memory foam cushion.

There’s something so beguiling about being in a place where everything is new and unfamiliar and you can’t even read the writing on a chocolate label.


The next morning, still a bit disoriented, we take the famous bullet train to Kyoto.

I watch the sci-fi city of Tokyo receding from the windows, a city built on layers, as one of the journalists remarks.

Quaint Kyoto is the Japan I had been expecting – of beauty and poetry, along with the images I’d had of Tokyo’s Japan’s futuristic, hi-tech city.

I’d had my first taste of Japan, so to speak, at breakfast. There was no cheese available at the buffets for Western and Japanese breakfasts. But I ate looking out over a grey pond where ducks paddle, an oasis of a rock garden, of calm in the city.

On the bus from the airport we hear the announcement: “Don’t use your portable phones, you will disturb your neighbour.” English made to fit another language, and the Japanese politeness that I will grow used to and then miss.

On the second-last day in Tokyo, I take pictures while the rest of the group have gone ahead to our restaurant. I am to cross a street, the robot is red, but the street is clear, and my instinct is, of course, to cross. Keiko is waiting for me on the other side. I stop myself from jaywalking, as I would have done back home. It just isn’t the done thing to do. How quickly we adapt to the society we are living in, to the norms around us, whatever they are.

And then on our last night in the city we decide to eat near the station where there is a plethora of restaurants. The night before we’d stumbled into a traditional pub-like restaurant, and now, without our guides, we take pot luck in ordering. On our last night we will do the same.

On a Tuesday night in Tokyo it’s incredibly hard to get a place to eat for the seven of us. Restaurant after restaurant is packed; a tout keeps trying to get us to eat at “his” restaurant on the second floor of the building. Finally, we try his place and he smilingly directs us there. But again, there’s only one table available, and it’s only for six. One of the more adventurous in our party takes another flight of darkly lit stairs, the stairwell narrowed by boxes of produce, and finds a dark, smoky place, where finally there’s space for all of us.

We settle down to choose food from a menu that offers horse salami and boiled innards with vinegar sauce.

On our last day in Tokyo, we stroll the streets of the city, past a temple where a woman prays silently before the edifice, and I’m reminded again of the differences and the similarities that bind us all.

We take a subway train to the Skytree, the highest tower in Tokyo. Getting there is an exercise in determination and acquiring an advanced degree in rocket science.

There are a myriad subway train lines, run by eight companies. After close to a half-an-hour of traversing the station concourse and enquiring at different booths, we eventually get ourselves the right ticket for the right line, and find ourselves going the wrong way.

We eventually find ourselves on the right train, going in the right direction – but not on the line we originally thought we’d be going. An American man working in Japan uses an app on his phone to help us find our way. The subway map is horrendously vast and complicated, he tells us.

The Skytree stretches into the sky, rising 250 floors. On a clear day you can see Mount Fuji. While the other writer takes a trip into the sky, where you can eat, I do some sorely needed shopping – finding strawberry white chocolate for someone special at home.

“Where you from?” the smiling assistance asks me.

“South Africa,” I smile back.


Ah, Mandela, I nod back. She bows to me as I smile my thanks and walk away.

I buy a distinctly unspicy samoosa filled with potatoes in the food court, and again the shop assistance is polite and smiling, bowing to me. By now I, like the rest of the group, have learnt to also bow back, in a more stiff Western fashion, admittedly, but there it is.


As we leave Tokyo for the airport the sky darkens, the ocean and river flash in and out of view. The Tokyo Eye revolves in the distance. I pass roads, bridges, cars, tunnels, houses, buildings, people in cars and trucks going places.

It feels like a dream.


n Arja Salafranca was a guest of the Japan Foundation:

n Parasophia exhibition:

Sunday Independent

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