Writings From Japan – Lafcadio Hearn – My Review

Writings From Japan - Lafcadio HearnIn Writings From Japan, Lafcadio Hearn shares his impressions of his few months spent here, including memories and impressions of his first day.

In 1853, Commodore Perry negotiated access for American ships to Japanese ports, and the country came out of its self-imposed isolation to open up to the West. Hearn arrived shortly afterwards in 1890, to a land still mysterious and mythical in all aspects of life.

Hearn’s writing reflects his wonder and his growing love and appreciation of Japan, her people and her culture. His lyrical style befits his mood, as if his days pass in a dream:

….the white fire of the Japanese sun is taking that pale amber tone which tells that the heat of the day is over. There is not a cloud in the blue – not even one of those beautiful white filamentary things, like ghosts of silken floss, which usually swim in this most ethereal of earthly skies even in the driest weather.

 

Hearn spent these first months travelling around Japan (largely by rickshaw, it would seem) not only marvelling at the country, but immersing himself in the culture. This is reflected in the chapter headings: At the Market of the Dead, In a Japanese Garden, Insect Musicians, The Chief City of the Province of the Gods. Much of what he writes may seem like a world now vanished, but it still exists in hidden parts of the country, often in full view.

Indeed, Hearn became so enamoured of the country he never left (he died in Tokyo in 1904), and his writings brought him international recognition. He is seen as one of the first Western writers to bring Japan to life for the Occidental reader, and his works are still taught in Japan. In 1936 a museum was built in Matsue next to the house where he once lived.

For me, Writings From Japan proved a timeless work about a fascinating country. It was a book I left by my bedside and dipped into between other readings; it was a work inspiring me to return to this amazing country, where the past and the present at times meld together, at time sit side by side, and others float in those seperate bubbles of wibbly-wobbly time-wimy bits

Always a reason to return (book in hand).

 

In Search Of A Perfect Japanese Curry

I never eat hospital food. I used to, some twenty years ago, if my break coincided with their irregular hours. The food was cheap, plentiful, and grey – including the vegetables. One evening as I searched for something to eat, I turned the wrong way coming out of the lifts and found myself outside the morgue. I never ate in the cafeteria again.

Luckily, every hospital nowadays has a private café, usually near the entrance and doused in sunlight. There are even express lines for those flourishing a hospital ID. The range of food extends from sandwiches and pies to offerings such as Persian rice salad or glass noodles. Last time I waited for my coffee I noticed a Japanese curry.

Until discovering the works of Haruki Murakami, I never thought of Japan as a land of curries, my knowledge instead restricted to sushi, sashimi, sake and Iron Chef. (Nor had I had associated Japan with truck stops, but in Kafka on the Shore I found both.) In Murakami the curries fed both body and soul; the curry I ordered tasted brown. So began my quest to find a true Japanese curry.

 

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Cormorant Fishing in Arashiyama – The Night I Walked into a Fairytale

             

 

He led me to a bridge, carrying in his arms with him certain dive-droppers or water-fowls, bound to perches and about every one of their necks he tied a thread, lest they should eat the fish as fast as they took them. He loosened the dive-droppers from the pole, and within less than the space of one hour, caught as many fish as filled three baskets; which being full, my host untied the threads from about their necks, and entering the second time into the river they fed themselves with fish, and being satisfied, they returned and allowed themselves to be bound to their perches, as they were before.

 

So wrote the Franciscan monk Friar Oderic, as he wandered barefoot across Asia in 1321. Little, it seems, has changed. Arashiyama may be but twenty minutes from Kyoto, yet I felt I’d strayed into an enchanted world long gone. The night was warm, filled with the chirping of crickets and frogs. Against the darkness of the surrounding hills, lights twinkled from restaurants hiding on the other side of the bay. Coloured lights lit the narrow streets, and lanterns hung amongst the trees leading down to the water.

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A Train Station In Japan

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The Zen of Japanese Trains

 

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Waiting on an empty station

Without warning, the train pulled to a stop and refused to move. I had no idea where I was. I hoped I was still en route to Koya-san, Japan’s holy mountain. Here sleeps the Kobo Dashi, revered for bringing Shingon Buddhism to Japan, and who has spent the last one thousand years waiting for the Buddha of the Future. Monks still bring food twice a day to his mausoleum, the Oko-In.

Catching a train in Japan boarders on a leap of faith. At every station the signs are a complex system of interlocking lines in a rainbow colours, and what little I could read proved no help. I was never entirely convinced that either the train or myself knew where we were headed.

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Rediscovering the Elegance of Travel

A good reason to pack light

A Traveller Not A Tourist

Lugging my bags over the cobbles of Venice I vowed never to travel again with an ocean of luggage in tow. The essence of elegance is, after all, simplicity. To travel lightly and so leave a small footprint benefits not only the environment but also the soul.

Elegance of Travel
Not the easiest with a heavy suitcase

The problem was amplified by the fact I was in charge of my mother’s bags as well as my own. And it was raining – the only rainy day of the whole trip. There is always a time when travelling when you have to manage your bags yourself – not just over cobblestones, but lifting onto trains or buses, boats, or struggling to the second floor of a hotel with no elevator. The boot of a hired car is rarely spacious, and I don’t like tripping over bags in a hotel room.

So now I have some basic rules:

i) if I can’t lift my bags myself, I’m taking too much.

ii) if I can’t lift my bag over my head (to put on a rack in a train, for example) I am taking too much. Taking a bag down from a height can be just as difficult as lifting one.

iii) if I have to put down my carry bag and rest after 10 minutes of walking, I am carrying too much. Airports and railways involve a lot of walking.

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10 Non-touristy Things To Try In Japan

10 non-touristy things to do in Japan

Japan is, for me, a fascinating country. A place which has kept its past as it embraces a very modern future; a place where so many cultures collide but somehow retain a whole. A country which has defied so many writers to define. A country of contradictions, but one of eclectic delights. A place to be a non-touristy tourist.

Consequently, Japan is the perfect place to do something a little different, to find something a little unexpected.

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