A couple of weeks ago, on of my students talked about a photographic exhibition that was being held at the Fukuya department store in Hachobori, in the centre of Hiroshima.
The exhibition was celebrating the 100th birthday of Japan’s first female news photographer, Tsuneko Sasamoto.
Intrigued by my student’s report and by the brochure she passed around the class, I decided to check out the exhibition later that day as I happened to be going into town. I was very pleased to have done so.
Tsuneko Sasamoto was born in Tokyo in 1914. She worked for the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shinbun and took up photo-journalism after making contact with the Photography Association.
She resisted pressure to give up working and get married at a time when women were treated as second-class citizens in Japan. Instead, against all the odds, she went on to document seven decades of Japanese life.
Perhaps the most intriguing photo in the exhibition is of a delegation of Hitler Youth who visited Japan in 1940 and are being entertained by a bunraku puppeteer. Presumably, they flew across the Soviet Union to reach Japan, during the time when the Nazi-Soviet non-Aggression Pact was still in place.
Tsuneko Sasamoto also photographed various other events of the Axis powers in Japan as well as the seventh Japan-America Student conference, also in 1940, just over a year before the Pacific War broke out.
After the war Tsuneko Sasamoto worked as a freelance photographer. She recorded scenes from the occupation, from MacArthur and his wife, (successfully requesting that he and his wife allow her to re-take a photo – an unprecedented breach of protocol at the time), to the bar life of the occupation forces after restrictions on mingling had been lifted in 1949.
In 1946 Tsuneko Sasamoto was in Hiroshima and photographed the A-Bomb Dome one year after the dropping of the a-bomb on the city.
For me, though, the most moving section of the exhibition was a whole series of portraits of notable Japanese men and women who Tsuneko Sasamoto photographed during the postwar years, most of whom have now passed away, giving the photos an almost elegaic quality.
Here is a news report in English about Tsuneko Sasamoto to mark her 100th birthday. In the film clips we get some idea of how dynamic and engaged with life this remarkable and inspiring Japanese woman continues to be.
What is Tsuneko Sasamoto’s secret of longevity? A large glass of red wine while contemplating the moon every evening!
Eileen-chan and I spent four weeks in England in the summer. We went to see three shows in London:
- Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe,
- Sound of Music at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park,
- Les Miserables at the Queen’s Theatre, (with my sister, Catherine).
Then we spent nearly three weeks in Devon. Eileen attended a two week summer school in Teignmouth while I attended the second week of the 100th British Chess Championships in Torquay and entered the Week 2 Afternoon Open Championship (see previous blog post if you are that interested in chess). I returned to Teignmouth and spent a week walking in the countryside, except for Wednesday 14th August, when I met A. Liz in Exeter.
The third week in Devon was spent at Lower Knapp Farm - deep in the Devonshire countryside a few miles north of Sidmouth, where my Aunt Liz was staying.
When I say “deep” I mean the nearest commercial establishment was a pub about four miles away. We stocked up on vittals, settled in for the week and spent most of our time in the swimming pool and sauna and the games room, when we were not relaxing in our cottage, cooking and playing Monopoly or watching DVDs. Compared to the previous three weeks, this was total chill time!
After that, A. Liz drove us to the Isle of Wight and the three of us stayed with my uncle and his wife, John and Margaret, for three nights.
The Chess Championships are over. David Howell is the new British Chess Champion. I am already beginning to think about visiting my old stamping ground, Hastings at the end of the year, for the Hastings International Chess Congress …
As for my final game in the Week 2 Afternoon Open, it was the shortest game of the lot and ended in a draw, offered to me by my opponent, Peter K. Smith (1735), on move 14, which I silently rejected, but then on move 19, having missed my opportunity to press home what I saw as an advantage, I asked him if he was still interested. He said he would think about it, and then, after five minutes of staring at the board he accepted and that was that.
I was White and opened with 1. d4 (Pawn to Queen 4) and it looked as if Peter would play the French Defence, but he switched to an early Fianchetto. After the game, I felt we had been simply playing form moves. I was aware that one imbalance in my favour was space but had not attacked it. The best move I made was getting my King’s Rook into the centre, opposite his King. The centre was cleared of pawns except of my pawn on d4 which I advanced, perhaps prematurely. We ended up with an almost symmetrical board, with two rooks, one knight and five pawns apiece.
Still, it gave me an extra half point, so I finished my first ever 5 Day Chess Championship on 2.5 points, and am well pleased with that result. After the game we got chatting and Peter expressed an interest in Shogi, so we strolled back to my hotel and I gave him a Daiso set – cheap pieces and a paper board, but a good little starter set. We agreed to meet up later on at the end-of-competition party scheduled for 8pm at the Riviera Centre, and billed as a “drinks-at-your-own-expense” party. I took “drinks at your own expense” to mean ¨bring your own booze” and so I strolled up to the local off-licence, which, being run by a Pole, stocked a range of Polish beer – four cans for a fiver!
I got to the Riviera a bit early so strolled over to Torre Abbey and had the first of the Polish beers while sitting on a bench overlooking the pitch and putt/crazy golf course and the seaside fairground. It was pleasant to listen to the screams of the people on the rides. To my right there was the Spanish Barn, so named after it was used to confine Spaniards captured from the Armada in 1588.
Feeling that life was very pleasant, I strolled back up to the Riviera Centre in search of the party, but when I got there it felt more like a morgue than a party venue. A few games of chess were still going on in the main hall. I checked the Championship results sheet and saw that one of the players I had got to know (at the cricket match the previous Sunday), Charles Storey, was probably still playing as his result had not yet come in, so I went up onto the balcony and peered down at his game. He was stuck in an excruciating endgame, which eventually concluded in a draw.
After about an hour in the morgue, with no sign of a party taking place (note to self … do not rely on chess players to organize a party), I saw a gink with a glass of beer and asked him where the party was. He saw my carrier-bag of booze and said that I shouldn’t drink it in the Riviera Centre. It turned out that “booze at your own expense” simply – and rather obviously – meant that you had to buy your own drinks at the bar. I didn’t know that a bar would be open in the evening as it had not been open any other evening…
Anyway, the “party” consisted of four blokes standing around the bar chatting about chess, but since one was my 5th game opponent, Peter Smith, another was Lawrence Ball (another member of Sunday’s cricket team), and the third was Charles Storey, straight from his game, the evening suddenly began to look more promising. Lawrence Ball suggested that we head into town for some dinner and so off we went, with Stewart Reuben joining us as the fifth member of our group.
I distributed the remaining Polish beers and we strolled into the centre of Torquay via the seafront, past the illuminated Big Wheel and ended up sitting outside Amici warming ourselves in front of the outdoor pyramid gas heaters and having a very pleasant time talking about chess, chess players and so on. Stewart reminisced about Fischer, Tal and some other players, whose names were new to me. I mentioned how I had been influenced by… well, I meant to say Gerald Abrahams … but I could not recall his first name and I just said his surname, BUT on reflection, I now realize I said “Alexander” by mistake. Stewart said he knew him and that his chess career had been badly affected by the war. I have just looked up “Alexander chess” on Google, and sure enough, one of Gerald Araham’s contemporaries was Conel Hugh O’Donel Alexander, CMG, CBE – a player whose chess career was affected by his wartime service at Bletchley Park.
I interrupt the orderly sequence of events to report two pieces of good news…
Item 1: Eileen at Summer School
I dropped Eileen off at Trinity School, Teignmouth, on Saturday afternoon for her two-week English course at the summer school run by International Projects. Five days later and no contact from Eileen. No worries; no news is good news in these cases.
However, a worried mother in Hiroshima did not see it like that, so I emailed the school to find out how she was doing and received this reply straight back from one of the managers…
Eileen is fine! She found many friends already. There is one German girl whose mother is Japanese. Thus, she found quickly many friends. I have asked her already several times, whether she wanted to call you from our phone but she said she did not need to.
Quite right too! That is just how I wanted it to be. I do not even mind if she ends up speaking German better than English…
Item 2: Mission Accomplished At The British Chess Championships
My personal target going into the Week Two Afternoon Open Championship at the 100th British Chess Championships currently taking place at the Riviera Centre, Torquay, was to achieve one win and one draw out of five games. Today I won my second out of four games.
The rest of this post will only make sense if you know a bit about basic chess ratings:
2600+ = World Championship contenders
2400-2600 = Grandmasters and International Masters
2300-2400 = FIDE Masters
2200-2300 = FIDE Candidate Masters and National Masters
2000-2200 = Candidate Masters and USA Experts
1800-2000 = Class A
1600-1800 = Class B
1400-1600 = Class C
1200-1400 = Class D
below 1200 = Duffer
- On Monday I played my first game against a guy with an 1850 rating and lost in a game that went on for a few hours and 40-odd moves.
- On Tuesday I played against a guy with a 1950 rating and lost in a game of similar length.
- On Wednesday I played against a guy with a 1250 rating and crushed him. He was black and launched a wild, premature Knight and Bishop attack, just the sort of thing that I used to do!! He resigned when I forked his King and Rook just as we were moving into the endgame.
- Today I was up against an 1785 rated player and beat him in about 30 moves. Actually, he made a blunder which allowed me to win a Knight in a tense dynamic struggle on the b and c files as I attacked his central Pawn and Knight formation.
Yesterday’s win was a scalp. Today’s is a trophy. It gives me two points, half a point above my target with one more game to go.
However, I think I will be up against a tougher nut tomorrow as the competition is run on the Swiss System, in which you are matched against a player with a similar result to your own in each round of the competition.
Thus, because I lost the first two games, I ended up playing a weaker player on Wednesday. I won that game and so today’s player was more likely to be a stronger player, and, having beaten him, I expect to be up against even stronger opposition tomorrow.
So far the competition has given me just what I wanted; the chance to play against experienced and highly rated players, while also having a reasonable chance of winning or drawing some of my games as well.
Here are a couple of photos taken at Kansai International Airport and at Heathrow. Eileen-chan and I flew Finnair via Helsinki, but didn´t get around to taking any photos at Helsinki.
On the flight from Helsinki to Heathrow we were sat behind Mrs Marc Williams and sons. As we came out of customs we saw Marc waiting by the rail to pick up his family, so we stopped for a chat and a photo. Marc flew to England a few days before to take up a summer teaching post at Southampton.
Right now I am typing this in a public area of The Derwent Hotel, Torquay, where I am staying for the second week of the British Chess Championships. I will post more reports about our time in London and Teignmouth, and about how I have got on in the chess tournament.
Time for breakfast!
I lived in Sandhurst, Kent, for nearly twelve years as a boy. Sandhurst is just a few miles from Sissinghurst, but in all those years my family and I never once visited Sissinghurst Castle [photo, left] and Gardens, which were created in the 1930s by Vita Sackville-West and her husband Harold Nicolson.
I suppose the Hiroshima “Peace Pagoda” is about as far from us in Rakurakuen as Sissinghurst is from Sandhurst. It gleams down at you from the summit of Futabayama, on the south side of Hiroshima station. The last time I visited it must have been back in 1991 with Roland Petrov, although in the mid-nineties I used to walk up to Toshogu Shrine and then up the hill beyond it, through the vermilion torii shrine gates behind Kinkou Inari Shrine, and sit on a rock close to the summit. Yes, years ago. Ancient history.
Well, the other day the Mrs confessed that she had never ever visited either the shrines or the pagoda, and she has lived Rakurakuen ever since she was born, which is a lot more than twelve years ago; so we decided to catch a train to Hiroshima Station and visit a shrine or two on New Year’s Day, and perhaps even go as far up the hill as the pagoda.
Here are some photos of our progress:
Title: Viewing The Autumn Leaves On Miyajima
Description: A day trip to Miyajima to look at the autumn leaves.
Start Time: 10:00
End Time: 17:00
We hopped onto the tram at Rakurakuen and pootled up to Miyajimaguchi. Yesterday it had poured with rain for most of the day, but today was a lovely bright day; even so, although the tram was crowded it was not as packed as I’d expected. Today is probably the best opportunity many people will have to go “red leaf viewing” and the two most popular spots in Hiroshima (as far as I know) are Mitaki and Miyajima.
The ferry ports at Miyajimaguchi and Miyajima were indeed packed with people. We hired bicycles and headed West, that is, away from Itsukushima Shrine, and before we had rounded the first corner we were alone. We cycled out to the camp site where Eileen and I went camping in October. Nobody was camping today.
After about an hour of cycling around we returned the bicycles and had a snack at a nearby cafe before wandering up to Momijidai Koen via the back streets to see the red leaves. The amusing thing about wandering around Miyajima is the way the tourists are channeled into just one or two streets on the route to Itsukushima Shrine, but the next street up, which runs parallel to the other two, is always almost completely empty of tourists, as are all the other streets, even on a busy day such as today. We only encountered masses of people at the port and along the main route until we turned up a side street, and then again up at the park.
We wandered back down the hill and around the back of the main shrine and stopped for a late lunch of “eel-on-rice” at a restaurant near the aquarium. “Eel-on-rice” is a speciality of Miyajima, and I am keen on eel, but even so, ¥1800 for eel-on-rice, soup and a few pickles was a bit much – especially when you consider that one of the stalls sells delicious baked potatoes for just ¥500 (at least, there was such a stall during the fireworks festival in the summer).
On our way back to the port we visited Senjokaku, the Pavillion of 1,000 Mats, a chantry for fallen soldiers commissioned in 1587 by Hideyoshi Toyotomi, one of the “three unifiers of Japan,” before heading for the back streets back to the port.
Friday 5th October
We pack everything we need for a two-night camping trip to Tsutsumigaura Campsite on Miyajima Island, which is just a short tram and ferry trip away from where we live in Hiroshima. My daughter, Eileen, of course wanted us to take the big tent and the camping table and chairs even though the two of us would have to carry everything as the Mrs was away that weekend and the car was being serviced. Camping trips are of two kinds: either you take as little as possible and go back-packing, or you fill your car up with stuff and drive. In our case, it was a matter of loading the tent and camping table into a suitcase, and the rest of the gear into my rucksack. Eileen wanted to take her own suitcase rather than a rucksack, and we each had to carry our own collapsible chair. I strap the fold-up sleeping mats to the outside of the suitcase as there is no room for them anywhere else…
Thank goodness Eileen’s ballet class finished early and she’s back at home by 3pm. We set off for Rakurakuen tram stop around 3:15pm. It is not so difficult to push or pull the suitcases on their wheels for the five minute walk to the tram stop. The tram is a “Green Mover Max” with a floor that is level with the platform so we don’t have to heave our suitcases up any steps to board the tram.
At Miyajimaguchi the ferry terminal is just across the road from the tram station. We tug our suitcases up the ferry ramp and park ourselves in the car bay. There are no cars, just a young guy on a skateboard to keep us company on the ten minute crossing.
At Miyajima ferry port we catch a taxi to the campsite and after checking in at the camp centre, the driver takes us all the way to the camp site. The suitcase camping trip has started off without a hitch!
Twenty minutes later we have the tent up and the folding chairs set out (see photo, above) and the first cleansing beer of the afternoon cracked open (see can of Yebisu in the “drink pocket” on the arm of the vacant chair).
A quarter of an hour later and the tent is completely set up, with a “genkan” (entrance area) and an awning. The extra “protection” in the form of a hanging towel is Eileen’s contribution to the set up (see photo, right).
It was perfect autumn conditions for camping, dry and sunny, with the trees of the wood we were camping in providing plenty of shade.
The woods were also riddled with deer, and the deer were very keen on getting any food that was available.
After dinner we retired into the tent and played cards until Eileen fell asleep.
I then spent the rest of the evening checking my email and reading an article by Jason Fonceca – one of my online friends – on my tablet, and reading Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on my new Kindle. (I’ll write a review of the Kindle in another post, and a review of Wolf Hall if I can get around to it…)
Sometime during the evening I heard a rustling outside the tent, but did not take any notice of it. The next morning I discovered that the plastic bag of empty beer cans and the plastic bowls and wrappers from the ramen and udon instant meals had disappeared from inside the closed awning of the outer tent… One of those pesky deer had smelled the ramen and udon residue and had pulled out the bag and disappeared with it. There was no sign of the bag anywhere!
It was a lovely sunny day and we decided to catch a bus into town and rent a couple of bicycles.
As we had about 2o minutes to wait for the bus, Eileen went down to the beach to search for shells which she wanted to use in a school project – as learned a few days later when she brought the finished product home from school!
When the mini bus arrived we hopped on and I told the driver we were going to the port… No response! He sat in his seat like a fossilized statue, with a medical facemask slapped over his chops just to accentuate his anonymity. He didn’t move. He didn’t ask for any cash, even though there was a sign on the door telling passengers to pay up front. He didn’t even seem to move when the bus pulled off and headed back towards the port. Was the bus automated and supplied with a dummy driver? When we hopped off at the port he did manage to reach out a claw to take the money I put in the cash tray, but then, if you have the technology to automate a bus, adding a robotic, money gathering arm to a dummy driver would not be difficult.
We were both hungry when we got off the bus as breakfast had consisted of nothing more than egg soup and coffee, so we popped into a cafe just across the road and down a bit from the port for strawberry jam on toast and a glass of orange juice. I asked the lady who served us where we could hire bikes and she pointed us back to the ferry port.
At the ferry port we could see no sign of any bicycle rental service and asked at the information kiosk. The woman there pointed us to the Hiroden ferry ticket office. The woman at the gate waved us through to a young employee, who told us they didn’t have any bikes for children. No bikes for children? I looked at him as if he were nuts until he suggested that “the other company” might have children’s bikes, so we went across to the JR ticket office, just as a ferry load of tourists were disembarking, so we waited for ages while a seemingly never-ending crocodile of people sauntered through the ticket gate. Then I told the girl at the gate that we’d like to rent bikes and she pointed us around to the back entrance, so around we went and came across a little old fellow in the office who had one child’s bicycle and a few adult bicycles to rent – finally!
Off we went on our bicyles, mine was a regular “mama-chari” – a typical Japanese-style upright bike with no gears and a wire basket on the front. We headed past the cafe were we had had our toast and off towards the shrine, but not wanting to get stuck in the crowds we went up a side street and along the back streets, which took us towards the back of the pagoda (above) where we had to wait outside a cheerful old lady’s souvenir shop for the motor vehicles, which converged on the narrow corner from three directions, to pass.
We headed round the back of the shrine and up towards Daishoin Temple, making a few detours around various backstreets on the way.
I had thought that we would have lunch at a restaurant somewhere and return to the campsite for the evening meal, however, Eileen wanted to have both lunch and dinner at the tent. I realized then that for her the whole point of going camping was to do stuff like cook and eat outside the tent. She’d also had enough of cycling and was not keen on the screeching racket the brakes on her bicycle kicked up every time she applied them.
So, we turned back and headed down the hill, past the back of Miyajima Shrine, round the back of the Pagoda and stopped at a grocer’s shop on the corner of the back street to buy vegetables and provisions.
In the grocer’s we noticed some nice green apple-sized apples at a very reasonable price, something like 174 yen for three apples – a bargain, when you consider that these days one of those inflated apples costs nearly 400 yen at the Madam (no) Joy supermarket in Rakurakuen. So, a pack of three apples was added to our provisions, which we had to pile on the miniature shop counter as there were no baskets for the using of.
Eileen had the brilliant idea of adding a pack of cream stew stock to the provisions.
We then cycled back to the port, returned our bicycles and caught the bus back to the campsite, with the same fossilized dummy driver sat motionless in the driving seat.
At the campsite shop I stocked up on beer and Eileen wanted a pair of orange Crocs so she could kick off her training shoes.
Are There Orchards On Itsukushima?
Back at the tent we had a light lunch and a dessert of apples. The apples were delicious, the best I’ve had in Japan for a while. But how was it that they were so cheap when, usually, apples ferried over to an island from the mainland will be more expensive? Especially apples sold in a small corner grocer’s shop.
The question framed itself as a line of blank verse: Are there | orchards | on I-|-tsuku-|-shima?
I didn’t think so, but there might be; or perhaps the grocer has an apple tree in his garden; or perhaps they were simply cheap imports that he picked up at the market or from his supplier. So why can’t Madam Joy sell produce of similar quality and price? (Homework.)
Spent much the afternoon relaxing in a camp chair, reading Wolf Hall on the Kindle, drinking beer and snoozing. We went on a little trip across the park to look at the sea and restock on beer and snacks at the shop.
The wind picked up and began to whip up the waves as it came across from the mainland so we headed back to the tent. I thought the wind might continue to strengthen and so I added four more guy ropes and Eileen wandered around looking for some large stones to place over the pegs. The ground was quite hard and it had taken a lot of effort to bang the pegs in, but much less effort to pull them out again. We also unzipped the back flap (where we were storing our suitcase) to let the wind pass through the tent. In the end, the wind continued for much of the evening and gradually abated and our tent held firm throughout.
Vegetable Stew By Candlelight
By early evening, the force of the wind had declined to a fresh breeze and so we were able to sit outside our tent and cook our dinner – a one pot vegetable stew which turned out to be surprisingly appetizing!
We also succeeded in lighting a candle and keeping it alight by shielding it from the wind with an assortment of packages and bottles, so there we sat in the candlelight enjoying the breeze and several helpings of vegetable stew.
… to be continued…
After leaving Hawai Onsen Roland and I caught the train to Matsue. While staying at the Mido Resort onsen ryokan was definitely the highlight of our trip, the couple of days we spent in Matsue were not devoid of entertainment, and Matsue Castle remains the most beautiful castle I have seen in Japan, with the faithfully renovated castle at Matsuyama in second place.
Photo: Entrance ticket for Matsue Castle, and brochure for Lafcadio Hearn’s House.
The next day was grey and wet and we went on to Matsue, which at first seemed quite a bland and unattractive provincial town.
We headed up the hill to the castle and stopped for lunch at one of the little souvenier shops. It turned out that little more than cold noodles were on offer. Still, the climb was well worth it as the castle is one of the few that has remained intact, with original wooden interiors and no sign of concrete or lifts.
Lafcadio Hearn was a late – very late – romantic writer who settled in Japan in 1890 and wrote flowery screeds about the old traditions that were giving way to modernization. Even before our trip to Matsue, Hearn’s overwrought prose had provided us with a great deal of entertainment as we competed to outdo each other in exaggerated Hearnisms, usually involving the insertion of the word “prismatic” into whatever concocted absurdity we could come up with.
For all that, I have a soft spot for the old boy, who, after all, was a forerunner of ourselves, turning up in Japan and making a living of sorts as an English teacher, and becoming a celebrity merely by BEING HERE. It was after he published a few books in praise of the beauty of Japan that his apotheosis into the Japanese pantheon of gods and heroes occurred.
At the castle we had a foretaste of Lafcadio Hearn‘s prose. A Plaque quoting Lafcadio Hearn enthusing about the flight of egrets from the lofty topmost eaves of the castle.
Lafcadio, a half-Greek Irishman, is more or less worshipped all over Japan as the great master of English prose who should be studied “both for content and form.”
He lived in Matsue for about a year and a little later in the day we descended the hill, walked along the moat with its overhanging trees until we came to an unspoiled row of samurai homes. Lafcadio lived in one of these, and there is a museum to commemorate him.
We passed through the portals of the gate and came to a “five sided lantern” accompanied by an amusing legend. The lantern was in commemoration of the solemn occasion of the handing over of some of the deceased writer’s hairs, which I suppose have now been enshrined.
This fellow, who was so full of the wonders of Japan, the “blanched roads,” “prismatic skies,” “faded colours” etc was, we discovered, blind in one eye and myopic in the other. He had a table specially constructed so that his papers would be no more than five inches beneath his nose, which is, incidentally, an ideal height for one to rest one’s head so as to enjoy a prolonged snooze. His wife didn’t seem to divine the potential that desk afforded for a postprandial “pisolino,” and attributed his not noticing her presence to his absorption in his writing.
That evening we arrived at our hotel nearly an hour late, having taken the wrong road.
Grand Hotel Suitengoku
I think this photo of the bath house, taken from the old brochure of the Suitengoku – or “Grand Hotel Water Paradise” – says it all:
The bath was the strangest one yet. One wall was covered in a frieze of naked ladies and in the bath itself a breast-shaped hill reared up out of the water, and a bath within the bath was shaped like a pair of lips. In one corner there was a cabin in which you could curl up and steam. The wall of the bath curved wildly and the whole expanse was overlaid with round marble button-sized tiles. It had a distinctly jaded and rather seedy appearance, especially after the bath-house at Hawai Onsen.
There was once again an abundance of crab for dinner.
A couple of Frenchmen and a little boy were in the bath the next morning. The little boy came up to me and tugged at my yukata. That was about the only exchange between us, but we were to meet again in rather amusing circumstances…
Breakfast was served in a large tatami room. Roland and I wandered in around eightish. “Ah, gaijin,” thought the ladies, and placed us accordingly. There were, however, four cushions and four little tables and a couple of white cushions to one side. We thought nothing of this and tucked into our breakfast as soon as it came. It then occurred to us that we had probably been directed to somebody else’s place. I found a room ticket which confirmed this and we bet that it would be the French (who Roland insisted were Czech or something), and that they would be a party of two men, two women, a boy and a little girl. Roland was a bit edgy about being caught out but I was determined to finish my breakfast in as leisurely a manner as befits a holiday.
The serving ladies seemed nervous but were too polite to approach us. I polished off my dried seaweed and we were invited to go onto the dias to drink some green tea, for which Matsue is famous.
No sooner had we positioned ourselves on the little dias when the ladies fell upon our breakfast things and set about restoring the settings to their pristine state as fast as their kimonos and etiquette permitted. Scarcely had they started on their discreetly executed rescue operation when our French friends entered the hall, barely thirty seconds after we had left their places. This is where kimono-clad excellence really came into its own. The unsuspecting continentals were ceremoniously welcomed to the hall and then, in a sudden yet seamless departure from form, they were unwittingly guided to join us and partake of the tea ceremony BEFORE breakfast.
By the time we left, order had been restored and the French were none the wiser.
It was another wet day. We tramped back to the Samurai Quarter to visit Lafcadio’s house – which proved to be as fruitless as the museum. As you enter you go through the usual routine of taking off your shoes, but even this has been turned into an opportunity to sacramentalise the Great Master’s memory. A notice instructs us to remove our shoes “just as Lafcadio did every time he entered.” Gasp!
It is a pleasant house, just what you’d expect from a little samurai place, with tatami mats, low ceilings, shoji and exquisite little gardens on each side. Hearn managed to write page after endless page about it.
A Japanese tour group entered the venerable building shortly after we arrived and took great delight in enjoining us not to bang our heads on the cross beams. They stayed for about five minutes. Just before we left some Americans came in and one of the passed the most pertinent of remarks so far heard about the Hearn cult. He wandered in, sniffed the air for a second or two and asked, “What have we come here for? It’s just like our hotel room.”
I left with precious treasure – selections from Hearn’s myopic “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan,” which has provided us with a great deal of amusement ever since.
I have been unable to find any reference to the Grand Hotel Suitengoku on the Japanese or English search engines and I am not really surprised. I expect it has gone the way of the Mido Resort because it already seemed dated when we stayed in 1991, two years after the Japanese Bubble burst. I cannot think such an establishment could survive the lean years that followed.
So we too had our own “glimpses of unfamiliar Japan,” which the stream of Time has washed away.
Here’s another account of an onsen ryokan trip which Roland Petrov and I undertook at the beginning of April 1991. I have some slide photos somewhere which I want to convert to digital and post here, but as Roland and I are now engaged in an attempt to recover the details of our trips, I want to post this diary extract here without delay.
What I realize now as I read this account – and in the light of my chat with one of the employees (or was he the young owner) of the Sennentei ryokan at Hawai onsen last week – is that the Mido Resort ryokan was going through its terminal post-bubble decline when we visited it. The company that ran it went bust not so long after this trip and the Mido Resort no longer exists. We were enjoying the fleeting pleasures of a passing age of postwar prosperity when the money was no longer there for the metropolitan crowd to flock to Hawai, but just before the final collapse.
At Tottori we parted company so that I could visit the sand dunes while Roland visited an acquaintance he met last time he was there.
The dunes stretch for about sixteen kilometres along the coast, though the main dune only covers about one square kilometre. The wind ripples it into different shapes over night and the footprints of tourists transform it once again during the day.
It was a sunny day so I went down to the sea and splashed about, walking along the coast for about half a mile or so, becoming increasingly disenchanted with the litter and rubbish that strews the whole length of the beach. Do the Japanese really “not see it”? Doesn’t the local authority remove it and fine people who leave rubbish?
I walked back over the sand-dune, which is relatively litter-free, but I still angrily collected a handful of packets, throwaway cameras, cans etc to take off the dune.
Back at the station, Roland came rushing over several minutes late and somewhat intoxicated having knocked back a bottle of wine in half an hour at his acquaintance’s restaurant, and was full of the idea of going back there on Sunday evening.
We caught the train, hoping to get off at Togo lake, near a place called Hawaii. We could see our ryokan, a large complex overlooking the north shore of the lake. Our plan had been to get off at the little station and catch a boat across, but the chap sat next to us sucked huge quantities of air between his teeth and cocked his head a few times when we asked him if this was possible, so we proceeded to the next, larger, station.
I had the task of informing the ryokan of our whereabouts and we were collected by the hotel minibus. The driver was a cheerful chap, and chatted happily to us as we alighted. We felt certain that, had we phoned from the little station the management would have sent the little red boat that was docked at the little red landing platform just below our hotel window.
As soon as we arrived we were informed that there would be a Taiwanese Dancing Girl Show at eight o’clock, an attraction no other ryokan had offered us before. Our lady was a very pleasant woman, chatty without forever apologizing [see A Trip To Yunogo Onsen for this reference]. Roland presented her with an omiyagi [souvenir gift], which is apparently the thing to do.
Then there was the bath. While the Yunogo bath takes the buscuit for its [outdoor] setting, this one won first prize among all the indoor baths we’ve been to. The bath house is set over the lake in front of the ryokan. Inside, the pool was large, immaculate, the water steaming and brimming over its marble walls, while the windows, which occupied two sides of the men’s half afforded panoramic views of the lake and at times it was difficult to distinguish between the lake and the onsen, as the water, tapped from the centre of the lake, reflected in the glass and seemed to flow back to it forming one undivided expanse.
The dividing wall [between the men's and women's baths] was constructed of large rocks from which the piping hot water appeared to issue, as if from a natural spring.
We had expected the bath to be quite crowded judging from the size of the ryokan. However, at no time were there more than three people in the bath with us, and much of the time we – who always seem to spend more time than anybody else in the bath-house – were alone.
Our evening meal was laid out in a vast expanse of dishes when we returned to our room, and we were sated with as much crab as we could swallow. There was so much food that we were late for the Taiwanese Dancing Girls, which was a shame because it was a marvellously sensual show, tastefully performed with thigh-length splits in the dresses, fans, full throated voices. Yet for all this we were the only members of a rather spartan and geriatric audience who seemed to enjoy it.
All too soon the troupe left and a competent but by no means comparable performance began – very Japanese and angular where the Taiwanese had been curvacious, and monotonous where they had been melodious.
A local character of the north coast, a dim-witted shrimp fisherman, stole the show with his conjuring of fish from nowhere.
There’s another fellow whose story gaily decorated the sight screens of a building site. He was a god or a monk who, wandering along the beach, saw a shark jump out of the water and scare a rabbit out of its skin. He made another skin for the rabbit and has been remembered ever since. [This is the tale of Okuninushi - thanks to Wikipedia!]
The next day we moved on to Matsue. I’ll post my diary jottings about that another time.