Leaving the station at Ueno by the Asakusa exit, I walked up a side road, heading north, trusting to the directions Google Maps was giving me. The suitcase on its tiny spinner wheels banged and lurched over the kerbs. The area had a tight locked-down feel. Everything was closed, even the eateries. In the dark uneven light, the cherry trees looked gaunt and unsightly. I got lost. Giving up on Google, I approached a man on a bicycle waiting at a level crossing. He was a smart-looking gent in a suit. I complimented him on his English. He cycled off in search of the hotel, found it, came back, and showed me where to go. I repeated my thanks, surprised by his helpfulness.

The next morning, the concierge apologised for the rain. He said I should go to Senso-ji temple in nearby Asakusa ward. I said I would when I got back. I bought a small white plastic umbrella for 200 yen and headed for Ueno station, passing through a thickening drizzle. The suitcase shook itself from my grip and seemed to want to nose amongst the leaves.

I had to take the subway to Tokyo station in order to catch the Shinkansen line to Osako and Kobe. The platform was almost deserted. What passengers there were had arranged themselves one behind the other at the gates. I looked around. There were no men in white gloves and peaked hats waiting at the gates. Some people looked at me, while others looked away, when I stepped into the car. I may have had an air of disappointed terror. I looked along the rows of seated passengers, examining shoes and hands. Most of the men wore brown shoes with black suits. People listened to music or played games on their mobile phones or read graphic novels. A few slept, nodding over their briefcases, their hair partings white as chalk. I looked up at the subway maps. All the signs were in both Japanese and English. Even the ads were bilingual. The announcer spoke in polished mid-Atlantic English.

At Akihabara station, an old man, stooped from osteoporosis, entered the car. Maybe he trapped his cane in the runners, or simply lost his footing, but he fell and couldn’t get up, lying sprawled on his face, bags and cane flung out in front of him. There was a second or so of disengaged observation. I didn’t move. I never move. I live in a state of frigid deference. A woman and two men were quick to react. They jumped out of their seats and ran forward. The car doors stayed open. A guard came over. Without exchanging a word, the three passengers seemed to know exactly what to do. They manoeuvred the old man off the train, one of the men holding him under the arms, the other taking his legs. The woman gathered his things, placing them outside, then disappeared back down the train. The old man was left with the guard on the platform, the other two men jumping back into the car. As we left, I saw that the old man was sitting in a wheelchair. I saw him smile and bow, as the train pulled out.

At Tokyo station, the bullet train had the white streamlined nose and staggered cockpit of a Boeing 707. It came in when my back was turned, so silently I didn’t notice. The suitcase nudged my calves. I stepped into the nearest car.
On the right, the landscape between Tokyo and Yokohama was mostly hidden by housing and low-rise industrial developments. The sea lay off to the left, not so far away, but hard to spot between the factories, truck depots and warehouses. The houses were unobtrusive, each floor of each house being little more than two rooms. The top floor was often a single room, with a four-sided pyramidal roof made of slate-grey tiles. I wondered what it would be like to write in such a room, overlooking the railway and flashing trains. I thought of Kafka in a dimly lit downstairs room in Prague. I thought of his job in the Workers’ Accident Insurance office. I thought of his looming red-faced father.

The conductor, having passed twice, finally told me that I was in the wrong carriage. I apologised. He looked relieved. Under the glare of a neighbouring passenger—a fellow Westerner—I retrieved the suitcase and headed off down the aisle into the next carriage, and then the next. Eventually, I found a seat in the overcrowded car that matched my ticket. After I’d gone to check on the state of my case—I’d left it to fend for itself in the baggage rack by the doors—I found another man sitting in my seat. He jumped up as if stung. ‘I thought you’d left’, he said in impeccable English, gathering his newspaper and Styrofoam cup in the same movement. He returned to his own seat beside an elderly woman eating her way through an armful of dried squid.

The train entered a hillier, more countrified region. The hills were shapely, thick with vegetation. After Yokohama, the vegetation became dark green woodland and stands of tall yellow bamboos. All the way south, the concrete of the towns and conurbations was relieved by greenery and purple-blossoming plum and cherry trees. Trimmed black yew trees with plump paddle-shaped boughs broke up the harsh white verticals of the office buildings. There were glistening silver canals lined with lime-green willows running parallel with the tracks. Between Tokyo and Nagoya, the sky was overcast. The clouds looked bloated, hanging down close to the ground, bruised-looking underneath with turbulent crests. After Nagoya, the sky was a rich deep blue with strings of white wind-propelled stratus. Rail tracks seemed to radiate out and cover the bending world the farther south we got. Landscape gave way to more buildings and track. The train seemed lost in the middle of an expanding gridwork of iron. There was no obvious boundary between the towns. Kobe felt like a suburb of Osaka that had been jammed up against mountains.

The summits of the mountains bristled with pines and outcrops of cracked limestone. The air was so fresh and keen it made my head spin. The route to the hotel was easily managed, the suitcase bounding along beside me. At the crossings, people waited for the WALK sign, even when there was no traffic. Would anyone break ranks? Some did. I would have followed, if it weren’t for that buttoned-down policy of discretion. (Later, ashamed of myself, I made a point of it.) There weren’t many cars. Most of the ones that I saw were small compact hatchbacks. There were lots of cyclists though; they used the pavement, weaving dextrously through pedestrians. A few had infants in the baskets, one of whom stared back at me agog.

As I walked, I heard crows, the croak and bark of obscure conversation. I didn’t know what the source of the noise was until I saw them, black dog-sized birds with whiskery beaks tearing into bin bags or hopping along the eaves of roadside houses, dishevelling the tiles, cocking their heads, looking down. What were they talking about? Crows are said to be good mimics, but these huge creatures uttered a language I couldn’t say was Japanese or anything else I’d ever heard. They sounded as if they were having a good time though. I saw one eating pot noodles.

Crows are omnivorous, I now learn, feeding on small mammals, nestlings, berries and sometimes carrion, which they have to find already torn open, as they lack the right sort of beak for gutting and disembowelling; but some have adapted to human eating habits and will feed on anthropogenic foods—burgers and fries in the West, it seems, octopus dumplings and fried rice in Asia. The Kobe birds were unafraid, bullish and proud, their clever black eyes measuring the distance between a bowl of ramen and a turned back. When one took off, its wings cast a black dragon-shaped shadow, and the torn plumes made me flinch, when it passed overhead. These crows seemed part of the world, yet separate, not cast out but parallel, like an evolutionary branch. They transmitted a kind of melancholy that seemed to remember when we were one. I forget where once I came across a crow gifted with human speech and a searching unpredictable eloquence—the Harry Potter franchise, an anime film, a Murakami novel?—but I do remember Ted Hughes’ poem sequence: ‘His kingdom is empty — / The empty world, from which the last cry / Flapped hugely, hopelessly away’.

The cherry blossoms were creamy pink mixed with the dark bluish blood colour of the plum blossoms. It was the tail-end of the season. The blossoms littered the pavements and roads like the aftermath of a riot. Rain came in squalls. Then the sun came out, revealing everything, even the insides of mouths, like a klieg light. I walked back from the Arts Centre, wincing in my tight Oxford shoes. I missed the suitcase and its nudges. Kitano-cho, the old merchants’ quarter just below the mountains, looked and felt like a heritage village. There were tour groups, souvenir shops and even a tearoom. The sun was mild, the breeze like the sensuous skin-crawling nuzzling of a cat on my face.

I walked up the hill to the Ikuta shrine, near my hotel. This was a Shinto temple, dedicated to kami, good and evil spirits (the two are said to co-exist harmoniously), who were not only touts for the revered dead but also avatars of elemental forces. Kami, they say, can be found in animals (the root word anima gestures back to the elemental, I fancy). They are inseparable from nature and are instrumental in creating the world. The brochure said that we should emulate them in our quest for fulfilment. But they are hidden; they inhabit another reality that mirrors this one, which is like-but-unlike this one. Only the delirious, I thought, the romantic or the bookish could think that.

The main part of the shrine comprised low white walls and glossy pillar-box red pillars. Approached through a tall red-painted wooden gate (called tori), it was guarded by lion-dogs (shishi) and shaded by ancient camphor trees. The trees were vast, gnarled and weather-beaten. I sniffed the craggy trunk of one, pressing my nostrils deep into its bark, but smelt nothing. I passed two large polished stones with sacred characters cut into their faces. There was a round stone basin for worshippers to dip their hands in. A couple in red kangol jackets wandered in the wooded area, talking in muted tones, their fingers linked together. A man in a heavy padded blue jacket took numerous ingeniously angled pictures of the pond and its uncanny life. To walk among the trees or watch the herons and terrapins was, the brochure said, to be in the presence of kami.

This felt like the Japan I’d heard and read about, but it was not what I was looking for, not what I was trying to see out of the corner of my eye, almost by accident. Roland Barthes’ Empire of Signs had told me what to look at—a place with certain uncertain fields of view, a fetchingly faraway place—and at the same time, unwittingly (it had not meant to teach me this), what not to see: images created and nourished by my own reading and idiolect. I liked that negative dialectic. But how could I do it? How could I avoid looking at what I wanted to see? Barthes spoke of a desiring gaze, an erotics of looking, but that was the very thing I should most mistrust. Indeed, how could the traveller look at anything unfamiliar without ravishing it, without killing it? Without, in other words, making it stand for all that he is not, or does not want to be, or secretly, desperately, wants? In another book, Barthes spoke of a sideways gaze, a gaze that wasn’t in competition with other gazes. A gaze touched with blindness.

There will always be some kind of interference; we can only see what we can see, and what we see is what we’ve already seen. A happy gnomism, late at night, with a plastic can of shochu to hand. All I can do is be aware that I look through the screen of my own longings, aware that a particular desire directs my gaze, aware, above all, that I seek to dissect, memorialise, catalogue, fondle and incriminate. Either that, or just take another swig of liquor and continue staring at the ceiling. You can think too much, say too much. In the Arts Centre, a Taiwanese sinologist told me about the virtues of dan, or blandness, and, she warned sniffily, the Daoist recommendation to avoid layering the sensate world with language, cluttering it up with meaning. Any word is one word too many.

I went to the station and took the bullet-train north to Kyoto, drawn, irresistibly—without any sense of irony, that is—to the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, and Matsuo Basho’s birthplace. But at Kyoto, the suitcase pulled against my arm on the escalators and along the subway station’s wide tunnels. I had to yank on its collar. The tunnels were divided up at certain points by raised orange runners. These called for a timed swing of the case, a hefting and a deftly controlled—I didn’t want to crush my foot—return to earth. The suitcase took a tumble outside a nabemono outlet; the lock burst, the hinge sheering off. It lay on its side and seemed to scream. An elderly couple, emerging from the restaurant, looked over at my fumblings and attempts at pacification. The man had a tie and a baggy low-slung black suit. The woman had fluffy white hair, and a remote Edwardian stare. Her lips were dry cupid’s bows. The man led her away. I found the hinge, pocketed it, and went the other way, the suitcase limping after me on two side-wheels, whimpering.

The taxi rank outside Kyoto station seemed well-disposed towards injured suitcases. The official, a bustling man with a whistle, even patted it consolingly. My driver was a stiff-backed elderly man, uniformed like a Cold War commissar and meticulously polite, rather courtly in a seedy sort of way. Once in the taxi, he turned to hear my destination as if hearkening to bird-song. I gave him the receipt with the name of the place in Japanese characters. Hait! he exclaimed, with relish. He had what looked like teeth-marks in the back of his neck.

We passed, at great speed through a downtown of various upscale department stores and banks made of plate-glass, u-turned and nipped up and down narrow alleys, without once slowing down or ending anyone’s life, until we reached the ryokan where I would pass the night. The fare was worryingly high. The driver smiled and lugged the suitcase out of the back. The least he could do.

My room was in the corner of the ryokan. The concierge told me to take off my shoes. I thanked her and, just as I was taking them off, shooting-pains passed through my gut. I mumbled an apology, twisting my features eloquently, and quickly squeezed into the toilet. It was not the squat toilet I’d expected. It had the electronically warmed seat and adjustable cleaning fountains of modern hotels. I gripped the sides of the basin. Too much shochu, I thought. I couldn’t tell whether the tissue paper was made of washi or not; it felt slippery and smooth, like thinned and flattened plastic, but was as absorbent as Kleenex. It didn’t seem likely that the ventilation was effective and the walls sound-proofed enough. The cubicle was so tightly enclosed I felt like a barrel contortionist as I squirmed back into my clothes. I nerved myself to re-enter the room, a foolish observation forming on my lips. But the concierge had long gone.

In the centre of the room, a low table had been set with a thermos, a teapot and teacups. A lacquered box contained loose-leafed green tea. There was a wardrobe in the recess at the back, with unisex brown woollen kimonos, a seat and a large fridge. The fridge was empty. I tried on one of the kimonos, sat cross-legged at the table, prepared tea, and pretended to be a hijiri. But since no one came to sample my potions or heed my wise sayings and warnings, I put on my own thin cotton clothes and went down to find a way of getting to the Golden Pavilion.

I’m a fan of the obvious, the been-there-done-that type of travel. ‘Ah, Kinkaku-ji!’ the desk-manager said delightedly, pulling out a brochure with a satisfied flourish. The Golden Pavilion is Kyoto’s main tourist draw. It’s the sort of sight that has come to exist only in photographs. It only has one wall (two at a pinch), and exists on the far side of a pond, balanced on its reflection, nestled amidst white pines and ornamental yews. The captioned image is the reality today, of course, in the e-world, after the advent of the simulacrum and the wars that never happened. We don’t go to see a site, we go to see an image of a site, a thing, that is, that has been supplanted by its image. —You may recall the one about the 60s tourist who visited Victoria Falls, and said ‘Wow, that’s so postcard!’? That was just the beginning.

As it was Sunday, the best viewing-point was packed. The line of visitors was three or four deep; it followed a kilometre-long dusty path that wound past the lake and pavilion and up a hill to the kiosks selling Pepsi and fridge magnets. With its selfie-sticks, it looked like an army brandishing spears. I tramped along, trying to look at things out of the corner of my eye, clocking my companions and searching for signs—a semiotics of desire, perhaps, an iconography of longing. Pretty hard to come by when you’re in an army, when you’re another foot-soldier, so to speak. We photographed the Pavilion from a hundred different angles, selfied ourselves with it as backdrop another hundred times, snapped a passing shrine and its pond full of carp and turtles another hundred times, then headed for the exit, briefly, excitedly, pausing to look at our hundreds of photos and share the failures and triumphs, before we boarded our hundred coaches, while the place and its hundreds of mysteries dissolved behind us. Except for me.

Google Maps suggested there might be a taxi rank just down the road. Off I went, in my hard cramped shoes, grimacing and hugging my jacket tight in the chill. I went the wrong way for a mile or so, then spotted some fellow tourists with rucksacks on a parallel road, some way to the north. I went after them. There were few tall buildings. The roads were spacious empty zones under the sky.

The sky was a cloudless blue. Below, the low-lying roofs of homes and the taller flat-topped office buildings were mere implications. Blue filled the world. I kept looking. There wasn’t even a puff of smoke coming over a roof-slate.
I came to a temple, a Shinto shrine approached through columns of blossoming cherry trees, each bough resembling a pink or white feather boa. There were covered eating areas—low tables and legless benches under plastic canopies—spread out behind the entrance. The visitors seemed to be Japanese, some in kimonos, others in shell-suits. A weekend jaunt, I thought, a place for Sunday picnickers, hectic tag, butterfly hunting, messy snogging behind the tree-trunks. Inside, people were photographing the blossom, taking strenuous close-ups, or praying in front of the cage enclosing the shrine. They clapped to scare away ghosts and demons, then left votive candles burning on a platform in front. I had no idea where this was—it might have been Hirano shrine, I think now, having cross-indexed the photographs with Google—but there were taxis outside, and that had been enough for me. Some women in traditional dress at the entrance allowed me to photograph them. They laughed in embarrassment, turning, smiling and freezing, becoming postcard images.

That night, I thought back over the previous few days. I’d met a man called Harshad in the Kobe Arts Centre. He was teaching Tourism and Hospitality Management at a university in Thailand. ‘A very excellent university’, he said, handing me his card. The gesture was slick and automatic. He’d worked in the USA and at Nottingham University in England, teaching Business Studies. ‘Now I’m writing a book on sex tourism. It will give reasons why white men like to fuck Asian girls’. He spoke in a comical hectoring manner and gave the impression that he knew more about me than I ought to be comfortable with. He said he was going to give a paper on ‘white privilege’ and ‘the white saviour complex’. It was called ‘The White Man’s Burden’. He would be very happy for me to attend. ‘It will be controversial, with exciting discussion’, he promised. ‘Will the rest of your audience be white people?’ I said. ‘With any luck’, he smiled, downing his plastic beaker of wine.

Harshad was chair of his session. It was poorly attended, so he held up the start for a few minutes in hopes of more turning up. No one did. Not at all put out, he chaired with great presence and dash, striding about and cracking jokes. When it came to his turn, he spoke without notes, gesturing at the Power Point slides and moving from one end of the floor to the other, eyes sweeping across our startled faces. He told us about his origins, jobs and adventures in Western universities, referring to himself, humorously, as ‘that bloody Indian’. We smiled. We learnt—I was puzzled he should want to mention this—that some people thought he’d been fired from his last job at Nottingham University, for why else would he end up in a dead end job in Thailand? But that wasn’t the whole story at all: he’d left of his own accord out of ‘wanderlust’. He loved the world. He loved its cultures. He loved Thai people. He repeated the useful fact that he was currently working on a book on sex tourism.

After that, his talk was a bit of an anti-climax. It was accompanied by pictures of white women hugging African children, which he’d found posted on Facebook and other social media. There were a few long quotes from postcolonial writers, supporting his points. White privilege was represented by well-nourished young white women visiting poor ‘third world’ countries in order to provide health and education services, where none had been asked for. The pictures and argument seemed to refer to students on gap years in Africa.

At least a white man in the audience thought so. He said that some gap-year Westerners, female or male, white or black, went to countries to help out with geriatric care (indeed, he’d been one himself), for example. A gap year was an opportunity for the privileged to give back to the under-privileged for nothing in return, and to learn from others even. Was that such a bad thing? He added that in any case the practice was surely as much a class thing and a metric of the circulation of surplus wealth as skin colour. There were charitable funds in oil-rich Gulf Arab countries aimed at supporting Indian orphanages, and you could see images on social media of smiling young Arabs digging vegetable patches while the infants looked on gratefully. And, by the way, Madonna and Angelina Jolie didn’t have the monopoly on patronising under-privileged black kids—the man had warmed to his theme—a few African American celebrities had leapt on to that bandwagon, too. Ever heard of Shaquille O’Neal? Oprah Winfrey? And come to think of it, weren’t there a few Bollywood actors who’d had themselves pictured saving Mumbai street kids from a life of glue-sniffing and crime? Did those kids have any say in it? Why single out white privilege in particular?

I sprang to Harshad’s defence. You could apply his argument to the World Bank, WHO, UNESCO, Médecins sans frontières, Western NGOs. Patronisation wasn’t the point; the white man’s hefty burden was. He (or she) kept on giving, where once he’d kept on taking, and with just the same result—dependency, corruption and the channelling of funds and local resources into foreign white-based organisations like the Africa Governance Initiative and the Africa Development Bank. Harshad looked at me with hatred and returned to the white saviour complex, quoting Gayatri Spivak’s line about ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’ as if it were a personal affront. The audience shuffled its feet. Harshad said huffily, ‘But what do I know? I’m just a bloody Indian’. After an uncomfortable silence—uncomfortable not just because he’d revealed so much about himself but also because, in the greater scheme of things, he’d revealed so little about us—a white woman suggested, placatingly, that there were different ways of looking at this issue, and maybe, yes, class was as important as whiteness. ‘The problem is layered’, she said, retreating gracefully into cliché.

Kami, I thought that night, shivering under my futon cover, in much the same way as other people might think karma. When we strive to emulate them, they strive to prevent us. And I thought of the crows tearing at the bin bags in Kobe. That’s what you do before sleep these days. Try to justify the day’s errors of judgement, instead of counting sheep.

In the morning, I carried my sedulously crafted self-regard into the chill of a hillside temple. This was Nanzen-ji, a Zen Buddhist fastness, built and re-built several times (because of fires) at the foot of the Higashima mountains on the western outskirts of Kyoto. It was established by Emperor Kameyama in 1291, who, having become enchanted by the natural beauty of the place, built a villa amongst the trees and tumbling streams. But a vengeful ghost—yurei oronyo—kept bothering him with midnight wooh-woohs and thrashing noises from behind the panels of rosewood. The Emperor asked for help from the priest Daiminkokushi. The priest evicted the ghost simply by performing zazen meditations, without a single recitation from the sutras or dramatic gestures or violent stamping. The Emperor was so impressed he became Daiminkokushi’s disciple, converting his villa into a zen temple and spending the rest of his days in contemplation and silence, water tinkling in the background, concentric circles of raked gravel forming below his attentive inward gaze.

I walked up to the main building, and through the columns of black wooden pillars. I continued up to a second building—the Hojo—but found it locked. There were few people about, so early in the day. The chill was bone-deep. I took photographs of the Hojo’s gables to keep myself busy, then headed up to a row of low wooden structures, which I took for dwellings of some kind. I passed through a pretty garden, of streams, lilies, dark green shrubbery and raked gravel. I opened a door, and stepped into a place laid out with stepping-stones, which I followed wondering where they might lead. I came to a raised platform. There were people walking along, carrying their footwear in their hands. I smiled at them, inwardly writhing at my solecism, then turned retracing my steps. The horror, the horror now applies its grim disabling force to the sensitivities of the over-scrupulous cultural tourist.

I went back to the Hojo, and took the path on the other side, which led up to an aqueduct and a temple in the trees. The woman at the pay-booth said I could keep my shoes on. As I walked round the temple twice, hesitant about entering, a monk came prancing out of its innards, laughing at something his companions had said. The companions were all lay people, mostly important-looking men in dark suits, followed by one or two women with blue rinsed hair and tight smiles. They stepped gingerly by me, then climbed a small hill to another older temple, led by the laughing monk.

A young man and woman in red kangol jackets passed. Where had I seen them before? They walked round the hillside path at great speed, and then up to the older temple and back, eyes starting out of their sockets from the exertion. They seemed to want to see everything as quickly and as comprehensively as possible.

I walked down to a small side-temple, just off the main drag, where I stopped, peering in at the illuminated interiors that I could only just make out through a screen of pine needles. I paid the entry fee, and followed the path round the temple. This temple was called Tenjuan. Two old men were shooting the breeze in front of a raked area set with rocks at irregular intervals. This was also where Emperor Kameyama had liked to meditate, the brochure explained, and later the feudal lord Hosokawa Yusai and his beautiful wife.

I followed the path round a pond and then over a bridge to another one. There were carp nosing sluggishly through anoxic-looking water. The other pond also had some carp, which looked even more lifeless. I became bothered by the lack of contact between the two groups of fish, neither being able to pass from one pond to the other. I craned my neck to follow the movements of a solitary albino carp. The couple from the aqueduct appeared, moving at breakneck speed towards me, mouths open, eyes popping. I stepped aside, feeling their kangols graze my arm.

On the way out, I saw a man moving around inside the Tenjuan temple taking photographs, despite a sign in several languages forbidding entry. The temple is said to contain a self-portrait by the monk Daiminkokushi and a painting by Hasegawa Tohaku of a skeletal tree in the foreground of a partial minimalist landscape and a single vagrant monk looking askance. It is neither merely picturesque nor dramatic. Neither one thing nor the other. Its blandness is said to be heavenly.

I noticed a short bespectacled man speaking animatedly to the ticket-seller. The woman immediately came running, mumbling to herself, and then uttered piping cries. She called the trespasser back, stopping at the entrance to the temple and bending forward at the waist. I watched as he put on his sneakers and gathered his backpack. Would he be apologetic? Would he be devil-may-care? Would he be triumphant? He came out with a blank expression. I photographed a pine tree.

There were no taxis. I walked down to the main road through a sharp skin-stripping wind, consulting Google Maps without much hope. I took the right hand route until I came to Kyoto Zoo, east entry. It was closed. A well-wrapped man and a boy—Western tourists—passed on the opposite side of the road. They were talking heatedly. I wondered if they were striking out for the next big temple—Honen-In—a half mile away along that route. I wanted to do that, too, but I hadn’t the clothes for it, the shoes, or the time. I walked round the zoo to the West side, which at least had a carpark and signs indicating taxi pick-up points. It was bright and sunny. The houses all had high walls, so that I could only see the roof-tops. The surrounding hills were becoming invisible, an effect perhaps of the rising sun. I had a sense of frustration and ennui rather than satisfied curiosity. I missed my suitcase. Two crows sat on the branches of the evergreen tree opposite, watching me closely.

The sky was like strip-lighting, the kind that flickers at one end. The sort of sky that prompts reflection and then irritableness. Irritableness because of the redundancy of the reflection.

At Kyoto station a woman dropped her shawl. It floated to the floor. I looked at it. I looked after the woman. She had not noticed her loss. She moved in the middle of the concourse, glancing from right to left at the sweetshops and macca pastry outlets. She was fifty metres away by now. A uniformed guard appeared. He picked up the shawl. He looked around. He seemed undecided. I felt obligated to intervene. I pointed down the concourse to where the woman walked, still unaware of her loss. The guard immediately broke into a run, holding the shawl out at arm’s length, calling out something in Japanese, Madam! perhaps, or Madamu! When he reached the woman he bowed and returned the shawl. The woman bowed back, smiling and nodding. I brought my suitcase to heel and moved on.

My Shinjuku hotel room was even smaller than the first one in Ueno. Men in plain white kimonos and slippers travelled down with me in the lift. They were going to the communal baths, I guessed. We said nothing to one another. We stared at the floor or the ceiling or the panel of illuminated buttons. I had time to visit Meiji-jingu (Tokyo’s grandest Shinto shrine), Senso-ji in Asakusa ward and the famous Shibuka Crossing, where, like Time Square and Trafalgar Square and Red Square and the Zocalo in Mexico City, everyone in the world passes sooner or later. I would walk. The hotel staff said they would look after Yoko.

I set off for the Meiji shrine first, passing through Shinjuku park, with its landscaped pools, bridges and photographers. I admired the play of light off the glass of the surrounding skyscrapers.

Struck by the block-like thingness of the Meiji building, which was relieved only by the sloping shingled roofs and decrepit gingko trees, I twice walked across the central courtyard and back again. As in Kyoto, worshippers were barred from getting too close to sacred objects, having to content themselves with planting their purple incense sticks in trays of white sand and clapping their hands some fifty feet away. I looked at my watch, and saw I must now head for Senso-ji, on the other side of Tokyo. I also saw, rushing down the steps leading to Harajuku subway station, the couple in the red kangols. I hastened after them. I lost them in the maze of tunnels.

Senso-ji was packed with Western tourists, all of whom seemed to be photographing the same angles and objects. The monks kept out of sight. You will know the tales of colonized peoples who didn’t like to be photographed, fearing that they would lose their souls to the colonizers’ cameras, that they would lose their vitality, their purpose in life, their sense of who they were? There is some truth in this. Senso-ji, the Golden Pavilion, and the Ikuta shrine—in fact, all monuments and places of interest throughout not just Japan but the world itself—are nothing but shells, empty structures, bare ruined choirs, if you like. They only become filled with light, colour and pulsating life in the images we create and share. Not only this, but the people who pose for the camera and, indeed—I must be clear about this—myself, are already dead, zombified, âmes damnées, the slaves and tools of other wills, our souls having been stolen. Ghosts move on from the camera’s mortifications, thronging the malls and airport lounges of the world, repining, imploring, longing to be laid to rest.

Smoke rose from incense-burners, thick and impenetrable as a cinematic fog shrouding the passer-by, separating limbs from bodies, heads from shoulders. I thought I saw Harshad (neat groomed features flaring with horror) duck out of sight as I approached the temple. Inside, I made my way to the lucky sticks (Gau Cim, Chi-Chi sticks), paid the fee, and shook one out of the lacquered bamboo container. I didn’t know which pigeon-hole to look in to find the reading, but a woman helped me out, exclaiming ‘You’ve got the best fortune!’ And so it was:

Outside, wondering how far ‘the lost article will be found’ and ‘the person you are waiting for will come’ could be stretched, I lingered by the stalls, searching for a kimono for my partner. I bought some crackers, exchanged a word with a bewildered fellow tourist who couldn’t find his way out—or, I now think, in—and fingered the polyester sleeves of the costumes. In one stall, two figures looked up. Red kangols were half-tucked into their rucksacks. We looked at one another for just an instant. For just an instant, there was a glimmer of something but it was not recognition. It was a sort of reciprocal emptiness, mutual vacancy, the gaze the dead share.

I saw no one I knew at the Shibuka crossing.

When I got back I found my clothes strewn all over the place. I rebuked Yoko. But she forgave me on the train, and fell asleep, curled up on the luggage rack, as we gently rocked towards Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. I thought of the flight back, a book I was reading (Aristotle on Comedy), my partner, work, my apartment, the chances of the electricity having failed, the dust, the numbing sun. I didn’t think of Senso-ji, Meiji-ji, Tokyo’s endlessly branching subway system, Kyoto and its cold, Kobe and its rocky hills, Harshad’s high-pitched scoffing, the drifting cherry blossom, the shabby pumped-up crows, their swivelling eyes, Yokohama’s softly wooded hills, Ueno’s rainy streets, or what the woman opposite was thinking as she frowned over her text-messages. I had become a reflection in the glass. The train passed through a watery landscape, which had no sky and through which the arriving track narrowed or submerged, I could not tell, and then vanished.

 

Piers Smith

Piers Smith

Piers Michael Smith divides his time between Kuwait, where he is an Associate Professor of English Literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology, and Thailand where he grows trees. He has published chiefly in the fields of travel literature and travel writing, with excursions into the more rarefied world of Shakespearean drama, the cultural commentary of Pierre Bourdieu and Roland Barthes, Joseph Conrad’s East Asian novels and the Alien films. Current preoccupations include the grotesque in literature and representational art, baby-boomers and terror-travels.

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