On arriving in Tokyo Haneda airport I had my first encounter with a Japanese loo. You may wonder why I'm mentioning this at all let alone in the opening sentence but I think if I had to sum up Japan in one object this would be it. As I locked the door the lid automatically lifted revealing a freshly sanitised, heated seat. As if that wasn't exciting enough once I was comfortably seated it started playing a recording of running water. This wasn't as I originally thought to encourage free flow, but in fact to hide any offending noises from anyone in earshot. Next you choose from a panel of buttons offering different washing functions, and you can adjust the pressure accordingly. If you're really lucky there's a massage option but I have to admit I haven't been brave enough to try it yet. Finally a blast of hot air and you are free to go. It flushes automatically.
So this is Japan. The lavatory aside, my first impressions of the country and the people were probably slightly exaggerated having been in Vietnam only hours before, a country so totally opposite. Symmetry, order, punctuality, efficiency, manners and minimalism are just a few words that spring to mind when trying to get the measure of the Japanese culture.
By some extraordinary cooincidence my father had meetings in Tokyo scheduled for the week of my arrival so we'd planned to spend a few days together. This couldn't have worked out better, not least because Japan is alarmingly expensive but when with Dad this is somewhat less of an issue. The hotel we stayed in in Tokyo was in another league from any of the places I've been in and I'm afraid I won't share its name or my reputation as a serious, hardworking artist might never recover.
My room was on the 36th floor and had a spectacular view over what I later discovered was only a tiny fraction of the largest city in the world. My alarm went off at 5.30 on day one so I had time for two sunrise studies before a breakfast of epic proportions and a long day of sightseeing.
We had a very easy time taking the tube and then walked and walked round the pristine streets visiting gardens, museums and temples. It's so immaculate you'd be hard pushed to find so much as a piece of chewing gum stuck to the pavement and I noticed the taxi drivers all wear white gloves. Most people habitually wear face masks to protect themselves from germs, pollution and pollen. And yet I'm writing this in a smoke filled train carriage and smoking is also allowed in restaurants. On the other hand it is forbidden in the street.
As you may already know the trains are reknowned worldwide for their unfailing precision. This is how you take a train in Japan: After buying a ticket you wait for your check in time exactly 15 minutes prior to departure before you can go to the platform. Find the number corresponding to the carriage number on your ticket and queue between the white lines. The train has an arrival time followed by a departure time allowing four minutes for everyone to to file on board. The platform attendants wear polished shoes, a double breasted navy suit with gleaming brass buttons and a badge, shirt, tie, peaked hat with another shiny badge and course bright white gloves.
Dad and I have spent the last three nights staying in a ryokan in Takayama, a very old town in the Japanese Alps. It wasn't quite what we expected and although fascinating, we would've had trouble finding enough to entertain us for another day. We visited Sirakawakago which is an ancient Unesco heritage village in the mountains not far way. Sightseeing with my father is brilliant as he knows so much about almost everything. As we wandered around museums our conversation was punctuated with quips and facts about anything from relevant moments in 18th century Japanese history to the the impact of their manners on aviation safety. If only I could remember it all!
There was thick snow in Shirakawago but the sun was blazing melting it rapidly in time for spring. I painted the the view from the observation point looking over the village, very different scenery from Sri Lanka and Vietnam. The Japanese are easily the politest and most respectful audience I've ever had, occasionally quietly asking if they may take a photo before giving me a little bow and thanking me furiously.
I get my insatiable appetite from my father so we've eaten an enormous amount in the few days we've spent together. The area is famous for Hida Beef which is served raw so you cook it on a little hotplate at the table. It's marbled with fat which might sound unappealing but actually makes it so tender you can cut it with a fork. Aside from this we've gorged on tempura and noodles and sushi all washed down with Saki. Dad's Pilates teacher is going to have his work cut out when he gets back. And as for me, well I'm paying now so that should have a drastic effect on my waistline.
I've already done a hefty amount of shopping, I bought two classically Japanese 19th century paintings (or possibly prints I can't work it out) of ladies, one apparently plucking her eyebrows. I've also bought an antique silk kimono which I plan to use as a dressing gown when and if I ever settle back to life in London. Dressing gowns aren't expected here and during our stay in Takayama, we became quite accustomed to the public bathing rituals. They are not mixed sex I hasten to add but it's surprisingly relaxing having a bath totally starkers with a group of strangers.
After a sad farewell Dad and I parted ways and I'm now off to Kyoto to get stuck into painting temples, shrines, gardens and hopefully cherry blossom if I'm lucky.