Excerpts from Damien Enright on Japan

Damien Enright on Japan

*I flew into Tokyo at night and, as our city centre lodgings didn’t run to breakfast, first thing in the morning, I went out to buy milk. At a busy junction, I heard wonderful bird song and rushed back to get my binoculars. Shortly, to the polite amazement of passing Japanese business folk, I was to be seen leaning against a lamp post, scanning the roof tops for birds. Nowhere, could I find a feathered creature. “They must be in cages, on the balconies”, I told my wife. She nodded, sagely. Following the cheeps and thrills above the traffic roar, my binoculars at last focused in on a large, Tannoy speaker. Ah-so, those clever Japanese, I thought, many birds singing in a box!

*The Japanese have seaweed preparation, cooking and eating developed to an art form. It is as common as cabbage in the Irish cuisine. It flavours their soups, goes with their fish and bestows longevity upon them in the form of iodine, a robust defence against heart attacks. In Japan, seaweed comes in many forms and varieties – it is almost always present, somewhere or other, in a Japanese meal. Sea vegetables comprise 10% of the Japanese diet. They fill you and slim you. After six months in Tokyo (raw fish and seaweed) I was two stone lighter, full of pep and in mighty form.

*At this time of the year, I remember, in Tokyo, the Japanese go on tree-watching walks to admire the Autumn colours. Company groups, following a group leader holding aloft a small company flag, take a train to the Imperial Park or to the lower slopes of Mount Fuji. Such expeditions are regarded as a duty to nature and an appropriate acknowledgement of the perfection of creation.

*The Japanese are, of course, masters of the aesthetics of nature. The stone gardens around the temples in Kyoto are beyond compare. Trees are grown not only for their form and symbolism but for the magnificence of their Autumn foliage. They are grown in groups, or avenues, or clusters, to paint a park or a landscape. They are miniaturised and grown in pots as ‘bonsai’. Leaf shades are arranged in gradations of colour. In a Tokyo park (they are few and far between) one may come upon Autumn groups of Japanese “company men” in their impeccable business suits viewing a tree or a scene and making awed and appreciative noises, accompanied by appropriate intakes of breath through the teeth as if the sight is so excruciatingly beautiful as to cause near-pain.

*When walking through a park with a Japanese lady, I remarked on the beauty of a vast spider web, with jewel-like spider at centre, which extended between tree tops over our path. She had been exquisitely enthusiastic about all else I’d mentioned but was suddenly ill at ease when I asked her to admire this beautiful, symmetrical sight. I put it down to arachnaphobia – fear of spiders – but was surprised because she was an intelligent woman not given to phobias or irrational fears. When I asked her why she didn’t share my enthusiasm, she was embarrassed and didn’t want to say. At last, I extracted the reason. The spider was missing a leg and, therefore, it was inconceivable to think of it as beautiful. I hadn’t noticed… She was embarrassed for me, I think, uncouth, insensitive savage that I’d suddenly revealed myself to be!

*City Japanese are circumspect about animals, especially elegant Tokyo girls like our guest, Keiko. In Tokyo meat shops, you never see a whole chicken or rabbit. The meat is diced into regular, pink cubes, so that there is no reminder that it was once a living thing.

*In Tokyo, I have enjoyed slices of raw squid and many other interesting sea things, including sea slug – however, I cannot recommend that. It tends to glue ones upper and lower teeth together, making dinner time conversation difficult. The Japanese, of course, live for hundreds of years, which may have something to do with the energy they save on cooking. In Tokyo, fish shops far out-number meat shops – one cannot call them ‘butcher’ shops; one never sees a bloody side or shoulder of beef or lamb. If such exist, they are kept well out of the sight of the customer. Neat dishes of mince meat may be displayed; meat on the bone is not. Raw chicken is presented in antiseptic, dice size pieces, with seemingly nothing whatsoever to do with a bird. Likewise rabbit is a pink confection, with no hint that it is the flesh of our little four legged friend

*It is an awesome sight to see a huge grandson bow to a diminutive grandmother, as they back away from one another in fond and respectful good-byes. At six o’clock on a Sunday evening, platforms at Shinjuku, Shibuya and all the Tokyo stations are a sea of bowing and bobbing bodies, like a synchronised Japanese wave.