A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in the Floating World

My recent forays into 35mm scanning have been taking me back to one of the major trips of my youth, starting with eight days our family spent in Japan at the end of 1985. I’ve actually written about that trip here already, when I wrote at length about my second visit in 2006. While getting a collection of these older pictures together for yet another photo gallery, I thought about adding some extended passages from my diary of the trip to complement that later account. But the diary entries are a whole different animal, full of the wide-eyed innocence of an almost-adult in a very foreign land, interspersed with accounts of sibling squabbles and teenage concerns. So a few extracts will suffice.

Arrived in Kyoto and got a cab to our hotel. The driver spoke good English and warned us that the Golden and Silver Pavilions, and the Kiyomizu Temple, were all to close after today indefinitely. So we dumped our stuff in the hotel and got another cab to Kiyomizu.

As we were going some boys (high school seniors) got us to have our photos taken with them. ... Then four senior high girls stopped us and asked us to write our impressions of Japan down for them (this was their English assignment for school, they read questions from a piece of paper). Also got us to pose with them for a photo. We’re stars! [This happened again and again while we were in Kyoto. We stood out.]

On the slip covering our chopsticks at dinner was an ad for a club: “Kyoto Casual Club. Come and here, let’s enjoy your self.”

Saw a bloke today on a scooter with “Astray for Men” on his jacket, and a ski gear/sport goods shop called “Bum”. Also in the toilets in Nijo, the sign “Push lever to flash toilet bowl”.

Got some lunch that looked like a Dagwood dog and a strawberry ice-cream cone. But even imitation-European food tastes different in Japan. The ice cream tasted like chewing gum. Only Coca-Cola tastes the same as at home.

Kept walking, to get to the Kinkakuji Temple, but it was closed (one of those closed by the government as it didn’t pay any tax)*. So we walked down to a big area filled with small and large temples. Each one after another was closed. And they looked so beautiful. But we did see the Zuiho-in and Ryogen-in temples—small, but still peaceful, beautiful... wood, shadows and light, green... rock gardens and a moss garden. The temples are certainly fine things.

Mr K. told us that all those school girls and boys in uniforms we see are from the country, not Kyoto, on excursion. That’s why they’re intrigued by Westerners: to them we’re rare. To Kyoto people we’re old hat.

I was intrigued by the “Pocari Sweat” drink I’d seen in vending machines (which are everywhere here). Thought it was “sweet” misspelled. So I got some, and it turns out to be a health drink (makes you sweat). [Dad took to calling it “Peccary Sweat”.]

Kurashiki seemed to me a small city, compared to some in Japan—not a major centre. And then a brochure we got says its population is 410,000. Ignore all I’ve written before about “small towns”.

It’s so hard trying to absorb everything while we’re going around, let alone to write it all down. Little things, like the girl at a lift in a department store bowing to the lift as it goes.

At one store I bought a rubber [eraser] with a crazy spiel printed on the label: “Boxy—the basic concept of Boxy exists in the cross between ergonomic and engineering. Boxy thinks highly of your natural life. And Boxy suggests a new lifestyle.”

*I had this the wrong way round. In 1985, Kyoto’s temples were protesting ongoing attempts by city officials to levy a tourist tax on their visitors, by closing their gates. The stand-off lasted for most of 1985 and 1986, according to Stephen G. Covell (2005), Japanese Temple Buddhism: Worldliness in a Religion of Renunciation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press), pp. 157-160.

After landing in Tokyo and staying overnight, we caught the Shinkansen down to Kyoto, where we visited Nijo Castle and what temples we could. We had dinner there with a family friend, who recommended some sights further south: Himeji Castle, Miyajima Island, and the samurai swords and armour museum on Omishima Island. We visited them all over following days, along with the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, the Koraku-en Gardens in Okayama, and some museums in Tokyo the day before we left. They’re all represented in this gallery of thirty-year-old photos:

Japan 1985

8 July 2014 · Memory