Japan has a very special quality; more, I think, than any place else in the world. Its surface is a mirror or, perhaps better, the dark waters in which Narcissus saw himself. When he looks at Japan, each Western visitor sees something of himself, or rather himself as he would like to be. It is hopeless, I am afraid, to suppose that a Western visitor's observations reveal any new truths about Japan. Ralph Adams Cram's enthusiastic Impressions of Japanese Architecture, based on a trip in 1896 (he came to design a parliament building in Tokyo), told me a lot about Ralph Adams Cram but not much about my Japan. He wanted evidence of the uplifting qualities of the feudal system, and he got it, with a bonus of Buddhist architectural splendors. He liked traditional farmhouses but found Ise barbarous, though it is not clear whether he ever saw it. But it is captious for me to complain about that, since I never made it to his favorite, the Hoo-doo of the Byodo-in which reflected everything he wanted to see. What I saw in Japan (in the month of October 1977) were 1) the most voracious (and to me, most splendid) eclectic urges on this planet, 2) the capacity, not yet just a memory, to live close together in cities with a close connection to a garden and the earth and sky for everyone, 3) structures of great elegance derived from and not inimical to the commonplace, 4) other structures, almost as elegant, of the most uncommon and unbridled voluptuousness, and 5) magic gardens of purest peace. I did not feel any desire to emblazon on my mind forever the endless degrading urban sprawl; the bad air; the shapeless, scattered mass that disconnects the suburbs from the land, engulfs the real places, and dims the hopes for continuing occupancy of the planet. I can see all that at home, where I am in a slightly better position to combat it (at least I can help vote the rascals in power out, sometimes).
The Japan I visited comprised Tokyo (including a swimming pool with waves, at Summerland as well as Korakuen and Rikugien), Nikko, Takayama, Ise, Miyajima, Kurashiki, Okayama, Kyoto (for the Katsura and Shugaku-in palaces, the Kiyomizu-dera, the Nijo Castle, Daitoku-ji, Tenryu-ji, Ryonan-ji, Saiho-ji, and so on), and bits of Nara, Osaks, Kobe, Nasoshima, Takamatsu, Kochi, Kompira, and villages on the way to Fukui and the Sea of Japan. I had seen some of these places before, long ago, and a few more recently. This time I was fully and blindingly transported (an emotion previously limited, for me, to the Athenian Acropolis, Chartres, the Alhambra, Batalha, the Villa Giulia in Rome, John Soane's house in London, and the University of Virginia) by the Saiho-ji and the Yoshijima house in Takayama.
There are other places, too, that I shall always remember: the Katsura palace, of course, and the Daitoku-ji (where it all came together for me twenty-three years ago in a garden I could not find this time-but there were others), the Shugakuin palace, the Yoshimura house near Osaka, Isamu Noguchi's house, and Mr. Yamamoto's museum in Takamatsu, Kochi castle. (Wow! Now that is a castle! I get very excited with small stone castles, like Kochi or the one in Guimaraes where Portugal began or the one the Villehardouins raised in Cyprus. I grow testy with big, fussy castles, like Windsor or Cardiff, or prissy perfect ones, like Himeji). I was excited again by Ise and by stroll gardens in Tokyo, especially Korakuen (which none of my Japanese friends would recommend, probably, because a brand-new building is casting an embarrassment of bright yellow reflection over it). Then there are ancient buildings in the mountains near Fukuji; a tiny, narrow, new row house by Tadao Ando in Osaka; a gymnasium by Kazuhiro Ishii in Naoshima; the climb to Kompira; and the Itsukushima (which should probably be on my four-star all time list); and some ryokan (inns)-Essaen in Miyajimaguchi and Hiragiya in Kyoto. There is no better way, I think , to experience great architecture than to wake up in it. My real tour of the architectural wonders of the world would feature naps in each wonder, however marginal, to surrender to the great place and make it your own.
What I did in Japan was to ride on many trains (all of them on time-this is as dazzling to an American as elevators are to the residents of New Guinea); see these buildings; spend pleasant times with American and Japanese people; eat a stupefying amount of endlessly wonderful food; stay in delicately detailed rooms with tatami floors; and bathe in great, wonderful vats of hot water (missing only the soft towels which are an essential part of the Westerner's sybaritic syndrome).
But what I saw, as every other foreigner sees, was what I was looking for in the reflective depths of a murky extension of ourselves. I am interested in being candid and even joyous about human eclectic urges.
Item one: Therefore I am very excited by this country, outstanding in the world for bringing the mouth to the food, where it can have it all, instead of, as in the West, bringing the food, in carefully censored sequence, to the mouth. In English, for instance, if one uses a French word, like hors d'oeuvres, it is in embarrassed italics. In the Midwestern United States, the use of such a term vacillates between the pompous and the furtive. The French do not go even that far: they translate everything into something that sounds French (however preposterously, like le weekend and le camping). In Japan, three of the four concurrent alphabets are used for foreign words, or words of foreign origin anyway; and a cheerful simultaneity (almost all shopping bags are in English, God knows why) of all of them is everywhere evident. Neon and tatami can coexist, to the destruction of neither. This, damn it, is the conceptual triumph that may save the world, if there's any air left in it to breathe.
Item two: Though everybody knows about the Japanese genius for making a garden in a space three feet (or one meter or two shaku) wide, one forgets. The possibility of helping to save the world by putting our roots into one tiny piece of it becomes, for an American, exhilarating. One sees it every day, in Japan, at the entrance to a bar, or in a house, or in the noodle shop at lunch. To cite examples is superfluous, except for maybe the Daitoku-ji, which must be the richest and most exciting assemblage of tiny and medium-sized gardens in the world.
Item three: The way a merchant's house (maybe because it was bound by the sumptuary laws of the Tokugawa shogunate, maybe just because truth will find a way) starts from the ordinary and brings it to the sublime in a kind of Olympian versions of cooking scrambled eggs: they lie there all gooey and inert and hopeless until their magic metamorphosis into fluff, if you are lucky. The difference is that the merchant's house starts with the spatial glories of a high, beam-crossed smoky space, breathtaking in itself, against which (or on which, or with which) comes the intimate elegance of tatami-floored private rooms. At the Yoshijima house in Takayama tatami rooms have the further excitement of a gradual progression to an upper level. Those rooms, by themselves, are worth a trip halfway around the world.
Item four: The voluptuous. Two decades ago, when I was in Japan young and purposeful, I would not go to naughty Nikko. This time I wallowed in it. Maybe it is the trees that save it. Like the buildings, they grow lush and complex without seeming at all absurd. I do not share Ralph Adams Cram's worry about whether the shrines are architecture or just decoration. Are the trees structure or just branches and leaves? And who cares? Somebody obviously did care about the building: therefore, I can too. It is not the manner of caring that puts me off; it is the absence of care (as in the endless outskirts of Nagoya, or anyplace else) that freezes me-and, I think, everyone else too-out.
Then, beyond all else, come the magic places, not all that numerous on our planet, where we look into the dark reflecting surface and see (I have to suppose) more than ourselves and are in the presence of something way beyond all that. God lives. At the Saiho-ji.
cap-tious \'kap-shes\ adj [ME capcious, fr. MF or L; MF captieux fr. L captiosus, fr. captio] (14c) 1 : marked by an often ill-natured inclination to stress faults and raise objections 2 : calculated to confuse, entrap, or entangle in argument syn see CRITICAL — cap-tious-ly adv — cap-tious-ness n
in-im-i-cal \'in-'im-i-kel\ adj [LL inimicalis, fr. L inimicus enemy—more at ENEMY] (1573) 1 : being adverse often by reason of hostility or malevolence 2 : a having the disposition of an enemy : HOSTILE b : reflecting or indicating hostility : UNFRIENDLY — in-im-i-cal-ly \-i-k(e-)le\ adv
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