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ASIA-PACIFIC ISSUE: ENCHANTMENTS OF THE FAR EAST : Land of the Paper Birds: A Journey Through Beautiful, Baffling Japan

April 28, 1991|SIMON HOGGART | Hoggart writes for The Observer in London.

TOKYO — I'd been in Tokyo for a week last fall, working on this article. It's a vast city, greatly beguiling, and the more fascinating the further you get from the center. Even though it had to be completely rebuilt after the last war, it's kept the old intimate, almost claustrophobic neighborhoods, full of clustered cafes, courtyards, market stalls and alleyways, garish pinball parlors next to jewel-like temple gardens. In Japan, the line between the sacred and profane is pleasingly vague.

But I wanted to see more of the country and decided to head south-west. At Tokyo central station I was first on board the bullet train (as no one ever calls it; it's the shinkansen , or super-express). In a country where the trains always run on time, nobody wastes the days of their lives hanging round railway stations in forlorn queues, like in London. One minute before we were due to leave, the top deck filled, and the passengers went to sleep. Out like lights, the lot of them. Japanese people always nap while they're traveling. On underground trains you see people who can sleep standing up.

On the lower deck there was a gleaming cafeteria selling food of a type which you might actually want to eat. There were also rows of private cabins. Status means everything in Japan, and these were carefully graded: four-seaters, doubles and individual thrones for the man who is so important that no other human being has sufficient prestige to sit with him. We left the station five seconds late, but perhaps my watch was fast.

Real travel writers are welcomed to their rickety old trains with live chickens in the luggage racks and stoves in the toilets. On the shinkansen , the track is so smooth that the only way you can tell you're moving is by the blur past the window. Uniformed young women pass down the train with drinks and food, some of it wrapped in colorful parcels like Christmas presents, hoping to catch the eye of someone who's woken up hungry.

As they enter each carriage, they bow to the passengers. The average Japanese person must bow a thousand times a day. You bow when you buy something. You bow when you sell something. Old ladies bow to the driver when they show him their bus pass. This makes it easy for a foreigner to cope with new social situations. When in doubt, bow. After a week in Japan you feel like a marionette with a caffeine problem.

At 20 minutes out we'd reached 140 m.p.h. At 75 miles we passed a clump of trees and I assumed we'd hit the outskirts of Tokyo. I was wrong. There are no outskirts of Tokyo. The Pacific coast of Japan, a narrow strip between sea and mountains, is the world's longest built-up area. There are houses, factories, office blocks, shops and, very occasionally, a paddy field. At night it is a parade of neon flashing endlessly past.

Mt. Fuji appeared on our right. Fuji seems to be visible from almost everywhere in Japan. Its summit was pink and gold in the sun, and its lower slopes were invisible through the soupy air--a lovely, shimmering image largely created by air pollution.

We pulled out of Nagoya a minute behind time. I wondered what catastrophe had caused this. In the last century, at least one railway official committed suicide when he allowed the Imperial train to run two minutes late. We made the 60 seconds up by Kyoto, so our driver was spared this fate.

Kyoto was the capital of Japan until 1868. The French writer Roland Barthes called Japan "the empire of the signs." By this he meant symbols, but the signs are pretty good, too. Kyoto is ravishing. The autumn leaves had turned scarlet, crimson and gold. They were very Japanese leaves--filigreed maple and oak, unlike the fleshier foliage in the United States. The city is full of astonishing temples, castles and palaces, monstrous but hidden. You cannot believe so splendid a pile could be tucked away behind that bicycle shop or grocery, but it is.

If you think Japanese tourists abroad are regimented, you should see them at home. Each vast group marches behind the colored banner of its tour leader, and the parties crisscross each other like the troops in some hopelessly disorganized army. Now and again, the group snaps into ranks to be photographed.

The authorities live in terror that visitors might not appreciate every single detail of what is in front of them. The Ryoanji Garden, for instance, is a smoothly raked patch of gravel with just 15 rocks in it. This is regarded as a Zen masterpiece, the principle of formal simplicity carried to its extreme. You could sit there for hours and contemplate your oneness with the universe if it weren't for the loudspeakers blaring about what an ideal place it is to contemplate your oneness with the universe.

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