The Spaces of Japan

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A compact land with compact houses full of compact people: such is the pervasive image of Japan. Are not the simple beds of traditional Japanese homes folded away during the day to create some extra space? Do not the hotels have stacked capsules into which one slides for the night? Are not the houses themselves more like residences for dolls rather than people?

I arrived in Japan by ship, voyaging across the East China Sea from Shanghai. Two days it took, with a ship full of Chinese travellers in tour groups – for Chinese are not permitted solo tourist entry visas for Japan. As is the way of ships, ours – the Suzhou Hou – eventually kissed the shore and was embraced warily by the dock in Osaka.

In the southern reaches of the island of Honshu, it was indeed compact. Millions upon millions live in these parts, a tsunami of people finding their space on a small land. I began to make my way north, travelling by train. The ageing Shinkansens zipped from one metropolis to another. Kyoto, Nagoya, Kawasaki, Tokyo, Saitami – really a vast megalopolis finding ever new ways to fit human beings into ever more compressed space. The images I had formed from countless representations seemed to be confirmed.

Even the standard hotels were minimal affairs. With names like ‘Smile Hotel’, ‘Route Hotel’ and so forth, they all seemed made from the same mould. A rectangular block contained identical pods: a tight bathroom, a bed, a thin plank on the wall for some odds and ends, and enough floor space to edge along in between. At least I could step off the train and step into a hotel, for the Japanese still assume that many do indeed travel by rail. Some of those travellers – like me – inevitably need a room for the night.

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But I was not so interested in this Japan. So northward I pushed, onto the island of Hokkaido. By now the trains were simpler affairs, although their names claimed much more: Super Hakucho, Super Tokachi, Super Soya, Super Kamui, or Super-whatever. The engines might have had a flash appearance, but the carriages were minimalist. On one such train I plunged into the deep Seikan tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait, wondering about the continental fault line that produces all those earthquakes in these parts. The 50 kilometres passed eventually and, without a sudden inrush of sea water, we arrived above the surface in one piece.

Soon enough I came to see why the train on which I had just travelled was known as a ‘Super’ train. At the port town of Tomakomai, I boarded a ‘local’ train. What glorious machines these are: single-carriage diesel rail motors, which attain a breathtaking top speed of 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. Actually, their main task is to stop, at every remote village and minuscule platform.

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Now I began to see parts of Japan that rarely register in the international image of the place. The rail motors rattled, banged and lurched in the way they had done for decades. I opted for the long, slow journeys to the corners of Hokkaido, to Wakkanai, Nemuro and Samani on the edge of the northern seas. The trains in these run a few times day, so one needs patience in order to find these far-flung and rarely visited places.

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In these parts the platforms were rusty and crumbling. Often, I had to wait for hours for the next connection. Or I would jump on a train, any train and see where it would take me. Each was of the single-carriage rattler variety, although occasionally – on a ‘busy’ line – two would be joined together. On the way, we stopped at one tiny platform after another. They took the word ‘platform’ literally, for usually there was just a flat piece of cement, without any ornamentation. Or, rather, they did have a single sign indicating the name of the place in question. Occasionally, a passenger would board, while another alighted. The number of people on board remained the same – no more than five.

The hamlets through which we passed gave clearer signs of the stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last couple of decades. Here was none of the flash of the big cities, with their impossible cleanliness, order and neon. Instead, weeds grew, houses showed peeling paint and sagging rooves, and few people were on the streets. I loved it, for this was the Japan I preferred to see.

I soon became used to the fact that my destination would be a few wind-blown houses huddled close to the railway platform. In such places, I engaged in watch-pointing-map-referring-and-signing discussion with the driver. Food? He shrugged, with a wan smile. Hotel? He shrugged again, obviously never having taken the time to explore the hamlet that beckoned to me. I smiled in return.

The challenge was upon me, and I scoured the town in question for some accommodation, any accommodation. Eventually, a modest hotel appeared, although none of Japan’s famed ‘love hotels’ were to be found in these reaches. And I could usually find a shop that reeked of fish. But it would also stock some fruit, the ubiquitous sushi and strange packets of crisp seaweed. A feast fit for a king or queen.

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Needless to say, I was the only foreigner in these parts, and no one spoke a language I knew. It was also early November, so the chill of an early winter seeped into my bones, ably assisted by the fierce wind. So after a tour of the place in question, looking out over the sea and dreaming of yet another ship, I retreated to the relative shelter of the hotel room, where an ancient heater, with its paint a faint memory, battled against the cold.

I had not imagined such places existed in Japan: few people, open fields, towering mountains, and sparse villages in which the houses felt more relaxed about the space around them. Far indeed from the compact megalopolises of the south.

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