Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Soft morning in Komagone
Crows discuss the day’s prospects
A 13 hour flight and I sleep scarcely a wink. Snow-streaked Siberia washes away to starboard beneath the wings of the Jumbo. I sit between Lynne, textile-weaver from Edinburgh, and Emi, Swiss-educated Japanese poet and dramaturge. Lynne and I talk about the Arts Council and whether arts’ grants encourage a type of artist whose work depends solely on the availability of grants (‘a grants artist’, as she calls them). She thinks people should ‘just do their work’. I don’t have much of a leg to stand or even sit on here as the very reason for my being able to participate in the conversation is courtesy of an Arts Council travel bursary … and in any case I’m ambivalent. Artists have always been – and needed to be – patronised, whether by a bureaucracy such as the Arts Council, or by a Pope (Michaelangelo) or a Grand Duke or some other aristocrat (Mozart). The Muse, frankly, doesn’t seem that bothered. She can, in some ways, be quite an amenable sort of lady.

Emi says (in German) that in Japan there is no official patronage of artists that she knows of, and certainly not of poets. There are only various more-or-less unpalatable alternatives: engineer an entre into academia and teach; do some ‘day-job’ to earn the filthy lucre; or get yourself under the tutelage of a Master Poet in a group. The last-mentioned, she says, means you can’t say ‘no’, but must bow to the authority of the Master and the consensus of the group. Hmmm. Basho seems to have lived off the beneficence of well-to-do merchants aspiring to culture (about whom he was fairly snobbish) or aristocratic hosts. He also had disciples.

No point trying to be ‘pure’ in this life
Just write poem, eat dirt
We curve across the Sea of Japan, dismiss the route across northern Honshu - which is later to take me a good 10 days on foot, by rail and by bus - in a few minutes; and beam in on Narita Airport.

I stay for 2 jet-lagged and culture-shocked nights with most kind hosts Eita and Saori in their exquisite flat in Komagone. At 11.00 at night we have a farewell drink 55 storeys up in a Shinjiku skyscraper, then I join a busload of home-going students on the night bus north to Sendai. Nikko, sessho-seki (‘murder stone’), the Shirakawa Barrier, Fukushima and Iizuka (“…inside the temple, enjoying tea, Yoshitsune’s long sword and the priest Benkei’s little Buddhist whicker chest …”) - all whistle past in the dark.

Arriving in Sendai at 5.30 in the morning I catnap under the elevator until the shops open, ignored by early morning workers.

Then I have a MacBreakfast.

Sendai is ultra-modern, clean, spaciously laid out with three levels of transport: below, the underground and local trains; at ground level, the buses; up above, the shikansen (high speed bullet train). Coming out of the massive ‘Verkehrsknotenpunkt’ (‘transport hub’) I am confronted by a giant plasma screen high up on an office block. 4 bears are dancing the tango and singing (loudly) in Japanese.

Universe got constipated
excreted human
Uff, what have we here?

At lunchtime I pick up a bento (lunch box) and retire to a local park. A very conventional-looking ‘salaryman’ of 50-odd sits 20 yards away on the sparse grass, practising his mouth organ with the absolute concentration and complete lack of self-consciousness of a small child. We’ve lost this quality in the West, we ‘educate’ our children out of it as soon as possible. He’s playing the hymn ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ from a Teach-Yourself book, pausing only to carefully wipe his shiny instrument on a special cloth which he just as attentively folds away into the case. An immensely fat Japanese schoolgirl in the usual short, plaid flouncy skirt waddles past and a couple of kids are playing football in the far corner. I snooze, then, refreshed, catch the local train with a bunch of happy ladies out to Matsushima Kaigan.

an open sky!


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