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

Hoggart writes for The Observer in London.

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.

The Nijo Castle is one of the most famous sights in Japan, celebrated for its floor, which is cunningly constructed so that the boards emit a squeaking noise, thus warning of the approach of assassins. Loose fan belts having not then been invented, it's called the "nightingale floor." With difficulty I could just detect the faint chirping noise beneath the bellow of the public-address system telling us about it.

I had a reservation at the Tawara-ya Guest House, a traditional Japanese inn with an exterior so modest it looked like a newspaper ad for a shed. It turned out to be one of the poshest hotels in the country, a sort of private clinic for the ego.

Indeed, previous guests include the kind of people known by only one name, folk whose egos are in permanent intensive care: Brando, Streisand, Rothschild, Lennon and Ono. But the Japanese believe in equal opportunity groveling. The owner beamed, bowed and called me "Hoggart-san."

I took off my shoes at the door. The room maid showed me to my room. The decor and fitments were of exquisite simplicity. A cushion with a brocade armrest sat on the floor, in front of a low table. A perfect silk coverlet with a single embroidered Japanese character masked the TV remote control.

I put on the fresh cotton robe and was summoned down for my bath. In Japan you shower yourself clean before getting into the tub, which is purely for relaxation and the consideration of eternal verities. It was made of scented cedar and filled to the brim with water, which, magically, was exactly the right temperature. I lay there soaking for what felt like 10 minutes but turned out to be 40, and returned to my room pink and glowing with pleasure, like a missionary given a last-minute reprieve from the pot.

Around the world, people who serve other people play roles. An American waitress says: "Hi, I'm Nikki, and I'll be waiting on you this evening. Let me tell you about our specials . . . " Her role is to be your newest, dearest friend.

But the Japanese waitress approaches you on her knees. She apologizes for coming into your room. She apologizes for leaving it.

Of course, this servility isn't especially pleasant for a Westerner. These days even kings and potentates are not well-equipped to cope with limitless submission. But the Japanese waitress' role is no more artificial than the American's. Both reflect their societies: the one fiercely egalitarian, the other meticulously layered. For me to have begged the maid to get up off her knees would have been as offensive as asking Nikki to keep her first name to herself.

The food was wonderful. The maid shuffled forward with tiny shrimps and a fish pate. Then she reappeared with several kinds of delectable raw fish. Next, a bowl of miso soup with carrots shaped like baby goldfish. Then, in a blizzard of apology, she produced a tiny barbecue, about the size of a pint beer mug, full of burning charcoal and accompanied by slices of tender beef for me to cook myself. Then tempura, giant prawns and crisp vegetables coated in a batter as light and as thin as gold leaf.

I had planned to hit the night life of Kyoto, but the glowing sensation of being simmered in the bath, like a stock bone, had lingered. I also had a liter of cold beer to finish. On TV, the Japanese volleyball team was being trounced by the Russians. Maybe I'd been there too long, but the Japanese girls looked inexpressibly sweet and composed in defeat; the Russian women hard and loutish in victory.

The maid shimmered in to unroll the bed, murmuring self-effacing apologies. Normally the bed is a thin futon on the straw matting, but Westerners are notoriously knobbly, so she started with a mattress and put two futons on top of that. I felt like the princess and the pea, but my Japanese does not extend to saying, "Please make my bed less comfortable."

On the TV, a woman with a dog was advertising something that appeared to be called "Pediglee Chlum." I put the set to bed, like a budgie, behind its silken screen.

(Had this been a Western-style hotel, there would probably have been a dirty movie channel on the TV. Ian Buruma's excellent book, "Behind the Mask," talks about Japanese pornography, which he sees as the male's way of coping with his mother--someone who attends on his every whim as a child, then abruptly abandons him to harsh adulthood. So porn often shows women being attacked and even tortured, before they forgive their tormentors and give them all the warmth and comfort a mother would. In my Tokyo hotel, I'd watched a film in which a gangster kidnaped a beautiful model, strung her up and abused her in various ways. It ended with them making love conventionally. But you are not allowed to show the genitals in Japan, so one end of the screen depicted locked torsos; at the other end, details of the picture were turned into big, colored squares, like building blocks, pumping up and down: what you might call a Lego situation.)

Next day the shinkansen whisked me further west. The train stopped at Osaka, where I didn't get out, but which is the setting for "Black Rain," an exceedingly violent film starring Michael Douglas as a New York cop trying to bust a Japanese gang. The film isn't particularly good on Japan, but is fascinating about how Americans view Japan.

At one point, Douglas brags that the New York police deal with 30 murders a week. The Japanese look astonished. To them, this indicates not toughness but incompetence. For his part, Douglas is appalled by what he sees as the obsessional Japanese conformity, their desire to do everything according to the regulations, whatever the cost.

In the end, iconoclastic American individualism naturally saves the day. This is not a notion which would appeal to most Japanese people. They see their current economic success as proof that the way they organize their society is right. Who can blame them? The Sony Walkmen, miniature camcorders and cars that don't need servicing were produced by committees, hierarchical teams. The lone inspired inventor working through the night in his lab is a resonant image to us, but could a lone inventor have come up with the electronic dancing dinosaur?

The train slid into Hiroshima. It was on Aug. 6, 1945, that a device called the "special bomb" was dropped from the Enola Gay. It took 43 seconds to fall to 2,000 feet and exploded over the Hiroshima Prefecture Hall of Industrial Promotion, which is now left standing as a memorial. It was a fairly puny bomb by modern standards. The day I was there, the British tested a warhead 12 times as powerful under the Nevada desert. Nevertheless, 200,000 people died at Hiroshima.

It's easy to feel horror at the idea of nuclear war, and even easier when you go somewhere that has had firsthand experience. If it happened again, you think, it would wipe out that house, this woman on the bus, that line of schoolchildren. Even Curtis LeMay, who wanted to bomb Vietnam back to the Stone Age, might have suffered from doubt here.

There's a museum in the Peace Park, a few hundred yards from Ground Zero. It contains displays of the most horrible photographs I have ever seen, anywhere. Many depict children with their clothes flayed and their skin erupting in great pustules. Every parent knows that an image of any injured child is an image of your injured child. You would imagine that this discourages people from bombing civilians. But it doesn't seem to.

The peace park is full of the usual monolithic monuments to international understanding. Why are monuments to peace so aggressively drab? There is, however, a touching story. A little Hiroshima girl who was dying from radiation sickness was persuaded by her mother that if she folded a thousand origami cranes and strung them together, she would live. The girl kept on through the increasing pain, then died after making 964. Now the various monuments are festooned with colored streamers which, if you get close enough to see, consist of hundreds and thousands of folded paper birds.

It's unbearably affecting, and even more horribly impotent. Can you imagine the general at Strategic Air Command being phoned by the President and told: "It's use them or lose them. Let's get our retaliation in first."

"But hold on there Mr. President," the general improbably replies, "what about those paper cranes at Hiroshima?"

I needed cheering up, so I took a train to Miyajima, an island a few miles south of Hiroshima. I had seen the Japanese at leisure before. While in Tokyo, I'd decided to discover how people who spent their working week standing up in crowded trains in the city chose to pass the weekend. The answer turned out to be that they spend their time standing up in crowded trains in the countryside instead.

A friend and I took the train to a place called Hakone, from where there is, of course, a view of Mt. Fuji. Here we transferred to a packed tram, which switchbacked up the mountains. Then we stood up in a funicular, which climbed higher. Here we found that the cable car which was to take us the last leg was closed due to high winds, so we stood in a crowded bus. As the bus rounded the last bend, we caught another sight of Fuji, and everyone went "aah!" as if they'd never seen it before.

The gales were fierce, and smoke from the sulfurous hot springs, for which the resort is famous, was whisking around the hills. I was hungry and almost tempted by a stall selling freshly grilled squid-on-a-stick, but passed by on the principle that you should never eat anything whose reproductive organs you can see.

At the geyser itself they were selling eggs that had been boiled in the waters. Each is reputed to extend your life by seven years. A bag of six cost about $4. Deciding I couldn't cope with a whole extra 42 years, I ate just one, which tasted exactly like any other boiled egg. The wind howled, the sulfur swirled and I wondered vaguely if you might still get a couple more years if you threw up.

We lunched at an old hotel that used to cater to Western tourists before the war. It was now full of Japanese people eating Western food. Foreigners quickly get used to being complimented on their skill with chopsticks. The Japanese have a powerful folk belief that this art is inborn and cannot be learned, so are endlessly baffled by seeing that it can. I was strongly tempted to go up to my fellow diners and compliment them on the adept way they used a knife and fork.

Miyajima, the island near Hiroshima, is designated one of the six most scenic sights in Japan. These classifications, like Michelin stars, are of great importance. In a country where the notion of "getting away from it all" doesn't exist, you can't afford to waste time at a site that hasn't been designated anything.

(A Frenchwoman I met in Tokyo told me she had once had a stopover in Anchorage. A guide had recommended a local beauty spot, adding, "And nobody goes there!" Having lived for years in Japan, she had been startled by this quiet alien concept. In Japanese, the word for nobody is the same as sadness ; crowded also means thriving or prosperous .)

The ferry passed the famous arch which stands off the Miyajima shoreline. A voice boomed: "We are confident that this vermilion arch floating at high tide with the greenery behind has created a wonderful impression never to be erased from your mind." A dredger pulled in front.

Miyajima is simply a mountain covered in maple trees which, of course, looked quite sensational in their autumn colors.

A funicular ran up the mountain, but the lines were long, so I decided to walk. This was a mistake. It was a hot day, and the path was the first deserted place I had found in Japan. By the top of the path my lungs were bursting and I could barely find the breath to say " Hai! " to the surprised women who gestured to ask if I had actually climbed up.

I was in urgent need of cold beer, so turned in the direction of a sign pointed to the summit. Having got so far it seemed pointless to turn back, so I tramped leadenly upward.

The panorama at the top was breathtaking. There, stretched below me in all its majesty, was a noodle shop and a fridge packed with cold beer. The noodles were pretty ordinary, but they made the meal I enjoyed most of all. And the view of the bay wasn't bad either.

Perversely I decided to take the cable car back down. It swung us over the arboreal canyons below, as my fellow passengers chattered in excitement. A sign in English read: "In the event of an emergency, please sit quietly for a moment." I suppose it meant in case of an emergency stop, but as signs go, it seemed to sum up the Empire of the Signs pretty well.

A colleague in Tokyo had told me that every Japanese person likes to know what is going to happen next. At railway stations, this happy state of affairs reaches its apotheosis. My train back covered the 600 miles to Tokyo in less than five hours. It arrived in Tokyo 10 seconds late. Office workers (known as salarimen ) were weaving home, drunk for the most part, but in a withdrawn, private way, still considerate to other passengers, unlike the louts in most countries. Friends helped them to the right train and propped them up. It was a very Japanese kind of inebriation.

For more information on travel to Japan, contact the Japan National Tourist Organization, 624 S. Grand Ave., Suite 2640, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 623-1952.

Distributed by Scripps-Howard News Service .

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