Friday, 30 April 2010

Memories of Mr Dog-Biscuit, and Himeji (early April)

Early April 2005. We crossed paths just inside the Iranian border, shortly before re-entering Turkey. You walked the last mile to the border. I took the bus. (Economy-minded traveller that you were, you didn’t want to fork out the extra 10 pence.) You came from Chile, or Argentina I think. Looked a little bit like the hippy traveller, with your flip flops and unkempt hair. (I wonder what the well-groomed Persians made of your style.) Your name was Ricardo, or Carlos, I think. We got talking, spent the day in and around the border town of Dogubayazit (known to travellers as ‘Dog Biscuit’ ( ), the scene of a bird flu outbreak a few years later and close to Mount Ararat where a group of Turkish Christian missionaries claimed this week to have discovered Noah’s Ark [note: they’re misled – it’s in Takayama]), visited the castle, ate a Turkish pizza, drank a beer, said our goodbyes, and lost touch.

Unless you just happen to be reading this. (Unlikely.) In which case I should tell you: there are two things for which I remember you well, the first of which still makes me chuckle.

There are countries where regular conversation with curious locals is to be expected, unavoidable, for backpackers. There are others where it is not. Japan falls firmly into the latter category. This is often regrettable since travel here without contacts can be quite an isolating experience. Few Japanese invade your (limited) space, even when you lower the drawbridge. They might want to, for all kinds of reasons, but rarely do so. Politeness, shyness, perceived language barriers – all factors which no doubt play a part. It’s not really a country where you are going to fill your address book unless you take some drastic action, e.g. tour with an obvious ‘talking point’ such as a cute dog peeking out of your backpack (see next post). Which I have not yet seen anyone do.

Countries such as Iran and eastern Turkey, where intrusion upon privacy is a relatively alien concept, lie on the other side of this spectrum. There, a raised drawbridge won't necessarily guarantee you peace in the moments when you’re just happy taking in the view from the bus window. (In which case take your pick of anti-social strategy: short, one word answers; look grumpy; allow personal hygiene standards to fall; feign that you don’t speak English etc.) This is perfectly illustrated by the experience ‘Ricardo’ - a bit of a ladies’ man, if I recall (of all places to meet one: Iran!) – shared with me in Dog Biscuit.

A local male student who had engaged Ricardo in conversation earlier that day had asked him, “Do you mind if I walk with you?”, and so they had ambled around the streets of this small town together. Approaching lunchtime, he had asked: ‘Do you mind if I talk with you whilst you eat?”. Again, no problem. Ricardo welcomed the company. A few hours and “Do you mind if..” questions later, Ricardo again did not mind talking with the student when, sightseeing concluded, he walked back to his hotel. Where Ricardo then said goodbye and that he had enjoyed the day. But his companion wasn’t relinquishing his grip quite so easily, wasn’t going anywhere. So Ricardo said something along the lines of “well, I’d like to read now”. The student’s reply: “Do you mind if I talk with you whilst you read?” By this stage, I guess you could hear the shudder of the drawbridge. He had had to become rather more abrupt, rude even. At which the student, having failed to take the hint before, got the message, and left.

At dinner that evening, what would have been his next “do you mind if I talk with you whilst you [ …]?” question, we wondered.

‘Ricardo’ never carried a guidebook, and it is for this that I also remember him. He may have travelled with a guitar but, when it came to sightseeing and touring, he made it up as he went along. No maps, no descriptions, no explanations. His beatnik style was to wander and stop when he found something interesting. He arrived in towns, and left them too, completely and possibly blissfully ignorant of their attractions. Ricardo even took some convincing to walk to Dog-Biscuit’s castle. (He’d make an interesting case study of the sort to be found in Alain de Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’).

[Highly debatable quote from Amazon review at : "If there are flaws in this, de Botton's latest and perhaps most readable book, they are the usual suspects: just occasionally the author comes across as a bit long-winded and self-regarding." But I would say that, wouldn't I?]

In my experience it is not uncommon - especially in the Third World - to meet backpackers who apparently delight in telling / asking you, openmouthed, “what, you didn’t go to…?” They want you to feel you have missed out. (They also tend to be less interested in the places you have visited.) Equally, there are those tourists for whom travel seems to be one long laborious mission to prove they have been .. wherever they have been. They will enjoy their holiday in retrospect, yet here and today their minds are on their photo album and the souvenir shops. (To a lesser or greater extent, I suspect many travellers can identify with this description – I, with my scrapbooks and.. blog posts, certainly do.) Anyway, into such company, I would gladly teleport Ricardo for the alternative view.

If by now this sounds like a ‘man crush’ (an expression which these days seems to go hand-in-hand with media coverage of Jose Mourinho), don't worry - it isn't. I just admired his rejection of the common affliction that is ‘Tourist’s Conscience’.  In this respect I am the anti-Ricardo, and often find myself wishing - invariably with hindsight - that I weren’t. When I have the opportunity to visit a site recommended in books or by others, I assume that I will never be here again. So I had better see it now. Even if I’m already burnt out by sightseeing or indifferent to its alleged attractions. In which case, it's as if I have to visit a place in order to realise it really wasn’t worth visiting, after all – and what I take from that visit is the knowledge of why (it isn’t).

So, is this why I am in Himeji, home to Japan’s most impressive castle, today? Staying in girly Kobe (famous for its beef, quality of life and the shortest skirts in Japan, although Matsumoto runs it close), it is the obvious day trip.

But I was never particularly excited by the prospect of coming here. I had seen its towers from the railway line on previous travels but never stopped off en route. Now, with a cheap, soon-to-expire railpass burning a hole in my pocket, it would seem foolish not to visit.

Even if I’m not especially interested in Restored Japanese Castles. From the inside, they all look pretty much the same, with the same staircases, the same displays of masks and swords. You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. (But I had to see them in order to realise this.) So, I wonder, is it fortunate or unfortunate that I saved the best castle in Japan till last?

I skirt around the park and admire Himeji-Jo from a distance. Even in poor weather, groups sit out under the sakura to take in a bit of o-hanami. I take a few photos. Box ticked. I’m not planning on hanging around for too long. The large crowds and queues from earlier in the day are slowly subsiding but the guides still suggest you need 2-3 hours to ‘do the castle justice’. I have more like one and a half. And I’m hungry. It’s 3 o'clock and I haven’t yet eaten.

I head next door where my guidebook tells me there is an excellent salt-water eel restaurant, ‘Kassui-ken’, set in a charming garden. In the back of my mind, this has been my destination. I have been looking forward to visiting here more than the monument itself. I should see the castle but I want to eat anago.

Looking out over koko-en (carp lake garden?), and without regretting my choice of entrance ticket for this afternoon, I realise that I will almost certainly never enter Himeji-Jo - not today, not ever - and tuck in. Like so many Japanese, I have opted to plan my itinerary around my stomach.

I eat quietly. And noone asks: “do you mind if I talk …?”.

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