Category Archives: Japan

t y p h o o n

[ 20:48 saturday 12 october 2019 – hatchobori, tokyo ]

as i write, the centre of typhoon hagibis is passing directly overhead. or more accurately, it is everywhere around me. from the seventh floor window where i’m sitting the lights of skyscrapers are barely visible through a sky that is more water than air. sheets of rain comb between the buildings like rollers traversing an ocean. below me the surface of the river is tormented and whipped into leaden confusion. swollen high above its normal level from rain and storm surge, it has spread to submerge surrounding paths and vegetation. trees bend and twist, writhing wildly. the sound of the wind has become a solid element, a low constant scream like a jet engine, punctuated with high whines and screeches.

growing up in cornwall i witnessed each year the south westerly gales coming in from the atlantic. sometimes the wind was so strong it wasn’t possible to stand up straight. one year i remember huddling with my family beneath the stairs as trees and power lines crashed down around the house, whilst tiles and other debris hurtled past horizontally. however i have never seen anything like this typhoon. according to the japanese meteorological service this is the most powerful storm to hit japan since 1958. the wind speed outside is currently 114 kilometres per hour, and by midnight 130 centimetres of rain will have fallen on the city since i woke up this morning.

today alejandro and i were meant to pick up a campervan and drive north to the mountains of gunma, to spend three days at the labyrinth festival. we arrived in tokyo on wednesday, just as the forecasters began to speculate whether the typhoon’s track might lead directly over tokyo. we debated whether to collect the van a day early and get as far away from the city as possible, or sit out the storm in tokyo and hope the roads would be passable a day later. i erred towards the former, alejandro to the latter. in the end i came round to his side and here we are with ringside seats.

yesterday the weather was perfectly calm, giving not the slightest intimation of what was coming. this morning around seven o’clock the first drops of rain arrived, hesitant at first, then steadier. by ten the air was growing fitful with half-hearted gusts tugging at the trees. at midday i put on yachting oilskins, carefully packed my rolleiflex into a waterproof backpack, and ventured out into the street. all public transport was shut down, the streets were empty, every balcony and courtyard cleared of flowerpots and ornaments.

without a specific plan i walked down the west side of the kamejima river, then kept going where it joined the sumida river. the rain was already torrential, and minute by minute the wind was strengthening. i had brought an umbrella which i raised each time i wanted to take a photograph, doing my best to protect the camera. but soon the wind was so strong it below the umbrella out the moment it was raised, so the photography was abandoned.

just beyond hatoba park i decided to cross the river on the kachidoki bashi road bridge and walk home along the east bank. climbing the steps onto the bridge i left behind the shelter of the buildings. exposed to the full force of the wind, the rain came at me horizontally and i had to bend double to make headway.

returning up the east bank of the sumida river i found myself walking through a neighbourhood of tumbledown two-storey houses that looked different from anything else i’d seen in tokyo. despite the typhoon i couldn’t resist exploring. i found a small temple, a tiny shop selling a thousand varieties of dried fish and a glass-fronted building by the river with a huge ceremonial relic in its window. sheltering in the porch of the temple i pulled out my phone and discovered this was the tsukuda neighbourhood, originally an island, where a fishing village was established in the seventeenth century.

continuing back towards the hotel i had to walk across the chuo-ohashi suspension bridge. about halfway across i realised it wasn’t my imagination, the whole bridge was actually shaking. i looked up and indeed the suspension cables were vibrating vigorously across a span of several feet. everything i knew about japanese engineering gave me confidence this was well within the bridge’s design tolerances, but all the same it was a little unsettling. i arrived back at the hotel three hours after my departure, soaked to the skin despite the waterproofs.

for the past two hours i’ve been sitting here in our room, with the lights turned out, glued to the window, watching and listening to the storm. yesterday i felt a bit scared, but i wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

: c :

l a k e s h i k o t s u

i noticed that my last couple of despatches haven’t made it through the system so i’ll try sending them again.

[ 20:36 sunday 8 june – itou onsen, lake shikotsu, hokkaido, japan ]

last week i was in sapporo, the largest city in japan’s northernmost island hokkaido, to give a presentation at a technology conference. next week i have to be in boston for another one. it’s been a stressful week so on friday evening i decided to try and escape into the wilderness for the weekend. i spent half an hour on the web looking for interesting places. initially i was tempted by some lakes in the far east of the island but it turned out it would take nine hours to get there. hokkaido is enormous. after a bit more searching lake shikotsu caught my eye, with its mysterious forests and mountains. i found a small slightly run-down looking onsen (a hotel beside a hot spring) in an isolated location at the lake’s edge. i phoned. one of the staff spoke some english. a room was available. i made a reservation for two nights and made my way down by bus yesterday afternoon.

i’m sitting now in an old-fashioned tatami-floored room with a thin futon where i’ll soon sleep. the sliding window is fully open. through it i look out across the huge still surface of the lake, ringed by three volcanoes each rising more than a thousand metres. everything is covered with dense deciduous forest. a small cluster of lights in the distance marks a cluster of restaurants and shops the other side of the lake, otherwise the horizon is dark in every direction. i hear the slap and gurgle of the small waves against the shore and the occasional cry of a heron. if i leave my room, go down the stairs, left out of the door onto the lakeside and down some steps i reach a pool made from rocks at the edge of the lake, with a fence dividing men’s and women’s sides. this is where the hot spring emerges, accompanied by a faint whiff of sulphur.

today i climbed mount eniwa, the largest of the three volcanos, which rises directly behind the onsen. it’s a steep climb and reaching the summit at one thousand four hundred metres was hard work. several sections even required ropes. the path mainly follows a sharp ridge that arrives at the summit from the east. a succession of fumeroles belches out sulphurous gases which mingle with the clouds eddying and swirling round the peak of the mountain. people said it would take four hours to get up but i did it in less than two hours. i passed half a dozen people on the way, each with the customary bell tinkling on their backpacks. at the summit i met a couple of friendly chaps from a town near sapporo so we made the descent together and taught each other a few words. i was exhausted when i reached the onsen. stripping and lowering myself into the pool was blissful. i stayed in there a couple of hours, watching fisherman come and go in their little boats.

granny’s funeral was held on friday the twenty-third of may in shrewsbury. in the middle of the service i played the second movement of bach’s italian concerto on the organ. i never had a chance to play this for her but i think she’d have liked it a lot. i was nervous that i might break down in tears halfway through playing it, which happened when i was practicing it the day before. but i avoided this and actually i think it was the best performance of the piece i’ve given. i found the christian elements of the service quite distasteful. the priest’s contributions all seemed to be impersonal and grim. shockingly he even got granny’s name wrong at the committal. a couple of my favourite photos of granny are here with me now, propped on chests at the side of the room. it’s hard to believe i won’t be taking any more.

immediately after granny’s funeral i escaped to stromboli for a few days. alitalia overbooked the flight so i ended up in a milan hotel for the night then on the six o’clock plane to palermo the next morning. the only way i could reach the last hydrofoil of the day to stromboli was to get a taxi all the way from palermo to milazzo, about two hundred and fifty kilometres. my visit coincided with an intense scirocco and temperatures in the mid thirties. i spent much of the time on the beach and in the sea. despite the brevity of the visit i saw a lot of my friends. i also saw antonio’s almost-completed portrait of neptune for the first time, a remarkable piece of work. on the monday night i walked up to punta u bronzu with giuliano. we watched the volcano erupting and the moon rise as the hot wind blew over us.

a taxi will be here at five in the morning to take me to the airport so i ought to pack my bags and get a few hours’ sleep. tomorrow i fly to tokyo, then new york.

: c :