Lafcadio Hearn, in his Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (1894), sums up nicely how I feel about the place over a century later:
“The largest steamer that crosses the Pacific could not contain what you wish to purchase. For, although you may not, perhaps, confess the fact to yourself, what you really want to buy is not the contents of a shop; you want the shop and the shopkeeper, and streets of shops with their draperies and their inhabitants, the whole city and the bay and the mountains begirdling it, and Fujiyama’s white witchery overhanging it in the speckless sky, all Japan, in very truth, with its magical trees and luminous atmosphere, with all its cities and towns and temples, and forty millions of the most lovable people in the universe… ‘And this,’ the reader may say,—’this is all that you went forth to see: a torii, some shells, a small damask snake, some stones?’ It is true. And nevertheless I know that I am bewitched. There is a charm indefinable about the place—that sort of charm which comes with a little ghostly ‘thrill never to be forgotten. Not of strange sights alone is this charm made, but of numberless subtle sensations and ideas interwoven and inter-blended: the sweet sharp scents of grove and sea; the blood-brightening, vivifying touch of the free wind; the dumb appeal of ancient mystic mossy things.”
I’ve been to Japan several times and even though it’s still summer I’m already near to projectile vomiting with excitement because I’m going back for an extended tour in the autumn. If you’re a Japanese (or Japan-based) follower, artist, film maker or blogger and want to say konnichiwa, hang out, have a drink, or whatever this October then please don’t be shy: send me a message. I usually don’t bite.
Although Hearn undeniably romanticised and exoticised the place he did so with some justification, since this Irish-Greek man who’d been abandoned by his entire family and travelled the world met and married his wife in Japan, finding at last the home he’d always sought. With hindsight his frequent celebration of the deference and conformity of traditional Japanese society is particularly problematic given that these very traits facilitated and exacerbated Japan’s brutal imperialist ventures over the next fifty years, not to mention the atrocities and exhortations to suicide committed by the Japanese military up to the end of WWII. This is hindsight, though. Hearn wasn’t to know, and his awestruck account of travelling around a place that had been forbidden to foreigners on pain of death only a few years previously is still full of lovely stuff.
“And the tenth month of our year is called the “No-God-month,” because in that month all the deities leave their temples to assemble in the province of Izumo, at the great temple of Kitzuki… But there are gods with whom it is not desirable to become acquainted. Such are the God of Poverty, and the God of Hunger, and the God of Penuriousness, and the God of Hindrances and Obstacles. These are of dark colour, like the clouds of gloomy days, and their faces are like the faces of gaki. (Note: in modern Japanese gaki means “brat”, but Hearn is referring to hungry ghosts, punished in the afterlife with ceaseless appetite.) … It is said there are two gods who always go together,—Fuku-no-Kami, who is the God of Luck, and Bimbogami, who is the God of Poverty. The first is white, and the second is black.’ ‘Because the last,’ I venture to interrupt, ‘is only the shadow of the first. Fuku-no-Kami is the Shadow-caster, and Bimbogami the Shadow.’ … The God of Scarecrows is Sukuna-biko-na-no-Kami.”
Fastened to the wall of [the] shrine is a large box full of small clay foxes. The pilgrim who has a prayer to make puts one of these little foxes in his sleeve and carries it home, He must keep it, and pay it all due honour, until such time as his petition has been granted. Then he must take it back to the temple, and restore it to the box, and, if he be able, make some small gift to the shrine…
You approach it through a succession of torii one behind the other: they are of different heights, diminishing in size as they are placed nearer to the temple, and planted more and more closely in proportion to their smallness. Before each torii sit a pair of weird foxes—one to the right and one to the left. The first pair are large as greyhounds; the second two are much smaller; and the sizes of the rest lessen as the dimensions of the torii lessen. At the foot of the wooden steps of the temple there is a pair of very graceful foxes of dark grey stone, wearing pieces of red cloth about their necks. Upon the steps themselves are white wooden foxes—one at each end of each step—each successive pair being smaller than the pair below; and at the threshold of the doorway are two very little foxes, not more than three inches high, sitting on sky-blue pedestals. These have the tips of their tails gilded. Then, if you look into the temple you will see on the left something like a long low table on which are placed thousands of tiny fox-images, even smaller than those in the doorway, having only plain white tails. The pieces of coloured cloth about the necks of the foxes are also votive offerings…
At the rear of almost every Inari temple you will generally find in the wall of the shrine building, one or two feet above the ground, an aperture about eight inches in diameter and perfectly circular. It is often made so as to be closed at will by a sliding plank. This circular orifice is a Fox-hole, and if you find one open, and look within, you will probably see offerings of tofu or other food which foxes are supposed to be fond of. Now the fox for whom such a hole is made is an invisible fox, a phantom fox—the fox respectfully referred to by the peasant as O-Kitsune-San. If he ever suffers himself to become visible, his colour is said to be snowy white.
Dogs and cats
‘Feed a dog for three days,’ says a Japanese proverb, ‘and he will remember your kindness for three years; feed a cat for three years and she will forget your kindness in three days.’