Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

The story of Lem the singer

Lawrence of China is going slow on the Baijiu and is the first to notice that the bar has live music. Kind of; the singer has karaoke backing. Next to her a piano is covered in red velvet. A few of us keep aside the shots of sorghum liquor and listen. She has a good voice. It inspires several people in the party to do a Karaoke. During this I realize that she’s not Chinese.

China is a new magnet: even with its economic swings, even as skilled Chinese learn English and dream of settling in the US. The economic growth and the accumulation of money means that there are new opportunities for workers as well as entertainers. Some years ago Tash Aw came close to the Booker Prize with a novel about immigrant workers in China. Some are illegal factory workers, others relatively well-paid entertainers, and then there are the academics and stratospheric bankers. I’ve only met the high-earning Shanghai Pudong expats before. They are different, their backs rest briefly in China, their legs straddle continents. I have no idea what it is to be an immigrant struggling to make it in China.

Her name is Lem. She is from the Philippines. She’s happy to talk about her work and her experience of China. I learn that she always wanted to do music. Lem says that she was part of a band, all members of which have been in China for a while. They could not get a job together initially. She got a contract with this hotel in Wuhan, others in her band found work in Chongqing. Lem looks at me questioningly as she mentions this town. I nod. Although I’ve heard of it, I can’t recall how far away it is.

I ask how it is to live in China. She says, obliquely, that she liked her job in the hotel; it helped her to get experience in a smaller place in China. Wuhan has a population of 10 million; more than New York City holds. But I can see that for her it would be a small place. Bangalore has a similar population, but has more music pubs.

Outside of work? Lem evades this question. She says she has a room in the hotel, so she does not have to try to rent a place on her own. She has visited her band members several times in the year. They now have a contract to play together.

She perks up. Her contract here has ended and she will leave Wuhan after the weekend. She and her band have a contract to play together in Nanjing. She looks a question at me again. Yes, I know about Nanjing. Never been there. Is it better than Wuhan? She nods vigorously. I know that it is closer to Shanghai. She agrees. She eventually wants to go to Shanghai. I know how lively the music scene is in Shanghai. I wish her luck. Lem smiles broadly and thanks me.

I run into her in the lobby the next morning. She’s dressed for a sunny day, her last in Wuhan. She is bubbling and happy, ready for the next year of her life. I wish her luck. China, like India, is a hard and competitive place. She’ll need luck.