It’s all very confusing this Japan thing, technology and culture just don’t get along, plastic single serve packaging rarely has anything to do with the warm fuzzy textures that make us human. Rounding the bend at the top of an informal cobbled pathway to the main street of Tsumago is one of those places that makes the old and new contradiction that much simpler; simpler because there’s very little of the new to do any contradicting. A slight slope leads down the bendy road that calls from a time before heavy earth moving became simple and disappears behind a quaint dark timber building and before a stone wall that is anything but perfect; or is it? The road is too narrow for cars, it wasn’t built for cars and the timber and white panel buildings open up closely to a street front dappled with micro gardens and water channels. Town planning as we know it is yet to visit Tsumago; lets hope it never does.
Originally Tsumago was a staging point for travelling dignitaries and people of influence, a rest stop of sorts. Walking this wending road lined with sweet stalls, tea houses and noodle shops it’s so easy to imagine common folk scurrying into buildings from the street, ahead of a grand samurai procession while innkeepers feverishly wipe down their best tables. Caught in the moment, walking must wait, we veer behind the discrete screens of a tea house to remove our shoes and sit cross legged on tatami mats for some tea. Set beside the timber slatted window the feeling of romance is only heightened, how many eager faces have peered from this window at elaborate characters carried in palanquins or sitting atop horse drawn carriages to catch a glimpse of yesteryear celebrity?
Tea goes with rice gluten sweets before it’s back out to the 18th century and a walk into the mist shrouded nearby mountains. Walking just seems far too hard, much better to have noodles in rich broth and grilled rice cake lathered in miso and sesame sauce. Loaded up with local delicacies we must end this procrastination, time to walk. Nearby Magome lies at the other end of a mountain pass but we aren’t aiming that far today, just a short venture into the wild and back again, right after some window shopping and a stop off to the town temple. Eventually the quaint, historically accurate houses become sparse but the old time lifestyle remains thick in the air. Rice fields tended by hand sit aside paths notable only for their foot traffic wear and a blessed lack of safety signage; we’ve walked from the 18th century town right into a countryside without a change of date.
The fight against sweating like pigs was given up some time ago in the humid air but there’s a very real risk of fatigue so it’s vital that we turn back. With blood sugar levels threatening to become normal we scoff down one chestnut and one eggplant dumpling with Japanese tea to much bowing and thanks before walking right back in time with an ice cream that we’re just pretending was popular three hundred years ago. This ancient romance plays such a role in making Japan what it is today and so some delicate timber spoons just like we ate our noodles with make for our first Japanese souvenirs.
Pulled forward in time we now know how Marty McFly felt in the retro movie ‘Back To The Future’. It’s not the blazing lights of Tokyo but back in Kuwana has us Surrounded by all flavours of automated, motion sensored, hands free technology. We poke at random Japanese characters on the menu at the Yakitori bar and sip our beers, these little skewers and beer are a match made in heaven that those of the 18th century sadly missed out on. First cab off the blind guess rank, chicken sashimi. Yes, that’s right, a loin of chicken meat, entirely raw is sliced up and laid out on a bed of fine cabbage; I’d heard of this but was expecting some time to prepare myself before tasting it. Oddly enough it’s softer than a lot of fish and delicately flavoured making it far less confronting than we expected. A procession of chicken skin, fatty pork, eggs, meat of some other flavour and a big omelet type thing brings us to Aki walking in the door to pick us up.
We pull the handles of the compact car that feels like an oversized roller skate for the doors to open electronically to sit down to the console TV that Aki assures us is all very standard. This car of the future that looks like a very standard ‘small car’ brings us to Aki’s immaculate house, and more notably, his amazing bathroom. Enter the room and the light comes on, the motion sensor also activating the toilet lid to lift up automatically. If you’re after relieving number one’s, just press the button and the seat rises like magic with a soft green light to highlight the water as a tricky style feature. If it’s a number two long haul, water jets like dandelion kisses with variable pressure, heat and even aim are all at the touch of a button away. Of course flushing automatically prompts the hand washing tap on top of the cistern and when you leave the little ghosts return everything to normal as soon as you exit the room. Apparently this is all very standard too.
From an old time fable peering through the windows at the great Shoguns of the Edo era, a train ride plonks us into the high tech world borne of the Meiji restoration where Japan began to overlap development with tradition. More than anywhere else we’ve seen, Japan seems to retain, celebrate and enjoy history and culture without proclaiming culture to have only existed at one point in time. Yes societies can learn and change without abandoning culture, but so often we see culture as only existing in the past; any culture we call genuine anyway. From Tsumago time-warp to Tado tech-toilet time it seems that culture is not just the retention of an age old time, It can exist in the now, with the now. We don’t have to practice it all day, every day, the key element that Japan seems to understand so well is that culture is valid as long as you understand it and apportion value to it. Apparently this sophisticated understanding of history and culture is all very standard, if you have the right standards.