Starting Backwards (Sunrise in a Tatami Room – Day Two) JA. 21/6/17

On the long haul flight, a Japanese lady on our row read her book, hour after hour, back to front. Up or down? Left to right? I’m not sure yet.

We sit in the middle, on a magic carpet, watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, eyeless over Europe, Russia, Mongolia and North Korea until sunrise and the Alps of Honshu, still snowy. Or was that Hokkaido? Mountains of the moon? No one revealed. And yet, when we are finally able to see outside, they are open to the sun’s burning eye and to our gaze and are glorious.

We have planned and planned, but Japan has done its own planning, quietly, minutely and inscrutably. What we thought was just a large hotel just outside Matsue with “Japanese- style rooms”, should you choose them, is in fact our first-born day of breath and instant immersion in Japan-ness.

They speak no English, we only sometimes remember six words of Japanese, and it cannot matter less. Suddenly, we have to immerse ourselves, breathe and live in an environment needing language as fish need gills, in spite of jet-lagged light-headedness, tried by a terrifying late connection in Zurich (heart of western precision) and exercised by 8 minute connections on four Honshu trains which are truly precise in a very real way. And also send us spinning through time, back into the past. (It is a delicious fact that among all the other men of ideas Hearn influenced and inspired to come to Japan, Albert Einstein was one. but I have hurtled into the future now: that is tomorrow, Day Three, day of magic and wonder at the Lafcadio Hearn Museum and Home).

For now we ride straight though time and connections and find our bumpy Koizumi Line from south to north, from conurbation to rural life and Matsue. Nothing is ever going to be simple here. Train number 4 is a ghost train, or a space ship, blinking in and out of the darkness along a route of great-limestone industry, tunnels and tiny Shinto shrines in village gardens, with flag irises and white egrets, concrete river banks and wild gorges. It takes us to a place where we enter a parallel universe.

The hotel shuttle never appears at our station but declares it was there. Because, it later transpires, three stations are recognised as “Matsue” – ghosts of each other, as elusive as Japanese identity, lost through an endless changing of names and the perfect camouflage of a language based on clouds and streams and sunsets.
The hotel spirits give no clear sign regarding which station we should have arrived at, but greet our taxi with smiling calm. We sign papers, hand over our passports, are told to wait.

Then a lovely man and kimono’d lady take us courteously to our destiny: our own room of old Japan where we must live its way. Simply. And cluttered with stuff, the unbearable luggage of being, we blunder into a brave new world.

Midnight chopsticks, the sweet, smiling lady at the bar whose meal we copy, the men laying out our soft beds on yielding tatami mats across our day world. The onsen where the room of scrub-up is even more wonderful than the baths themselves, except for that still moment when all the women in the outside space are still and silent at once and the voices of the water speak. In these voices of the spirits now much amused and kindly, we are stripped naked and begin to learn to walk a new way.

Day Three will be our own Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them: the swallows and frogs and ravens, trees and stones and herons and healing books of Koizumi Yakumo – the man with two names and many countries who found his place here and opened a way between two cultures, two houses both alike in dignity, fierce in war.

“All things are better when they are smaller” Shoko Koizumi will say as she takes us round the superb new exhibitions of the museum.

Today, our second day in a new world, the inn’s small onsen is for a few moments a great ocean of peace, innocent of all language but the sound of water.