...But wait a moment.
This isn't a James Bond story; some work of fiction. This was all real, and happening to me. The island, the annex, the sliding wall, the eccentric multi-millionaire industrialist and all the rest too, were all real.
The only fiction was my feeling like James Bond. I'm just an ordinary guy from Chicago, U.S.A. But finding myself actually here, among these trappings, how could I help but feel like Bond? My companion Raymond Benson, the James Bond author, had said as much himself.
And he was the reason I was in Japan, on this once in a lifetime trip, helping to research a new James Bond novel that would eventually become "The Man with the Red Tattoo".
When Benson decided to return James Bond to Japan he combined my two greatest interests. I've been an avid James Bond fan since 1965 when at the age of eight I first saw Goldfinger. And I've been fascinated by Japan for over 20 years. I've traveled there several times, in my youth and as an adult. I've studied the language, the history, the customs and the martial arts.
In the past, Raymond had occasionally checked some odd fact with me for his researches, usually some military or firearms detail. So now, knowing my interest in Japan, he thought of me. I'm no expert, but I was convenient and could generally steer him in the right direction to find what he was looking for.
But I was unprepared when Raymond invited me to go with him on his two-week research trip to Japan. I never thought that my interest in 007 would result in a free two-week trip to Japan. And let me tell you, there's no better passport to fine dining and first class accommodations in Japan than the James Bond name.
I had put together an informal itinerary that Raymond wound up passing on to the Chicago office of the Japanese National Tourist organization (JNTO), headed by Director Mr. Yasutake Tsukamoto. He used it to create a remarkable trip for us using his staff and his contacts, most notably the generous co-operation of Mr. Walter Hladko of Tokyo's famed Imperial Hotel, and Mr. Yasuharu Noda of Japan Airlines. All our major expenses were covered or dramatically reduced and the red carpet was laid out for us at every stop.
If you've already read "The Man with the Red Tattoo" you'll recognize from the book most of the places I'll describe in this article, as well as the names of some of the characters. If you haven't read the book yet, . . . why not?
SUNDAY, APRIL 8
Mr. Tsukamoto of the JNTO saw us off in person at the airport. Since their first meeting, he and Raymond had become friends. We were shown to an elegant JAL lounge just for our private use. We relaxed there until just before take off, when someone came and escorted us aboard the 747. "Off on another adventure," were Raymond's exact words.
Our seats were across the aisle from each other on the upper deck of the 747 in the Executive Class section. You may not believe me when I say I wish the 13 hour flight had taken longer, such was the luxury and fine service we received. We kicked off our shoes in favour of the slippers provided and flipped up the footrest on our lounge seats. The meals were works of art and the liquor top shelf. The head of cabin operations had been told Raymond was aboard. He introduced himself and took us on a special behind-the-scenes tour of the plane. One of the pretty flight attendants was excited at meeting Raymond and asked for his autograph, telling him, "I'm a big fan of yours!" The trip was off to a good start. Just before landing, Raymond and I were each given a shopping bag full of gifts, including two bottles of excellent Japanese Dai-Ginjoshu Sake; "Hakugin-no-Shizuku" and "Sora-no-Hana".
MONDAY, APRIL 9
With the time change, and the length of the flight, the calendar read April 9th when we landed at Narita Airport about 70 miles outside the megalopolis of modern Tokyo.
After an hour's ride into the city, we arrived at the Imperial Hotel, arguably the finest hotel in Japan. It is so named because it was commissioned by the Japanese Emperor in 1890 to provide an elegant place for his guests to stay, close to his Palace grounds in central Tokyo. Our check-in was expedited and we were shown to our rooms on the top floor of the new annex. My room looked directly out on the Imperial grounds with an excellent view of the palace itself. As wonderful as my room was, it couldn't compare with Raymond's. He had been given a beautiful, huge, corner suite. Shortly after check in a bottle of Taittinger French Champagne arrived on ice, courtesy of the manager. One could easily get used to this treatment.
Raymond had told me he'd probably just turn in early that first night. I said that was OK as long as he didn't mind my going out, which I knew I'd be dying to do. Now that we were there, Raymond wanted to get out for a bit, too. Raymond's good friend Randy had moved to Japan 15 years ago, and it wasn't long after a quick phone call that the three of us were out on the nighttime streets of central Tokyo. The sidewalks were crowded with people and I was reminded yet again just how beautiful and elegant the women of Japan are. The buildings of downtown central Tokyo were alive with lights and flashing signs of every colour. The streets were crowded, as always, with a strange variety of cars that we never see in the U.S. We'd only strolled a few blocks when Randy found what we were looking for, a nice little noodle shop on a side street where we could sit and enjoy an inexpensive (by Tokyo standards) meal and the two of them could catch up on things. There would be plenty to do in the coming days; meetings, interviews, tours and a tight schedule to keep, but for now it was a chance to relax.
TUESDAY, APRIL 10
I awoke at 4:30 before the dawn colours began to creep into the sky. There was that wonderful moment just after waking when realization struck that I wasn't home in my bed in the U.S. I was in Japan again, at the beginning of an amazing trip, high above the streets of Tokyo in the Imperial Hotel and everything still lay ahead of me.
Our first morning in Japan, we knew jet lag would have us waking very early. So we used that to our advantage to plan a visit to Tsukiji fishmarket, which is already humming with activity by 5:00 AM. James Bond would go to Tsukiji in Raymond's novel, so we would go too. Not that I minded. I've been to Tsukiji several times and it's always an amazing experience. It was an easy 20-minute walk from our hotel, taking us through the famous Ginza shopping district, uncharacteristically quiet at that hour of the morning. I felt an elation at being out on the streets of Tokyo once again.
Tsukiji is not a fishmarket such as you've ever conceived of. It's located on the bank of the Sumida River right near Tokyo Bay. It covers a massive 56 acres and handles about 2,500 tons of fish a day, valued at over $4,000,000. It's the largest fishmarket in Asia.
We arrived at Tsukiji well in time to see the place in full motion. And what motion there was! They allow anyone in, but no provisions are made for tourists, so it's "one side or a leg off" and every man for himself as people rush about through narrow aisles, crowded with people and every manner of seafoods. Small motorized platforms are piloted around like demolition derby cars through the narrow lanes. It may look like chaos, but there's an efficient structure there that's invisible to the untutored eye. Or so they assured me.
Later that morning we went to the offices of the JNTO headquarters to go over our itinerary and meet our guide for the day, a tall, lovely and charming young woman, Mariko Tatsumi. Our business concluded, Mr. Hideaki Mukaiyama, the president of the JNTO took us to lunch along with Tatsumi-san and another associate. We went to Kamo-gawa, a most unusual restaurant in the heart of the Tokyo business district. It was named after a famous river in Kyoto that runs through the Geisha, district of Gion. A door off the street led us to a lower level where the restaurant was crafted to look like the main street of a 16th century Japanese town. The private dining rooms all looked like individual houses. The concept was handsomely carried out.
We removed our shoes before entering our dinning room, whose decor was strictly traditional; a low table rested on tatami mats. We sat on broad flat zabuton cushions. A decorative tokonoma (a shallow alcove containing a subdued decoration) occupied one corner. The waitstaff all moved gracfuly in their somewhat restrictive kimonos. Our hosts honoured Raymond with a special, formal meal. The kaiseki meal originated 500 years ago as a part of the tea ceremony. In the 19th century it became a meal on its own merits with a set number of courses, including steamed, fried, grilled, soup, a raw course and a rice dish. The chef selects items to reflect regional foods and the time of year. How the courses look is just as important as how they taste and these were miniature works of art. I'd read about kaiseki meals but I'd never had one, so I was excited to experience it at last. I didn't know at that time we would be treated to Kaiseki meals several times during our trip, allowing me to compare different chefs' interpretations.
Raymond needed to see the inner workings of the oldest and most famous Kabuki theatre in all of Japan, the Kabuki-za Theatre, for the climax of an extended scene. The JNTO told us that of all the things we'd asked them to arrange, the backstage tour was by far the hardest.
The Kabuki-za theatre dates back to 1889 and is located in the Ginza district. It's a large ornate building with a double peaked roof and a large arch over the central entrance that's impossible to miss. By contrast, the stage door entrance is on a side street and is quite inconspicuous. It was shoes-off again and into a pair of too small slippers proffered by an attendant. The backstage area was a labyrinthine warren of corridors. Featured actors had their own dressing rooms, but without doors. Instead, a pair of noren, Japanese half curtains, hung in the doorway. These noren had been custom made for each actor as a gift from their fans. I think that's far better than just having a star on your door.
Raymond's an old hand when it comes to the backstage workings of theatres, so he had a lot of intelligent questions and observations. Tatsumi-san and I just followed along, up and down corridors, out onto fire escapes to reach other levels, then down again via tight twisting stairways eventually giving out into the wings of the theatre itself where I was surprised to discover there was a performance going on!
After the tour we relaxed in the theatre lounge over drinks with the manager, Mr. Munehiro Matsumoto. He not only treated us to drinks and appetizers, but also gave us some souvenirs of the theatre's anniversary. Then it was time to attend part of a performance. I say "part" because an actual full performance can run for hours. And hours. Tatsumi-san was excited because this was her first chance to see a Kabuki performance in this famous place. The dramatic makeup and costumes and the stylized movements were really dynamic, and the haunting, sing-song voice of the narrator was, well, . . . OK it was odd, but its just an acquired taste that I haven't acquired. It was interested to see what Kabuki was like, but unfortunately jet lag was catching up with me. So right after the performance we said goodnight to Tatsumi-san and turned in. There would be other nights for staying out late. The clock was lying about the time. My body knew the truth. It was telling me I'd just pulled the equivalent of an all-nighter.
WEDNESDAY, APRIL 11
The previous day's activities hadn't taken us far from the hotel. Today we would go a bit farther afield. We would visit a dog, purify ourselves, meet with a member of the fourth estate, interview a member of the oldest profession, and dine in a traditional Japanese mansion.
It would be a very busy day but as moms everywhere always say, "breakfast is the most important meal of the day", so that was first on our agenda. I love Japanese food, but the Japanese breakfast is one I'd just as soon skip. Raymond, however, insisted on going "native." In fact, he insisted on eating at Japan's most popular breakfast restaurant. McDonald's. The Japanese don't think of McDonald's as a foreign restaurant and it's extremely popular. They pronounce it as,"Makudonarudo".
We traveled on the convenient Yamanote commuter rail line, famous world over for the white-gloved employees who physically push riders into the trains during the rush hour madness until they're packed in tight at sardines. The crowds were light that day, so we were spared that ignominy. The Yamanote route loops around greater Tokyo passing through most of the major districts, each of which has a distinct personality. For instance, Akihabara is Tokyo's electronics shopping playground. Kanda is known for its bookstores. Shinjuku is party-central and Takadanobaba is notable, if only to me, as the one I have a lot of trouble pronouncing. But the first stop of this busy day was Shibuya.
Shibuya is the affluent teenager's playground; a land of endless youth-oriented, upscale department stores, boutiques, restaurants, music stores, video-game arcades, sweets shops and so much more, all catering to teens with a yen to spend (pun intended). The ultimate denizen of Shibuya is the Kogal. A Kogal is a highschool girl. Once out of school for the day the Kogal takes her school uniform's grey-plaid, pleated skirt and rolls the waist until the skirt assumes micro-mini proportions. To complete the look, add a genuine Louis Vuitton purse, a Prada mini-backpack and permanently attach a cell phone to her ear.
Raymond and I, both comfortably out of our teen years, were not there to shop or socialize with the roiling hordes of highschoolers. We were there to meet a dog. Or rather the statue of a dog named Hachiko. In Raymond's novel, James Bond would have a very important rendezvous at that statue.
Hachiko was a dog that accompanied his master to the train station every morning, and returned there to meet him every evening. One day in 1925 the master died of a heart attack while away. Hachiko came and waited patiently for the master who would never return. He came back to the station every single day for the next ten years until, on the 7th of March 1935, he was found lying dead at the station. The fame of this loyal dog had spread and a statue of Hachiko was erected on that spot. Each year, on the anniversary of his death, a festival (Ch ken Hachiko Matsuri) takes place there to honour the memory of the faithful dog. Today the statue is one of the most popular meeting places in Tokyo. If you say to anyone, "Meet you at Hachiko," they will know exactly where you mean. James Bond is no exception
Raymond and I walked the route James Bond would take in the novel. We passed through the upscale streets of Shibuya, past the quirky Love Hotels used by couples seeking a little privacy in overcrowded Tokyo, up past the 1964 Olympic sports stadia, which we reached just as heat was beginning to come into the day and the uphill walk was becoming a bit sticky. I was grateful to leave the concrete canyons of Shibuya and pass into the grassy open expanses of Yoyogi park, where on Sundays teens show up dressed in outlandish outfits and rock bands set up impromptu performances. But today was Wednesday and all we saw were some tents set up by homeless people, a new sight since my last trip to Japan just 18 months earlier. It was the only visible sign of the long recession that has gripped Japan. Otherwise, to all outward signs it's a robust economy and the stores are filled with shoppers with only three things on their minds; spend, spend, spend.
We passed out of Yoyogi park and under the towering Torii gate that marks the entrance to the Meiji Shrine, a heavily wooded oasis of calm sandwiched between the twin ultra-urban, hyper-frenetic districts of Shibuya to the south and Shinjuku to the north.
The shrine takes it's name from the Emperor Meiji who reigned from 1868-1912 and was so beloved that on his death 100,000 volunteers laboured until 1920 to complete this Shinto shrine. There are several Torii gates on the grounds. Each stands 40 ft tall with 56 ft crossbeams. They were built out of 1,700 year-old cypress trees from Mt.Ari in Taiwan. The thickly wooded grounds one sees at the shrine today came from dozens of thousands of seedlings sent from all over Japan.
When we reached the inner temple gate it was time to purify ourselves before entering. There is a small structure to one side of the entrance. A roof supported by four pillars stands over a tall, wide, shallow water basin topped by a dozen or so bamboo ladles. The process went like this: Raymond took a ladle and dipped it in the water. He poured water from the ladle over each hand to cleanse it, then took a sip of the water, swished and spat it into a gutter by his feet. With hands and mouth now purified, he purified the ladle again by tilting it up until the water ran down over the handle. The ladle clean again, he placed it back among the others. I followed suit and we were now free to enter the shrine so Raymond could map out how he would fit the scene in his mind into the physical layout of the buildings and grounds. Raymond bought a temple charm for his son, then went inside the main building and went through the process of waking the gods, showing respect, then tossing some coins into the broad, slatted, dark wood donation box.
Next stop was the Shinjuku district just to the north. The train station there is the busiest in the world. During the morning and evening commuter rushes, over a million people pass through the station every hour.
Raymond loves Chinese food and kindly treated me to lunch in a 4rth floor Chinese restaurant near the station. A lot of Tokyo is stacked on top of itself, so it's quite common to find shops and restaurants located well up off the ground level. After lunch, we proceeded to the Keiyo Plaza Hotel to meet with 007 expert Mr. Yoshihisa Nakayama, a journalist acquaintance of Raymond's who has written often about James Bond, even traveling abroad to cover 007 related stories.
Nakayama-san arrived bearing gifts for Raymond and me. He's a tall, slim, dapper fellow of quiet demeanor. He's a kind and generous person and I'm glad to call him my friend. We enjoyed dessert in a 45th floor restaurant with spectacular views of the city, which stretched out in all directions with literally no end in sight.
Nakayama-san had arranged for us to meet with both actresses who appeared in 1967's "You Only Live Twice"; Mie Hama and Akiko Wakabayashi. But that.would wait. Today he'd arranged something quite different for us. Raymond's research necessitated an interview that the JNTO had understandably declined to deal with, but which was important to Raymond's novel. We would visit to a Japanese brothel known as a Soapland and interview one of the women there.
The Tokyo sex trade is centered in a section of Shinjuku called Kabuki-cho. Compared with the Red Light districts in other countries, all the lurid stuff here takes place out of sight. Out on the street there was little to indicate the type of area we were in. And like the rest of Japan it's a safe area to walk in.
Nakayama-san guided us off a main street into a small side street on our way to a Soapland called, "Don Juan." In Japan there are different categories of sex establishments which go by different names, such as "Fashion Health" and "Image Clubs", but the top rung on the ladder is occupied by the Soaplands, so named because part of what goes on in is that the woman washes the man. The Yakuza (often conveniently referred to as "the Japanese Mafia") are much involved in running the sex trade.
As we neared the Don Juan, Nakayama-san was approached several times by touts for other clubs. Raymond and I were never approached. Most of these clubs don't allow non-Japanese patrons. The Don Juan was in a nondescript looking building housing businesses on either side. There was a beefy guy in a suit at the door. Inside Nakayama-san announced us to the attendant at a small reception desk. They'd been told the purpose of our visit and we were expected. We were shown into a small side room where customers would wait. It had a velour, built in couch and smoked-mirror wall panels. We were offered refreshments and a couple of minutes later a tough looking guy in a dark blue sharkskin suit entered and introduced himself. Yakuza enjoy dressing in a stereotype version of American 1950's gangsters. This guy's tough looks and gangster clothing made me suspect Don Juan was run by Yakuza, but I certainly wasn't going to ask! Introductions were made, along with the requisite exchange of business cards. The tough looking guy, whose name I won't use here, explained to us the details of the process when a patron arrives in this room.
As tough-guy was explaining, a young woman entered through a side door. For the purposes of demonstration she represented the women in the description we were getting. She was a lovely, poised young woman with an elegant face and figure. She wore a snug, short, tunic top, slit on the sides with fishnet stockings and heels. This, we are told, was Rei. She sat for just a minute, then rose and left.
At this point tough-guy suggested we go upstairs so he could continue his description. I have to say, "tough-guy" now seemed a lot more like "pretty-darn-nice-guy". He was eager to please, and rather jovial. Not at all what I expected when I first saw him, I'm happy to say.
We all trooped upstairs to the next floor where we found ourselves crowded onto a landing with several doors. There was considerable jostling as we all simultaneously tried to remove our shoes and step into Rei's room without stepping on the corridor floor. Short of something kinky, I'm sure this was the first time so many men had attempted to enter that room at one time.
The room was roughly ten feet wide by twenty feet deep. By the door there were liquor bottles on a table, and a bed. Beyond them, and one step down, were a bathtub and a tiled, open area. In the center of that area was an unusual stool, a table with lotions and soaps and leaning up against the wall, a jumbo air mattress. There was no air-conditioning, just a vent with a fan in the wall near the ceiling. Rei stood just inside the room and took our suit coats.
We were told the cost for a customer is 65,000 yen for 100 minutes. The house gets 20,000 yen, and the woman gets the rest. At the exchange rate while we were there that would translate into $530, or $5.30 per minute!
Tough-guy described what would happen next, and occasionally, while both stayed fully clothed, he and Rei would walk around showing us where in the room the couple would go next.
Tough-Guy stepped out and Nakayama-san acted as interpreter for Raymond's interview with Rei, who couldn't have been more pleasant. The first couple of questions yielded answers that were not promising. She'd said her name was Rei, but when asked if that were true, she replied, "No." When asked her age she had said, "Twenty three." When asked if that were true, she replied, "No." But after that rocky start, her answers became more forthcoming. She said she was in this line of work for the money, but also enjoyed it. She was not there against her will. No, her parents didn't know what she did for a living. And so on. When the interview was over she escorted us downstairs. We thanked everyone and said our good-byes.
Our next appointment couldn't be further from the world of Yakuza and Soaplands. Raymond needed to see inside the traditional Japanese home of a wealthy family. In the novel, the house would become the home of a central character. So the JNTO had introduced us to Ms Yoshiko Kitanishi, a charming young lady whose parents and siblings are in the sake brewing business. They had graciously offered us dinner in their home. It's a rare privilege to be invited into a home, since most houses are too small to entertain in properly. Almost all entertaining takes place in restaurants, bars and clubs. When visiting, it's proper to bring an O-miyage, a token gift. My regular choice in the past had been the safe and very standard gift of a bottle of Johnny Walker Black. But when visiting a sake brewing family it didn't seem right to bring liquor. Nakayama-san and I shopped at Isetan, an upscale department store. We headed for the lower level, which in any major department store is the food level. Everything there is beautifully prepared and presented. The selection goes on aisle after aisle like nothing you've ever seen before. Many items are made fresh on the premises several times daily and there are lots and lots of free samples. We finally settled on a fifty dollar box of imported Belgian chocolates. In Japan, where you buy the gift matters almost as much as the gift itself, so it customary to have the gift wrapped in the store's own wrapping paper, which is exactly what I had Isetan do.
Raymond and I took a moment to spruce up before meeting with Ms Kitanishi who, like us, was early. The three of us took a train to Saitama, on the North side of Tokyo. From there a taxi took us to the Kitanishi family house. Kitanishi-san insisted on paying for the $20 cab ride. At the end of the evening she took us by taxi back to the train station, as is the old-world custom, and again would not let us pay. I thought of the fact that she still had the trip home ahead of her, so that would be $60 she spent that evening just on taxi rides. Ouch. At least in Japan there's no tipping.
But that would be later. Right now we'd just arrived. We were escorted through a gate, into a garden, and from there into the house. Shoes were left in the entryway and we stepped up into a narrow wooden corridor which ran parallel to the garden. We were introduced to Ms Kitanishi's parents, to whom we gave the O-miyage gift. A sliding wall panel, called a fusuma, was slid aside so we could enter the room we would dine in. In Japan the size of a room is traditionally defined by the number of 3'x6' mats that occupy the floor. This was an eight mat room with a low table where we would sit to dine. Kitanishi-san's 10 year old little sister give Raymond some origami she'd learned to make in school. We also met her older sister and her brother who'd recently returned from France where he'd studied and been certified for his expertise in French wines. He'd brought a friend with him who is a big James Bond fan. The friend had copies with him of Raymond's books to have autographed.
This dinner was Raymond's first experience with sushi, and he found it delicious. He got to try lot of different types, too. In the West, people often think sushi is an everyday meal in Japan, but it's not. It's a special treat and surprisingly, is more expensive in Japan than in the U.S. So the family was presenting a very special dinner with many other delicious dishes as well.
Despite the language barrier, it was a very convivial evening. At one point the elder brother brought in two wines in unmarked carafes. The challenge was to identify which was French and which was from California. Any enophiles out there will be glad to hear we acquitted ourselves successfully. Several types of sake were also offered during dinner and were uniformly excellent; a unique treat. After dinner photos were taken and we said our good-byes. As if the family hadn't already been more than generous enough, they gave us a bottle of their family's finest sake, in a gorgeous presentation case.
We'd hoped to hook up again with Nakayama-san for some nightlife in Shinjuku, but Old Man Jet Lag would have none of it. We had barely enough energy to phone Nakayama-san to tell him it was a No-Go before staggering off to our separate rooms. I remember falling toward my bed, but I was asleep before I hit.
THURSDAY, APRIL 12:
Each day we traveled farther afield. Today we would leave Tokyo for the first time and follow in Ian Fleming's footsteps from his visit to Japan when he did research for the novel that would become, "You Only Live Twice." He went, and now we went, to Kamakura, 25 miles southwest of Tokyo.
Originally a quiet fishing village on Sagami Bay, Kamakura became the capital of Japan for 141 years from the close of the 12th century. Today it is best known to the outside world for two things. The massive 37 ft tall bronze casting of the Great Buddha (Daibutsu) dating from 1292, and the woodblock print, "The Great Wave of Kamakura," which depicts the 1495 tidal wave that swept over Kamakura and smashed into (along with everything else) the temple building housing the Great Buddha. The building was swept away, but the Great Buddha remained "in situ," and has soldiered on, outdoors, for over half a millennium.
We enjoyed the luxury of the Green Car on the one-hour ride to Kamakura. "Green Car" is the Japan Rail term for First Class. When we arrived at the station there were three people waiting for us. Two were guides arranged for us ahead of time. The other was my friend Chris Belton, an Englishman who married a Japanese woman in England 28 years ago. They moved to Japan soon after they'd had a child, and he now passes, what seems to me to be a very nearly perfect life. He and I had corresponded through e-mail prior to this visit, but this was our chance to meet in person. I felt, as Bond sometimes does, an immediate friendship with the man and was as comfortable with him as though we'd known each other for years.
The five of us headed off to see the Great Buddha. The first time I'd seen the Daibutsu I expected to pass through transitional layers from the ordinary world, to the world of the Great Buddha, an object of wonder and majesty. So it had come as a surprise when I just turned off an urban street, passed through a ticket gate and WHAM . . . there it was! The Daibutsu sits serenely at the end of a courtyard surrounded on three sides by a gallery. Only wooded hillsides are visible beyond. To one side of the Buddha old women were conducting a severely abbreviated version of the Tea Ceremony. We sat and participated, watched the smooth practiced motions of the women, accepted the proffered cup, gave it the two proper clockwise quarter turns, and took the two requisite sips of the thick bitter drink to drain the cup.
A particularly unusual feature of this huge statue of the Great Buddha is that for twenty yen (sixteen cents) you can actually go inside the Buddha's belly through a low side door and wander around his insides. It seemed odd that one was permitted inside a sacred religious figure. It's a weird sensation to be inside a statue and it's fun to try to identify each part from the reverse side.
By the time we were ready to go we'd made a curious discovery. Our guides were useless. The woman seemed too shy to say anything and deferred constantly to her fellow guide, an older man. For his part, he wasn't at all shy about talking, but was completely unintelligible. It was impossible to tell when he might be asking a question or saying something else that might require a response. I tried making what I hoped were appropriate noncommittal noises. I soon took refuge from him with my friend Chris, but my luck ran out on a bus ride to the Hachiman Shrine when the guide sat down next to me and spoke non-stop for ten minutes. I didn't understand a word. Raymond had wisely settled at the far end of the bus. Chris Belton became our de facto guide, telling us all we needed to know about the things we saw. The erstwhile guides spent the afternoon talking to each other.
We stopped into a nice traditional restaurant for lunch, but the guides managed to put in our order wrong so when our orders arrived, it was a surprise. I received grilled eel on a bed of rice. It wasn't what I ordered, but it's one of my favorites, so I kept it. Raymond received tempura and rice, and enjoyed it too. My friend Chris had joined us lunch and we were glad for his company. Raymond and I split the bill for the group. After lunch and an other temple we said goodbye to the guides. Chris came along with us by train as far as Oita where he lives.
At Odawara we continued by bus. The mountain roads climbed and twisted through wonderful mountain scenery on a picturesque ride up to Hakone. The cherry blossoms were still in bloom here and Raymond commented that this finally was what he had expected Japan to look like. He was right. The scenery here seemed straight off a Japanese painted screen. Just the year before I'd vacationed in Hakone for a few days and it was wonderful to recognize so many places along our drive. It was nearing dusk when we arrived at the lake near where Mie Hama lives and rendezvoused with Nakayama-san, to whom we were grateful for setting up this special meeting.
Hakone is rich in history, which I won't bother you about here, and is almost literally in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. As if that weren't enough, the area has many hot springs spas, which are just like a trip to heaven. Actually, given how hot the springs are, maybe it's sorta like the other place.
Normally this famous and popular vacation getaway spot is bustling. But on this weeknight in the off-season it was almost deserted and intensely moody in the approaching dusk. Here in the hills the air felt quite different from the city's. It was the first day on our trip to get outside of urban Japan and see the countryside. The three of us set off on foot and with a bit of rough navigation soon came into view of Hama-san's house sitting well apart from its neighbors.
We passed through the outer gate and up the garden path toward the front door, which slid open just as we arrived, revealing a startlingly beautiful, smiling woman in traditional kimono. It was Mie Hama herself. She bowed graciously, welcoming us in. Shoes off in the vestibule and once inside introductions were made. We presented her with our O-miyage (greeting gift) and enjoyed a personal tour of the house, which is remarkable; eclectic yet with a harmonious traditional feel. We wound up in the old kitchen (there's also a new kitchen where most of the real cooking goes on) and settled there for drinks and talk. Raymond and Nakayama-san had beer. Hama-san and I settled for tea. A few minutes later Mie Hama's daughter, Rena, arrived. She was as lovely and elegant as her mother and radiated a calm and kindness that were almost palpable. We were certainly in good hands. It would be a wonderful evening.
Mie Hama had suggested Nakayama-san invite a few more people to round our dinner party out to eight and soon the other guests arrived. I noticed a friend of Nakayama-san's, Mr. Hiroki Takeda, an avid 007 fan, was wearing a black knit tie (silk?) just like Fleming described Bond wore. I asked, and yes, it was on purpose. Then he smiled and shot his shirt cuffs; "Turnbull & Asser," said he. But he wasn't done. He turned over his left hand revealing the heavy wristwatch, "Rolex!" He intoned the word with pride. Next, he pinched the lapel of his deep blue suit. I knew what was coming. "Savile Row." We were in stocking feet, our shoes left by the front door, but I had no doubt at all his shoes were slip-ons. Bond hates laces.
The meal was amazing, a unique blend of Japanese and Italian styles resulting delicious gourmet offerings like I've never seen or tasted before. It was one of the best dining experiences of my life.
Raymond and Mie Hama got on famously together, and my only regret was that she and Rena didn't sit very long with us at any time. They personally served our courses and were constantly getting up to bring the next course or take away the last. I finally asked Hama-san if she wouldn't just please stay and allow us to enjoy her company, so she settled down with us. Autographs were signed. Pictures were taken. Before we knew it, it was time to leave or risk missing the last bus. The evening felt so magical it was easy to forget the outside world could intrude. We talked briefly and decided that a unique evening like this was too special to cut short. We would splurge and pay for the outrageously expensive taxi ride all the way back to Odawara, from which we could catch the bullet train back to Tokyo. I was very glad. But that just forestalled the inevitable. There was such a thing as a last train too, and all too soon it really was time to leave. Taxis were called for and Mie Hama and Rena walked everyone down to the cars. I told Rena what a special evening it had been and she made me promise to come back again.
The two cabs seemed to race each other as we sped though the night on dark, twisting deserted mountain roads. We just barely got to the station in time to catch the last train and soon enough we were back in the welcoming embrace of the Imperial Hotel, our home away from home. Lying in my bed, I dreamed dreams that could not possibly compare with the evening we'd just experienced.
FRIDAY, APRIL 13:
In the West, Friday the 13th is considered an inauspicious date, but Japan doesn't share that superstition, so we were safe. In fact, it was really great day.
Raymond and I had another expedient breakfast at McDonalds, stopping this time to pose for photos with the bronze statue of Godzilla nearby. It just happened that the corporate offices of Toho Studios were right there. Raymond had a 10:00 AM meeting in the hotel lobby with two producers from NHK, Japan's largest T.V. network. They had arranged to do a story about Raymond and were doing a pre-interview, getting the basics out of the way and getting a bit of film footage too.
Raymond and I met for lunch with two representatives of his Japanese publishers, Kadokawa Shoten, the biggest publishing house Japan. They've handled his movie novelizations of "Tomorrow Never Dies" and "The World is Not Enough" and were interested in this new novel, since it is set in Japan. We ate in one of the Imperial Hotel's excellent restaurants. This one specialized in sushi. The prices were astronomical. The average entr e cost 10,000 yen (US$80). I ordered the least expensive item, 4,000 yen, about 32 bucks. Despite the prices, the place was packed and a line stretched out the door. It was a good example of the paradox of Japan in economic recession.
Raymond was pleased with how the luncheon meeting had gone, but we had to hurry to the JNTO offices for interviews with the TV and other media. The NHK producer for Raymond's segment was a lovely, elegant and intelligent woman, Ms Reiko Ishizaki. During the on-camera interview with Raymond she asked how he saw the modern Bond woman. His reply was succinct. "You." That set her blushing and the camera pivoting around to capture her reaction. But Raymond was serious and used Reiko's name for the female lead character in "The Man with the Red Tattoo."
Raymond was in the middle of an interview with the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's largest newspaper. when Nakayama-san arrived. I was glad to see him again and thanked him for arranging the previous evening. He handed me a little gift (as though he hadn't already done enough). The Japanese love their Keitai, cell phones, and decorate and customize them. There are entire shops devoted to nothing but cell phone ornaments. Nakayama-san had given me a phone-lanyard with the 007 logo and a tiny Walther PPK handgun in white metal.
Following the interviews, the JNTO staff including Ms Tatsumi, walked us out to the elevator lobby, waited until the car arrived and then bowed deeply as the doors slid closed between us.
Our stay at the Imperial Hotel was done, and we moved to the newest of the Prince Hotels, the Sakura Tower. The staff there could not have been nicer. No fewer than four managers greeted us and escorted us to a lounge to sit and take care of registration over refreshments. Once again, as throughout the trip, Raymond and I had separate accommodations. The rooms were identical and very spacious. The bedroom's broad picture window featured a front-and-center view of Tokyo Tower. Tokyo Tower looks very similar to the Eiffel Tower, but is even larger! At night it was washed in orange light and made for a magical view with the rest of Tokyo spread out all around, and the lights across Tokyo Bay twinkling in the darkness.
A traditional feature in this modern hotel room was that the bathroom facilities were divided into two areas. In one spacious room were the bath (a big, sunken, Jacuzzi type tub), oversized shower and twin sinks. Completely separate, in a small private room, was the toilet. The Japanese prize cleanliness, and in the old days one would no more put a toilet in the same room as the bath than one would put a toilet in the kitchen.
Raymond and I had to rush to change clothes and return to the lobby for our meeting with actress Akiko Wakabayashi. She had the role of Aki in the 1967 film, "You Only Live Twice." She arrived wearing an elegant suit with a large scarf wrapped artistically around her shoulders, her hair worn short. She greeted us with a big smile and with Nakayama-san, we retired to the Wine Bar lounge, which offered a view out onto a large traditional garden and pond.
Raymond has always been especially fond of Akiko Wakabayashi, though she's long retired from show business and not as well known today in Japan as Mie Hama who maintains an active career. Wakabayashi-san and Raymond got each other's autographs and we snapped some photos. Naturally we discussed the filming of You Only Live Twice. I asked her about driving the fabulous Toyota 2000 sports car. She surprised me by saying she hadn't. She didn't have a licence at the time and didn't know how to drive. When she appeared to be driving the car it was either being towed or, for the long shots, it was Japan's top race car driver decked out in sunglasses and a wig.
Wakabayashi-san always carries her favorite book of astronomy with her to dip into. She showed it to us and it was indeed well worn with use. At first I thought she had said it was astrology, but I was glad to realize she had said astronomy. In college I worked for the physics department at the city's observatory. Astronomy has been an interest of mine ever since.
We asked Wakabayashi-san if she knew about "What's Up Tiger Lilly", the Woody Allen version of the movie she and her 007 co-star Mie Hama had been in together in1964, "Kokusai himitsu keisatsu: Kagi no kagi" (AKA Key of Keys). She was aware of his comedy version of the film. She told us a bit about filming the original.
Akiko Wakabayashi had brought her own camera with her and suggested we all move outside into the Japanese garden so she could take a few pictures together with us. About a month later, when I was back home in the U.S., I got a letter from Akiko Wakabayashi with a nice note and copies of the photographs she'd taken that day.
Raymond and I would have loved to have stayed longer, but we had another appointment to rush off to. Nakayama-san remained behind and the two of them continued to talk and visit late into the evening.
We did another quick change and were back down in the lobby to meet Ms Takahashi, the representative of the TCVB, Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, who whisked us off by taxi to an upscale neighborhood near the Ginza. On a quiet side street, away from stores and bright lights we stopped in front of the broad handsome gates of Jisaku, a very exclusive restaurant located in the former mansion home of industrialist, Mr. Mitsubishi. The gateposts were the boles of thick old trees. The arch between them was capped with dense foliage. We walked into an elegantly decorated courtyard where a uniformed doorman ushered us inside. The place looked fit for the Emperor himself and was opulently and traditionally decorated. It was shoes off and into slippers for the guided walk along tatami mats to our private dining room. It was huge, being two normal dining rooms with the separating walls. Our hosts were waiting to greet us inside. In addition to the woman from the PR Section who had escorted us in the taxi, there were three gentlemen from the TCVB present; the Director, the Executive Director, and the President, Mr. Naotaka Odake. He's a handsome man, resembling American actor Robert Loggia. His English was excellent and he spoke well, at length and with passion about Tokyo and the people of Japan. In the old days this man would have been feudal lord. He had an easygoing confidence and air of command about him. I'm sure Bond would have taken to him immediately.
Raymond and I were shown to our seats on one side of the low table. Our four hosts sat on the other side. They had given us the better view. One entire side of the room faced out onto the expansive Japanese garden with a large pond stocked with colourful Koi. The seats themselves were quite unusual by Western standards, having a seat and a back, but no legs at all. They, and therefore we, sat flat on the tatami mats. We were given one other piece of furniture to use; one that I'd seen in Samurai movies, but never used in real life. It was a small, kidney shaped armrest on it's own legs. Sitting there in this fabulous mansion, with all the elegant old trappings around me I felt transported; like I had entered a Kurasawa movie. I half expected Toshiro Mifune to walk in at any time.
The meal was fabulous, another Kaiseki dinner. An average meal here runs about $150 per person without liquor, and this was not an average dinner by any definition of the word. Our hosts asked Raymond to select the sake. It arrived in a square china teapot and we drank from shallow delicate china cups known as Sakazuki, which hold few sips. The restaurant's hostess, a classically lovely woman wearing full kimono, stopped in to make sure everything was fine. Our hosts were surprised and flattered when she decided to stay, it being, we were told, a rarity for her to do so. She sat in formal kneeling between Raymond and me and refilled our tiny sake cups each time they were low, which was each time we took a sip, which in my case was often.
Just when I thought the evening couldn't get any better, another young woman entered carrying a shamisen, a traditional three-stringed musical instrument looking something like a square banjo. She settled down onto the mat and played for us. I have never, ever, heard the shamisen played with as much emotion and power as she brought to it. Our applause was long and heartfelt. Raymond described her as the Jimi Hendrix of the shamisen. It turns out she's a national competition winner. We asked if she had a CD out. The news was good and bad. She did indeed have a CD, but it sells out so quickly, the stores can't keep it in stock.
At the end of the evening we took pictures, expressed our sincere thanks to our hosts and said goodnight. Raymond and I were given gifts, including the china sake cups we each had used during the dinner. In another traditional gesture of hospitality, one of the TCVB staff members escorted us via taxi all the way back to our hotel.
The next day we would be taking our longest trip yet, all the way down the coastline to an island in the Japanese Inland Sea.
SATURDAY, APRIL 14
We carried only small overnight bags as we climbed aboard the Shinkansen, one of the world famous bullet trains, for the ride that would carry us far from Tokyo, past Mt.Fuji, past Kyoto and Osaka, even past Himeji Castle which I'd visited before, where parts of You Only Live Twice were filmed.
We rode in the first class carriage, which resembled an airline's cabin more than a train's. The gods of weather were kind to us and we were able get a good view of Mt.Fuji as we hurtled past at well over a hundred miles an hour. At Okayama we transferred from the lightning quick, hi-tech bullet train, to a small, local limited-express train for the remainder of the ride. Our local train trundled along past small towns and eventually deposited us at the end of the line, a town called Uno which sits on the coast of the Japanese Inland sea not far from the massive Seto Ohashi bridge (1,723 meters). In Uno I saw two children playing the card game called Uno and wondered if they thought the game was named after their home town (it's not). The town felt almost deserted after bustling Tokyo. Using a hand drawn map we'd been given by the JNTO we found our way to the small ferry building about a half-mile away. Our destination was the island of Naoshima. We entered the grey one-story ferry building and I bought our tickets from a tiny old woman behind the counter. It seemed our arrival had been expected. The interview with Raymond, including a colour photo, had hit the papers that day. It had included his travel plans. The ticket lady came around the counter and rushed over to Raymond. In one hand she had a copy of the paper open to Raymond's photo, and in the other hand she had two 8x10 blank autograph cards for him to sign. This was the first we knew that the newspaper story had been published, and the lady kindly gave her copy to Raymond.
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