A great escape to Biwako

by Simon Bartz

Jasmine, a writer who hails from Hiroshima and is much older than me but has a refined magnetizing beauty that cannot be ignored, pours me a cup of green tea on my first ever junket. It’s just before the world turns blue; just before I’m dropped into a Marc Chagall painting by an invisible but all-seeing God with an instinct for romance.

A junket, according to my dictionary, can mean a few things. It can be a feast or picnic. It can be a pleasure trip. It can be an excursion paid for out of public funds. It’s the last, for sure, but I hope it can be all of the above.

I take a shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and change to the Tokkaido Line heading for Otsu, the capital city of Shiga Prefecture, which sits beside Lake Biwa.

Biwa is Japan’s largest freshwater lake at 672 sq. km, and I can’t quite see it all, even from the Japanese restaurant us bunch of hacks have been taken to on the 36th floor of Otsu’s Prince Hotel. But the sight through the wall of windows overlooking the lake is majestic, as is the tonbi (kite) surfing kinglike on the wind right outside, the beautiful kimono the young ladies wear as they serve us, and Jasmine as she now pours me some local sake. This dining experience is probably pricey but I don’t know, ‘cos this is a junket, so it’s all free as I am here to big up Biwako and produce publicity.

On the 66-meter-long, 1,216-ton Biankago cruise boat on Biwa Lake, I am asked if I want a room for myself or if I’d prefer to share with a stranger. As I’m alone, and strangers are just that until they become new friends, I choose the latter, and anyway, if I end up with a freak and he tries to stab or shag me in the night it’ll make for a few paragraphs.

Slipping the key into the lock, behind me I hear a voice. “I’m with you, my name is Honda-san.” He looks pretty safe and we go inside. He tells me he’s 38, doesn’t want to be here but with his 5-year-old daughter and his wife in Osaka, and he’s a photographer for a travel magazine. I tell him I’m not sure what I do, but I wish my girlfriend from Sendai was with me.

The room is excellent: two beds, a table, a huge comfy sofa, a fridge, a TV and a bathroom with a decent-size bath. It’s very, very impressive.

“Do you smoke?” asks Honda. Thank God. We spark up and he asks if I am part of the junket entertainment because my luggage consists solely of a guitar. I laugh and tell him I took the junket to get a free shinkansen ticket to Kyoto to spend two days helping my friend tend a kaki-gori yatai (flavored-ice stall) at the Gion matsuri (festival), and later me and my mate will stay up all night making new songs. He offers to take photographs for me on this trip, and I thank him for that. It means I can concentrate on doing nothing, which is what a cruise should be all about.

The boat is cruising from Otsu to Oumi Imazu — about a 3-hour trip northward. The boat doesn’t feel like it’s moving, it is so smooth. No engine sound. No shaking. This is a cruise. There’s overwhelming silence. Total peace. Mountains surround the lake, a picture-postcard backdrop. And we slowly move between many tiny tree-covered islands that dot Biwako, sprouting up out of the water like small green mushrooms.

We’re traveling at about 8 to 10 knots, according to Mr. Yamazaki, who identifies himself as “the water expert” on board. The sprightly 72-year-old is clad in Burberry, and he tells me he loves Britain. “I studied the River Thames and its tributaries,” he says. “That’s what got me where I am now. It was 35 years ago when Japanese water monitoring was low. In England they had more skill in understanding pH. It’s best to record the water in winter because then it is really cold. See those mountains there, beyond those lies Kyoto.”

I don’t understand all he’s talking about, but I give him a cigarette and we stand silently on the upper deck as we pass under the splendid Biwako Bridge that stretches proudly across the lake. “Is there a beer machine on the boat?” I ask him. “I don’t think so,” he says.

I am politely ushered by a tour attendant to the lecture room below, the fourth floor of the boat, to listen to two obasan riffing on recorders carved from reeds harvested from the lake. They play what sounds like an endless Japanese version of Paul McCartney’s “Mull of Kintyre.” Pretty painful after a while. And there then follows one of innumerable heavyweight lectures, which are all in Japanese with no translation.

Being on this boat is like being on a plane. Or in school. Or in school on a plane. You’re completely in their hands. No escape. You can’t wander off to the konbini or hide behind the bike sheds to do something unruly. A recorder is passed around and I play a Stones riff on it, which amuses Jasmine, Honda and Nozomi Ito from The Nagoya Times.

Then another lecture about the history of the lake, which I’m sure you can get off the Net. I’m the only gaijin (foreigner) on board and the Japanese journalists here, about 30 of them, often stifle yawns. Jasmine’s eyes tell me she’s bored, so we flee to the deck to smoke and laugh and watch the hills and islands drifting past. I ask her what this cruise is all about. “Some women might want to come with their mother. Others might want romance,” she says. I nod in agreement. That’s what it’s all about.

The sky is gray and sprinkling water, and a typhoon is imminent. Not an ideal romantic scenario. I imagine what it would be like here when the sun is shining — here with the one you love. I tell this to Takada-san, a young ship factotum who stands with us under a canopy puffing on a fag. “On a clear night stars blanket the sky,” he says. “There are no city lights, so you can see the heavens as clear as anywhere in Japan. That is better than the sunny days you talk about if you want romance.”

“You know where I can get a beer?” I ask him.

“Biwa water,” he says.

“No, biru (beer),” I say.

“We are now stopping to drink water from Biwa Lake,” he tells me.

The ship briefly shudders for the first time and comes to a halt. Through some mechanism below, they take water from 50 meters down, which is the average depth of the North Lake (the South Lake of Biwako is generally less than 5 meters). Then we all gather in the lecture room to drink the water — delicious, better than my preferred Volvic — and listen to shrimp talking. Mr. Yamazaki is center-stage, mic in hand, lapping up the attention like a true entertainer, and I love it and hang around. Mr. Yamazaki explains that he records the sound of water. He flicks switches on a machine that looks like it’s been pulled from a 1960s “Thunderbirds” episode, and we hear how different the water sounds at 10, 30 or 50 meters deep. It all sounds like someone letting out a long, slow fart in a bath. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Mr. Yamazaki then directs us to a fish tank in the corner of the room. The tank is full of shrimp and it’s hooked up to headphones so you can listen to the shrimp talking. What is shrimp-talk like? Imagine crushing a packet of potato chips in your hand and then getting electronic-music maverick Aphex Twin to remix it as a selected ambient work.

The boat docks at Imazu; we are told the typhoon will definitely hit within 24 hours, and as the heavens unleash the first of many a furious downpour, we are whisked off in a bus and taken on a 20-minute journey to the memorial museum of Touju Nakae (1608-1648), an educator influenced by the Chinese, hence the dragon motifs, etc. displayed in the beautiful garden next to the museum. We are all given a video cassette — it’s a cheesy TV drama about this guy’s life, but the rewarding thing here is the garden and dancing in the rain with Jasmine on the stepping-stone bridges that cut through the various ponds.

We are taken into a tatami room and asked to sit. There’s a blackboard and a TV in the corner and another lecture starts. I slip outside when nobody is looking and to my delight there lies a tiny liquor store called Fujiya Saketen across the road. It’s very shitamachi (downtown): there’s a standup ashtray at the counter and a stool. Just like a bar. The proprieteress, Kojima Kazue, who must be aged about 50, is intrigued by this henna-gaijin (strange foreigner) who’s appeared out of nowhere in a storm, and she offers me the seat, an Asahi beer and a cigarette and we chew the fat.

She asks if I’m here with my wife. I say I don’t have one. I show her pictures of my girlfriend. She tells me she never got married. She once was in love, but it never came to be. The usual down-to-Earth natter. Several beers later, I spot the bus pulling out of the Touju Nakae museum car park. They’ve left me behind! But then, 20 minutes later, a tour organizer calls asking where I am. The bus returns and I apologize to everyone on board. We head back to the boat as the winds whip up and the rain hits heavy.

There are mutterings that the tour may be curtailed due to the typhoon but what I’m really interested in hasn’t happened yet — a visit to Azuchi-jo, the castle-home of one of Japan’s most curious historical figures, the mad hegemon Oda Nobunaga. We are assured that the boat is strong enough to withstand anything that nature can throw at it. There’s no need to worry, apparently. Jasmine clutches my hand. Honda smiles. There’s a little way to go and the world has not yet turned blue.

But it will. It will.

Part 2 of the Biwako story will appear Sept. 14. Information on Biankago cruises and excursions is available at www.biwakokisen.co.jp (in Japanese, but an English pamphlet can be downloaded). The Oumi-Seijin Nakae Touju Memorial Museum can be reached at 0740-32-0330. Prince Hotel info can be checked at www.princehotelsjapan.com