In 1988 I was an awkward, dreamy kid with clumsy elbows and scraped knees, and Japan was a place I’d never even thought about. Impossibly far away and altogether foreign, it seemed fantastical.
I had no idea back then that as an adult I’d keep being pulled back — first by coincidence, next by work, then love, and afterwards simply by the desire to once again see cherry blossoms falling like snow or freshly planted wet rice paddies reflecting the evening sky.
Back then, I knew nothing about the country, but my mother, sister and I had Japan Airlines tickets to take us from our home in Adelaide, South Australia, to visit my maternal grandparents near Toronto in Ontario, Canada. It sounded like a long trip, but my mother told me we’d be visiting a relative en route. She had called her cousin Cathy, a freelance translator living in Takamatsu (in Kagawa Prefecture, on the island of Shikoku), and so — armed with Japanese-language cassette tapes — we were to have a 10-day stopover in Japan.
Of course my sister and I accepted this in that enviable matter-of-fact way that children alone possess. I was just 10 then, and the world was less jet-set than today. Air travel was exciting, extravagant and exotic. I was so focused on the airplane journey that I hardly thought about Japan until we arrived. But when we did, the country washed over me in a rush of humid air that smelled of ocean, and a greenness so intense I could taste it. Out the windows of the shuttle-bus from Narita Airport I saw bamboo swaying against the sky, vines rambling down hillsides. We stayed in Chiba Prefecture that first night, and I remember being overawed by the novelty and immense luxury of staying in a hotel.
On the shinkansen (bullet train) the next day, my mother took photos of the scenery and we ate bento (boxed lunches) while the landscape flashed past at unbelievable speeds. We skimmed over the roofs of houses, turquoise tiles shimmering in the sun like the ocean.
To get to Takamatsu you change trains in Okayama, leaving the shinkansen behind to board a Shikoku-bound Marine Liner. There were no English announcements or signs in those days, and my sister and I were charged with watching carefully out the carriage window as we pulled into every station, matching the patterns of the characters with those in our guidebook.
Takamastu was then, as now, a provincial capital with rice paddies and irrigation canals creeping toward the heart of the city. The Seto Oh-hashi Bridge had just opened, the economic bubble was yet to burst, and the whole country felt optimistic and, to a foreign child, outrageously organized.
Cathy picked us up from the station in a tiny white car and took us to the equally compact house she shared with her Japanese husband and 6-month-old son. We three visitors slept on futons in the single upstairs room and the smell of rice straw from the tatami mats permeated our clothes.
We ate rice for breakfast and amazingly chewy Sanuki udon noodles for lunch. Cathy told us that locals, when in a rush, “chew with the throat” — that is, they don’t chew at all. We tried it, and were disgusted and fascinated by the uneasy feeling of the long noodles slipping down our gullets with one end still in the bowl. We tried fat futomaki sushi rolls, and my child’s palate rebelled against the unorthodox mixture of sweet and savory.
We took deep baths in the evenings after dinner. Overnight the tidal drainage canals outside filled with water and in the mornings there were fish thrashing through the receding waters. My sister and I were fascinated by the dragonflies. It was late May, and in Kagawa people were beginning to plant rice, and tiny fish swam through the paddies. Factory bells chimed at noon and in the evening. Now, whenever I return to Takamatsu, I travel with my 10-year-old self for company.
Cathy still picks me up from the station and takes me places. On that first trip she took us to Shikoku-mura, where a cluster of traditional local houses have been salvaged and reconstructed on the steep slope of Mount Yashima, rising from the plain. Whereas at 10 I was most delighted by the vine bridges, in later years I’ve been falling hard for the wonderful pots outside the old soy-sauce factory.
Ritsurin Koen is one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens. In May, the irises form rivers of blue along the waterways. To a 10-year-old, the garden was a fairytale place, with gold and orange koi flashing in beams of sunlight.
Poised in timelessness between its ancient history and the unfolding present, Ritsurin remains magical to me the adult as well. I’ve been back in early May when the azaleas bloom in pinks so shocking they seem artificial, and in late June when the lotus buds are impossibly pink against electric-green leaves. Even in winter, when only a few camellias are blooming, the gardens show the broad scope of Japanese landscape architecture: borrowed scenery and artificial hills blend seamlessly together. Whatever the season, I always stop at the 17th-century Kikugetsu-tei tea house for a bowl of whipped green matcha and the view across the South Pond.
At 10, though, I was too young for tea — but delighted in a new world of vending-machine soft drinks. We walked the covered shopping streets of downtown Takamatsu, buying souvenirs and breathing in the smoky smell of freshly shaved katsuo-bushi (the dried skipjack tuna, or bonito, widely used in Japanese cuisine).
In the afternoons we explored the museums. My mother, a potter, was enamored with the rustic feel of the unglazed, wood-fired Bizen-yaki ceramics, which are made just across the Seto Inland Sea from Kagawa Prefecture. For a provincial capital known mainly as “the Gateway to Shikoku” rather than for its own sake, Takamatsu is surprisingly full of wonderful art and little museums.
The Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi worked for many years in nearby Mure, and his old studio has been converted into a museum. You can go and stand breathless and overwhelmed amid his massive abstract stone sculptures.
George Nakashima, another Japanese-American and a master woodworker, also had a workshop in Takamatsu, which has been transformed into a gallery dedicated to the iconic mid-century modern furniture of its creator.
Downstairs, there’s a gallery where, not long ago, Cathy and I drank coffee together and talked about our lives, and about the last 20 years. The coffee was some of the best I have ever tasted, with rich cream swirling up through the dark, fragrant liquid. I pretended to be sophisticated, but when Cathy wasn’t looking I reached under the table to rub my healing knee, scraped while body surfing on vacation a few weeks before. Two decades later I’m still the same person, and Takamatsu is still the same town.
Takamatsu can be reached by rail on the Marine Liner from Okayama (¥1,470), and there are also ferry and air links to the city. Overnight buses, on the Dream Takamatsu-go, run to and from Tokyo Station (¥18,200 return). For more details, visit www.jr-shikoku.co.jp There are plenty of hotels around the station area, including ryokan for those seeking a tatami and yukata experience. Most sights can be reached by rental bicycle or on the charmingly quaint Kotoden train. Bookings (by return-post from within Japan, or by fax or e-mail from overseas), are required for the Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum (www.isamunoguchi.or.jp).