Tasked to trace the route across Japan that Ian Fleming, the author of James Bond, took in 1962 — and which Bond himself largely follows in Fleming’s penultimate 007 novel “You Only Live Twice” (1964) — it was suggested I could experience the same route but with modern sensibilities.
In truth, if you wish to follow the two-week trip Fleming took across Japan — beginning in Tokyo and winding your way down to Kyushu — you can assuredly do so, either in one go or knocked off in discrete sections. You can visit nearly all of the places that Fleming went to and see the eternal sights that he did: the Mikimoto pearl fisheries and the Grand Shrines of Ise on the Kii Peninsula; the Nijo Jinya and Shimabara brothel district in Kyoto; and take a ferry ride from the city of Kobe along the islands of the Seto Inland Sea to the “hells” of Beppu, to finally arrive at the magnificent caldera of Mount Aso in Kyushu before taking in Fukuoka on a bullet train back to Tokyo.
You can do all of that and take the Bond novel with you — filling your head with Secret Service adventures and 1960s style — and, as a Bond aficionado, I would heartily encourage you to do so. But to what extent can you experience Japan today in the same raw, intense manner that Fleming did back in 1962?
When, for example, after eating fugu (blowfish), Fleming heard that the fish’s poison numbed the lips, he immediately tested his own lips with the heat of a lit match. He also caused a commotion at the Tokyo American Club at the beginning of his trip arguing about the way that sumo wrestlers strapped their groin area during matches. And he sipped steaming bath water with pursed lips at Mount Aso to see if it had a salt base.
When he arrived at the first destination of his tour — the Mikimoto Pearl Island in Ise, which he reached in those pre bullet train days by hydrofoil from Gamagori — he did not just want to see the ama divers plunging into the sea in search of pearls, but pushed through the crowd of spectators and placed a gentle hand on the diver’s shoulder as she emerged. His justification? A desire to know “the precise texture of wet feminine skin.”
You might not be surprised to read that these days such “hands-on” experiences are rarer (and might well get you arrested).
Locals still do put on touristic displays of ama diving at Mikimoto’s pearl factory, but on the wet and cloudy day I visited, I discovered that this performance has no role in the region’s modern methods of pearl production. Instead of stripping off, dagger clenched in teeth, in pursuit of oyster shells on the seafloor, pearls of uniform size are nowadays mass-produced in regulated compartments along the shore. My James Bond tour had not the most thrilling start.
The next stop on the tour is nearby Matsusaka, famed producer of marbled beef. When Fleming heard that the cattle were fed alcohol and their bodies massaged by hand, he of course wanted to try it out for himself. He took a hard brush used to massage the cattle, filled his mouth with shōchū liquor, spat it over the rump of a cow and personally massaged it in.
I swerved that experience, but, in Kyoto, personally tested, as Fleming did, the nightingale floors that “sing” to warn of approaching assassins in Nijo Jinya, the old inn used by daimyo lords. But to really appreciate the house — with its secret chambers, trapdoors, listening post and death drop — you have to apply Fleming’s astuteness of analysis: correctly seeing that the ground floor nightingale floor was a feint, designed to provide its guests with a sense of security from external threats, when the real threat to their lives were assassins hidden in the upper chambers. “Reassured needlessly below,” Fleming remarked, “therefore doubly vulnerable above.”
As in the Bond novels, death and sex were the two main features of Fleming’s Kyoto tour. Besides the singing floors, he took a keen interest in the workings of the Shimabara brothel district and how it catered to visiting dignitaries in the Edo Period (1603-1868).
On his trip, Fleming had two travel companions: Richard Hughes (an internationally renowned journalist, Japan expert and spy) and Torao “Tiger” Saito (an architect, editor and the model for “Tiger Tanaka,” the head of the Japanese Secret Service, in “You Only Live Twice”), who had carefully prepared the itinerary for him.
Hughes referred to the experience as “the most instructive, enjoyable, crowded, leisurely, lively and hilarious trip I ever made in thirteen long and happy years of residence in Japan.” “Sayonara to James Bond,” a chapter in his memoirs, has the air of a travel classic, a kind of “Three Men in Japan” of amiable hijinks and mutual warmth.
You can still do today as the three of them did and take a boat from Kobe down the Seto Inland Sea to Beppu, but if you truly wish to conjure up a “Fleming-esque” journey across Japan, it would be less important to travel to the exact places they did, than to invite the two most interesting people you know and head out with the same adventurous attitude.
Fleming closely observed the Japanese he encountered en route — never failing to spend an hour or two every evening writing notes on his experiences and observations of the day.
He was also closely observing his Australian and Japanese travel companions, as they in turn scrutinized the brilliantly eccentric, charismatic and sharp-minded English author. Fleming traveled everywhere in a dark blue suit with a blue-polka-dot tie, smoked cigarettes from a holder, sported a shooting stick and carried his own supply of bourbon.
Out of all the places I visited, the only one that seems to be waking up to the potential of celebrating Bond’s adventures is the island of Naoshima on the Seto Inland Sea, where a 007 Museum was briefly established, though it closed down last year. Even so, passing through the islands, I longed for something far more grand.
My mind turned again to Fleming’s journey, during which Saito had imagined a Caribbean-style, Dr. No-like hotel on the Seto Inland Sea and Fleming had immediately offered three titles for it (but the next day had forgotten his suggestions and started to improvise once more). It would be dreamlike and beguiling to stay at that imaginary hotel today.
Hughes called Beppu, their first destination in Kyushu, “rather vulgar, but amusing and lascivious.” I too had Beppu down as a brash, tacky place, but on this trip made a beeline for the elegant onsen (hot spring) area of Kannawa, which is near to five of the seven famous hells (volcanic pools) and an area that Fleming himself visited. I stayed at Yanagiya, a delightful ryokan (Japanese inn) where they steam-cook any food you desire in volcanic vapors, and from which you can stroll around the hells in a yukata (summer kimono) and geta sandals.
Japan was for Fleming not just any other exotic country, but the ultimate “other,” a culture for which he felt the most profound fascination and respect. He had been gravitating toward the country since publishing “Dr. No” (1958), in which James Bond dons a kimono in the villain’s lair. And, by the end of “You Only Live Twice,” it seems as though Bond might stay in Japan forever, contentedly living with ama diver Kissy Suzuki on an island off the Kyushu coast.
The final destination in Fleming’s journey was the city of Fukuoka — somewhere he had suggested to Hughes and Saito. And it is here that Bond would ultimately kill his nemesis Blofeld, holed up in a castle, surrounded by a “garden of death.”
Personally I find Fukuoka underwhelming (“anticlimactic,” Hughes called it), the main point of interest of which is the Nakasu entertainment district. It amazes me that a place with so few visitor attractions would not make something of its starring role in the penultimate James Bond novel by creating its own Blofeld Castle, 007 interactive show and real-life “garden of death.”
Hughes regretted not taking Fleming to the more historically significant Nagasaki instead. You might round off your tour by heading there — the Bond film Skyfall pays a visit to the island of Gunkanjima in Nagasaki Bay — or perhaps to the charming island of Iki, which Fleming never visited but is presumably the type of place he had in mind when he wrote of an amnesiac Bond living as a fisherman.
When I visited Iki, the tour guide joked to me that on the little island they refer to four cars at a crossroads as a “traffic jam.” Nowhere in Japan is further removed from the thrilling world of James Bond, and yet, paradoxically, few places are more closely connected to the final elegiac pages of “You Only Live Twice.”