Reality as the year draws to a close bears a grim visage. Rarely, if ever, within memory have global politics been so dreary, leaders so small-minded and mean-spirited. Progress is ceaseless but felt by many as harassing and menacing rather than, as to our 19th-century forebears, bright with the promise of a better future.

A festive season looms. Cares are left behind, fears and forebodings cast off. We remind ourselves, if we are sensible, that "the news" can be turned off, if only for a time; that "useful information" is good but uselessness has its merits too — innocent beauty, for example.

We all have our chosen escapes from whatever oppresses us. Some seek remote places. I seek remote times. Japan is rich in them. You can go very far back in time and meet people as civilized as ourselves whose outlook on life is nonetheless so utterly different from ours as to be disconcerting at first — and then, once the bewilderment settles, refreshing, restoring.