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Full Circle

Day 32: Togakshi

Togakshi, Japan 
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C.W. Nicol on the nature trail.
Michael Palin - Full CircleC.W. and I lunch in the village of Togakshi, where there are huge, enveloping thatched roofs steep-pitched against four or five months of winter snow, and an eight-hundred-year-old cedar tree rising 350 feet above the copper-ridged rooftops. This was once the Mecca of the mountain religion. Now it is squeezed tight with members of the tourist religion, its inaccessible beauty tarnished in the process. We sit down to eat at a fine, traditional restaurant which specializes in its own, home-produced buckwheat noodles. C.W. instructs me in the proper way of eating them.

'Don't nibble...' he says reprovingly, '...slurp! Forget you got bashed for doing it as a kid, now you can do it and be polite.'

Of course, it's like everything else, when you have to slurp, you can't.

To wash it down C.W. orders doboruku which looks to me like rice milk. He chuckles greatly at this. Doboruku is in fact white sake, traditionally only made at home. It's a lethal concoction, he warns me, as the yeast continues to ferment inside the stomach for an hour or so after you've drunk it. He knocks a glass back in one and swiftly orders another.

In his book Traveller's History of Japan, Richard Tames notes that what makes Japan exceptional among developed countries is its homogeneity. Ninety-nine per cent of all the Japanese in the world were born and still live in Japan. No minority, either racial or religious, comprises more than one per cent of the community (whereas sixteen per cent of Americans are non-white and four per cent of British are Muslim). Japanese is only spoken in Japan. Many Japanese are, deep-down, still uncomfortable with what they perceive as the loss of their uniqueness which followed the arrival of a US naval vessel in Tokyo Bay in 1853, ending two hundred years of self-imposed isolation. All of which makes C.W. one of that very rare sort indeed, an outsider assimilated into Japanese life.

He admits that it is not easy. The Japanese are self-absorbed and wary of the gaijin - the foreigner. But C.W. has persevered and been rewarded now with full citizenship.

It seems very apt that one of the last memories of my visit to the mountains should be a line of verse from Issa, a local Haiku poet, reproduced, with English translation, at Kurohime railway station: 'The ant's path, does it not reach to yonder cloudy peak?' The translation, I notice, is by C.W. Nicol.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 32
  • Country/sea: Japan
  • Place: Togakshi
  • Book page no: 57

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