I’ve yet to come across a deeply religious Japanese person. The Japanese follow two main religions, Shintoism and Buddhism, but more, so they tell me, as a ritual or a superstition, than a matter of faith. But they have a new God, which they seem to follow blindly, the God of Electricity. Monuments to this God are everywhere, even in the most sacred Shinto sanctuaries. They are especially prominent on the mountain sides, as if to permanently remind us that the once beautiful virgin forests have been bulldozed and replaced with crytomeria pines. But it would be unfair to say the utility poles and pylons have ruined Japan’s urban landscape – it would be unremittingly ugly without them. The phrase ‘urban jungle’ could have been coined to describe the concrete bleakness of Japan’s cities.
Where, then, is the beauty in Japan? Well, not all the architecture is grim – the skyscrapers of Tokyo rival New York and Hong Kong. There is breath-taking beauty in Japan’s coastline, its lakes, temples and gardens. But the essential beauty of Japan is in the small details – a simple flower arrangement or an ornament in a tokonoma alcove.
Japan above all is the land of beautiful people. There’s nothing more depressing than standing in a queue behind an American who has let himself go – by which I mean let himself grow to twice his normal width. In Japan size zero is the norm; people take pride in their appearance and often look far younger than their years. Last year, at the Gardening World Cup one of the translators, who worked hard and played hard, had been out all night celebrating her birthday and the designers were wondering how old she was. “27” said one, “No, 24” said another. She was 41, but like so many Japanese didn’t look her age because she hadn’t put on the weight which is associated with growing older. Very few men or women develop the middle-aged spread which we think is inevitable, so that their waist measurement at 60 is the same as it was at 30. The Japanese look good and to see them makes me feel good and takes my mind off those utility poles.