Letter from Japan: The search for tranquility is a fool's errand

Letter from Japan: The search for tranquility is a fool's errand
A bullet train passes Mount Fuji.

We've been in Japan for three weeks and yet the cheek-by-jowl nature of this country continues to slap you in the face. It hits you in a multitude of big and little ways. Suffice to say the expectation that some sense of space would settle in as we made our way out of the Tokyo Metropolitan area of 38 million people has not been met.

This last five days has undone any remaining illusions on that score after the stint in Shizuoka. It was apparent in Kobe on Tuesday on a visit to the venerable Ikuta Shrine amid the hustle and bustle of the modern city.

Just a stone's throw from the enormous Sannomiya station, the shrine was surrounded by forest in the 19th century. Now it's overlooked by offices and a department store.

Thursday and a morning spent ascending Mt Rokko, a 931-metre peak and the highest in the range that overlooks the city, only added to the sense of scale that we are talking about here with the urban area of Kobe and Osaka blending in to one and stretching as far as the eye can see.

There are 126 million people living in Japan, all but two million or so of them native-born, but there are concerns over an ageing population and falling birth rates. The latest census produced a record number of centenarians this year and yet if current projections were to continue then the number of people living here could halve in just a number of decades.

Whatever happens from here on, the human imprint is already enormous.

Taking the Shinkansen bullet train through the country, as we did from Kobe down to Fukuoka yesterday, involves miles on end through tunnels laboriously cleared under mountains, intertwined with long glimpses of countryside peppered with houses and roads and every other sign of civilsation as far as the eye can see.

There was a brief hope that Kyoto would be different, that the ancient capital would provide an escape from the modernity and the masses, if only for one morning on our flying visit from Kobe. It was only on arrival, when you reminded yourself that this was a city of almost 1.5 million, that the realisation dawned that the search for tranquility was likely a fool's errand.

First stop was a long trek out to Kinkaku-ji. Known as the Golden Pavilion for the gold leaf that covers the top two of its three floors, it is one of the most iconic and popular sites in Japan and a routine morning in early October brought a flood of tourists from near and far to shuffle through the crowds, take a quick pic and shuffle on again.

Cattle-class tourism.

Peace came, for a time, in the city's vast Imperial Palace and its surrounding park before it was time to jump back into the madness that was Nishiki Market with its stalls and restaurants and its claustrophobic but it was Thursday morning, back in Kobe, when the precarious nature of all this life was brought home.

There were few tourists down by the section of waterfront that houses the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake Memorial Disaster Reduction and Human Renovation Institution. The vast majority of those on the premises were schoolkids bussed in to learn about the disaster that hit their city and their region in 1995 when over 6,000 people lost their lives.

Like all kids, these were boisterous and loud. That didn't change during the introduction to the opening screening but the laughing stopped as the lights dimmed and the sights and sounds of the earthquake 24 years ago were cleverly recreated. The images of buildings collapsing and elevated highways toppling over were all to real and they stopped everyone in their tracks.

A second presentation followed with one survivor detailing how her sister, sleeping beside her when the ground began to groan under their feet at 5.46am on the morning of January 17, screamed 'Get out' after they had both been buried in rubble and fire began to threaten. They were the last words her sister were ever heard to utter.

You look at Kobe differently after that. You sit on an elevated train, or walk under a raised roadway and you can't help but think that this would be a very bad time for another quake of 7.3 on the Richter scale to strike. And you wonder what must have gone through the minds of those kids as they looked at images of their own city laying in ruins after 20 seconds of terror.

The city learned lessons.

Disaster reduction was prioritised and the clutter of badly designed residential areas which served to increase the death toll was addressed and yet Japan is still picking up pieces of information from natural disasters such as the Ise Bay typhoon which struck the Chubu region 60 years ago and led to the construction of seawalls and river levees and the introduction of new laws.

Another reminder this week that life, while plentiful here, remains fragile.

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