Julia Stephenson: The Green Goddess

Japanese lessons
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The Independent Online

I am currently in Japan on a Buddhist training course with 12 members of my local Buddhist group. We began planning our trip two years ago after a group of Japanese Buddhists came to visit us in London and invited us back.

They are amazingly hospitable and kind, treating us like royalty as they whirl us around the country's most significant Buddhist sites in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

In Kyoto our visit coincides with a visit from George Bush, but despite this I am enjoying the most exhilarating, exhausting and enlightening 10 days of my life.

As we speed around the country on the super-speedy eco-friendly bullet trains, I notice that the Japanese have perfected a handy trick of sleeping while standing up. I wish I could master this as I am very jet lagged, but instead pretend I am a Toyota Prius - able to recharge en route.

The Japanese are at the forefront of much cutting-edge green technology. They are driven by economic efficiency rather than the fear of environmental meltdown that motivates us in the UK, where going green is mistakenly seen as an optional, complicated and expensive add-on.

Generally, I'm disappointed at the low level of environmental awareness here. Fortunately my spirits lift during a dinner with the owner of the largest recycling business in Japan, who tells us that Japan has one of the highest recycling records in the world. An astonishing 86 per cent of steel cans, 83 per cent of glass bottles, 60 per cent of newspapers are recycled, and all shops and businesses have to recycle their packaging by law, which has led to a substantial decrease in waste.

The next day I discover an innovative Japanese water-saving device in the Ladies. The tap is attached to the top of the loo, meaning that the hand-washing water isn't wasted but used to flush out the cistern. Genius! I quickly tear Steve, one of our gang and a plumbing expert, away from his sushi, but after cursory examination he explains the tap is to disguise the sound of embarrassing lavatorial noises, not a water-saving device.

Still, all the Japanese houses we stay in are freezing, which is extremely energy-saving, but means I have great trouble extricating myself from their heated loo seats.

Surprisingly, Japan is not the place to come if you are vegetarian. Historically the Japanese lived on fish, rice and seaweed, but sales of meat and dairy have exploded in recent years, with 20 million pigs consumed every year. Animal welfare is of little concern, and most farm animals are raised intensively and butchered in conditions of extreme cruelty.

"Just as well you like tofu," people keep telling me when I explain I'm avoiding meat during the trip. But tofu is the texture of afterbirth, the colour of ageing concrete and slithers down the throat like it is still alive. I am bewildered that I've become the sort of person who looks like they eat this stuff.

But our experiences here have moved us profoundly and life will never be quite the same for any of us again. On our final day we visit a Buddhist school in Osaka. The schoolchildren entertain us with English brass-band music and glorious songs from The Sound of Music. They have voices like angels and afterwards as they cluster around us and reach for our hands, their dark hair shines in the light like hundreds of miniature halos lighting up the huge auditorium.

Our hearts melt, and we know that in these pure hearts, full of love and free from cynicism, lies the future of Japan.