Voyages round their father

Scalding hot tubs, exquisite Buddhas and, yes, even football. Adrian Hamilton has travelled throughout Japan with each of his children in turn: and every visit has been a journey of shared discovery

If ever there was a clash of civilisations, it will be the arrival of English football fans in Japan next month. Japan is, after all, the country where there are drinks machines on every corner yet you never see a can thrown away; where the public lavatories are always open and clean and where the "salarymen" are often drunk but you never see a fight, let alone someone urinating in a doorway. Which is what makes it such a wonderful country to tour, of course, and which, for all the publicity given in Japan to the "English hoooligaans", makes it the one country probably best able to take a British invasion and survive.

If ever there was a clash of civilisations, it will be the arrival of English football fans in Japan next month. Japan is, after all, the country where there are drinks machines on every corner yet you never see a can thrown away; where the public lavatories are always open and clean and where the "salarymen" are often drunk but you never see a fight, let alone someone urinating in a doorway. Which is what makes it such a wonderful country to tour, of course, and which, for all the publicity given in Japan to the "English hoooligaans", makes it the one country probably best able to take a British invasion and survive.

It always has been. The country which, more even than China, kept itself apart from foreign influences is also the one which, when needs must, absorbed foreign influence most readily and made it its own. Which is one reason why I have taken each of my three children round the country. Where else can you find the full garishness of neon-lights and modern high fashion set harmoniously beside taxi drivers with white gloves, department stores with lift girls, and a matchless sense of craft and natural materials?

Through most of their travels, your children will go through countries where they can get by without learning the local language and without being challenged by the response. The world is learning English and much of it instinctively defers to the West. Japan does not. Most of its people speak no English. Most of its signs are in Japanese characters. Most of its attitudes rest on an innate sense of superiority to other cultures. You have to come to terms with it as a traveller, not the other way round.

Yet it's a great place to travel in because half its population is doing just that. The retired and the students seem to be in a perpetual motion of internal sightseeing. Visiting some of the most famous sights of Kyoto requires the greatest sophistication of timing to avoid the tours. But it takes no art to get to the sites. Japanese transport, trains especially, is absolutely punctual and goes virtually everywhere. Internal tourism has ensured a plentiful supply of hotel rooms and street restaurants and cafes. The great Japanese tradition of putting models of the restaurant dishes outside the establishment, together with the price, makes eating out easy, and there is no tipping.

When I took my eldest son to Japan for the first time there were few signs in English outside Tokyo and Osaka, posing particular problems in recognising the names of stations when the train stopped. But the surest way of finding your way about is to rely on the timetable. If it says that the train stops at the relevant place at 9.11am, at 9.11am that's where you find yourself. Try that in Britain. At 18, my son was thrown into the deep end in Tokyo as a sudden collapse of the stock market caused me to concentrate on work for a week. Thanks to the underground system, which is clearly colour-coded and signposted, he found his way round easily enough. He also found out how much fun it is for the young.

Like all great international cities, the life of Tokyo (and most of the other main cities) takes place on the streets. You pick your interest and find the subway there: Ginza for the department stores, Shibuya and Aoyama for the fashion victims (there are few people so fashion-obsessed as the Japanese from hair colour to the height of the heels). There's also Akihabara for the electronics and Shinjuku for the skyscrapers, and, if you're really interested, there's the sight of the newer aspects of Japan, in the unemployed camped out in the "green tent cities", ever so orderly and polite, in Ueno Park and by the municipal headquarters.

Not that Tokyo lacks the old, despite the earthquake and the bombing. The Asakusa temple area has a wonderful vulgarity, just as the walls of the Imperial Palace provide the first glimpse of that extraordinary combination of rock, wood and water that makes up feudal architecture. For peace and quiet there's the Meiji shrine, which my eldest son loved. And no visit is complete without a trip to the Kabuki theatre. At five hours and £30 it may seems daunting (you get an English language commentary tape in the better seats). But for £5 you can go to a single act in the "gods", choosing a dance performance if you can. The impact on my children was a joy to share each time.

Outside Tokyo the two musts are the hot spring bath and a stay in an inn. Inns are not cheap, (dinner and breakfast are normally included), and because they are so intimate it has taken time for the hosts to accept foreigners, especially non-Japanese speakers. But for bonding with your children – never mind the food – they are a unique experience. In through a small door, your shoes removed, you enter a world of hospitality where you are fed, pampered, and massaged until you leave. The older inns have more of the atmosphere – of small staircases, dark corridors and polished wood; but even the more reasonably priced modern inns give the service.

After a dinner of myriad courses and dishes, the plates are removed, the bed rolls taken out of the cupboard and your room transformed. The Japanese communal bath presents more of a challenge to British youngsters (and oldsters if my first fearful dip is anything to go by). The main point is to vigorously – and I mean vigorously – wash and rinse completely before entering the hot bath for the soak. If it's a small bath, don't soak for hours (it's usually too hot for that anyway) but get out to allow others a turn. Under no circumstances pull the plug. But if it's a hot spring bath you can wallow away to your heart's content under the moonlight, even warble if you like. although that tends to signal an open invitation for everyone to do the same.

Japan is both horrifying and entrancing in that so much of the coastline north and south of Tokyo forms a solid belt of industrialisation with mile after mile of factories and box housing; but go back a bit, cross the mountains and go to the north and south islands and it remains a surprisingly rural country characterised, as it always has been, by points of pilgrimage and local crafts.

Kyoto, the old imperial capital, remains an essential port of call, preserved by the cultural sensitivity of one of General MacArthur's staff. It contains a continuous series of religious and secular architecture of the late Middle Ages and early modern period unequalled through the whole of Asia – although, if you are interested in the earliest periods, it is well worth spending a few days in Nara, the older capital, too often only encompassed in a day's trip from Kyoto. Then, west of Kyoto, is what I still consider, after half-a-dozen visits, the most beautiful and most uplifting building in the world – the great castle of Himeji, a song of ascending white wall and upturned roofs that is, as its description would have it, a heron taking wing.

It was my daughter who awakened me to the central point of all these ancient buildings: the smell of cedar. In Nara especially, the temples represent the oldest wooden architecture in the world. And everywhere you go, the palaces of Kyoto, the halls of Nara, the samurai castles you literally tread the boards. Pillar, floor and wall give out the oil of felled trees.

It was my eldest son who enthused me with his excitement in the Japanese garden. As this 6ft 1in rugby player walked through the bamboo-lined entrance of a Kyoto monastery and around the balcony of the abbot's hall, his jaw dropped at the sight of a dry raked Zen Buddhist garden. It was the start of a week of discovery. For, though the West and Britain in particular has become enthused with Japanese gardening, it is of a particular variety. You need to go to Kyoto to experience its full glory – in raked sand, in the "stroll-through" parks of the imperial palaces (well worth booking a ticket for on arrival), the moss gardens of monasteries and – our favourite – the "shakkei" or "borrowed scenery" gardens which use the background of surrounding hills as part of the picture.

With my second son, it was more straightforward. He loves food. So it was off to Matsumoto in central Honshu, a samurai city with a fine original castle and a speciality in horsemeat (we had it done six ways in one memorable meal). Then it was on to Kanazawa, known as the culinary capital of Japan. Forgetsushi and ramen, here you go for the banquet and the freshwater prawns.

One of the many advantages of Japan for the young, who don't always care to linger over meals, is that the Japanese tend – except for the big, formal business meal – to eat relatively quickly before repairing to bars for the post-prandial conversation. It's just as well: in at least half the restaurants you have to eat kneeling or cross-legged.

Unfortunately, my trip with my second son coincided with World Cup qualifiers, so I had to learn in Japanese (not so difficult in that it has few tenses and grammatic complications once you've learnt the phrases) a little speech for use at hotels to say: "My son needs a television on which he can see the football. Do you have a satellite dish?" Several times we had to change hotels.

With my daughter, my prepared speech was rather different: "My daughter is a Buddhist and on religious grounds cannot each fish or meat. But ... " (and here I had to make an important addendum) " ... I am not a Buddhist and like meat and fish very much."

She is, indeed, a Buddhist, studying to be a full order member, so much of our trip was this time directed to Buddhist arts and culture. It was a fascinating experience, not always entirely spiritual. The Japanese treat Buddhism as they treat all religions – as an object of casual faith and instinctive placation. Buddhism, despite the efforts of the Meiji emperors to marginalise it, is widespread and wealthy. But the separation of lay and priesthood is strong and the priests in Japan – unlike other parts of Asia – have little time for foreigners in search of enlightenment. You go with the flow.

The flow, however, is an exceedingly rich one, taking you to a stream of art which is infinitely rewarding. The great hall of Buddhas in the old temples are deeply moving, the groupings of life-size statues of guardians, protective kings, bodhisattvas and monks even more so.

And if you want to see ordinary Buddhism in practice then you should go to Mount Koya, the holiest spot in Japan. There sleeps the founder, the monk Kobo Daishi, waiting to reawaken when the Buddha of the Future appears. Every major family in Japan has set a light or a stupa so that their ancestors, too, can accompany Kobo Daishi when he awakens again. The walk to the shrine, through a mile of gravestones set in the woods, is extraordinary. The town itself has some 200 temples, 50 of which have guesthouses to take the tens of thousands of visitors who come to offer prayers for their ancestors. To stay in one is a unique experience of ordinary faith.

Wakened at 6am, you don the temple garb to attend the ceremony with the families and elderly who have come to make their offerings. It's both devout and casual, and very welcoming. Beside us were an elderly couple who had obviously waited, and saved, for this moment for some time. Their children were not quite so devout. Still pulling on his socks, the son turned up 10 minutes into the ceremony dragging a sleepy-eyed young wife with him. The father glowered but his mother could clearly have forgiven him everything, proudly showing off the scrolled prayer and the burning incense after the rest of the congregation had left. I felt for the father and felt like the mother. Taking children on a tour is always a risk. But it's a fond time, and, in shared discovery, an infinitely rewarding one.



The Facts



Getting there

Adrian Hamilton travelled to Japan on a tailor-made holiday with Creative Tours (020-7462 5577; www.jaltour.co.uk), going to Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, Kyoto, Yanagawa and Osaka. A similar two-week trip, including return flights on Japan Airlines, room-only accommodation and a 14-day rail pass, costs £2,200 per person, based on two sharing.

Further information

Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7734 9638; www.seejapan.jnto.co.uk).

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