John Clare Writings

The World’s Greatest Restaurant

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If you wade and splosh back through the blergs that precede this bloggh bloopbloophelp  you will come to a blergh called Omen In Malaysia. In this I recall an early encounter with the Islamic Fundamentalist Revival, which was getting only small notice in the Australian news media at the time if I remember aright; and I also describe briefly the second best restaurant in which I have ever et. Also mentioned in passing is the best restaurant whereat I have sat. On my folded legs because it was in Japan. I do not say in which I have sat because we were on the outdoor section which spanned a small river. Or you might call it a creek, but it was to my mind a little too wide, deep and free-flowing. It ran downhill smoothly but with some soft tumbles beneath small leaf maples which met from either bank overhead, and over brown stones and rocks which with the leaflight made the clear water appear greeny brown. In fact these rocks were covered in a fungal growth like felt. The indoor section was in one of several two-story buildings along the road above, on which we had arrived from Kyoto some way below.

Our waitress came down the high riverbank steps to us. The span on which we sat was like a flat wood bridge very close to the water. Its transverse planks were about four or five inches apart so you could look down between them into that subtle water. Fish occasionally appeared marvellously in the gap. Leaves floated by, lifted in shallow arcs over the undulations. Having taken our orders and returned, the waitress would sit on her legs at the low tables, distributing dishes and sometimes rising on her knees to reach further; also joining in the conversations of the diners. My Chinese girlfriend joined in too, in fluent Japanese. I mostly just listened to the sounds, thinking: I am somewhere! I am somewhere! Green light under the roof of leaves and a high bank of dark rock ledges rising into the forest on the side opposite the road. We were inside and outdoors at the same time.

This casual interaction between waitress and customers was perhaps in contrast to many Japanese formalities. I wish I had asked my companion about that. Because she had a position of respect in the arts – both traditional and contemporary – that was most unusual for a non-Japanese, we were taken to a number of excellent restaurants in Yokohama and Kyoto, but on this occasion, in the restaurant that somehow beat them all, we had come alone. Back towards Kyoto, high on the horseshoe of mountains that embraced it, there was a house surrounded by a great conifer that had been trained to grow along the top of the fence parallel to the ground, at the height of a hedge. It had become, basically, one powerful limb embracing the house with much smaller branches brandishing bright green pine needles. While there is much that can be levelled against the Japanese – and against most nations if you go back far enough, there were few signs among contemporary Japanese of the cruelty of World War 11. You will be aware that such is the education policy few of the young even know of that history. Nevertheless, once or twice we ran into some old square head (very few would be alive at the time of writing) who, hearing Sara’s Chinese accent would begin mocking. ‘Ha. Remember Singapore?’ ‘Let’s just cross over here,’ she would say calmly, and I would know what he was about.

Right now I am nostalgic for modern Japan. When we first arrived we stayed for about a week with a friend of Sara’s who was a female eye doctor (ophthalmologist? I’m not sure, but somewhat above an optometrist) in a largish two story Western style house above Yokohama bay. On three or four nights we went by train into Tokyo, and that’s all I saw of the present capital. Our destination was the previous capital, Kyoto, and once we were established there in Sara’s place  – a traditional house of mud bricks on a bamboo frame within a bamboo fenced compound  across the creek from a Shingon temple – we sometimes visited friends who lived out in the country in an old farm house that was surprisingly big with great oak beams across the ceiling. The husband was a sculptor, the wife made kimonos which she died with colours extracted from wild flowers growing locally. Actual peasants worked in the fields that spread out around us. Peasants they were and had been in living memory, though like all modern agricultural producers they were highly subsidised. They were almost a separate race so much smaller were they than the modern Japanese who now ate much more protein. Also they were slightly stooped and very bandy-legged.

Sara’s friends had a baby boy, with whom I played for ages while Sara spoke Japanese with his parents, like a dog let loose at last to gambol in the fields, though she was just as proficient in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. The baby and I crawled all through the house together and then I carried him outside in a blue dusk not unlike an English summer twilight. In which flew great brown kites – raptors which we later saw wheeling about in numbers on both coasts: Pacific and Sea Of Japan. Then we crawled some more, until Sara had got the Japanese off her chest for the moment. The parents expressed surprise that I was so patient with the baby. Sara told them, ‘He loves babies.’ True. It was something my mother told friends when I was scarcely more than a baby myself.

When they visited us I saw them down in our bamboo compound from one of the foothills. I came down the path out of the woods and they saw me. Their faces lit up and so did mine and they held up their baby as if they had brought him to visit me. I took him immediately back up the path so I could hold him up against the sky under great white cumulus and over green forest running down in another direction to the main road into Kyoto and the small rice paddies full of tadpoles at this time of year behind houses and shops and the tiny curved stone bridges and sand-coloured gravel paths. Up here were little groves of trees and sections of bamboo isolated by sacred rope representing some kind of epiphany some poet or philosopher or monk had experienced here. Also a row of trees with diagonal rising limbs linked by parallelograms of leaves exactly like trees in a Cezanne painting. Apparently these had not qualified for the sacred rope. I pointed to his parents way down there. They waved and eventually he saw them and began vibrating and pumping his legs and arms.

Here is a digression. Of all the trumpeters I admired when I was learning the instrument Dizzy Gillespie was the king for me (well, with Louis and Miles and Pete Candoli you may be surprised to learn). Some found only dazzling technique and excitement in his playing, but there were also oblique angles and passages of curious introspection. His early raw sound was different and interesting. More so the later development, somewhere between a trumpet and a flugelhorn. I have a book somewhere in which musicians talk about their eras and the music and personalities of those times (it could be Hear Me Talkin’ To Ya). One musician talked about Diz and found it pertinent to mention that, ‘He used to come over to our place in new York to play with our baby.’ Dizzy. My main man.

Enough of Dizzy and babies. There is of course another view. One of Bertie Wooster’s pals was roped in to stand for office as a conservative in some village, or his uncle would cut off his allowance and he would have to work! Bertie was shocked. ‘You won’t have to kiss babies, will you?’ he gasped. In a voice bitter and ashamed his pal declared, ‘Oh, they’re rotten things, Bertie. They look at you in an insulting way, and they dribble!’

Oblique to the subject of geometrical Cezanne trees, an old painter lived in one of  the compound houses who was one of the early Japanese exponents of Western modernism – strictly speaking post-impressionism. Some of his paintings showed the influence of Bonnard. He was very happy when I told him that I had seen some of his work in a Kyoto Museum Of Modern Art. A superb Picasso was also there which I later saw in a special exhibition in the New South Wales Art Gallery, curated by my friend Terrence Maloon. In a private gallery in the city we also saw an exhibition of modernist paintings by the director Kurasawa. I also gave our resident painter some Australian silver and copper coins – the very fine ones with  platypus, echidna and so on. These impressed him a great deal. The copper denominations have now gone with the old pennies. And our artist has now gone too. I am looking for his name. And soon we will all be gone who are from that era.

One night in Kyoto it was the annual Day Of The Dead, or Saints Day if translated into the Catholic faith. It is the day on which the Consul dies in Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry On foothills around the city fires burned in crosses, crescents and other shapes, including a sailing boat. This was to send the dead back whence they had come. For a day, or maybe it was two, they had walked among us. I don’t know whether I saw any of them, but I fancy I had sensed their presence. Sara’s ex-boyfriend, in his Japanese clothes (he was American) walked in a parade and helped pull carts which reared up to about two stories high. In the night we stood up on a hill looking at the fires, then we came down into the city where we watched a small crowd of people escort a spirit from a building to another across the road with chanting that was like a wind in trees. An American woman, who was a friend of Sara’s old boyfriend watched with us. She had only just arrived for a holiday. We looked at each other and our eyebrows all rose when the transition was apparently achieved. None of us spoke. It was the confidence and certainty with which the process was executed that made us feel that something had happened. As with the sacraments I suppose.

This was when Japan was experiencing an extraordinary boom in commerce and technology – a bubble which of course burst and from which they are still hopefully recovering. Of some interest perhaps is the fact that all menus were read to me in the aforementioned restaurants, most of which were expensive. Whale was on none of them and  though I had no reason then to ask, I have the feeling that nobody ate it. For what that’s worth.

1 Comment

  1. M Fj – 27 November 2014

    Superb! As usual; although there’s never anything ‘usual’
    about your writing.

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