Our home in space

Guy Ottewell

Bullet train

I had only a few days in Japan and I wanted to see a place about which I had once catalogued a library book: the two temples in a forest at Ise, rebuilt of unpainted cypress wood every twenty years. But that was far away beyond Nagoya, and at first, discovering that the town of Narita near the airport was a little old town of low tiled eaves, I stayed there with a family in a house of sliding paper-screen walls. I went up a sweep of steps into a colorful temple and from the top made a painting of the gateway. Braving vast Tokyo, I made the mistake of asking a question in a tourist office, and became a prisoner of Japanese efficiency, printed schedules and bookings and taxi-drivers wearing white gloves. The train to Nagoya seemed fast but not strikingly so, because of the openness of the view; we slid past Mount Fuji, of which from the plane I had made a sketch — on it the gentleman sitting beside me wrote “Fuji Seen From the Air” in calligraphy as if it was an addition to Hokusai's “Hundred Views of Fuji.” At Nagoya station I was told that I had been on the famous Bullet Train without paying the surcharge, which now I owed. I said I had not asked to go on the Bullet Train and did not have the cash. There was impasse; I and all the station officials sat in the office of the stationmaster, who was politely firm; I was again the prisoner of Japanese efficiency. But he glimpsed my picture of the Narita temple, and asked to see it, and then whether I could draw his portrait. One after another, all the station officials sat motionless and beaming for their portraits, which they wrapped in tissue paper for presenting to their wives, and no more was said about surcharge.