The Earthier Side of the Japanese

by Warren Reed, former ASIS agent and celebrated authorPre-order Warren's new spy novel 'An Elephant On Your Nose' here.

Wherever we travel, people in the countryside are generally more direct and down-to-earth than those in big cities. This applies especially to Japan, which is odd in the sense that Japan is comparatively small in geographic terms. As the crow flies, the distance between Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka and any point deep in the Japanese Alps is a mere hop, step and jump compared to Melbourne and Sydney and a point in the outback.

Japan has recently become a favourite of international tourism and with the country's network of high-speed trains more foreigners are venturing off the beaten track than ever before.

Australians, particularly those lucky enough to be posted overseas, are inveterate travellers. Working in the Australian Embassy in Tokyo decades ago, many of us were already visiting out-of-the-way places. We'd heard of a well-known (to the Japanese) Saturday market at a fishing village on the northern tip of the Noto Peninsula, which projects out into the Sea of Japan from the inner-elbow of the main island of Honshu. We arrived just as the market got under way. The fishermen were selling their catch at the quayside, while a dozen or so old Japanese women sat cross-legged on blankets nearby with fruit and vegetables they'd grown themselves for sale. Most were in their mid-eighties and had probably been widowed during WWII. You could feel the bond between them and their impish sense of humour.

One of them heard me speaking Japanese and called out, "Hey, Mr Foreigner! Don't waste your time with those old birds. Come over here and give me a thrill!" I marched over like a soldier and stood in front of her, clicking my heels and saluting.

"Now, let me think," I said, as the other women listened. "What can I tell you?"

"If you're stuck for words," the old lady quipped, "let me tell you something." The others seemed to know it would be saucy.

"If I were seventy years younger," she said, "I'd whip you back to my place up on the hillside there and give you a time you'd never forget!" The other women were in stitches.

"Damn it!" I replied. "I knew I should have come up here long before this."

"Watch out!" one of the other women joked. "She's still up for it."

The old lady let me take her photo so I could do a portrait of her back in the capital. Naturally, a condition was that I send her a photo of it later, which I did. I tried as hard as I could to capture her impish grin.

A similar thing happened on a trip to the renowned pottery of Bizen in western Japan. I was driving my Honda Civic and had three Japanese friends onboard. We came over a saddle in the hills on a narrow, less-travelled road and as I glanced down to the terraced rice-fields below I spotted a farmer cutting the tall weeds that had grown up between the rice paddies. He happened to look up as I spotted him. He was only about 150 metres away. I jammed on the brakes, grabbed my camera and ventured down to where he was standing.

He wasn't unduly surprised and was pleased when I spoke to him in Japanese. "Even from up on the road there," I said, "I could see your wonderful, lived-in face." I explained that I was down from Tokyo and often painted portraits, usually from photographs I had taken.

"OK," he said with a casual air. "How do you want me? My old lady thinks this is my best profile, but the pesky young woman I catch up with in the local town prefers this one. Anyhow, as a man you can just take me full-frontal! How does that sound?"

Now I was in stitches. It was such a natural exchange and typified a side of the Japanese I came to love very much.

I sent him a photograph, too.