Last night in Tokyo – Japan Diary Part Three

We are a merry company, twelve Japanese and two Scots working our way through the thronging Tokyo streets to the tavern at Myogadani. The November evening is wet, but the weather can’t dampen our spirits. The tavern is simple, the food honest, and the company warm.


In the tavern at Myogadani

The celebration is to mark the end of a rich and wonderful visit to Japan. Our companions are members of the Japan Scotland Society and the Tokyo Caledonia Society, and all speak excellent English.

A tiny waitress appears with a huge bottle of saki. She fills a glass in front of me until it can hold no more. The diners laugh and cheer as I stand up and do my best to sup the saki without spilling. Osamu, our kind host in Tokyo, makes a short speech, and I make a short reply. We begin our banquet of tempura shrimp, fried chicken, smoked Pacific fish, and crisp edamame.

The group is deeply interested in Scotland. Most have travelled there, some of them frequently. One lady spent a winter in Orkney, and speaks English with an Orkney accent. Some of the others enjoy Scottish country dancing. They ken lots aboot malt whisky. One of the ladies specialises in origami, and presents Linda with three beautiful, delicate paper girls, dressed in traditional kimonos. We learn some of the rules of Tanka and Haiku.


Origami lasses

The following morning, Yuko takes us to the Meiji shrine at Shibuya. This is the perfect place to relax after a busy week. There are weddings taking place at the shrine, and children’s confirmations. Here, we see peedie lasses in real kimonos, brilliant in the crisp November sunshine. Tokyo is a magnificent city, and our friends have been so kind. We long to return.

November 14th and 15th, 2015


Kimono lass



Linda and Yuko at the Meiji Shrine


Japan Diary: part two


Photography: Linda Mackay Sabiston

Onigawara is the household god who squats on the ridge tiles of Kyoto, warding evil from gold-plated temples and humble homes alike. He has a fearsome, aggressive face, but this is just to frighten off malevolent spirits. Onigawara is a friendly gargoyle.

We glimpse Onigawara time and again on the rooftops as we travel on the bus round this most magnificent city of Japan’s interior. Kyoto, the ‘thousand year capital’, is ringed round with mountains where dense city gives way immediately to dense forest. There are hundreds of magnificent temples and shrines in the clearings.

You can still see the ancient, narrow streets, and the low, dark timber houses with their elegant eaves. There are rock gardens, tea houses, imperial sites. In the evening, Geishas – pallid ghosts – pass on their way to work. Restaurants light their lanterns. After saki, blonde tourists sing Summer of 69, too loud for Zen. But to allow yourself to become irritated would be contrary to the teaching of Zen. Nothing should disturb the peace of this place.

The shadow of the Angel of Death flitted over Kyoto in 1945, but passed on when strategists decided not to drop a nuclear bomb on it. It was too beautiful, and had too much ‘cultural significance’ to be obliterated. U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson loved Kyoto. He had his honeymoon here, and argued successfully for the preservation of the city. So it seems that Onigawara did his duty for Kyoto, at least.

Historians will argue forever about the rights and wrongs of the weapons of mass destruction that were dropped on Japan seventy years ago. Some call these bombings ‘successful’. And no Japanese soldier has set foot anywhere else in the world since. British forces, by comparison, have been in continuous deployment in one part of the world or another ever since. It makes me wonder why nations need ‘interests’ and ‘spheres of influence’.

*          *          *

We’re already thinking about the long flight home. We will travel close to the tragic flashpoints of the Middle East. Basra, Mosul, Aleppo. There are thousands of families there, too, thousands of mothers, fathers, and bairns who would welcome the protection of brave Onigawara, right now.




Japan Diary: part one



I’m in Japan tae lecture on Scottish Language and Literature tae students in universities in Shizuoka an Kyoto, an tae members o the Tokyo Caledonian an Scottish societies. Me book, The History of Orkney Literature , was translated intae Japanese last year.

The kindness an courtesy we’ve been shown by the Japanese folk is notheen short o incredible. Between exhiliratan inter-city trips on the Shinkanzen, we hiv been royally entertained: taen roond the most sacred shrines o these magnificent cities, an introduced tae ivry conceivable aspect o Japanese cuisine.

We’ve eaten jellyfish, tofu, an miso soup, sea urchin, scallops an pickles. Soft-shell shrimps, cooked whole in impossibly light tempura batter, an eaten wae the heids on. The Japanese basil leaf, when picked up wae chopsticks and placed in the mooth, bursts wi fragrance an flavour. Udon noodles that keep ye fill up for days. A fish like a peedie stickleback, deep fried, crisp, an crunchy, is eaten whole. Onion soused in ginger. Sesame rice. Vegetables, the like o which we’ve nivver experienced afore, and that I canna compare tae anything European. Baby flatfish, fried squid, whitebait salad. We sample saki, hot an cowld, in modest quantities. The Japanese lager is cool an crisp. An, of course, diverse sushimi – the king o Japanese foods – unkan, fresh, an luxurious.

Sittan doon tae a cup o green tea in Yuko’s tidy office in Shizuoka afore me lecture, I’m struck by the extensive range o Scottish books I’ve seen on the shelves in these universities. Japanese translations o A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, the complete works o James Hogg, the Scottish National Dictionary, Japanese books o Scottish folk tales, Irvine Welsh in Japanese, a Japanese Lanark. The academics here ken more aboot Scotland an Scottish culture than most o us at home. Yuko’s PhD is aboot the history o the Scottish National Dictionary, for instance, an we meet ither freends who specialise in Scottish Romanticism, George Mackay Broon, an Shetland folklore.

The students themsels are interested, too. I tell them aboot Burns, Scott, MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, aboot Scots an Gaelic, aboot Scottish political systems. They mak a really good job o repeatan peedie broon moose, an spier some penetratan questions at the end o the lectures: Can you tell me more about the links between Orkney language and Norwegian? Why do people in Orkney vote Liberal Democrat when the rest of Scotland votes S.N.P.? Why did Scots language supplant Gaelic as the language of the Scottish state during the Middle Ages? We can learn fae these inquiring young Japanese, too: cultures across the world should be interested in wan anither.