It’s five days before I am due to fly to Japan for the Trilateral Commission conference and I have done no planning for my days off at the start of the trip. I turn to InsideJapan Tours and say, vaguely: “I’d like to stay at a ryokan outside Tokyo.” Overnight, InsideJapan’s James Mundy organises my three-day trip. Arriving at the Hoshinoya hotel in Karuizawa, an hour from Tokyo by bullet train, is like sinking into a warm bath – literally so, as it is famous for its hot springs. This is a perfect zen haven, set in an oak forest with a maze of bridges, a meditation spa, waterfalls and a lake with floating lanterns. Spa offerings include a “face treatment ideal for people with irregular teeth and fatigued facial expression”. (I opt for a mere massage with herb balls made from sake.)
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I am invited for an eco-tour in the nearby bird sanctuary, though I am baffled by the “outdoor open fire café” mentioned on the itinerary. My guide, Yokoyo Ma, points out woodpeckers and shows me a bizarre picture of a mallard swallowing an entire frog. Then we arrive in a clearing. On a table are some scales, a mixing bowl, flour, nuts and clay pots. We are to bake a cake in the forest. It is very Alice in Wonderland. First we are offered a white glove and asked to chop wood by hand (each success is met by applause). With a growing sense of childish wonder the group (all but me are Japanese) bakes small cakes in the fire and we decorate them with cherry blossom. We end by roasting heart-shaped marshmallows. It is part of an outdoor trend that began three years ago with Mori (forest) Girls, and then Yama (mountain) Girls, which has made camping chic. The aesthetic is defined by hiking mini-skirts and brands such as Patagonia. So now, it seems, I’m a Yama Girl.
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More unexpected sights follow. Not crouching tigers, but flying squirrels. Yokoyo shows me photos of Japanese giant flying squirrels (musasabi) that can glide for up to 160m. The squirrels are extinct in Tokyo, he says, because in the second world war their skins were turned into helmets by superstitious fighter pilots, who saw them as lucky. He proudly shows me his own handmade flying squirrel. What do they eat? He pulls out a laminated leaf and picks up the toy, turns its head so that it can “eat” the leaf and says: “Oooh. Yummy.” “Flashlights are very terrifying. Sometimes they freeze for 20 minutes,” he adds, miming its bashfulness by burying the toy’s face in his chest. Later, we watch a real one – big eyes blinking and a button nose – that is improbably Japanese-cute. It scrambles up a tree and leaps into the vanishing dusk.
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One of the chief draws of the Hoshinoya is the food. There are three restaurants here, and in the Katsuke I have the seasonal course. A 9-course triumph, it includes Japanese sea bream and fish ball of local green pea, served with Kogomi edible young fern, ground fish stuffed shiitake mushrooms and dessert of Dekopon citrus and black soybean jelly. This is food that forces you to improve your posture. The next night’s meal at the Yukawatan French restaurant is the most beautifully-presented dinner I have ever eaten, served on porcelain made by the young ceramicist Ryota Aoki (a large silver-glazed plate costs £280). Giant jagged-edged Parmesan crisps arrive in a slot of volcanic rock, casting shadows. It ends with chocolate leaves, tiny apple macaroons and mint ice-cream in a tiny cone with gold wrapping. Want me to stop now?
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I reluctantly leave for the city of Nagano to spend a night in a traditional ryokan. Alas, I am too early in the month to see a famous festival at the Amenomiya shrine, in which four people are hung upside down from a bridge. The chief attraction here is the Zenkoji temple, a 7th-century Buddhist centre. The cherry blossom is rampant. Inside, laughing bald monks kneel amid mists of steamy green tea and bronze statues. The pilgrims come for its holiest place, a pitch-black tunnel where you trail your right hand along a wall to find “the key to paradise. One touch ensures eternal salvation”. Unfortunately, my mystical reverie was dented by fearful shrieks and a ghoulish grabbing at my hand by an unseen visitor scared of the dark. So I did it all over again: a double dose of eternal salvation.
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The next day is one of contrasts, starting with 5:30am temple prayers, then leaving for Tokyo and the elegant Tsutaya bookstore-cum-art gallery-bar-hangout (coffee costs £9 a cup), created by the Tokyo-based British architecture practice Klein Dytham. It is the sort of place where it feels completely natural to spy a dog walking by wearing chic dog-sunglasses.
Tokyo’s high-tech urban cool is in stark contrast to the mood of the Trilateral Commission, a group created in 1973 to forge closer ties between Europe, the US and Asia. It is a full two-day schedule, spanning the Middle East and North Korea’s nukes. The mood veers between fatalistic doom (“We have done all we can on Europe”) to complacency. A panel on Japan’s political paralysis matched similar ones on Europe and the US. Public trust in political parties in Japan has slumped to 5 per cent, on a par with Italy’s and with American congressional approval ratings. This global snapshot of what the business and political elite think leaves me feeling discouraged. The best question I hear is about whether Japan could face another hot summer without nuclear energy, and the best statistic is that the tallest candidate wins in US presidential elections (Mitt Romney is an inch taller than Obama). Japan’s prime minister Yoshihiko Noda calls on his country not to be inward-looking and, elliptically, pledged: “Japan is determined to lead the world so as to open the way to the future of humankind.”
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Later, in a bar, I overhear a rather crasser take on Japan’s closed business culture. Two days earlier Michael Woodford, the whistle-blowing former British boss of Olympus, had lambasted the company’s board for its handling of a $1.7bn fraud. Over a drink, a British salesman was arguing with two Japanese colleagues. Employing the rhetoric of David Brent, the manager played by Ricky Gervais in The Office, he lectured: “Nori, in the 21st century I don’t worry about the Japanese way. The clients deal in the western world. We can understand that.”
“It is strange way, but Japanese way,” they countered.
“It is no wonder Japan is such a mess. Ten years ago you ruled the world; now you’re a mess. Why? It’s the Japanese way. Look at Olympus and why it’s such a mess. It’s because of the Japanese way. End of. Don’t make a case for the Japanese way. It’s out of order. It’s wrong. You’re wrong.”
“Yes. You’re wrong.”
“Japanese customer live in Japan ... ”
“What do they get from the Japanese system? They don’t get honesty. They get mirrors. My customers in Japan get me. End of. You can’t defend what is wrong. I don’t care how Japanese that is. I don’t give a monkey’s.”
Here the cultural divide became too far to cross. Nervous laughter: “Why ... monkeys?”
Having seen other sides of Japan, I didn’t feel much empathy for the Brit. I’d take flying squirrels over British monkeys. End of.
Caroline Daniel is editor of FT Weekend