Japan 15: Jetlag (Marking 12 months of The Bleat)

Written by

Andrew Millar


February 3, 2008

I have seen photos of the Ise Peninsula southwest of Osaka where two large islands are joined by a hand woven straw twisted rope called a ‘shimenawa‘. It is a simple symbolic gesture to show the earth’s connection to heaven is tangible but tenuous. I saw a lot of these hand made ropes in temples and gardens denoting sacred places; large ones strung between trees, smaller ones to attach to the fascia above doorways. They are simple hand woven ropes tapered at both ends and grow thick in the middle. Stout and strong. Tightly twisted and tense. We saw them in talisman shops; there must be some festival coming up that uses them. I understand that the first fire of the year in your home, if lit by a flame from the temple brought good fortune to you for that year. These little rice straw ropes I think are used to transport the flame. But in any case I quite liked them, and probably would have brought one back if not for the anticipation of trouble with Australian Customs.

These ceremonial ropes actually reminded me of little relief maps of Japan. Both are tapering at each end with a thick backbone. Even the twists in the rope recall the deep valleys that carve through the rocky ridges that form the backbone of Honshu Island. The only detail the rope lacks is the watery grove that runs west to east on the underside of Japan – The Inland Sea.

The Inland Sea is a massive stretch of water that runs between Honshu and Shikoku Islands. And it deserves the title of ‘sea’ because it is so vast that from the beaches of Kobe and Osaka you’d swear you were looking at open ocean. However there is a sizable island of Shikoku in the way. The Pacific Ocean to the south and the Sea of Japan to the north can only be accessed through narrow straits. Here, particularly at the eastern end where the entrance is a little over 1 kilometre wide, the tidal currents run swift and strong as inner Japan spills out and meets the rest of the world. So strong are the currents that standing whirlpools form four times a day on the movement of the tides.

The strongest and most famous of these natural washing machines is the 20 metre wide Naruto whirlpool. Apart from being a favoured spot to exit this world for the next and a tourist attraction, the Naruto whirlpool in the Kii Straits exists as a metaphor for the journey all travellers take when they try and leave Japan. Here is tangible evidence of cultural clash. It is not a clash like the ‘head on’ collision you experience travelling in some countries, America, for example, steals your soul as the price of passage. Japan is not that demanding, but you leave in a spin of altered perceptions and values. Its alteration begins the day you arrive. It’s subtle. It’s gentle. And it sneaks up on you so gradually that you cannot perceive any personal change. But it becomes evident when you attempt to return ‘home’. Physically we passed close to the Naturo whirlpool on the train from Kyoto to Tokyo. Mentally we have been caught up in it for the last two weeks.

Some of this spin comes from trying to settle back into the ‘Land of Oafs’. Australia by comparison to Japan seems unsophisticated, clumsy and uncouth. We have been put into a spin by an Australia that seems harsh and unrefined by comparison.

The other part of the ‘spin’ comes from being a traveller in the first place. The Inuit language of the Artic Circle tribes provides an example of the point I am trying to illustrate. Their word to identify a bear is completely different depending on whether the bear is moving or not. It is not a running bear or a walking bear verb/noun pair but simply different nouns. So in a sense once when a running bear stops running it ceases to exist. It becomes a different object. ‘Traveller’ is a similar word in English. Travellers need no verb to describe their existence. And like the poor bear, when a traveller stops moving, the traveller ceases to exist. A stationary traveller is no longer a traveller but must regenerate into something else or risk disappearing altogether.

While I am not stationary yet, I am struggling with a new definition of self. My grip is tenuous. I am still spinning in the whirlpool of a changing tide between two cultures, fighting to stay afloat.

The English language doesn’t have a word for ‘a traveller spinning on the spot’. Perhaps that is the condition we misdiagnose as ‘jetlag’. Perhaps we should more accurately refer to anyone returning after a long trip as ‘Naruted’.