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Friday, Sept. 14, 2007

Got the Biwa blues


Staff writer

This is the second part of a two-part story on a trip to Lake Biwa and its environs in Shiga Prefecture.

Part I: A great escape to Biwako

The world turns blue at Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture
The world turns blue at Lake Biwa in Shiga Prefecture. MR. HONDA PHOTO

The beauty is mesmerizing, overwhelming, suffocating. All around me, the world has just turned blue — and it's about to get even more so. It's painfully romantic. I'm not with the one I love, and I almost feel like calling out to new friend Jasmine, a reporter from Hiroshima who's sitting in the dining room below, but that would seem like cheating, so instead I allow the blurred faces of ex-loves to sprinkle memories over me; those women I thought I might spend the rest of my life with but with whom I failed, miserably. Wasted years, but for the salutary benefits of experience. Then my girlfriend comes into focus and stays there gracefully. I'm here on a media cruise with a motley crew of journalists. It's work, but what a cruise like this is all about is romance.

I can't believe all the other journalists on this freebie junket are sitting in a downstairs conference room on the 66-meter-long, 1,216-ton Biancago cruise boat enduring another lecture about how great Lake Biwa is when the real action is taking place here, on the top deck, where you can see how great it is. Biwako is sunset heaven. Right now, the water, surrounding mountains and sky are the same color as the blue short-sleeve factotum shirt I'm wearing that says "Robot" in red, where the person's name should be. But maybe when you visit, Biwako will turn pink. It depends on the weather. I finally go down and urge Jasmine to come up. I tell her the world is turning blue, but she just smiles and winks at me, showing no inclination to believe. "Are you drunk?" she asks. I return to the top deck, disappointed at her lack of enthusiasm.

* * * * *

Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) was a dirty pretty little thing. Problem was, these were the days when macho samurai roamed feudal Japan. For a young boy to be told he's so cute that he resembles a girl is the kind of playground scorn that hasn't changed to this day. Boys can get emotionally scarred by such stuff. Nobunaga got pissed off big-time. All his nannies bar one quit because he'd punch them on the nose, call them sluts, spit out rice in their face or go to the toilet on their futon — things like that. And in the days of winner-takes-all, kill-them-before-they-chop-you-down, he went for the gonads; the world kicked out at him, and he kicked back a lot harder. When he got older he swaggered around town in outlandish clothes, getting drunk at izakaya and flirting with many a high-class prostitute to prove that he was a MAN. People began to call him "Baka-dono (Lord Fool)." He eventually established his base at Azuchi Castle on the eastern shore of Lake Biwa. Nobunaga's world was to turn red, from his cheeks at his embarrassment as a child, to the blood seeping from the decapitated corpses of his enemies as an adult, to his inevitable premature death, at the hands of a turncoat.

* * * * *

"It must be the reflection of the lake against the sky as the sun goes down behind the clouds, but I'm not quite sure why everything is blue," says Mr. Honda, who's rooming with me on the cruise and has taken pity on my poor photography skills and volunteered to take pics for me on this trip. But I'm well aware that no photo could possibly capture the scene that surrounds me. "I don't know why it's happening, and I don't care," I say to Honda. "I'm just happy that I'm seeing it. But I wish I was here with someone I loved, not that you're not a great bloke."

Oda Nobunaga
An artist's impression of Oda Nobunaga
Azuchi Castle
Near the Nobunaga-no-yakata museum lie what remains of his Azuchi Castle.
Nobunaga-no-yakata museum
Nobunaga-no-yakata museum
At the Nobunaga-no-yakata museum you'll find a replica of Oda Nobunaga's house and figurines depicting his story. MR. HONDA AND SIMON BARTZ PHOTOS

We laugh and just take it all in because it won't last long.

"Perhaps this is what it's like when you are drowning and there's blue all about you and nothing else," I say. "And maybe it's still blue when you close your eyes and give up the ghost. If this is the kind of scene that whisks you off to another world, then I can believe those claims that drowning is the least painful way to die."

"Your words are tragic and romantic," says Honda.

"Romance or death are easy escapes," I reply. "But you're the man with a wife and kid. Perhaps you experienced great romance to commit yourself like that. I've never had the strength to do it. I've just got cheap dreams and an even cheaper guitar to record them."

"You could write a blues song," suggests Honda. "Because you're longing for a girl who's not here to experience this with you."

"And you can sing it because you wanna be with your daughter and not sitting here with me, right?"

We stand there for several more minutes as the invisible sun falls behind the mountains, vacuuming up the blue terrain as it goes, until we are again left with a grayish foamy sky drizzling on us as a typhoon heads our way from Kyushu.

A big spider descends on a large strand from the top of the canopy that I'm sitting beneath. It's inches from my face.

"On this ship and in this windy weather, you're going to go hungry tonight, mate," I say to it. "Just like me."

* * * * *

Oda Nobunaga became a brutal warlord who beat the crap out of anyone who got in his way. His life of continual military conquest saw the bullied one become the toughest kid in a feudal playground called Japan. In true libertine style, he was also a bit of a romantic. He won the blessing of his father-in-law — who had spied on Nobunaga, knew he was a rogue — by dressing up in a splendid kimono and bowing until his dandyish beard probably swept dust up from the tatami. Nobunaga's life story is fascinating, and there's no better place to read it than at uk.geocities.com/rainforestwind/oda. I won't detail his life here as this Net account is unbeatable and often hilarious; a lengthy series of essays penned by a true Nobunaga otaku (obsessive). Here's one quote from her: "I fell for Oda Nobunaga a long, long time ago as my raging hormones of the time demanded hero-worship. As fate would have it, I turn out to be devoid of such an exhausting human nature, but still I retain the medium-sized adoration toward several historical icons including Oda Nobunaga. This man fulfills die-hard romanticism I am vulnerable against."

I read it on the shinkansen on the way to Biwako and was enthralled; and excited about visiting the remains of Azuchi Castle. But all that's left are just a few basic foundations that look like some smart tourism chief has laid a few pebbles on the ground to lure the tourist yen. Compared with the beauty of Biwa Lake, and if you already know the story of Nobunaga, it's a mundane excursion. At the Nobunaga-no-Yakata museum, there is a replica of the hegemon's red-lacquered house that lay within a fortified keep that stood in the grounds of the castle. But if actor Ken Watanabe, who has signed a guest card here, came down to research his role in "The Last Samurai," he would have learned little. I buy a pretty cool Nobunaga T-shirt and later wonder if it's a little akin to wearing a Joe Stalin or Dick Cheney shirt. After that we are taken to the nearby Bungei Seminaryo Hall, which is like the Royal Albert Hall in London, fit for a daimyo (feudal lord) to be entertained at. A guy plays a recorder on stage; another guy plays an organ, with the hall's famously huge array of red pipes stretching tens of meters to the ceiling. I'm not fussed about this music, so I go outside and drink a beer and smoke a few fags, briefly chatting to the tourist guides — who've seen this recorder-organ gig a few too many times — and then quietly watching the noisy rain.

* * * * *

At dinner on a lower deck of the boat (the main course turns out to be beef, and by the look of the people's ecstatic faces around me it's on a Michelin-star level, but I don't eat mammals), we are told that the typhoon is about to hit, but the boat will not be affected. There's a chorus of "oohs" and "ahhs" from the assembled hacks, but the immense boat is not swayed an inch by the storm. I am just staring at the sake in front of me, but we can't down it until a speech is made. Finally the speech thanking us all for coming in this awful weather is made and free sake is downed and the worries over the typhoon are replaced with chatter and flirtation.

After dinner we are back in the 4/F conference room and it's all space stuff. Two guys whip out their telescopes. One's got a big one. The other's got a small one. They wave them about. The journalists stifle yawns, probably because they wish they were all still drinking sake. We are told about all the constellations you can see when the sky is not covered in gray fuzzy cloud as it is tonight. I wander out onto the deck again. The gray fuzz ain't so bad, I think. When I'm sitting on a boat in the middle of the biggest freshwater lake in Japan with the heavens giving all they've got, it's still a great escape from the noise of the politicians in Tokyo outside my apartment telling me they will solve all my problems, the late-night drunks shouting and puking on my doorstep, the advertising that screams in my face on the Yamanote Line every morning as I stand glued to a window, looking to the sky and dreaming of escape.

News photo
Ken Watanabe, star of "The Last Samurai," has signed a guest card at Nobunaga-no-Yakata. SIMON BARTZ PHOTO

When the lecture on stars finally ends at about 10 p.m., everyone, bizarrely, goes straight to bed in whatever luxurious cabin has been assigned to them. So it's me and Honda out on the deck, and I'm strumming my guitar, struggling with an impromptu song titled "Biwako Blues." There's nobody in the bar, and I sneak behind the counter and relieve the fridge of about half a dozen large bottles of beer; I don't count this as stealing because everything's been free anyway. We crack the bottles open on the deck, one by one, and sing songs until the early hours. The last thing I remember is text-messaging Jasmine and asking her to join me. Thankfully she ignores the call.

The next day the tour is brought to an abrupt halt due to the torrential rain, and we are whisked to Otsu Station and from there catch a train to Kyoto. Honda heads off to Osaka to be with his daughter and wife, who he hasn't seen for a week due to work, and he promises to send me some photos. I have one last beer with Jasmine at Kyoto Station. I look into her eyes and know I will never see her again.

Info on Biancago cruises and excursions is available at www.biwakokisen.co.jp (in Japanese; an English pamphlet can be downloaded). Check www.info.kankou-shiga.or.jp/biwakonotabi/english/menu.html for info on Biwako and Shiga Prefecture. For photos of Biwako sunsets check www.biwako-visitors.jp/photo. Bungei Seminaryo Hall is at www.hottv.ne.jp/~bungei/


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