If the Japanese are at all aware of the Shangri-la image of the Himalayan countries, in all likelihood they got it from the West.
“We are also from the Orient, which the West sees as exotic. We don’t have the same romantic idea of Nepal,” said Takashi Miyahara, a Japanese who has lived in Nepal for 24 years. He first came to climb in 1962, then returned four years later to work as a consultant, and is presently chairman of a hotel in Kathmandu, the famous Everestview Hotel up in Khumbu, and a trekking agency.
Yet what made Miyahara return after his climb of Mukti Himal, behind Dhaulagiri, was the discovery of “Tohgenkyo,” a word of Chinese origin, which comes closest to the notion of Shangri-La. The difference is that Toh-genkyo, which accolades a pristine scene of plum blossoms with mountains all around, really refers to a specific instance or site of beauty, whereas Shangri-la is a notion of a way of life imbued with an elevated sense of other-worldliness.
If stretched, Tohgenkyo can mean a “fairyland,” said Miyahara, but clearly, the Japanese do not have a specific region in mind as qualifying. Thus Miyahara cites particular sites – Ghorapani, Langtang, Syangboche (where his famous but presently inoperative hotel is located), and Hunza in the Gilgit ¬that, to him, are examples of Tohgenkyo.
To a question about Kathmandu and Shangri-la, Miyahara answers: “With jets and all that now, how can there be a Shangri-La?” Miyahara views his new home with soberness, perhaps because it is home, though he adds that the Japanese are drawn to Nepal because of its mountains – “which are heights and holy places to us, too ” – and the people – “very gentle and good people.”
Japan, after all, was an intensely insulated society right till the pre-modern Meiji Period, when the Japanese first became aware of the Himalaya. Then in 1936 there was a Japanese expedition to Nandakot in India. It was only after World War II, however, with their new-won affluence, that they began to travel out.
Far from having romantic notions, the Japanese tend to view places like Tibet as cold and harsh, according to Miyahara. They are keenly conscious of the fact that the countries here are not economically developed even though there are many who are clearly not deterred by that. About 13,000 Japanese come to Nepal annually, many of them several times.
The word “exotic” may be as foreign to the Japanese as the particularly Western allure of the exotic rooted in a desire for fantasy, adventure or a projection that is more to do with personal yearning than what is out there. It may also be that the Japanese are by and large content with their own unique identity, a self-preoccupation, along with a fear of the unfamiliar, that often inhibits venturing into other worlds.
For example, a Nepali travel agency about to receive several charters of Japanese travellers was instructed by the Japanese operator to remember two things: comfort and security.
This absence of a romantic taint in their outlook perhaps leads Japanese to look on the less developed, mostly non-Western – that is, the exotic – cultures in the light of their material backwardness – and to place them in awe of the robustness of Western affluence in spite of Japan’s emergence as an economic power.
For instance, Yoshida Rucko, who travelled alone in India, was so taken aback by the unfamiliar and disturbing scenes of beggars, the smells, and her “delhi-belly” that she ended up not venturing beyond a 10-metre radius of her hotel. Mr. Narita, 78, of Nagoya, on the other hand, feels “fulfilled” because he was able to make a pilgrimage to the Himalaya on his first and only trip abroad. His photographs, however, reveal a disproportionate number of angles on poverty.
In contrast to Westerners, many of whom are nagged by their own presumed unexoticness, the Japanese seem to be deeply interested and pre-occupied by how foreigners perceive them, and do not mind being reminded of how unique or exotic their compulsions appear to others.
This self-occupation is evident in a recent TV documentary series on a team of Japanese journalists’ visit to rural Africa. Rather than depict cultural aspects of the host countries, they chose to highlight what sometimes seems to have become a Japanese mission of introducing baseball (a popular Japanese sport) in the backwoods. In doing so, are the Japanese trying to show that they are not exotic? Are they, in adopting this quintessential aspect of Americana, running away from their own sense of their exoticness?
When the Japanese come to the Himalaya, they do not come to find any kind of a fairyland but perhaps to get away from the congestion of their cities and to breathe some fresh and rarified air.
Yeshi Wangdi is a Tibetan studying Japanese in Nagoya.