Since 1853, when US naval officer Matthew Perry arrived in Edo Bay with his squadron of "black ships" looking for a trade deal, Japan has possessed a mystique for Westerners that has served as much to alienate as attract. The idea of a closed society, an isolated country that agreed to open up to trade only when threatened with naval bombardment, still haunts the foreign imagination.
Despite the enthusiastic assimilation by contemporary Japanese of every international cultural tic, from dreadlocks to David Beckham, many gaijin, foreigners, still suspect there's something about the exchange that isn't reciprocal, that aspects of this wealthy modern democracy are being held back or kept secret. This image of impenetrable Japan informs such films as Lost in Translation, in which two Americans work through their culture shock in the luxurious surroundings of the Tokyo Park Hyatt Hotel.
It certainly looks as though Japan's reputation as a country of obscure codes and rarefied manners affects patterns of tourism. Spend a day on the JR Yamanote train line, which runs a circuit around central Tokyo, and you see foreigners everywhere - standing at intersections in Shibuya or Shinjuku, gawping up at J-Pop stars shimmering on giant screens. They're browsing in electronics shops in Akihabara, taking pictures of the cos-play freaks - kids who dress up as their favorite manga characters. But if you board one of the comfortable shinkansen, or express trains, and head out of the city, they vanish. In almost two weeks traveling through Tohoku, the mountainous northeastern region of Honshu, the largest of Japan's major islands, I'll count nine foreign tourists, four of whom are together.
Tohoku is the deep north, through which the famous Zen monk and haiku poet Matsuo Basho walked in 1689, writing one of the most famous travelogues in world literature, Oku no Hosomichi, or the Narrow Road to the Interior. In the 17th century this was a wild and dangerous region, roamed by bandits. Today, most of Japan's 120 million people still live on the flat coastal plains, while the heavily forested mountains of Tohoku are a place to get away from it all, to experience nature and relax at one of the region's numerous onsen, or hot spring resorts. There is a highly developed tourist culture ?it's just that it's almost 100 percent Japanese.
Like Basho 300 years ago, I stop off on the way to the mountains at Matsushima, a seaside town fronting a bay scattered with hundreds of pine-covered islets. For centuries, Matsushima has been appreciated as one of the nihon sankei, the three scenic places considered the most beautiful in all Japan. "Islands are piled above islands," Basho wrote, "and islands are joined to islands, so that they look exactly like parents caressing their children or walking with them arm in arm. The pines are of the freshest green and their branches are curved in exquisite lines, bent by the wind constantly blowing through them."
An apocryphal story has it that when asked to compose a poem extolling all this beauty, the poet was initially lost for words. His response, in perfect haiku form (a line of five syllables, a line of seven and a second line of five) is, I suppose, a sort of Zen gag:
Ah-ah Matsushima! Ah!