May 30, 2009
LETTER FROM KYOTO
Scurrying scribes and irresistible oysters
By Janice Tay
HOWEVER I look at it, it just doesn't seem like a pyjama event.
One of the best things about a mostly cultural column is that it can be done in jeans or, if working at home, in pyjamas. But pyjamas just wouldn't do when I was assigned to report on part of President S R Nathan's visit to Japan earlier this month.
Still, some of the drill is the same. When covering a festival, you go well in advance of its starting time if you want a good view. And it's no different with a dignitary's visit. It's like hitting a succession of airport departure lounges in a day: rush and wait, rush and wait, rush and wait and wait.
While waiting for the Singapore delegation to arrive at the Cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, a Japanese journalist standing beside me fell into conversation with visiting schoolchildren.
He tells them which newspaper he belongs to. 'Do you kids subscribe?'
'My family does,' one little girl says.
'Great - thanks for your patronage.'
After Mr Nathan lays a wreath at the Cenotaph, we dash off to the Peace Memorial Museum. But we can stay only long enough to see the delegation tour one floor before we hurtle to the next stop, a room at the other end of the building.
We charge across an open expanse of concrete, startling the shoals of schoolchildren darting about.
An official sprinting ahead of the Singapore journalists reaches the other side first. He yanks open a door to reveal...a stairwell. Someone behind me groans. We charge up the stairs. But more slowly.
Ranks of the Japanese media are already there and we squeeze in among them. About 20 people, all wearing black except for the occasional rebel in grey, cluster around the edge of the room. Hardly anyone talks; we wait in the silence of suits.
Perhaps it's because we're indoors. No one seems to have any qualms about chatting when under an open sky.
Earlier at the Cenotaph, a Japanese reporter sidled up to ask the Singapore journalists how the President's last name should be pronounced.
He was carrying a thick sheaf of material - event information, maps, the President's biodata. Everywhere, attention to detail.
And the effort is showing, especially on the faces of the younger officials. They look as if they have to load all the animals of the Earth onto Noah's Ark but lightning is already flashing, the headcount is different every time they check and the lemurs keep escaping, and...and... The ones who manage to keep cracking jokes deserve a special award.
By the last full day of the President's visit, however, the strain is easing. Perhaps because the finish line is in sight or because we have arrived on the Hiroshima island of Miyajima and the sea air is working.
As we walk in from the harbour, we take photos of the scenery, one another and the deer wandering about. One official moves as if mesmerised to a roadside stall. His gaze fixed on the oysters sizzling on a grill, he mutters something about not having had breakfast and whips out his wallet. Which is the signal for the others to also stop and buy oysters on sticky rice.
'Totally tourist mode,' says another official.
Things are looking up on the Ark: The animals - the elephants, giraffes and spiny anteaters - are safely stowed in the overhead compartment or under the seat in front. And if the lemurs haven't returned on time, well, that's just too bad.
But when we reach the shrine the delegation is scheduled to visit, it's back to business.
The media area at the shrine is marked out with knee-high wooden barricades. Every place has a different way of telling journalists where to stand. At the Sento Gosho gardens in Kyoto the day before, white raffia was pinned down on the gravel to form a discreet triangle. We stepped inside and waited.
When we had arrived earlier, two men with wide bristly brooms were slowly sweeping the sea of gravel spilling across the entrance. We hopped out of our van and, without thinking, crossed to the gardens on the other side.
An official came running up - could we please walk on the perimeter? Chastened, we moved to the side. Another man rushed out with a broom to restore the gravel we'd churned up.
Waiting in the barely visible triangle, I stared out over the composed grey plain. Would the visitors notice the work put in? Could they, given that the convoy vehicles would just plough straight into the gravel?
But this may be what it means to serve. Much has been said about service, though most people seem to have a better idea of how they would like to be treated than of what they are prepared to do.
Perhaps real service is knowing that what you do will remain invisible to most but doing it anyway as if it will be the first thing people notice.
Remembering the men methodically soothing a gravel sea, I feel a sudden urge to seize a broom and find my own patch to smooth.
I wonder if I can do it in pyjamas.