GREG CLARK. The Day I met the Emperor in Waiting

The request came from out of the blue.  A neighbor in rural Chiba whose wife had royal family connections had sent a message via her husband that the crown prince, Naruhito, want to talk with me. He was said to have had read an article I had written for a Nagano prefecture regional newspaper about Japan’s little known Southern Alps. He himself was planning a trip to the area.  Would I and my wife be willing to visit him and have chat about it?

And so a few weeks later we found ourselves at the Akasaka entrance to the Togu-goSho, the impressive palace of residence for the crown prince waiting to become emperor of Japan.   We were ushered into a very large meeting room.

The conversation was somewhat stilted at first. But we knew that he was a keen mountain climber – not of the type who like to dangle from rock faces for hours but who enjoy the challenge of finding and climbing the routes up Japan’s many attractive 2,000 -3,000  meter high peaks. That gave us something in common.

He was preparing for a climb in Japan’s lesser known Southern Alps (the Northern Alps with their ski resorts and once-glaciated slopes remained much more  famous and crowded) and wanted advice.

We said he had a choice.   Most visitors to the area entered by the route from Kofu in Yamanashi prefecture leading to the 3,192 meter Kita-dake, Japan’s second highest mountain and the northern tip of the Southern Alps. But the more interesting and much less visited  areas were in the middle and southern sections running down to Shizuoka prefecture in the south.    They lay just to the other side of Mr Fuji but few seemed to know much about them.

We had just come back from a two day Southern Alps ridge-top excursion staying in mountain huts and ending with the rather rough descent to little-known Sumata-kyo onsen and then by bus to the picturesque Oigawa railway line. Our excitement over discovering this little- known part of Japan so close to the large urban centres of Kanto had led to that article in the Nagano-newspaper.

But we realised that the powers in charge of royal safety would not be keen about this kind of adventure. So we focussed on outlining access to Kita-dake by the  little-known back route to the top. We heard later that this was the official choice.

From there the conversation moved to attracting more foreigners to Japan by publicising not just the mountains but also the little- known onsens and the min-shuku villages at the bottom of most ranges.  Min-shuku – a system of villagers opening their houses for overnight stays by  tourists (long before AirbnB even existed)  – had been my own unforgettable introduction to the simple warmth of Japanese country people back in the seventies.  I was sure others would be equally impressed. The prince agreed and I told him of the scheme by Cynthia Menadue the wife of the then Australian ambassador to Japan, John Menadue, to organise minshuku tours for Australian visitors.

By now the hour promised for our meeting was almost up and was being reinforced by the nervous flutterings of the various officials monitoring the scene.  But it was also clear the prince wanted to keep talking.  So for another hour we moved to the one other topic we had in common – his experience at Oxford University.  As others have reported  he had enjoyed greatly the chance to be treated as an ordinary citizen free to wander among the spires, pubs and lecture halls of Britain’s oldest university city.  To our mutual surprise we also found something even more in common – as part of our degree courses we had both researched Thame River basin to the south of Oxford.

He had researched the historical navigation systems and water use and had even put out  book on it. I had worked on the geology and economy of the area, but had been published only in thesis form. And so with promises to meet again we parted.

Overall impression:  Naruhito was obviously keen to talk to palace outsiders. But he seemed rather shy and not sure how to go about it, shut off as he was from much of the outside world by layers of courtiers and officials.  In manner he was unfailingly courteous. More importantly, he seemed to share the anti-militarism of his parents which to date has been such restraining force opposing the open militarism of Japan’s powerful rightwing.

Gregory Clark is a former Australian diplomat.  In 1975 he moved to an academic career in Japan where he became a professor at Sophia University and Emeritus President, Tama University.  He was also formerly The Australian newspaper correspondent in Japan.

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2 Responses to GREG CLARK. The Day I met the Emperor in Waiting

  1. Charles Lowe says:

    What a lovely personal rendition!

  2. Jim KABLE says:

    And the day I met Her Imperial Highness the Princess Takamado (Hisako, Takamadonomiya – hidenka).

    It was late April, 2009. I had just completed walking the 88-temple pilgrimage around Japan, addressed the group in Takamatsu led at that stage by the boss of the Maruzen Group (printing/farming) who were agitating to gain UNESCO Intangible World Heritage listing for the Pilgrimage course – and moved on to farewell old friends in Shimane-ken.

    This was where I had taught for almost two years as an official exchange teacher from NSW at Matsue Commercial Senior High 1991 and 1992. One of those friends had recently retired and he took me to Daikon-shima (noted for its ginseng and its paeonies) in the middle of the Naka-umi (by then amalgamated into the city of Matsue) and to its most famous and beautiful garden called Yu-shi-en (google it) owned by the family of a lad I had taught 17 years earlier – KADOWAKI Eiichi – by then rising up in the family business – and others of my students also working there.

    As we were about to enter – an official-looking car pulled up – there was a flurry of doors being opened – and out stepped a rather glamorous-looking woman – and in she went through the entrance. Maybe a Japanese movie star I thought as I took a photograph. The official welcome group and the woman moved off – and we entered. It was a Wednesday and the first day of Golden Week – Midori-no-hi. The height of the paeony season. But on this day – relatively quiet – though come Friday and the week-end – crowds would be arriving. So who is the important person I asked as I arrived at the ticket counter – another of my old students – That’s Takamado-no-miya – it was explained to me. Later during the stroll through the garden – beneath the wisteria cover where some paeony trees were displayed with upwards of 15 or more huge blooms – I almost bumped into the Princess – focussing a huge-lensed camera on the displays. She looked up – saw me in my pilgrim’s jacket – and asked me – clearly a foreigner – in excellent English – where I was from. Australia – elicited a smile – and I explained where I had just come from – the pilgrimage – that I had years earlier taught in this region – and was about to return to Australia. All pleasant and brief – and later I understood that she had lived when much younger in the UK – in fact had studied at Cambridge – a member of Girton College – with which I have family connections. She had been widowed about seven years earlier – but was clearly a very busy member of the Imperial Household and so far as I could judge – much respected!

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