Shooting Shikoku: A Full-Circle Celebration of Japan
Four decades ago, fresh out of creative writing graduate school, I moved to Japan on a two-year Princeton-in-Asia Fellowship to teach English literature and writing at a university in a Tokyo suburb. Very shortly after I arrived, I found myself at the Tokyo headquarters of NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, auditioning for the role of talk show host for an English-language program produced by the corporation’s Educational Division.
This surreal serendipity was precipitated by a fellow American, Peter, who had come to Japan two years earlier on the same Princeton fellowship. During his first two years, he had been hired by NHK to play a role in their version of Sesame Street. Just before I had arrived, he had been asked by his producers if he knew anyone who might be interested in hosting a higher-level English-language talk show that they were planning to create.
My secret dream was to be Dick Cavett, so when Peter asked me if I might be interested in this role, I leapt at the chance. And that’s how I found myself with two dozen other similarly scraggly English-speaking foreigners in a hallway at NHK waiting nervously for my audition.
Fortuitously, that audition consisted of being interviewed on camera by none other than Peter. I passed that first test and moved on to more auditions, and a couple of weeks later, I was selected as the talk show host.
This Alice in Wonderland experience continued for my two years in Japan. Every Wednesday I would take the train to Shibuya in downtown Tokyo, walk to the NHK complex, meet with the three directors of the program, and review that week’s script with the directors, that week’s guest, and Fumiko-san, the bright bi-lingual woman who was the show’s on-camera translator, and whose job was to summarize the conversation every 10 minutes or so.
After reviewing the script, I would be seated in a glaring make-up studio, where my cheeks would be buffed, my forehead powder-puffed, and any errant hairs trimmed just so. Then Fumiko-san, the guest, and I would walk to the show’s set, where three cameras and a floor director awaited to film the 30-minute conversation. All this was almost unimaginably heady stuff for a fledgling poet.
Over the ensuing two years, that job presented the opportunity to interview a spectrum of native English-language speakers residing in Japan, from a cruise ship captain, professional baseball player, and banking executive to a chef, painter, and playwright.
The show was used as a teaching tool in most Japanese schools and was seen by the vast majority of secondary school students in Japan. As a result, as the months passed, I stopped being surprised when a gaggle of students would point at me in the subway or in the street and exclaim, “Don-san!” The braver would ask me for my autograph.
Don-san in Wonderland
That experience flooded back to me last spring when I found myself again in front of cameras in Japan, except that this time I was being filmed on location in one of my favorite regions on the planet, Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku, the island where my wife was born and where GeoEx’s Journey Through Ancient Japan ventures every spring.
The Tokushima tourism officials had asked me to host a film about the attractions of the Shikoku, Japan region, and I spent four exhausting but exhilarating days traveling around the area with a film crew, shooting many of the same experiences that GeoEx travelers enjoy. We ate Iya soba at the home restaurant of multi-talented chef-and-folk-singer Tsuzuki-san, visited the precipitously perched mountainside hamlet of Ochiai, and soaked in the picturesque Iya Onsen hot spring. We carefully crossed the okuiya niju kazurabashi—the double vine bridge that is set deep in the heart of the valley—and admired the exquisitely restored 300-year-old farmhouse named Chiiori, where GeoEx guests spend an incomparable night.
For me, filming this video was a conjunction of full circle moments: I was overjoyed to be in front of a camera in Japan again, on the island where my wife was raised, celebrating a country and culture that have become deeply intertwined parts of my life.
The film has recently been posted on YouTube, so you can view it too. It presents a spectacular preview of the wonders we encounter on the Ancient Japan trip—and it also fittingly celebrates the riches—natural and human—of the place that has become my adopted home.
For me, making this video 40 years after my TV debut was another dream come true, and I’m thrilled that I can now share it with you!
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If you're interested in seeing the sights of Japan, specifically Shikoku travel with Don George, consider GeoEx's Journey Through Ancient Japan or Japan:Tip to Toe. Give us a call to learn more at 888-570-7108.
For a decade, Don George, the beloved and award-winning Editor in Chief of this blog, has been procuring captivating and compelling travel stories for us. He's traveled widely in and written extensively about Japan, not to mention having lived there for two years. His recent book, The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George, features a heart-opening collection of his own evocative essays and tales from his 40-year career as a travel writer.