The Day I met the Emperor in Waiting
The request came from out of the blue. A neighbor whose wife had imperial family connections had sent us a message 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 all?
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 but who enjoy the challenge of finding and climbing the routes up Japan’s many 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 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 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 equallyimpressed. The prince agreed and I told him of the scheme by the wife of the then Australian ambassador to Japan 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 keen to talk to palace outsiders but seemed rather shy and not sure how to go about it. Being shut off from much of the outside world by layers of couriers and officials did not help. In manner he was courteous to a point even if rather stilted. His English was good even if a little unpracticed.