JANUARY 12

I'm in the air en route to the Orient, having just left snow storms and "below 0" temperatures to fly over Hawaii and spend a week in the below 0 temperatures of Japan's "Snow Country."I'm trying to keep my antennae out on this trip; register everything.

In San Francisco, for instance, three young Japanese punks boarded this flight with me. One - shaved head, earring, gang jacket - strode by and quietly stuck a hand in his pocket. I watched that hand.

It came out with a camera. He began snapping shots of the other toughs. They mugged and giggled.

Could I be on my way to a country with no mean streak?

On JAL 001, for instance, it's all sweetness and light. Flying to Europe can be like returning home on a troop train, but here it's quiet as a library. I've found dozens of telling details - extra pillows, free beverages, house slippers, free tote bags, green tea ice cream. Such attention makes me feel pampered; like the kid home with a cold whose mother keeps checking his forehead.

Will all these subtle gestures and social graces come to seem overly precious after awhile?

We'll see.

Right now a head waiter in a tux is smiling, trying to take my dinner order. I think he's apologizing because the filet mignon isn't up to the filet mignon served at Maxim's.

JANUARY 13: MATSUMOTO

Matsumoto is Salt Lake City's sister city. And like Our Town, it's surrounded by mountains (the Japan Alps). It's also clean, conservative and has a historical structure as its centerpiece: the Matsumoto Castle.

Towns in Japan tend to be "temple towns" or "castle towns" - making them sound like fairy tale hamlets. Matsumoto is a castle town.

The castle was built 400 years ago as a military outpost. It's a Japanese Fort Apache of sorts - all wood. It has six floors. The top alcove is a small shrine where castle keepers prayed that the place would never be attacked.

It worked. The castle never was.

Matsumoto has other wonders, of course. Mayor Syoji Wago pointed them out to me one by one. Western tourists tend to hit Tokyo, Kyoto, then head out. He'd like to see Matsumoto become a third stop.

Also, Matsumoto and Nagano Prefecture are bidding for the 1998 Winter Olympics - like Utah. Flying me - a member of the rebel forces - to Matsumoto for a lobbying session was typical bold-hearted Japanese promotion.

"I found your Park City and Snowbird to be very beautiful," the mayor says, "but Nagano, I think, is just as gorgeous."

JANUARY 14

Today's a travel day. It's also the birthday of Yukio Mishima, Japan's most celebrated novelist. If that's news to you, don't fret. It's news here.

Mishima was a frail, hyper-sensitive boy who built himself into a self-styled Samurai warrior. He grew obsessed with martial arts and body building, then grew disillusioned with the way Japan was embracing Western culture. In 1970 he committed ritual sepaku (hari-kari) as a protest.

Movies, books and poems have been written about his death. Some in praise, some in horror. Most sensationalize it.

The irony is that Mishima himself embraced the West in his writing style. Coming from a culture that puts a premium on simplicity, precision and economy of language, Mishima's long, full-bodied works are - to my ear - extravagant and too lush. He seems to be steering by his own lights in foreign territory and constantly loses control.

Sections of his novels are wonderful; sections are nothing more than purple prose. His attempt to expand himself - both personally and in his writing - seems ultimately flawed. Many Japanese feel the same.

"He wasn't like a real Samurai warrior," a friend here told me. "He was stylized, his own version of a Samurai. I like his earlier, softer works better. I think they were more honest."

In his final book, "Decay of the Angel," Mishima describes the sky:

Here and there the powerful muscles of the storm clouds were flushed over with shyness.

I submit that as his epitaph.

JANUARY 15: NOZAWA

According to officials here, Nozawa is famous for three things: ski facilities, hot springs and the annual Bonfire Festival.

And as fate - and the Japanese National Tourist Organization - would have it, we are in Nozawa at festival time.

A large wooden tower is constructed at the center of town. Men who are age 42 light torches and try to set the tower on fire, men who are 25 protect the tower with sticks. It's a feudal pageant of sorts, a re-enactment of a Japanese battle.

And it is just as spectacular as advertised. The world seems to be ending in both fire and ice. It's the coldest and hottest night of the year.

Other things go along with the pageant. If your family has a male child during the year, you throw a huge party in your home, for instance. Girls are not celebrated. And sections of the battleground are off-limits to women.

To the American mind, of course, such things don't jive. If the Japanese are sensitive enough to produce great poetry and understand world markets, we ask, why can't they see that women deserve more? The same paradox shows up in other areas. This sensitive, nature-loving country fills great rivers with concrete and blasts whales from the water.

In the United States such conflicting attitudes would be hypocritical, or schizophrenic. But the Japanese mind embraces both.

"I guess all we can do is accept it as the way their heads come together," I told Sarah Shepherd, an American in charge of international relationships here. Every morning she's forced to make tea for her male co-workers.

"I've found that's the healthiest attitude," she said.

JANUARY 16

On to Tokyo and an "accidental tour" of town. If you have a nose for news, you get the best stories by following your nose.

I'm taking a bundle of impressions back to the capital with me. The promptness of the people (if you're two minutes late they give you an anxious call), the common decency (We were waiting in a lobby when an American writer asked me to keep an eye on his souvenirs while he ran to the car. It occurred to me that of all the people in the hotel, I was the most likely to run off with his things.)

And, of course, I'll be seeing even more of the Japanese obsession with technology: self-warming socks, box lunches that heat themselves, heated toilet seats, glow-in-the-dark license plates . . . but then that's another story.