Sir Tom Stoppard draws heavily on a white-tipped cigarette before a wry smile breaks across his face. "It's rather good to save some big experiences for the latter part of one's life so you haven't used them all up by the time you're 50."
The big experience to which the Czech-born British playwright was referring is the fact that this month, at the age of 72, he travelled to Japan for the first time in his life, following an epic railway trip across Russia. But the same theory of saving the best until later could also be applied to the reason for his long awaited presence in Tokyo: to receive a major international arts award, which was presented last week.
There are few loftier arts awards than the Praemium Imperiale. Widely regarded as the arts equivalent of the Nobel Prize, the Japan Art Association annually bestows it on five international artists in different fields such as theatre, architecture and painting. Since its launch in 1989, it has crowned the achievements of a dizzyingly high-profile roll call of creatives, from Frank Gehry and Jean-Luc Godard to Issey Miyake and Bridget Riley.
Not known for half measures, the awards - which are among the highest-value in the arts world - amount to 15 million yen (Dh600,000) for each "laureate" and are presented amid much pomp and ceremony in Tokyo by a member of the imperial family. Even the diploma binders and metal boxes in which the awards are presented are in a class of their own, having been handcrafted by the Parisian fashion house Hermès.
Joining Stoppard as winners this year were the Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, the British sculptor Richard Long, the Baghdad-born architect Zaha Hadid and the Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel. Remarkably - and purely coincidentally, given the voting structure of the recession-defying award - four of the five winners this year are artists based in the UK. For Stoppard, the award crowns a career spanning more than four decades. Since staging his absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, the playwright has carefully crafted a string of thought-provoking pieces.
More recently, his work has ranged from the Russian trilogy The Coast of Utopia to the study of music, Marxism and materialism in the sell-out Rock 'n' Roll. Further testimony to his celebrated status is the title that now precedes his name. It is after a long day of back-to-back press conferences, camera flash bulbs and briefings in the glittering, modernist confines of the Hotel Okura in central Tokyo that Stoppard pauses finally to light a cigarette and talk about his Japan experiences.
Sitting in the traditional Japanese confines of the hotel's private Kikyo room with a pair of bright green socks peeking out from beneath his jeans and blazer ensemble, Stoppard speaks with eloquent modesty. "This is a very special event," he says. "I was very conscious of it being in its own way a unique prize. What can one say which is not banal? "Obviously, like most of the recipients, I felt I was being rewarded beyond my desserts. It's very generous of them, I've never felt important actually."
Describing the significance of the Praemium Imperiale, he adds: "They have quite an influence when it comes to making connections between countries and between languages. "I don't think that an award is something that writers have in their sights. But it always comes as a pleasant surprise." For Stoppard, his arrival in Tokyo earlier this month marked the final destination of an epic journey. Starting in Moscow, he spent nearly a week on board the Trans Siberian Express before disembarking at Vladivostok, flying to Osaka and catching a bullet train to Tokyo.
Describing his travels, he says: "I took the train from Moscow because I fancied the idea of six or seven days on my own to read and think and look out of the window, and that's exactly what I did and I was delighted by it. "I'd have liked to have arrived in Japan by boat but I had to catch the last performance of Coast of Utopia in Tokyo and I've been here for three weeks now." It may have been Stoppard's first visit to Japan but ties with Asia are traced indelibly back to his wartime childhood.
Stoppard had not yet celebrated his second birthday when his family fled with him to Singapore from what was then Czechoslovakia on the day of the 1939 Nazi invasion. While most of the family were subsequently evacuated to India, his father remained in Singapore and later died in a Japanese prison camp. "That was 67 years ago and I don't dwell on it," says Stoppard, whose family settled in Britain after the war.
"There are other places I've never been to and there was no particular personal resistance or attraction to Japan. "The older I get, the more reluctant a traveller I become as I have started to dislike airports and so on. "My writing time is shrinking and when you're travelling you're not writing. But looking back on it, I think I'd have been sorry not to have come to the source of Japanese culture."
He adds: "And it's good to save something as dramatic as Japan for the latter part of one's life." Since his arrival, his quest for inspiration has taken him on a colourful exploration of the country: from attending traditional kabuki performances in Tokyo to relaxing in the Izu Hanto, a lush peninsular full of orange trees and hot springs south of the capital. He has even inadvertently discovered one of the perks of Japanese life - how safe it can be, as shown by the fact that soon after he lost his credit card in central Tokyo, it turned up unused at the local police station.
But for Stoppard, the contrast between London and Tokyo is not confined to street-crime levels: while the Japanese arts award is among the highest in value in the world, funding issues in London theatres are a different matter. "There have been times and places in Europe when a particular art form has somehow come to represent the nation," he says. "It's the idea that opera in Italy or theatre in Germany or literature in France, for example, are good for the nation as a whole and that it's quite appropriate for some of the money one pays in taxes to go towards the arts.
"I don't think the English psyche is quite like that. I think a large part of the English psyche rather resents the taxpayers' money going towards the arts. "And there are certainly people who believe the arts should just pay for themselves as any other enterprise has to." He adds: "I find it embarrassing to make claims for what I do for theatre. I tend to agree with those who say if your plays don't crack it, then don't do them.
"Mamma Mia! does not get a grant for putting on a musical. Why should Shakespeare or Ibsen or what is deemed more a repertoire for the elite be regarded as more special?" As Stoppard packs up his cigarettes and makes his way to his room to prepare for a dinner in the Meiji Shrine with his fellow celebrated award winners, he discloses that he is enjoying the leisurely position of being between works.
"I'd just delivered something before I came away, a television adaptation of an English novel for the BBC," he says. "Next, I'd like to write a play. And I'm hoping to find some inspiration for it here on my trip." And if his theory of saving the best until later in life applies to his play writing as well as his travels, the theatre world could be in for a treat. For more information about the Praemium Imperiale Awards, visit www.praemiumimperiale.org