The last couple of days of the year are upon us, and what do we tend to do as we near the end of December? We evaluate how the year has treated us based on our own criteria. When I sit down for this task, among other memories I recall two big events that occurred this year: My wedding and the subsequent tour of Japan in October. This is not a blog post about “What is Japan”, but an account of some of the totally unique experiences me and my wife enjoyed among the people of the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’.
The Japanese geography test
Having researched and prepared for the tour for nearly 3 months, you would expect that you’ve left no stone unturned. Its the inherent nature of travel, though, that the unexpected can be definitely expected! We landed at the Narita International Airport near Tokyo late evening on a Thursday and took the train to Shinjuku where our hotel was located. The route to the hotel from the station had been chalked out on Google Maps and had been studied well during the tour preparation stage, so even though we failed to purchase a network data connection for my cellphone there wasn’t much reason for alarm. I’ve been good with geography all my life and people have lauded me sometimes for my sense of direction. Still, there comes a time in life when you’re rendered speechless even while holding a dictionary in your hand. My time had come!
It was about 8:00 PM when we alighted the train and walked up to the road, looked around and….. BLANK. We stood there under the Japanese Anime neon signs flashing all around us, with absolutely no idea which direction to take. We asked around, but when a couple of persons pointed to two opposite directions, it was time to get real serious. There was a Japanese police station, or ‘Koban’ as they are known locally, nearby. My wife’s knowledge of the Japanese language came in handy here. The cop inside got out his maps, fussed over the postal address we were spelling out to him, and later pointed to a street after giving some route instructions. We walked along the street, towing our baggages behind us, with elation in our hearts for being in Japan and trepidation in our minds for our present state of being ‘lost’. The maps along the road were terrific though, and the ‘You are here’ arrows brought down the levels of trepidation slowly.
After realizing that we might be walking around in circles, we again enquired with a young couple about the route. The lady brought out her iPhone and after confirming our fears about waking in circles, guided us towards what she thought would take us to the destination. Another round of “Arigatou Gozaimasu” (“Thank you very much”) with the customary bow ensued and we set out along the new route, with the lady saying “Genki de ne” (“Take care of yourselves”) as we left. We eventually reached the hotel at 10:00 PM. The walk which should have taken us 20 mins, took 2 hours! It wasn’t as if the hotel brand was less popular, it has a worldwide chain of studio-apartment hotels after all, but probably in a big city and a tourist hub like Tokyo not everyone knows every place by heart. Japanese people help a lot though, a fact of life that manifested itself many times during our stay there.
The Shibuya road crossing
Its odd to include a simple road crossing in the list of must-see places in a city, but that’s just what Japan is about. Its astonishing. Nearly all the clips available in various TV documentaries about the Japanese people walking on the road (Tokyo being one of the most densely populated cities in the world) have been shot at this place in Shibuya. This video will tell you why (note the sheer amount of people crossing the streets at a time):
Tales of the people, by the people
Being an Indian I am fairly used to westerners often mentioning about the welcoming nature of the people of my motherland. When you go to Japan and interact with the local populace for any amount of time, you know you’re dealing with a level. The warmth of the Japanese will floor you. Almost all the people we met knew about India and many had visited parts of the country, Taj Mahal in Agra, Qutb Minar in Delhi and other major tourist places in Mumbai and Rajasthan being the most popular.
Everywhere we went the Japanese themselves came forward to strike a conversation. Of the incidences I remember fondly is one where a young lady went out of her way to help us with a public telephone at the Utsunomiya train station, another one where a lady at a bus stop in Kyoto checked on us if everything was fine (“Daijoubu desu ka?”) when she saw us fidgeting with some coins for the bus fare, an elderly lady we met on an elevator at the Kyoto train station who after enquiring which country we originated from wished us good luck during our stay in Japan, and another one in a Hiroshima tram who chatted with us for a long time and even knocked on the window after she got down at her stop to wish us goodbye. Then there was this elderly lady at the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, whom we just cannot forget. After conversing with my wife for a while and finding out that she was an Indian, she was so pleased that she gave my wife a tight hug!
Perhaps the best experience was that of an attendant at the main Tokyo train (JR) station. This was during our last final train journey there, from Tokyo to Narita International Airport. My wife purchased the tickets and we started making our way through the crowd towards the platform, when suddenly this attendant scampered towards us, again through some fairly heavy crowd, and caught us just in time. Panting heavily, she explained that she had made a mistake with the original tickets and exchanged them with the correct ones. The mistake, as it turned out, was a tiny one, and it would’ve in no way affected our journey to Narita Airport. However, to the Japanese it wasn’t the ‘right thing’ and this lady took all the trouble to run this 200m sprint to rectify her mistake. Both me and my wife were absolutely speechless and while she was apologizing by saying “Gomennasai” (“Sorry”) about a million times, we couldn’t thank her enough! It was the most sincere bow I had done while saying “Arigatou Gozaimasu” (“Thank You”) during the entire tour.
Japanese people are a proud and hardworking lot, that’s what I had heard from childhood and can now personally attest to it. Their urge to learn English and be proficient in it is something that stands out. During a visit to the Kyoto train station we came across a few groups of school kids who had taken up speaking English to visiting foreigners as an assignment. Starting with questions like “What is your name?” and “What game do you like?”, the interaction would quickly switch to a round of ‘Rock-Paper-Scissors‘. The little paper cranes they used to give us at the end of the interview would feel like prizes!
School children at Kyoto JR station, practicing their English language skills
We encountered similarly enthusiastic individuals at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, where a volunteer explained us the entire history related to the place and the A-bomb dropped there during WWII with the passion to rival that of a fanatic and the knowledge to rival that of a National Geographic Channel documentary. On the sidelines, I must admit that the Japanese make wonderful museums.
With our volunteer-guide Akemi Kitagawa san at the A-Bomb Dome inside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park
Even though the people of Japan ensured that our tour remained unforgettable, the real highlight for me personally was their travel system, especially the network of trains, whether intra-city or inter-city. Home to the world-renowned ‘Shinkansen‘ (Bullet Train), their efficiency, punctuality, range, frequency and the sheer quantity of the trains will hold you in awe. They aren’t cheap, mind you, but the infrastructure is in place. It makes traveling to a city 200km away as easy as going to your local convenience store. The Japan Rail (JR) Pass proved to be one of the most important documents during the length of the tour.
Shinkansen (Bullet Train) at Tokyo station
Another little touch that I liked was the way the timers on the traffic signals for pedestrians were marked. There were two bars on the top of the ‘walking-man’ which got shorter and shorter as time progressed. In a country where computer and handheld gaming is a religion in itself, this might have symbolized the ‘life’ becoming lesser and lesser as the playtime goes on.
Pedestrian crossing timer bars on a traffic signal in Tokyo
Learning to cook
Even a tepid traveler would acknowledge the variety and the uniqueness of the Japanese cuisine. Though there are other factors involved, its not for nothing that the Michelin Guide has awarded Japanese cities more Michelin stars than the rest of the world combined. Our fascination with it led us to do a cooking class in Kyoto with Taro Saeki san at his home in Kyoto. It was also an opportunity for us to see a traditional Japanese home from inside and converse with the family. Preparing the dishes was fun, and even today a simple mention of the cooking class reminds us of their delicious taste. Not surprisingly, Taro san with his wife, Yoshiko san and his sweet little daughter Haruko san were charming hosts. At the end of the class it felt as if I had made a permanent friend in Japan.
Cooking class in Kyoto with Taro san
Dinner at Ginza
Pleasant encounters with locals didn’t end there. We also had a dinner at the Sony Building in Ginza (Tokyo) with Hiroko Miyata san, a former student of my wife during some of her French language classes. We were joined by another of my wife’s friends who is on a scholarship in Japan, and together we had a great time. The chocolate cookies that Hiroko had brought with her were toothsome to say the least.
Dinner at Ginza
Shinto, Buddhism, Technology
If you say that Japan has only two main religions viz. Shinto and Buddhism, you would be doing a great injustice to the country, for it has another religion: Technology. Perhaps this third religion is one that transgresses the boundaries of the earlier two main traditional religions and unites everyone.
Buddhism: Gate at the entrance of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple (Kyoto)
In one sweeping view you can capture a beautifully adorned Shinto shrine or a Buddhist pagoda made of wood as well as a spectacularly lit modern tower or a state-of-the-art railway station made from iron and steel.
Technology: Kyoto JR Station
Japan’s accomplishments in the realm of electronics are already phenomenal, and the effect can be seen in the hi-tech cellular phones in the hands almost every person walking on the street. The quality of the services offered on them has been miles ahead of the rest of the world for some time now. Places like ‘The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation’ (Miraikan) at Odaiba in Tokyo, housing Honda’s humanoid robot ASIMO, and areas like Akihabara and Ginza are a ‘must-visit’ for science and technology buffs.
Being a port city, and a huge one at that, you would expect Kobe to have a good maritime infrastructure. It also has a huge open space in Meriken Park which looks spectacular at night. However, it was visiting the Earthquake Memorial Museum that was a one of a kind experience. The recreations of the Great Hanshin Earthquake on that horrific morning in January 1995, made using a light and sound show, were amazingly lifelike and quite scary. Practical explanations of why and how earthquakes occur were very informative. To top it all, they even had a 3-D theatre in there. It was easily the best 3-D movie viewing experience we’ve had till date.
Earthquake Museum in Kobe
Now, would normal fire hydrant covers ever grab your attention? Probably not. But when they are adorned by designs depicting the city’s history and culture, they certainly would, won’t they?
Man-hole covers in Kobe
It must be said here that in the past Japan has been on the receiving end of many devastating earthquakes and resulting tidal waves along its long coastline. No wonder they are called ‘Tsunamis’, a Japanese name. Our trip was just seven months after the massive earthquake in March off the Tōhoku region and the deadly Tsunami which wiped out much of the city of Sendai and almost caused a nuclear fallout at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Still there was absolutely no amount of anxiety or fear amongst the Japanese people, probably because over the years they’ve perfected the art of starting from scratch and rebounding to the no. 1 spot among contemporaries in almost all sectors.
Visiting at the start of the fall season meant that we were able to witness the changing color of the leaves, and the sights that greeted us at places like Hakone and Nikko were magnificent.
Tree leaves changing their color at Nikko
The sight of Mount Fuji (‘Fuji san’) was the icing on the cake as far as the Hakone trip went.
Lake Ashi with Mount Fuji in the background (Hakone, Japan)
I think the best way to round of this article is a four minute video of some of the pictures captured during the tour. So here goes: