Thursday, December 19, 2013


While Kyoto exudes the old-world charm and Osaka glaringly contrasts as the modern melting pot, Nara is a wonderful getaway - quaint, tranquil and green - that bespeaks the harmonious coexistence of its rich history and the contemporaneous lifestyle. Host to eight World heritage Sites in Unesco's listing of Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, the town is a walker's paradise. Navigating through the different sites is no difficult task, and strolling down the serene paths and exploring the nooks and corners is in itself  a refreshing experience.
Ambling down the Sanjodori Street, admiring the old wooden houses standing amicably by new age shops and restaurants, crossing the lovely Higashimuki covered promenade, we reach a flight of stairs that would take us to the Kofuku-ji Temple - a family temple of an erstwhile powerful clan, Fujiwara. It was built in early-8th century and then rebuilt again in early 15th century. Housing a number of buildings (pagodas and temples) within its vast premises, its five-storey pagoda is one of the most famous icons of Nara and the second largest pagoda of Japan. The National treasure Museum within its precincts houses the three-faced Ashura Statue, one of the most famous Buddhist statues in Japan, among other artefacts.
The Nara Park is an almost inevitable destination if you are in the town. The wild sika deers freely roaming on its premises are the highlight of this scenic park. Considered to be sacred - messengers of God - in Shinto, they mingle with the crowd easily and often become overbearing and aggressive when offered food. There are vendors selling crackers for them, and one can buy and feed them, though one needs to be extra cautious, cause despite their innocent eyes and high cuteness quotient, they can just catch you off-guard.
At the edge of the Nara Park, nestled in the Kasugayama Primeval Forest, is the shinto shrine Kasuga-Taisha, which is another World Heritage Site of Historical Nara. The temple belonged to the Fujiwara family and has four deities enshrined. Quiet and flanked by the forest around, what first strikes one while approaching the shrine are the 2,000 concrete lanterns that pave the way to the main gate. Even as I walked appreciating the beauty around, I couldn't stop thinking how ethereal would it look when the lanterns are lit up. It almost captured my imagination all the way, till I reached the shrine. Inside, there are 1,000 bronze lanterns to add further fuel to one's fancy. Interestingly, we got to witness the tradition of 'Omiya Mairi' - a Shinto tradition much akin to Christian baptism - where the new-born baby is brought by the parents and the grandparents to the shrine to express their gratitude to the deities for the birth and also have the priest pray for the baby's health and happiness and well-being. Photo-ops were much in demand by the tourists and the family gladly relented, even as they had their personal photographer capture the events. 
A short walk from the Kasuga-Taisha is the world's largest wooden structure - the Todai-ji temple - that houses the enormous Buddha, which is again the world's largest bronze Buddha statue. The imposing structure almost immediately captures your fancy with its magnificence, more for us, as we perhaps were not prepared (did not read much on Todai-ji) for that much of grandness when we crossed the Nandaimon gate. Despite its hugeness, it however, never felt dominating or intimidating, only splendid. The 15 metre high Daibutsu (the Buddha statue in japanese) is flanked by two Bodhisatvas on either side. There are numerous miniature models of the former structure, that had to be built and rebuilt down the centuries. The current one, in fact, has been cut down to 2/3 rd of the original one, it is said. The temple premises is expansive and covers north of the Nara park, in fact. There's a Todai-ji museum as well. 

There is a statue of Komoku-ten, the Guardian King of the South, holding a writing brush and a scroll, symbolising the copying of the sutras. 

The beautiful garden surrounding the temple can be a lovely resting place for those tired achy feet and one can just let the mind run free amidst the boundless nature.
Nara is beautiful and any visit to the Kansai region should include this treasure trove, even if it is only for a day-trip. 

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Japan...Places : Kyoto

‘The land o f the rising sun’ had intrigued us for a long time, and much planning, reading and speculations later, we finally zeroed in on the month of October , sacrificing the festivities back home, to pack our bags for Nippon, or what is better known as Japan. Despite missing by a whisker to catch up on  
1. a sumo match, as the last tournament of the year in Tokyo concludes in the month of September; 
2. the ethereal experience of the sakura or the cherry blossom, that was forecast in the month of November, for the places we had planned to visit; and  
3. climbing Fuji-san, since the official time is July- August and by October it is closed; 
we were much upbeat to explore whatever was on offer, for there was a world beyond these classic attributes that we instinctively and most immediately associate with the country. Indeed, the experience has been most overwhelming, and the optimism to go back again sometime in life, runs high.

Any visit to Japan is incomplete without exploring Kyoto. The capital  for a millennium, this place is a wonderful amalgamation of the deep-rooted rich cultural heritage and the leisured foray of modernism. More popular in recent times for the Kyoto Protocol, this seat of power from 794 to 1868 boasts of a vast number of palaces, shrines and temples as well as old neighbourhoods and traditions, and interestingly it is among the few places in Japan that had miraculously escaped the war bombings. No wonder then, that Kyoto should be high on our priority list of the must visit places in Japan. Another major reason for the Kyoto experience is its still-alive Geisha district (though definitely not the only one in Japan but surely the most famous).  

We begun our excursion with the one which is most popular and most talked about. Nestled amidst the woods, the first thing that struck is the golden reflection of the Kinkaku-ji temple on the rippling surface of the pond and as I looked beyond to soak in the surrounding, it immediately transported me to a time that I had always imagined to exist only in fairy tales. The temple is not only visually splendid, it is highly valuable as well, for it houses relics of the Buddha.
That, you are in the Zen land is impressed well by the accompanying serenity. 

Walking past the Shirakawa Canal and through the Gion district, the distinctive old wooden buildings and tea houses caught our fancy and imagination. In fact, there are guided tours to take one around the places mentioned in the ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. While the charm of the place best gets justified after dark, loitering down the alleys might just prove to be lucky, if one is able to catch a fleeting glimpse of that white face donning an exquisite kimono and crossing the road in her zori sandal. However, walking down the Gion district is much more beyond a glimpse of a Geiko. It exudes an old-world charm and the numerous traditional shops, tea houses and the slow-paced life, in all, makes the experience worthwhile. In fact, the art of tea-making is in itself a ceremony not to be missed. The fact that it is indeed an 'art' is something one must witness when there. 

Exploring the streets of Gion, we eventually landed up at the Yasaka-jinja shrine, a Shinto shrine of the 7th century, most famous for the Gion-matsuri festival that culminates here. Quite luckily there was some function being held at the precincts and we got a chance to hear a biwa recital and also some Japanese traditional classical/religious music.
We strolled across the garden of the Kyoto Imperial Palace (visiting the palace interiors is not allowed), and then moved over to explore the Nijo castle, built originally in 1626, but destroyed by fire a century later and then rebuilt again. The castle was quite a striking contrast to the other architectures – temples, palaces and shrines- in its adornments and ostentations.
A lovely breather amidst all the walking and exploring was the Chion-in temple. The seat of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, what strikes first is its grand and intimidating entrance. The ‘san-mon’ gate at 79 feet tall and 164 feet wide is one the grandest wooden gates in Japan. Climbing two sets of steep flight of stairs, one comes across an expansive open area. Apparently, the temple complex had housed at one point of time 21 buildings, many of which have, in the course of time, succumbed to earthquakes and fire. The entrance is free to the main hall, and one can lose oneself in a trance to the chanting of the priests or one may just choose a cosy nook outside and enjoy the breathtaking view of the city from atop and meditate on one’s own thoughts. We had a lovely time soaking in the tranquility, away from the touristy buzz, and enjoying the views. Apparently, 'The Last Samurai' was shot here.
As the sun turned mellow and the sky transformed to a melting orange, we reached our final destination of the day – the Kiyomizudera. The shrine dedicated to the Hosso sect of Budhhism, is one of the most popular destinations in Kyoto. Perched on a hillside, this shrine founded in late 8th century and then rebuilt in early seventeenth century, is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The word ‘Kiyomizu’ means pure water and the shrine takes its name from the Otowa-no-taki waterfall, which runs beneath the main hall and is considered to be pure and sacred. In fact, water from this waterfall drops from three channels and visitors collect them in cups to drink for health, longevity and wisdom, though not from all three channels, as that might be too greedy and have adverse effects. The temple complex has several shrines that one can explore at leisure. The Jishu-jinja shrine is dedicated to the god of love. What struck us queer were the local tourists walking a part of the shrine closing their eyes. It was only later that I learnt that there are two rocks in a distance of 18 metres and the myth goes that if you can walk with your eyes closed between the two rocks, you are bound to find success in love. Interestingly, you can be assisted, but that would also mean you would need an intermediary to win that elusive love. Thankfully, already in the arms of my love, we came to a ‘love-ly’ culmination of our day, by just praying for togetherness.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Tokyo is home to the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants. However, if not in the mood to splurge, one can still be assured of authentic gastronomic experience in whatever and wherever he/she chooses to satisfy the craving. Japanese cuisine is varied and extensive, and quite much approachable even for the strictest puritan of experimental food (unlike the more popular perception in India). Rice, along with noodles, soba and udon especially, are the staples of the Japanese and they can be supplemented with accompaniments of one’s choice, from pure vegetarian to fish, chicken, pork or beef, generally. Most popular, on-the-go, food are the korokkes – breaded and deep-fried patties of minced meat, sea food, fish, or mashed potato and sauce. They are quite a snacking delicacy. Indeed, they were a proper compensation for our good ol’ ‘telebhaja’ or 'fries' back home.  
A Chinese import of noodles with soup and dumplings is quite famous as ramen, which is quite healthy and filling on-the-go stuff. Rice-bowls are a common feature – a one-bowl (the big bowl is called donburi) dish of hot steamed rice with various savory toppings. They are quite delectable and easy on the skeptics as well, who are not too experimental with food. The ones that we tried were – 1. Gyudon (with seasoned beef topping), 2. Oyakodon (donburi topped with chicken and egg), 3. Katsudon (topped with deep-fired breaded cutlet of pork), 4. Tendon (donburi topped with tempura prawns). Teriyaki and Yakitori are the most popular ways of cooking, that perhaps we all know, but there is a world beyond that which remains to be discovered and savoured. 
Food expenses, in fact, were another major concern for us, next only to transportation. I hunted endless blogs and write-ups on the food expenses in Japan, but quite naturally, it was a bit difficult to find one which was written exactly keeping in mind a humble Indian, on a budget-travel to one of world’s most expensive countries. So what I got instead was the wholesome pictures of the amazing array of culinary experience awaiting us, but without much hint of how much will them our pocket burn. The god-sent acquaintance, however, assured us that the cheapest and yet decent is what one might experience at Yoshinoya, a kind of Japanese fast-food chain, quite ubiquitous. Indeed, a bowl of rice and your choice of accompaniment (chicken, fish, pork, beef or even veg) at Yoshinoya come for 350 yen. That kind of relieved us some bit that we might be able to sail through surviving on Yoshinoya, if we are stranded. But seriously, it wasn’t that bad. We got to experience a diverse gastronomic range that was on offer, and yes though sometimes a bit expensive, it was always worth the spent. A good spread can burn a hole to the tune of 2,000 yen or more. If tight on a budget, and yet interested in savouring the delicacies, the best thing to do is spend on one particular meal of the day lavishly, and save on the others. A Japanese breakfast is a must, which costs around 300-350 yen or some more, depending on the place. Often, the hotels serving complimentary breakfast, also have a Japanese spread option. It is quite heavy, and may call for a lighter lunch. So one can then have a proper dinner and spend on it. Permutations like these can see you through many an interesting meal and yet keep a check on your expenses. 
One thing not to be missed, is having a meal at a local family-run restaurant, for the authentic Japanese experience. These restaurants are nothing flashy or ornate, they are generally small and sans much ostentation, but they are a novelty in themselves, as far as experience is concerned.
Interestingly, the restaurants mostly have faux food platters on display in their windows. 
Apparently, the trend had started when post-World War II, Americans and Europeans traveled to Japan and had difficulty reading their menus. To appease and assuage the foreigners’ problem, who have been traveling to their land to help them in their rebuilding efforts, Japanese artisans and candle makers immediately took to creating wax platters for restaurants, so that the foreigners could see the platter and order whatever they fancied. Indeed, that was a big relief for us, since most restaurants have display menu in Japanese and English words are just thrown in at times, more to perk up the 'display', I presume, than for convenience or concern for travelers. 
Well, in quite a few eateries in Tokyo and Osaka, we discovered that the eatery manager or the other helpers did not understand a single word of English, and we were directed to a ticket vending machine just outside the eatery or right at the entrance, which was also all in Japanese. We realised that we had to order our food by buying tickets at the machine - each button corresponded to a certain platter, but we were left absolutely clueless as to what that might be. It would have been too tedious a task to capture faux platter picture and show them to the people at the helm of the eatery, and ask them to identify the same at the vending machine (just to say, that could be done), so we chucked the idea and set out to look for something more convenient.

Interestingly, the Japanese like their water doubly chilled. We did not find a single restaurant anywhere that served water (chilled already) without ice. Also, one would rarely catch a Japanese munching food on-the-go. I, for one, did not find any, but I am just assuming there are exceptions, surely. Also, it is the land of vending machines. You name it, and they have a vending machine for it. 

Redundant to say, sushi and sashimi are a must try when in Japan. A and I are not very gung-ho about fish and our most ‘fish outings’  while traveling abroad have been frankly quite disastrous. Despite not high on our radar, I had to try sushi in Japan, right! The first try should be at an authentic place, so that we are not left regretting later. We zeroed in on Tsukiji Fish market, since anybody and everybody everywhere recommended that. Trust me; one has to try it, however much reservations one has. The sushis at Tsukiji are the best first place to try out in Tokyo, and if you are a novice trying out for the first time, this can be the best place to begin with. Absolutely fresh and authentic, they taste heavenly. In fact, it made me more skeptical about trying them out at just any place after that, and we had a tough time to choose the restaurants where we wanted to have more of them . However, brace oneself for long queues - of locals and tourists alike-at the Tsukiji for a sushi breakfast, since they are highly recommended by tripadvisor and all other sources. But the wait is worth, I must say. Sushis/sashimis anywhere are expensive and Japan is no exception. A sushi breakfast at Tsukiji would roughly cost 3,000-3,500 yen minimum. 
A cheaper and definite must try is the kaiten-zushi, that is the sushi restaurants where sushi plates are placed on rotating conveyor belts. It is indeed a novel experience to catch the ‘sushi train’. And at a price of 120 yen per plate, that’s the cheapest that one would come across in the country. Though not always considered to be fresh and the best, it can be tried for novelty and pocket-friendliness. Eating sushi and sashimi has its own rules and methods. It is indeed interesting to read and follow them. First rule, no matter how much you know about sushi, the chef knows better. ‘Omakase’ is when you leave it up to the chef what you are served. Not only does this ensure the freshest fish possible, but sushi chefs, supposedly, take great pride in their ‘omakase’ selections. So, you know that you are getting the best that the house has to offer. That’s a safe bet, though expensive also. ‘Okimari’ is a pre-set menu with several types of sushis on a plate. ‘Okonomi’ is when you order a sushi you want to eat. It is indeed fascinating to do a bit of research on the sushi/sashimi etiquette. 

One thing that I would root for is the green tea-flavoured ice cream (‘matcha’ ice, in Japanese), if you like ice-creams. It had almost been my daily dose for the two weeks. Though, I did not find the Japanese sweets very interesting, unlike the food, I was in love with this ‘matcha’, though surely there are other flavours as well to try out.
Other than Japanese cuisine, there is no dearth to other world cuisine, and all of them are very authentic. The Japanese indeed take their food quite seriously. One very popular food loved by the Japanese is the Indian curry. Curry houses are ubiquitous and they have it with just anything – rice, noodles, spaghetti – you name it and they have it. However, their curry version is much like our 'Chinese' version, adapted to our taste buds and a native would not find any kinship with it, whatsoever. But other than that, one can have a very authentic experience of just any cuisine, if craving arises.
Indeed, if for nothing else, Japan is a must visit for the sheer gastronomic experience it has to offer.

Monday, October 28, 2013


Since the first thing that you come across in a new country is the people, I thought I might as well begin with them.
We had an amazing experience with the people of this country. Before Japan happened, I always thought the Spaniards were the most amazing that I had met. I love their infectious vivacity, their loquacious nature, their thing for the afternoon siesta (as a bangali, I could so well relate it to our 'bhaat-ghum' and forge a kinship), their expressiveness and friendly attitude, and of course their good looks. The Japanese are none of these, er, barring the good looks (especially the women; the good-looking machos were all concentrated at the Tsukiji Fish Market, I felt) but they still beat the Spaniards in my book. Their bowing before another person, at any occasion, is something truly unique. It indeed is a huge reflection of their deep-rooted culture in modesty, humility and politeness. The graciousness is extended everywhere. We were quite amused the first time we saw the ticket collector enter our car and bow and greet, and then for each person he had a bow and a smile and greetings ready. He did this all the way up the car and when he came back, just before the exit, he turned around and again bowed, despite nobody taking any notice of him. Their zeal to thank and plead at every occasion– ‘arigato’, ‘gozaimasu’ and often ‘arigato gozaimasu’ – is also singular. It reflects not only their civility and affability, but perhaps their deep respect for fellow humans. But what impressed me the most was the fact that, you would rarely catch them expressing irritation. Either, they are not bothered, or they camouflage it extremely well, but whatever be the case, it is quite singular to  discover not a single annoyed, or disturbed or irked soul in two weeks, even at times when you are yourself antsy about your stupidity. Twice, in Tokyo, in two of the busiest subway stations - Shinjuku and Meiji Jingumae - I goofed by punching my subway ticket into the wrong line-machine, which swallowed it up, leaving me with no ticket to punch when I reach my destination. At Shinjuku, that is the first time, as I approached the solitary soul standing guard, simultaneously watching with a hawk eye the zillion commuters punching their cards and tickets and answering queries of another zillion commuters; I was all prepared for a Japanese reprimand, and add it to my repertoire of myriad experiences.

Myriad it was, indeed, but not the way I had expected. The man at the helm smiled, asked me to wait with an apologetic look. Stepped out of his place, and with an equally apologetic expression, asked the dashing commuters to use the other machines. He then smiled and unlocked the machine, and as he opened a side of it, out came gobs of tickets. The attendant diligently scoured through them and after a few minutes, picked up one and came back beaming. He handed me the ticket, bowed, and said something in Japanese, and that left me even more dumbstruck. I was the one supposed to be bowing, for more than one reason - I almost felt like standing there in bowed position for the next half an hour. But we just bowed, said domo arigato gozaimasu and proceeded, and he stood there with a smiling face attending others, with similar or even more doltish problems. Well, this entire action was repeated at Meiji Jingumae in toto, and except for yours truly, the characters were different. Even the commuters never expressed any distress for having to compromise on their precious time because of my dimness.

Japanese are quite amiable, but what is even more striking is the fact that they are extremely helpful. Well, we are all helpful.
Except in France, where a Policeman denied answering when asked for directions, citing the reason that he could not understand English, we have been always greeted and helped by natives. In fact, in Vienna, quite to the surprise of A’s Austrian friends, we were approached by passers-by on their own to bail us out as they saw us pouring into the map and trying to figure out directions. And it happened quite a few times. Germans and Austrians are not famous for going out of their way. 

However, the Japanese take the cake. Day one, we stroll out of our hotel and get ensnared by the dazzling evening lights of Shinshaibashi. Hopping from one alley to another and then another backstreet, in our excitement and wonderment, we lost our way. Only after a sumptuous Japanese dinner, and our feet calling it a day, did we realize that we could not find our way through the maze of alleys. Had it not been late and almost 16 hours of journey before this, we would have quite enjoyed and indulged ourselves into the distraction.  And since we had only plans to stroll and accustom ourselves to the new surrounding, we did not have our phones or Ipad as well. After a few failed attempts and further confusion, we finally approached a young dude, who was coming down from the other side. Obstacle One, he did not understand English. Obstacle Two, he did not know the place well himself. The first obstacle was easily overcome, as he needed only the hotel address. Signs have been man’s best companion. But the second obstacle was a bigger concern for us. However, the young man assured us in Japanese and accompanying signs and then checked his GPS on phone for directions. Now comes the unique part. He changed his direction, and though unsure of the feedback, he asked us to accompany him and started hunting the address through the maze of backstreets. We were literally dumb-founded. We protested and tried to tell him that it was fine and that we would find someone else to tell us the way back, but the message got lost in translation and he smiled and with a concerned look continued to follow his GPS directions from one road to another, identifying the street names on the buildings. Finally, after some good 10-15 minutes, we were standing in front of a building, we did not recognize, but the young gentleman looked sanguine and upbeat as he beamed while his eyes moved from us to the building and then to us again. We really did not want to reveal that this was not our hotel after all his arduous efforts. We only wanted to thank him much for what he did. But he smelled something. He then checked the hotel card that we had shown him and the address on the building and smiled again. Only then did A realize that it was the backside of the hotel building. We really were overwhelmed. Welcome to Japan. 
In the trip, this gesture was repeated numerous times, when someone had actually changed one’s course or come out of one’s work station to accompany us till a convenient point from where it would be easier to explain directions. 
At a convenience store, in fact, I had mistaken a buyer for the store help and asked him something about a product. Poor thing, he nodded vehemently and tried to explain that he was the same as me. Embarrassed, I apologized for the nth goof up, the nth time; and while I was being reprimanded by A for my faux pas, we found the guy actually get hold of a store help and bring him to us. I cannot recall how many times I bowed to thank him. 

However, despite all their geniality and cordiality on a one-on-one interaction, what is strange is their aloofness and indifference at public places. You would rarely catch any one even remotely glancing at anybody else. How I felt that they deliberately avoid eye contact with anyone. Everybody seemed to be immersed in their own worlds on their phones or reading manga, or sleeping or listening to music. Coming from that part of the world where gaping, gawking, talking, chatting, arguing are just the souls of public transports, I was just amazed at their inattention and disinterestedness. There were no animated conversations, no heated arguments, no genial gossips, and no appreciative glances or shocked grimaces; just plain deadpan, inexpressive visages concentrating on keypads and pages. I later learnt that the Japanese work so hard and with no distractions, that the moment they are out of that zone, they hit social media and all other media with a vengeance. Thus, they have no time to look around and appreciate the surrounding, as they have much to like, comment and update in their virtual/imaginary life.
Another interesting facet that surprised me was their obsession with porn. Of a culture so deep-rooted in austerity, zen-like fervor, modesty, humility, respect, and showing little sign of erosion otherwise, it is most singular that they are so fixated with pornography, and oftentimes with its extreme and violent versions. One would often catch a Japanese, irrespective of age, pouring into hentai at a public transport. And at Akihabara, supposedly the electronic district of Tokyo, you would find an array of maid cafes and dvd parlors loaded with endless porn stuff, whichever kind you want. At any convenience store one can find array of magazines with scantily clad women or plain hentai stuff, which one can browse for free. 

‘Fashionable’ would be an understatement to define Japanese sartorial splendor. Streets, not just in major cities, look more like international fashion ramps, and you would rarely, just rarely catch a person who is not in-vogue, if not edgy. At any given time of day, at any part of the country, and for whatever purpose, you would always find them dressed to the nines. Unless you are absolutely averse to anything aesthetic, you cannot evade being hit by their penchant for fashion. I guess they are the most updated about the latest dernier cri and follow it to the t with utmost aplomb even at the most casual of occasions. But, what strikes most is their proclivity to the finest of detail, irrespective of the most muted or the most outrageous votary of fashion. If you are in Japan, just feel free to unleash your fashionable side like never before. 

When we departed for Japan, we had numerous things highlighted in our mind, but when we returned, people were definitely the highlight of the trip!! 

Friday, October 11, 2013


So finally it took a typhoon (Typhoon Wipha) to put a screeching brake to my mad drive across Japan. But it's just a brake and I have still not turned my engine off. I am raring to go, racing my engine at the signal, just like the Ferrari I saw the other day, at the Shibuya crossing; and would lose myself into the frenzy again, like the car, as soon as the signal turns green and Wipha gives way.

But till then, I let the past few days unwind before me.
It has been raining since morning, but despite the gloom and the grey, I have been trying to paint Tokyo red with my enthusiasm and the reciprocation has been effulgent despite the missing sunshine.
Traveling from the Edo period at Kokyo (Imperial Palace) to the present day Museum of Contemporary Art, traversing in between the futuristic Tokyo Tower and the Tokyo International Forum Building, and walking past the imposing skylines of Hibiya and Ginza, I am finally here at Roppongi Hills, giving recognition to the rain, for its relentless efforts since morning to mar my day. I sit to write, as the rain has its fill to see me give in.
The transits had been quite a welcome experience as we were very apprehensive; and a Pepperoni pizza, ice creams and Mochi sweets later; we boarded the flight for Kansai International Airport. Landing at 18:30 hours had been our prime concern. In our numerous travel quests we had always managed to avoid landing in a new country in the evening. Since it was Japan, we were doubly apprehensive; we had very little individual feedback on Osaka, back home. Landing at 18:30 would mean you leave airport almost around 20:30 or later, what with all the formalities of entering a country, figuring out your luggage, where and what to board for the city and then reach the hotel finally, without any goof ups (which is quite usual for us). Despite the Google map, Tripadvisor and Lonely Planet, apprehensions are the soul of travel. Traditionally, daylight always gives one a sense of security that evening never does, and especially in an unknown land it counts more true. But, but, but...we had a different story awaiting us. 
I had just read somewhere in the passing while surfing about Japan that it has the fastest passport control and even as you clear that and reach the conveyor belt, your luggage would be waiting for you there already. Boy, did I ever believe that?! I have travelled somewhat and been to quite efficient airports and no, even they take time for things. Half-an-hour for the passport control and another 15 minutes, say, for collecting luggage. Then you need to figure out what mode of transport to take for the city and your destination, ask people around or figure out oneself the directions for where to board from, etcetra etcetra, another half-an-hour to 45 minutes. And then, finally reaching the place would be another half-an-hour or more. At the Kansai International Airport, Osaka, our passport control took exactly 10 minutes, including waiting in the queue; and there was quite a fair amount of traffic, considering it is one of the busiest airports in Japan. Our luggage was indeed waiting at the conveyor belt, which was extremely convenient to locate. Another 7 minutes. The directions are clearly given for the trains and airport limousines, whichever you choose to reach the city. If you are well researched, like we were, you know exactly which train to take, and where to change lines, and how to proceed from there (though we goofed up as usual, by taking a slow train just because it was waiting at the platform and getting delayed by sometime). No worries, if you have not done your homework. You would not lose out on time. Just show the hotel address to anybody you fancy, I can assure you that the information will be accurate and fast. Even if the person fails to help you, he/she will see to it that you are handed over to the right person for the information needed. All these would take you at the most, an extra 10 minutes. And voila, you are on your way in just less than half an hour from your landing. By, 19:30, we are checking-in and by 20:00 we are out into the bustling streets of Nihombashi and Shinshaibashi, the heart of Osaka. Welcome to Japan.
The country is unique in more than one way and every facet of it makes an indelible impression in the mind. 
So, Wipha played an extremely decent host. Apart from a brief appearance from midnight till early morning, and a preceding rainy day, it never crossed our path. Japan, amongst other things, is also famous for natural calamities, and Wipha almost seemed like arriving to only oblige us with that facet of the country. Thus the wait was not too long, except for the breather at Roppongi Hills to keep away from the rain. I could only unwind in my mind, as I could not miss soaking in the surrounding ambiance, if not the rain.
And now, finally after it is all over, I am finding it difficult to gather and organise the kaleidoscopic experiences and the myriad perceptions, that I name 'Japan'.
Beginning with planning, Japan can apparently seem expensive, and transport costs can run quite high, if not cautious. We were in quite a fix, whether to buy the JR Pass, which would set us back by 28,000 yen in 7days. We had roughly two weeks in hand, and we wanted to make the most of it and the best of it and yet keep a check on the budget that we had set aside, without compromising on things (moreso, with the plummeting rupee value just prior to our travel made us even more wary). We had planned to enter Japan through Osaka and exit from Tokyo. Osaka was our base for the Kansai region, where we wanted to do Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, along with Osaka. We then planned to hit Tokyo, which would be our base for the next 6 days. From Tokyo, we had decided to do Mt. Fuji-Hakone and Nikko, and explore and discover the madness, which is Tokyo itself. A lot of research and discussions and musings later, we decided to buy the three-day Kansai Pass, which would allow us to travel on the JR line in the Kansai region as many times as we wanted. For Mt. Fuji-Hakone, one has to buy the two-day Hakone pass (there is no one day pass) which enables one to ride the seven means of transport to go around the place, including reaching from Tokyo to Odawara (the base for the Hakone trip) on the Odakyu line, so a JR Pass is redundant. For Nikko, we found out that there are other convenient lines from Asakusa, apart from JR. Since we were not doing whole of Japan, it was simply pointless to buy a JR Pass, as it would only be worthwhile for the Shinkansen ride from Osaka to Tokyo. We thought of parting with the idea of the Shinkansen ride, to save us 18,000 yen. We rather decided to take the overnight bus from Osaka for Tokyo. That way, we could save on a day's hotel fare as well. We boarded our bus from Umeda Sky Tower (which is perhaps their main bus station) at 22:20 sharp, and reached Tokyo at around 6:20 and were dropped at Shinjuku, so we did not lose out on a day as well. It is supererogatory to say the bus ride was extremely comfortable and easy.
The next concern for us was whether to buy the subway day passes in Tokyo. The city has quite a dense network of trains and subways, which are operated by different companies, chief of which are the JR East (Yamanote Line) and Tokyo Metro and Toei Subways. The passes for each are available separately and in different combinations. Apart from these, there was also the prepaid cards’ option. However, it was quite difficult for us to pre-decide our itineraries for the six days, so as to decide on the passes beforehand. Not all lines go to all places and neither do they intersect at one’s convenience. Also, we wondered if we would actually use the subway that much on any given day, to burn up the whole amount we were paying for the day. The combination pass would burn a hole in the pocket to the tune of 3,000 yen per day for two. We couldn't figure out the distances between the places, and if some of them could be covered walking, since we prefer more to amble and explore a place on foot than just hop on and off the subway to see merely the landmarks, while missing out on the views and soaking in the general ambiance. Thankfully, we were advised by an acquaintance, who had just returned from Tokyo, that many of the stations can be covered walking, if one is keen to. Also, he mentioned that the passes often become redundant, as one does not tend to use it to its full value in a day. And also, it would limit one's plans. Buying tickets can be economical, he indicated. Chucking the plan of buying passes, we thanked the acquaintance in our hearts more, later when we were in Tokyo, than we did in person then perhaps. One really does not need the pass, and even the prepaid cards are also not absolutely necessary, since they do not give any discounts. The ticket counters are fairly free and like just any other thing in Japan, does not take much time to get a ticket. The pre-paid cards can be helpful in only one thing, that you do not have to waste any time in figuring out the fares and to get the different tickets for the line changes. The choice is yours, but we sailed quite smoothly without the cards, and figuring out is really no rocket-science, in Japan.
So, we were done with the transport part, more or less. Hotel bookings were not really difficult. Destinations had been decided. Any trip to Japan is not complete without a trip to Kyoto. Nara houses the Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara, a Unesco World heritage Site. In between we would fit in a day for Kobe, a famous port city (and later we could also pack in a day for Himmeji) and Osaka itself, which we would also do on the sidelines. Entering Japan from the Kansai region was definitely a pre-meditated plan. So, we were all set. The rest was to live it up with the flow.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page. ~St. Augustine

 'Traveling', indeed, is the best book one reads in life. Each page unfurls variegated backgrounds with multitudinous characters read through the prismatic glasses of wonderment, and each tell a different story with myriad plots; accompanied by multiple narrative, never the same - ever evolving, always avant-garde. But it is most unfortunate when people only flip through the pages , without an inclination to delve into the recesses of the world hidden in each page. I refer to those who travel to places (often to the most exotic of locations) only to check themselves into the most expensive hotels, sit with a beer by the hotel poolside and post pictures of sumptuous meals that have been the highlight of flying hundreds, thousands of miles to the destination. And, yes, a few fancy photo-ops in front of the most historic monuments of the place. Is that how you read or prefer to read a book? Well, then we are definitely not on the same 'page'.

Traveling, I believe, is all about exploring and discovering and living the alternate life, just as a book, but actually living it, and not just in imagination. God definitely has given us one life, but the Almighty ensured that we have options open to at least savour, even if for a short time, the joy of another existence. The onus is on us to live it to the fullest, or just squander the opportunity. When you live a life - you live it the wholesome way. You walk the walk - on roses and thorns, face the music and the storms, meet the people, talk to them, prefer some over others, listen to their stories and share your own, know them better - how they live, what they eat, what they do and what they did, master the place, know the nooks and the crannies and explore those untrodden paths to make the life more worthwhile and singular. Each travel is a life you live and it is you who choose how to live that life. You choose to be a tourist or a traveler.

As a little girl, my zest to see different places, live different lives in different settings, discover new stories, and create new fables, was fired by my dad's repertoire of tales. He ensured to fuel it further by taking us to trips regularly and encouraged us to soak in as much as we could and egged us to go all out and befriend all we come across in our journey, cause, enrichment, he said, is what you earn as you travel. I still recall, how I would stamp my achy feet and forbid to walk any further, and how he would coax and lure me with interesting anecdotes to what lies ahead if I just could make that extra bit. It has remained with me all this while; now I cajole myself for that extra bit by educing all that I had read or heard about the place, in my mind.

I remember befriending Christina, an Austrian, on our bus ride from Chennai to Mahabalipuram - she was probably between 25-27 and I was all of 8. I am not even getting into my english, but I still plodded on with my queries asking her where all she had been and what were the best places in India according to her and how was her experience and how was Austria different, and what could I see if I went there and at one point I had even started on Indian mythology, though thankfully she was rescued by my dad and sister.  I became friends with the kids - the brother and the sister - of the hotel laundry guy in Srinagar and would drench them with questions of where they lived, how did their house look like, what they ate, who made their clothes, what did they wear and eat on special occasions, if they could sing a song in their mother tongue and also dance to the tune...endless now they seem, but which they, quite strangely, answered eagerly. And then I still have the vivid memory of how the boy, Imran, with whom I had played and showered battery of queries till the previous day, had been smashing windshields of cars and autos that were plying despite a curfew; our cab (managing an audacious trip to Pahalgaon and back) stopping just a few feet short from them to avoid a wreckage - this was the onset of turbulence and terror in Kashmir in 1989. It had lingered in my mind's eye all this while, and I still wonder, what would I have asked if I had not left for Jammu the next day, and what would he have answered. I also relive often the turbulent dinghy ride from Dwarka to Bet Dwarka and back on the rough Arabian Sea, or the sublime experience at Somnath temple, enjoying the setting sun amidst the tranquility with the occasional roars of the surging sea, that seemed to complain of the countless abuse of this seat of chastity, and I smiled back that it still stands tall, sans its ostentation and riches but beautiful and resplendent still. I have flashes in that inward eye, no, not of fields of daffodils, but of the expansive salt marsh at the Rann of Kutch, pristine and white as far as the eye could see - dazzling in the golden reflection of the afternoon sun. And I still have a hearty laugh as I recall how my poor dad was spurned by a paan wala at Ahmedabad for asking him more than one question - my old man was asking directions for a bank, and he was dumbfounded at the reaction. Quite natural for a Bengali, that has the fame of being overzealous while helping strangers. 

I treasure the numerous memories of the winter picnics into the 'adivasi' heartland of erstwhile Bihar (now Jharkhand)-Orissa border, and the various interactions with the locals and visiting their homes, knowing about their lifestyle. I cherish those carefree days of teenage, cycling down Khowai and Prantik and Shurul and beyond, and enjoying the bauls on the way or the  stories of the 'mejhens' (the santhals of Birbhum) in their sweet twang and lovely intonations. And I remember the names of all the people I befriended in my endless train journeys.

There's no dearth of memories of the innumerable excursions and no paucity of inspirations to keep me going for the rest of my life. There was born an itinerant soul that pines for a new experience, a peek into the numerous possibilities of a different life that could have been its own, a new perspective, a new taste and an array of new characters in the story of its life. 

I am really thankful to my parents for initiating me into this book quite early in life. And doubly thankful to life for finding me A, who has been the most amazing ally in not only exploring the book better, but also making this whole experience all the more enjoyable.