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.