One whole week in Japan? They only eat sushi! How will you survive?"
"Don’t take cabs! It’s Rs 18,000 just from the airport."
"Their toilets are space-age!"
"Have you read Murakami/ Watched Lost In Translation?"
"Catch a geisha performance. Wait. Do they still have geisha?"
"Their trains are so crowded they have officers to stuff people into the compartment so the doors can close."
"The have weird fashions. Don’t shop."
"But have Burger King’s black burger!"
In many ways, my trip started long before I boarded my plane. Those who’d been there, volunteered tips unasked. Those who hadn’t, somehow had advice to offer too. I suppose I know why.
Gilt trip: The Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto is covered in gold leaf, and impossibly beautiful in every season.
Japan is a country physically and culturally so removed from the rest of the world, it’s almost a parallel universe. Japanese trends mushroom, hold the nation in their grip, and disappear without us knowing (ever heard of bean beards, butt-print skirts or bagel heads?)
Its culture is so complex, a gaijin (an outsider) can get hopelessly entangled in the clichés. And if you’re a gaijin only for a week, like me, it’s a place best enjoyed after some homework – even if it means listening to endless tips.
* Japan Airlines operates daily non-stop flights between New Delhi and Tokyo. Air India has flights as well.
* One Japanese Yen is approximately equal to 52 paise.
* Cherry blossom season in spring and autumn are the best times to visit. Room rates typically double.
* Tokyo is the most densely packed city on Earth and hotel rates are per person, not per room. Prepare for cramped rooms if on a budget.
* If you’re travelling across Japan, buy a Japan Rail Pass before you leave India. It lets you travel across all their rail lines in different cities and might save you money.
* Most signage is in English. But when using trains in Tokyo, chart out your course before you set out. Locals aren’t always able to help with complicated directions.
Chief among these will be about food. If you’re vegetarian and/or squeamish, how will you manage?
Quite well, actually. Tokyo alone has Indian vegetarian buffets, sophisticated meatless dinners, south Indian and north Indian meals. We lunched at Indian-owned Chatpata in Osaka, where the samosas and curries tasted good enough for us to check if home was really one international and one local flight away.
A standing sushi bar.
European-style restaurants abound, and burger chains like the local Mos (famous for buns made with cooked rice) and Burger King (yes, I had that all-black burger from BuzzFeed) ensure you never have to look at seaweed or raw fish. If fish is what you want, Japan’s your oyster, your salmon, your soft-shelled crab and your eel. Make a morning pilgrimage to Tsukiji, the world’s biggest fish market, and take a deep breath for two reasons: a) the variety will boggle the mind, and b) you can take a deep breath because there’s no fishy smell! I’ve had the freshest fish of my life – lightly braised mackerel and sliced raw tuna – in little stalls outside the market .
Of course, they eat more than raw fish. We had buttery, pan-fried dumplings in Gion, Kyoto, where they were invented, and crunched through a tempura meal.
A building in Hiroshima consisted entirely of eateries serving okonomiyaki (thick pancake). But sushi is a religion. One Tokyo supermarket had sushi boxes filling a wall as long as a Metro platform – all of which sold out in the time it took me to finish homestyle stew and salad next door.
The Japanese will buy sushi from a vending machine. If a Tokyo restaurant is too tiny for seats, they’ll even eat it standing up. But then, so did I.
They eat stews and salads too.
...And between meals?
You’ll walk off every morsel sightseeing. They’re all sprawled out in Osaka and Hiroshima. They cover hillsides in Kyoto. Even hyper-cramped Tokyo finds acres of room for temples.
Walk, walk, walk up the 16th century Osaka Castle to look out over 21st century skyscrapers and manicured gardens. See if you can walk past the half-charred, half-preserved uniforms of child victims at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum without weeping (you can’t).
Walk, eyes-closed, the 20 metres between two Love Stones in Kyoto’s Kiyomizu temple to have a romantic wish granted. Walk through Gion, Kyoto’s former geisha district, at night, to see painted ladies bow goodbyes to their clients ever so elegantly.
But mostly, walk in Tokyo to see how disciplined citizens can be. They say Singapore has the fastest walkers, but Tokyoites have got to be the best behaved.
At Shibuya – the world’s busiest crossing, where some 16 roads intersect – walk, briskly with thousands as all traffic lights turn red simultaneously to let people cross. Pedestrians swarm into “coming” and “going” streams as if guided by an invisible policeman.
What will take your breath away in Tokyo are the trains themselves. Where NYC’s subways baffle users and where Mumbai’s trains crush the dignity out of them, Tokyo’s 35 routes cover 13 train lines that go overground, underground and in a continuous loop. And they all run unfailingly on time.
Nippon on my mind: (From left to right) A standing sushi bar; sip from the Kiyomizu fountains for long life, success or love; Hiroshima is both horrific and humbling.
On the trains – used by everyone from suited CEOs and Hermès-swathed ladies to punk-rocker teens – no phones ring, no voices chatter. Everyone moves aside automatically after entering a carriage, making room, unasked. And officers don’t shove people in anymore. More trains have now been added.
...So there is space
Not quite. Much of Japan is roomy, but Tokyo is packed tighter than sticky rice in sushi. I marvelled at the legroom on Japan Airlines (Row 26 is the most spacious); I could do the Tango in my room in Hiroshima. In the capital, however, a budget double room will have a bed so narrow, you’ll make babies without meaning to, and pay rates you’d have saved for its education.
Regardless, there’s room to breathe. No one bothers tourists. Not even if you’re a lone woman on the train at night with drunk men in the carriage. Locals are insular, but will gladly help if their responses require simple English.
Routes (including train changes) are easy to plot before you head out. Lunch is cheaper than dinner at most places. They have their own Disneyland if you’re so inclined, but honestly, the country is a fairground in itself. And the toilets are really space-age: pre-warmed seats, warm bidets, pressure controls, music...
Oops! Looks like I have quite a few tips of my own!
Word On The Street
Someone who loves to eat. And who will love the term “Tabehoudai” all you can eat.
“I’ll leave it to you”. This is what to tell the chef if you’re an adventurous omnivore.
A souvenir for gifting. It’s traditional to bring back a small gift, usually specialty food.
Non-rhyming poem. Strictly 17 syllables. Like this one I wrote.
Cute. The bright cartoony art that dominates their culture is kawaii. Hello Kitty, who was born in Japan, is so, so kawaii.
Thank you. This is a nation of compulsive thankers, with six ways of expressing it. This one is the simplest.
It’s how they answer the phone instead of saying hello.
Bullet trains. India and Japan are conducting feasibility studies to start them here.
Delicious. Even packaged food can be oishii in Japan.
Obsessive geek with no life. You can be a gadget otaku, a rail otaku etc. But if you’re a fake, you’re a fotaku!
Enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity. This is why they never complain!
A beautiful babe. There are many, many of these all across the country.
Buying books and not reading them. You know you’re guilty.
Koi no yokan:
The feeling on first meeting that you two will fall in love. Aww.
A place or object that evokes fond memories and longing. For me, it’s the tons of matcha tea I lugged home.
Oh and if something isn’t funny in Japan, they just call it an
(This trip was sponsored in part by the Japan National Tourist Organisation)
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From HT Brunch, February 8
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