Japan: Enlightening And Enriching Experience

Traip to Japan

Japan – A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas

I particularly liked Kyoto and would like to go back there some day, although I’d be hard pressed to tell you why. Perhaps it was that it was warmer (the vibes, definitely not the weather! Was bloody five degrees!) and friendlier? Perhaps that one got to actually see traces of Japanese culture, in that many of the women – and some of the men too – wore the traditional Japanese attire? It made me feel like an extra in a movie, seeing all these dainty, chattering women in their colourful kimonos, clicking selfies! For sure, a lot of it had to do with the fact that I was staying in a hostel bang in the centre of things in Gion, the erstwhile geisha district and at either end of the avenue there were train stations and some shrine or the other. Serendipitous.

But I get ahead of myself. To begin at the beginning then: To get to this point took a little more than two years, simply because people kept putting me off by telling me how expensive Japan is. And, since I live a shoe-string existence at the best of times, there was no way I was going to get here in a hurry. On the other hand – I did want to get to Japan before it disappeared off the face of the earth, what with its tsunamis and earthquakes and what-not! Well, some unexpected work came my way that, in bits and pieces, put a little extra toward the piggy bank titled, ‘Yen and Now’ and I managed to save up towards the ticket. To this day, my son tells me he doesn’t understand my sense of accounting. What’s to understand, I huff. Sure, this is my money, but it ain’t my money, if you get my drift – it was already reserved for Japan.

I decided to fly into Osaka and out again from Tokyo, with a side stop at Kyoto, which everybody told me I absolutely must not miss – and how right they were. This kind of round-about fare is a little pricier, to be honest, but I had only a week and wanted to take in as much as I could of the country, instead of wasting time cooling my heels at an airport on account of cheaper flights.

Right, so of course everything is bewildering, as it always is at any foreign country and to top it all, they had everything in Japanese. This is something tourists must be having a dashed hard time to follow; everything is written in Japanese, including descriptions of cup noodles at a 7Eleven or on bread and sandwiches at bakeries! I headed to the Information counter and a friendly lady explained how I could get to Shin-Osaka station (I was staying at a hotel near here) for about 1,200 yen on a slower train, which sounded right to me according to my diligent homework on Google.

Unfortunately, I reckoned without the fact that in Japan, they place more reliance on machines than humans. Clutching the paper firmly in my hand on which this lady had written the name of the train, I asked a chappie at the Shinkasen office if he could help. Pivoting on his heel smartly from the door through which I’d just entered, he ushered me out a door on the opposite side – slap bang facing a row of machines! But, but, I sputtered, but he looked at me sternly from the other side of the closed door and flat-out refused to help. So here’s the thing: everybody talks about how polite the Japanese are, which is largely true, but there are plenty of aberrations around too!

I asked a girl who was getting her own ticket at the machine, to help me out. Turns out she was headed to Shin-Osaka too and so she just punched some buttons – but she got me a ticket for 2,400 yen instead of 1,200. I almost yelped aloud in pain! Well, it was done now and I brooded for the one hour it took to get to my destination and then told myself to snap outta it.

Shin-Osaka station is HUGE. I kid you not – it seems almost the size of Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport. There are shops, cafes, bakeries and an entire WORLD downstairs of more shops, eateries, a Daiso (everything for 100 yen) a store selling nothing but face and body products, even, a barber!

The next morning, I set off bright and early for Dotonburi, the main area of Osaka and for which I take a train to Namba. Incidentally, I am staying at the Courtyard by Marriott (brilliant hotel!) which is a stone’s throw away from Shin-Osaka station and along the busy Midosuji road; you can’t really walk along this road though, as it is a main thoroughfare.

My first stop is at the Hozen-ji temple, dedicated to the deity Fudomyo, who has taken on the form of fury. It looks like a statue built out of moss; people come here to pour water on the god either to cast off evil spirits or else to pray for prosperity. He does look particularly bad-tempered, so I hastily pour some water over his feet (although the subsequent photograph showed another, unmentionable part of the anatomy!)

After this, I just keep walking. I need to pick up a local SIM card. Initially, I felt slightly bereft not being connected to outside world as has become our habit, however, after almost a day of this, I have begun to feel indescribably carefree and decide not to get a local number at all, but…naah. That would be kinda irresponsible in case my family needed to get in touch with me. Actually, I tried to get a SIM card at the airport itself, the way one can get in Bangkok, only to be confronted by – you got it – machines. They have vending machines for SIM cards in Japan! Now, someone like me needs a human to talk to and ask questions of, so this wasn’t gonna cut it for me.

Sighing, I now wend my way towards Big Camera where another kindly lady at the Dotonburi train station had told me I could get a SIM card. Unsurprisingly, this is a huge, bustling place. Japan is strange – you get SIM cards on a “contract” period of two years and more, however, just data cards are available for tourists. So I buy one and then have a near melt-down when a girl old enough to be in kindergarten tells me I gotta activate it myself! How, I plead plaintively, I’m the tech-dumbest person you ever met. Listening to me bleat, she takes pity on me and takes me to a side so no one sees us and there she does these magic things and my phone is restored to me in its usual chatty, chummy state.
Being inordinately fond of and therefore interested in, cooking, I now make it a point to amble across to Sennichimae Doguyasuji in Namba, also known as the ‘cooking tools’ or kitchenware street. I was fairly disappointed, however. It is very commercialised and touristy, with lots of plates and bowls made from pottery, chopsticks and yes, one shop selling knives exclusively, but I’ll stick to my local Daiso in Bangkok, thank you.

I didn’t make it to Crysta Nagahori (underground tunnel shopping complex) Americamura (Ame-mura: American Town) but I did go to Den Den, which has a mind-boggling array of electronics that, frankly, gave me head-and-foot-ache, a) coz I don’t really follow tech stuff and b) coz I don’t waste my time on window shopping especially when the budget is non-existent!

All this gadding about is hungry work, of course. It doesn’t help that, unlike Thailand, there seems to be an unwritten rule in Japan that you’re a heathen of sorts if you’re eating while walking along and so street food is fairly non-existent. I did however, try the Takoyaki, which is fried or grilled wheat dumplings of minced octopus! Well, yeah. All in the name of foreign wanderings! What I liked though is the Japanese fast food version of fried chicken called ‘Katsu’ which are really tender, succulent, deep-fried chicken strips served with either mayo or a variety of sauces and yes, this is to go. I was quite tempted to also try the fish-shaped dessert ‘Taikyaki’ stuffed with sweet red bean paste or custard, but I draw the line at sweet rajma! Also chestnut, green tea or seaweed ice cream! In six hours of gadding about, I saw only one pizza joint and even that was a local name – none of these international junk food joints around, although I did see a couple of McD’s and KFC in Tokyo. It’s most odd but, for such a civic-minded society, there are surprisingly few public dustbins around Japan.

I’m pretty well satisfied with my day. I had decided early on not to take in Universal Studios as I plan to go to Disneyland in Tokyo. And so I head to the comfort of my hotel and await the morrow and Kyoto.

I’m awake bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning on this second lap of my adventure, not least because my homework in this instance paid off and I have actually spent only 560 yen on the ticket. Yes, I am travelling by the ‘slow’ train (25-minutes) instead of 7-minutes on the (Shinkasen ) bullet train, but the ticket, at 1,480, was almost three times the cost! So here’s the thing nobody tells you; probably nobody knows, coz Japan has done such a good job of marketing its Rail Pass, much as the Eurail did for Europe. The JR pass would be fine if you were planning to hang around Japan for a month and were going to visit lots of cities. For a week of travel, it makes no sense whatsoever, especially as it is not valid on many local city lines and the night travel requires a reservation surcharge. Anyhow, keep in mind that the Nozomi and Hikari are the fastest Shinkazen lines, while the Kodama is the slowest and therefore, cheapest.

Okay, there’s standing room only on the train, but never mind. It’s Kyoto at the end of it! The first thing I did on arriving was go book my night bus ticket to Tokyo. So here’s another of them grumpy chappies at the bus counter; I do think countries should make it mandatory for those coming in contact with foreign tourists to go for smile classes! In this whole grumpy-meets-chirpy hullabaloo, I did something I wouldn’t have done in my saner moments – took a bus to my hostel, which involved at least an hour in the traffic. Speaking of which, I was struck by how soundless the traffic seemed in Osaka. Here, there’s a faint noise of stuff zipping by, but no horns – the Japanese are extremely law-abiding and wait patiently even at the side street crossings for the lights to change – even if there are no cars.

I actually find my hostel with surprisingly little trouble. I had wanted to stay in Gion, the erstwhile geisha district, coz it sounded so dreamy and romantic…I imagined little tea-houses, Japanese lanterns, meandering, mysterious alleys…forget! It’s a hep shopping boulevard, although you do see some ladies in kimonos.

Not counting the youth hostels I stayed in in my youth! (Venice and Switzerland) this is my first time in a hostel of the present times. I stayed at the Khaosan Kyoto and cannot recommend it strongly enough. It is part of the Khaosan Group and there are a couple more in Kyoto but, after writing to them, I found the Khaosan Kyoto to be most central and also, the staff were the friendliest. I opted to stay in the female dorm that has six bunk beds with a common toilet and shower area. It is surprisingly clean, with spotless white sheets and a tight-fit shower cubicle with steaming hot water; bearing in mind it’s five degrees outside, this last is sorely needed! Mixed dorms are also available. I’m on the third floor; the fourth floor has a lounge and kitchen area with all utensils and crockery, should someone decide to cook. Everybody minds their own business, although you can strike up a conversation if you find someone so inclined; it’s all most civilized and I found a pleasurable sense of community as I lounged around on a floor pillow lazily checking Facebook and hearing the others chat. Smoking is not allowed in this hostel, which is a relief. Convivial experience and I would definitely stay here again if I went back to Kyoto.

But for now though, I dump my suitcase, take a deep breath and set off for Fushimi Inari or the temple of vermillion gates. My Thai colleague Addison had raved about this and made me promise to go visit and one does not want to risk upsetting Add, especially as he’s got the cabin next to mine!

So I’m here, goshdarn it and I’m walking along and there seem like a gadzillion red gates! It’s all very colourful and striking in its simplicity but it’s like them Russian doll things that go on and on and on. Only the thought of Add never letting me live this down kept me going but, by golly, it was hard.

Back in Gion, I amble along Teramachi street and its sister arcade Shin Kyogoku. Both are traffic-free, covered shopping arcades and it is a most pleasant ramble, made more so by nipping down the side alley of Nishiki, which is mainly a seafood market. I had the most yummylicious giant prawns here and a sip of free sake (rice wine) which tasted like nail paint remover to me!

I’ve set aside the next day for a visit to Arashiyama with its Bamboo Grove. Along the way, I see many pretty young women dressed in kimonos; they look so dainty and feminine. The only startling thing about Japanese women is that they burst into these loud laughs suddenly which sounds like the embarrassed whinny of a horse! Another thing I notice is how rosy and plump-cheeked Kyoto babies are.

Well, here I am at Arashiyama, another of Add’s suggestions and undoubtedly serene….a narrow pathway through towering bamboos on either side but also, another place that seemingly has no end! I walked as much as I could, honest to God and then turned back, figuring Add would never find out; much to my chagrin, I learnt on my return to Bangkok that he’d never even been to Japan! All his information was from bloody YouTube!

Right, back at Gion and time for a last ramble around Teramachi; gosh, this street has begun to feel like home to me since the Khaosan Kyoto is just opposite. I manage to pick up a really splendid pair of Skecher shoes in my size and head back to the hostel to pick up my suitcase and thence to the bus station for the overnighter to Tokyo.

Egad!! These bus seats are so NOT meant for generous, Indian, child-bearing hips. On top of which, the snarky dude at the bus station in Kyoto had the last laugh after all – he’s put me in the last row! The driver gets on the mike and speaks for what seems like 25-minutes, after which there’s some recorded stuff that goes on and on about put on seatbelts and switch off phones, etc. I moan in agony to my fellow passenger, who whips out his phone and does a quick Google translate to tell me what’s going on.

And so the night passes in this squished up state and we eventually chug into Tokyo. I have to catch another local train from Tokyo station to Shinagawa, where my hotel is. Do bear in mind it’s just gone on 5am! At Shinagawa, it’s too early still for the free shuttle to the Marriott, where I’m put up at, so I start walking, rather than hang around in the cold.

I get to the hotel at about 6.15, not in the best of moods and it is not improved when the silly chit at the Reception desk asks: “Checking in?” Mind you, this is the Marriott! Nope, I’m here to steal the carpet, I almost bark. Anyhow, I’m in my room with no further mishaps and hit the shower first before jumping into bed for a couple hours snooze – one thing the Marriott does get right is its quality of bed linen and mattress.

First up on today’s agenda: heading to Asakusa and the Sensoji temple, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. First though, I’ve got to navigate through Shinagawa, one of the city’s busiest train stations. Most of the subway and JR (Japan Rail) stations are simply humungous, with miles of walking! Along the way, it strikes me how quiet people are in the trains for the most part; there are also signs asking commuters to turn off their mobile phones out of consideration to fellow travelers. Dashed civilized. I do notice though that the civility does not extend to offering seats to women and children; in comparison, although Thailand may appear rowdier, these basic niceties are ingrained in its denizens! Another rum thing is that, while most station staff speak passable English, most of the train announcements in English have an American accent – didn’t these guys have a thing going with the Americans?!

Very nice indeed; the Sensoji shrine is not far from the train station and there’s thankfully little walking. I meander along to catch a glimpse of the Tokyo Skytree – the highest tower in the world! From here, I hop along to the shopping district of Ginza. On a sudden whim, I decide to go to one of them tea places and look up Google to see a well-known one, which isn’t too far away, at Omnote station. Unfortunately, when I get to the Aoyama Flower Market, there’s a snaky queue with a waiting time of an hour! I go to check if it’s even worth the wait and am glad I did so, as a nice girl apologetically explains to me that they don’t do the actual tea ceremony, just serve high teas. Anyhow, this is a pretty neat place, a tearoom that’s built to look like a glasshouse and has plants popping out at one from all corners.

Right, my next stop is – of course – Disneyland! I’ve planned to do the after 6pm thing. What a rip-off! I first get conned into doing some Disney cruise, which is a short train ride between four stops. I thought I’d get to see some fairy castles and stuff, but all I saw through Mickey Mouse shaped windows (in that, at least, the ticket guy was factual!) was the carpark! So now I stomp across to the information desk – it’s begun raining too – and demand from the lady there what exactly there is to see. She gets on the hooter to an English-speaking person and meanwhile spreads out a map in front of me…far as I can see, there are shops selling Disney merchandise and some shows. Disappointing. I’ve been to Parc Asterix in Paris which was worth every franc, with reproductions of the Viking homes and cartoon characters walking around hugging all and sundry. This is not the first time I will be noting in Tokyo that the Japanese seem a very consumer-oriented society; most people seem happy to walk out of Disneyland clutching 2-3 shopping bags apiece and Mickey balloons.

The next day, I have a meeting at a place called Mita, which name tickled me no end! After I’m done with this, I wander over to take some pictures of the Sony building, which is a Tokyo landmark and thence on to Harajuku, one of the main shopping areas. A couple of very kind girls (people are really helpful and will often go out of their own route to guide a stranger, as these girls did) lead me to Takeshita street, a narrow alley crammed either side with shops selling clothes and what-nots and some eateries. I discover that crepes are really popular here, the ones with sweet fillings. Incidentally, what struck me as really strange is that there is tax on everything in Japan, including food! There also aren’t as many 7Eleven’s here in the home country as there are in Thailand!

I find my way back to main Harajuku, where I hop into a mini mall to escape the cold. Feeling adventurous, I decide to have some miso soup and a tuna sushi roll. The latter was fine, as it was cooked tuna, but the former tasted like tepid dishwater would!

Back outside, I scurry to Yoyogi Park and the Meiji shrine, the most famous Shinto shrine in Tokyo. A uniformed doorman outside one of the luxury stores points me in the right direction and tells me to walk across the “foresto” (yes! They do actually add an ‘o’ at the end of most words and there I always thought the ‘Mind Your Language’ BBC tele-series was exaggerated.) All my scurrying was to no avail however, as the shrine was closed-o. And so I retraced my steps and then walked all the way across to the Shibuya crossing – this has acquired fame for being the busiest intersection in the world. I have to say there seem to be a mindboggling number of people either crossing or waiting to cross the street, coming at one from all directions.

What else did I find remarkable about Japan? I love the many roadside coin-operated kiosks of cold drinks. I noticed that most Japanese cycle to places and also hugely used public transport and hence, the number of cars on the roads is much lower compared to other countries. I noticed that the men dress very formally, usually always in business suits. And yes, it is true that people do bow to each other – frequently – as a gesture of respect. I noticed that, apart from consumerism, the Japanese are addicted to gaming; there is an entire area in Osaka dedicated to arcades, while Teramachi in Kyoto had most of the slot machines occupied by the elderly and presumably retired, folk!

I also noticed that there are no ruddy benches to sit on along the streets, in parks or in malls, most unlike Thailand. Since there are special lifts in malls and hotels for the physically challenged and facilities in public loos for them, one cannot accuse the Japanese of being thoughtless. I concluded therefore, that they don’t have a second to tarry and park their asses while they figure out their next move, hence the lack of public seating!

The other thing that struck me, simply because I managed to trip over so many of them, are the raised strips of yellow-painted dots and dashes across every crossing and before escalators/stairways. They’re absolute hell on the feet, I can tell you this. Managing to stub my aching toes over yet another of these strips, I randomly stopped two schoolgirls near Yoyogi park and demanded an answer. Apparently it’s Braille for the visually-challenged, although how they can decipher what’s written with their toes, I dunno.

And so here I am, on my last day in Japan and on my way to Tokyo’s Haneda International airport. The ticket is only 410 yen and the journey takes 30-minutes. Here too, Japan manages to amaze me. Only Japanese confectionery is available here; if KitKat chocolate is sold, it’s in the Japanese-preferred flavours of green tea or sake. Now this is what I would truly term as promoting one’s country and culture!

Sayonara, Japan, till we meet again.

Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work.  Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.

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Punam Mohandas is the Consulting Editor for Travel Tales. She is a senior journalist with 20-years of work experience across India, Dubai and Bangkok. She is an accomplished and accredited travel writer and is well recognised among the travel trade, tourism boards and hospitality circles across several countries.

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