Greece. A glimpse into an Athenian

The Greeks want to share their current stories as much as their past glories. Lily is our guide in Athens for half a day. Lily has stories to tell, the recycled textbook tales about her city and its antiquity, asides on olive branches and insights on rows of shuttered stores, her personal weakness for the overpriced coffee in a star hotel (for the ambience), her take on the government. They often fall on deaf ears and eyes jaded rigid. She knows when to shut up.

At first sight, she is a dissatisfied person, pissed in general at the universe for having to work well beyond her retirement years, particularly pissed at having to herd a large group of people in a schedule as tight as a bodycon gown. Pissed no end, but she has nowhere to run. Her crumpled face framed by sparse strands of dyed auburn hair, her slanted green eyes, and her shriveled figure in retro-wear are loaded stories in themselves.

She senses my interest in her rather than her Wikipedia. She lives far away from the centre of Athens, she tells me. She commutes in her car but has to park her vehicle at a distance. She has a house with a garden, which her father left her. “It was the norm in Greece, I don’t know what happens now.’” Her sister too has inherited a similar house but is having a ‘taxing’ time because of the current regime’s fiscal laws. Suddenly, she is a proud little daddy’s girl, her papery old lady skin lighting up. Her father, she says, was one of the ‘last gentlemen’ of Athens. They had a beautiful life right here. Parties. Walks. But they had to leave. She describes a scene of her father in a perfect hat, walking stick and coat out for a stroll on a perfect day being mobbed without a warning by a gang of Albanians. But it wasn’t really without a warning as the buildup was there, she says. They were only trying to wish it away. She holds back from using the I-word. It’s hovering somewhere above her tongue. Today’s Syrian immigrants are yesterday’s Albanians. That day seems to have changed it all for Lily. It pierced at the heart of the make-believe lives that the gentlefolk of Athens were hanging on to. Her resentment is hard to gag, her inner battle so transparent. She veers back to her ‘I will not complain’ persona, her defiant public stance. She betrays herself in the very next sentence. She is a widow, she says. A good man, he was. Yet memories of her husband are perhaps not as nostalgia-tinged as those of her dad, her glowing childhood. She talks a bit about her two sons, who stay away from her and are doing fairly well.

She has found a way to pay a lower inheritance tax by transferring the house’s title to her son, she says. She has to keep working, she repeats. Her sons do come down and visit her in her suburban home with a garden from London or wherever. She comes back to her father, as if looking for a pillar to lean on. ‘It’s he who named me Lily,’ she says. And she grants me a rare smile. ‘You Greeks not just live off the past but also in the past,’ I tell her lightly, taking a chance, hoping she gets me, feeling a kinship with her, coming as I do from a place like Kolkata (crumbling, geriatric). She nods, maybe understands.

It’s time for lunch in a rooftop restaurant serving American sized portions and food to match. French fries, chicken, largely unconsumed, resolutely un-Greek. Lily is quietly munching away at her single table. She gives them regular business. Soon, she is giving us a few tips on the locality. Done for the day, she is walking off to her vehicle parked at a distance, leftovers of the large lunch in a parcel dangling from her insubstantial shoulder. Her danglers, perhaps a gift from her dad, are winking in the sun.

 

 

 

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Japan Shrining. Nara and Horyuji

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Day 7. November 5. Nara and Horyuji. In fresh 10 am light, the road across our apartment has shed all of last night’s sinister nuances, mostly imagined I’m sure. Business is about to bustle, shops and cafes are in various stages of wake-up-baby preparation. We spot a large hardware store, which has just upped its shutters. Knives, hammers, scissors, travel bags, phone cases, ropes tend to knock us out. The prices look remarkably low. A tiny section is reserved for Japanese goods that cost 10 times more and look discernibly swisher. The store owner, like his counterparts everywhere, offers a sheepish head shake when grilled on this. He understands us alright, even though his English is vestigial. Made in China is universal language. He gives us a dull smile. Nods wryly, let’s put it.

We make our way to Namba station, the Nipponbashi neighbourhood looks golden. The stale tempura smells are yet to waft. It’s the turn of freshly baked down in Namba’s aromatic underground. The mood curve rises sharply. Apple pies, hot dogs, pork patties are dizzily eyed. An implicit need for a break from rice balls and miso manifests itself. We are positively merry as we make our way to our start-off point, the Japan Rail (JR) Namba station (a little way off from the Namba station proper). Neat brown paper packages in hand, we are well-behaved somewhat overgrown Enid Blyton children. It will take half an hour or so to reach Nara, enough time to chew and stare at the miles that rush past.

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Like Jude Law or Vivienne Leigh, the weather is achingly beautiful. Even the longish walk from the station to the Nara Park complex (advertised for its pagodas and fearless deer) is a thing of joy. There is a broad boulevard with street art and autumn foliage, which leads to a narrower road smelling of Top 5 touristy. The bi-colour plastic autumn leaves that I had seen at the Sensoji entrance are here too, bravely waving us in. The same steady and purposeful stream of tourists, the same food and souvenir stalls. A craftsman on the pavement is patiently stirring some creamy kaolin, steadily smiling. There’s a small black wooden shrine with a zen garden on our right. I jump right in to walk on the wooden floors that creak.

Soon we are in the main Nara compound with a multi-tiered black shrine handsomely looming on the right. A broad pebbled pathway on the right leads to another more petite beauty. The symmetry of the woodwork, the blackened, weathered feel are worth looking out for. The wide spaces are as striking as the ethnic architecture punctuating them. Burning incense, stencil-printing, selfie-sticks, children rushing free as the wind, parents and grandparents silently broadcasting their wishes to the gods. We part company to do some solo exploring. Me time. I keep walking down the path beyond the temple on the right. It is densely leafy and backlit by the sun. There are smaller wooden structures, maybe the Nara staff quarters and offices. An elderly couple is sitting with swinging legs.

P1050378P1050386P1050400P1050416The path winds and opens to a large square field. It’s a dusty fairground currently being stopped by a zillion feet. There are clusters of people in holiday mood, a stage with sound boxes being readied and food stalls selling homemade items. Artisanal jellies. A Japanese farmer’s market. Turns out today’s a Saturday. I buy a tiny hexagonal jar of pickle. On an adjoining area, there are a few listless deer, some indeed being fed and photographed. They are dun brown and small-boned. I’m more drawn to the fairground vibe. There are queues snaking in front of particularly popular counters. Marinated meats and roiling oil. The Japanese have their fair share of steamed and cured but it’s not like they shy away from the deep-fried. I seat myself on the dirt floor for some ringside viewing of a street performer with a crystal ball. He effects mock-melodrama to mild sniggers/giggles from his thin audience. It’s turned stiflingly hot, I realise, as sweat glistens on the young artiste’s face.

I see Chandra heading towards me, fresh from witnessing (and photographing) that sight of multiple deer crossing the road with humans on zebra roads. Rini and Jhini too appear out of nowhere. We decide we are done with Nara. We walk back to the station to the accompaniment of  Japanese fighter pilots spraying patterns of white smoke on the electric blue sky. Just a routine airforce drill.

We decide to head for Horyuji temple. It is supposedly the most ancient intact wooden structure in the world clocking at 1300 years old. Like Lake Okama (and a thousand other places), Horyuji remains strangely undersold by Japanese travel brains, at least to the overseas traveller. I had chanced upon a tiny piece while wading through megabytes on Nara and Himeji. I have a nebulous, fragile structure in mind. The JR pass lets us hop on and off JR trains with abandon without counting our yen. It’s a short ride from Nara to Horyuji. The place is also called Ikaruga, as evidenced by picturesque manhole covers.

http://www.timetravelturtle.com/2013/05/horyuji-japan-oldest-wooden-building/

P1050427P1050432P1050457.JPGP1050467.JPGIt’s a half-hour hike from the station to the temple area. We walk by the car-cramped main carriageway, frequently stopping to shoot local life, a shop window displaying a large cement Pikachu, shimmery elephant grass, old men in conversation, improvised shrines on footpaths (as in India). Out of the blue, a laughing red head comes out of her front door and gifts Chandra a bunch of colourful origami. He was shooting some roadside vegetation (her garden). Lady is thrilled, as are we.

We finally saunter towards the portals of Horyuji standing stout at the end of another tree-lined avenue awash with chiaroscuro. The gate is not that imposing but has the unequivocal presence of a survivor. Not at all fragile. The main temple area and the inner exhibits are barred. We’ve arrived just after closing hours. Some school kids and local tourists are sprinkled around the grounds. Roaming the sprawling outer sanctum, the gardens, observing the many gates and reading the signage with period (eg Edo) details keep our minds off the treasures inside that naggingly elude us. There’s that long length of rope again, with which one has to strike a high-placed bell, no doubt ringing away one’s sins. A young girl is playfully at it, though her sins are surely yet to attain critical mass. The soft departing light is unreal. It broad-brushes illusion into the deeply prosaic, makes the red leaves drip bloody shadows on our faces, crowns the pine trees with matte gold. A Japanese pair is walking past. They turn out to be a mother-son speaking twangy English. They’re from LA, they say, though they still have a house somewhere in Tokyo. Her husband was an Indian, a Bangalorean. And they take our group photograph.

P1050503.JPGP1050510.JPGP1050512.JPGOn our way back to the station, we choose the back alleys of Ikaruga, where all the middle-class suburban houses are lined up, with their telltale signs of global village daily life. Clothes drying out, parked cars, potted plants, gas cylinders, suddenly offset by an abandoned shipwreck of a wooden house, its exposed drawing room. I spot a two-storied ‘cram school’, the Japanese version of a coaching centre, the sneakers of the cram victims lined up in extreme neatness.

Lesson: Horyuji deserved a full day

Japan: Bullet train to Osaka

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Mount Fuji from the bullet train to Shin-Osaka.

Day 6. Nov 4. Day of realization and acceptance. But first, the day of the long and sapping bullet train ride.

It is sunny in Iwahara, with shadows rapidly getting shorter and sharper. We come upon neighborly locals (women with young children) who laugh and greet us and laugh more when we ask them to pose for photos. That done, I briskly walk away to explore pastoral life. The upcoming train ride to Osaka is long, so time is short. Far ahead of me is a lady doing her morning stretches as she walks to work. There are fields on either side of a raised road, a canal, a bridge. All of us wish we had spent another day in this tranquil setup. Even the sight of people unloading farm produce from a truck is soothing.

The scenery from the train is uniformly featureless, except for half a minute of Mount Fuji directly above a township. The view, even of Fuji-san, a motherly presence as every Japanese will point out (without provocation), is mostly shredded by cables and grids. (I agree with the Japs, The uni-peak Fuji looks like the gentlest of mountains. Such soft, approachable symmetry. Very comforting indeed. From a distance. I wildly imagine scaling it someday.) I am exhausted after the three-hour ride. We pass by Kyoto, then onto Shin-Osaka, which is where the shinkansen ride ends. We have to take the subway to Namba, where our apartment is located. Osaka is not connected by the shinkansen, Shin-Osaka is.

It is obvious that we have made the wrong choice of apartment. But it was dirt cheap. So, everyday, we will have to travel from Namba to the JR station, Shin-Osaka, to even start our day-trips to Himeji, Nara, Kyoto, Osaka, or anywhere else. The JR pass is a double-edged sword, I’m discovering. Ideally, we should have stayed in an apartment in  Shin-Osaka.

… a slightly technical bit this… We buy the subway ticket to Namba today but later discover that we can use the JR pass and travel over land, provided we take a really long walk underground to the JR Namba station, across acres of stores (a store named Sweets Box), an aquarium, a cavernous space where youngsters practise dance moves, all of which become our landmarks. We would march like true soldiers, taking in our stride the hike in a tunnel of shops and more shops. At the end of our five-night stay here, the atlas of Namba station should be stamped on our unconscious forever.

For now, we need to shake off our weariness post the three-hour shinkansen ride. We do so with light retail therapy at an underground Uniqlo store in Shin-Osaka station. A soft and lightweight jacket (that every single male on the street seems to be wearing) and two fleecy polo necks for Chandra are acquired. Nothing fits or suits the ladies.

Once in Namba, it is a challenge to locate the right exit. Jhini zooms in on a tired yet selfless lady to drop everything and become our guide. She physically escorts us. The apartment owner’s directions are no good. It is an ordeal but with saved screen shots (in my phone) we manage to locate it. All of a sudden, my husband is in his element. His gumption and innate geography quotient come together in style. Heroically, he takes the baton from the lady. Ultimately, we locate Lily’s place. It is on a wide road, the area appears to be reassuringly residential. There’s a dog hotel beside the building. It’ll be our landmark.

This Airbnb apartment is sad. There’s barely any space between the bed and the wall. There’s fungi flourishing in plastic cups from which we are supposed to drink tea. The bed linen and quilts are way better. No one has sneezed, so no mites and dust. There are terrifying (draconian) instructions again, this time threatening to clamp heavy fines on us if we did not take off our shoes. All in grammar-free English with a case of loose motions. The bathroom with gallons of shampoos and the spotless Toto is a facesaver. And there’s pocket wifi, which we however can’t get working. Later, on the streets, we hijack a young Chinese couple to get it kickstarted.

On first impression, the neighbourhood is, let’s say, edgy. Free radicals are dancing in the air. Plenty of tempuras being fried in reused oils. There’s a unmistakeable feel of a red light zone in certain spots. An illuminated building wrapped with flex blow-ups of ‘fun’ pictures stands at a street corner. There are gaming arcades too. I remember reading about a tax-free shopping zone in the listing, but it remains well-hidden for now. Den-den town. It has to wait. No lack of colour here for sure.

There are small food joints slitting the walls. And then, what looks like a ‘family’ restaurant. It is warmly lit, spacious, with blue gingham table cloths. The waitresses are dressed up in vaguely German girly gear. Shortly, we discover, that besides serving food, their brief includes posing for snaps and getting giggly with their male clientele. Many of these posed snaps are pinned to a large board. Plenty happening again. The food is iffy. We rapidly finish our meal. A lion’s share of the time is spent on figuring the menu, as becomes common practice. Outside, I have a fish-shaped fried Japanese sweet with red bean paste stuffing. Floury scales and all.

We lighten up. Chandra’s other talent, improvising, comes in handy, it morphs our zillion eye-opening moments and realisations into quick comedy. Our predicament if it can be called that is not that grave, really. Tomorrow is another day. A little extra walking will do us good. And no harm at all. Jhini’s feet are fine. We will start with Nara tomorrow. Early. We will see new places and we will rock it with conviction.

Smalltown Japan. Odawara and Iwahara

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A family trip to Odawara Castle deserves more than a mere groupfie

Day 5. November 3. All’s well in smalltown Japan, but for the left foot and the stubbornly invisible beach.

We have to be out of Nobuo’s Roppongi apartment by 10 am. The cleaner is an exemplar of punctuality. He is terse but courteous as he waits for the extra 10-15 minutes that we need to dry our hair, gather out stuff strewn across central Tokyo’s ultra prime real estate. In Japan, check-in is never before 3 pm and checkout at precisely at 10 am.

Our next apartment is in a village called Iwahara, a few stations from the town of Odawara, which is connected to Tokyo by shinkansen and takes about an hour or so to reach. The Hakone national park is our destination. I am imagining volcanic rocks and whimsical lava creations. Our chosen apartment is, according to the Airbnb listing, well located for this trip to the park.

We will be activating our JR passes today. We have to reach Tokyo central from Roppongi as passes can be activated only in the major stations. So, back to pulling trolleys on smooth passages, across escalators and elevators.

We glide onto Odawara station in our first-ever shinkansen carriage. The fastest bullet trains are not covered by our 19000 INR seven-day JR pass. Bullet trains have their names. We hop into a Hikari. Or was it a Kodama? There are smoking compartments and first class (Green) compartments. Ours is second class. Plush enough. The water at the taps of the bullet train is not for drinking. Train stewardesses courteously forbid us from drinking it. They primly sit in a cramped cube.

When we reach Odawara station, it is around 12 noon. The TV screen in a tourist information booth relays live pictures of our destination, Hakone. The lake and the area being beamed to us look pedestrian, visibility near zero. Our consultants advise against a trip today. A trip to Hakone (like a trip to Nikko) has to begin early. They tell us to look around Odawara instead, they say it is a pleasant enough place and has its own castle and even a strip of a beach. We are pliant creatures and quickly downgrade our goals. Mindsets are reset with startling speed. We decide to dump our bags in the apartment in Iwahara before taking on Odawara. Iwahara is a 15-minutes train ride from Odawara. The burbs.

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Facade of a regular house in Odawara town.
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The peripheries of Odawara castle

Any residual dismay over the Hakone washout altogether etherizes as serious misfortune is suddenly upon us. Rini’s suitcase is open, the contents splayed on the floor at the foot of the escalator in Odawara station. She seems to have injured herself. I let off a classic scream. Jhini reflexively jumps on the nearest escalator to head down. But the escalator is heading up. She takes an awkward fall, has trouble getting up. We carry on to Iwahara hoping for the best.

We are much taken with Kevin’s Merry Lue guesthouse in the sunny village of Iwahara. It’s a shade before 3 pm and Jhini’s feet are still in shape. The apartment is in the upper floor of a two-storey stone and wood bungalow. It’s a large loft with blonde wooden bookshelves serving as partitions. We sink into real beds, big ones, and try out all the items of furniture like the bear family of Goldilocks. There are pictures, posters, banners and space-specific placards with much associative wordplay. Like the signage in the loo is about fart. Kevin is an English teacher in Iwahara and there are plenty of old snaps of what looks like his pupils and maybe even his family. After Nobuo, this is liberation! Unfortunately, only for this singular night.

We meet an Indian family on the small street below. But they insist they are Malaysians. They are staying in the ground floor of Merry Lue. They too have been suggested Odawara and not Hakone by the booth people. We meet the pseudo Malaysians again on the Odawara castle grounds, where they are loudly bonding as a family by singing Bollywood songs. Rumba Ho, if I remember right.

Jhini is a brave girl. Instead of resting her feet, she is pounding the streets with us. Her gait is distinctly accented now. Anyway, we are off to Odawara-jo, a white castle. Jo is Japanese for castle. It’s a walk down peaceful streets with local elders toddlers and cyclists, and the odd porcelain store and repair shop, a world away from Shibuya Scramble on Halloween night.

We view the castle’s stark white exteriors but choose not to go in. The grounds are dark and dank and crowded with selfie takers and kimono wearers. That done, we go in search of the beach, a modest strip we have been pointedly informed. Jhini’s limp looks painful now. Chandra’s monopod becomes her crutch. We are torn between the beach and the limp. We are still hellbent on the beach. A young (rare) English-speaking cyclist confidently directs us to the beach, says it’s five minutes away. We follow his words, but the well laid out streets at right angles to each other stretch on, one leading to the other. We pass by numerous frontyards, porches with curly iron garden chairs. There is no whiff of salty sea breeze. No beach in sight. We persist, the locals continue trying to help. One even exclaims, ‘Oh bichi!’

By and by, we find ourselves in a family-run store. And start buying breakfast supplies. Here, as we juggle kaki (a juicy fleshy seasonal fruit which looks like an orange tomato) we get into multiple dialogues with everyone around us, still looking for that beach. By now we are also asking for a hospital/x-ray clinic. Expectedly, English is still unknown quantity in smalltown Japan. So our conversations are stilted, jerky and comical. The underlying warmth of the locals needs no translation.

Meanwhile, dusk has abruptly given way to deep night. The store family’s baby is crying, as the mother and father look ahead in wonder and whisper anxiously. The grandmother turns up with a bandage. More help comes from another shopper, a young woman. She is married to a doctor. And lo and behold, she uses her phone as her interpreter. Only later, we reflect on the cream of Japanese hospitality. For now, we must make decisions. We decide we will wait out tonight, wish away Jhini’s pain. Meanwhile, our quest for the modest beach of Odawara gets a quiet burial.

We walk past evening joggers and have a ramen dinner near the station. A middle-aged male walks in. He knows English. Clipped English, it turns out. He stays in London, he tells us, which is why he has no idea about doctors and clinics in this part of the world. Jhini’s foot is so bad that she can barely walk after dinner. But she manages as circulation kicks in. Back in the comfort of the apartment, we drink sake, which we had bought from that friendly store. Jhini’s pain is gone the next day. Just like that.

Meanwhile, I had almost forgotten about a small incident at a salon near Iwahara station. It was around midday, when Rini and I had gone to drop our luggage in the apartment’s garage. As we waited for the return train, my throat felt parched, nearly fractured. Oh for some water. The salon! My hand gestures were however, lost on the hairdresser. So I turned on the tap at the basin, a spur of the moment move. I failed to notice that the faucet was connected to a hand shower, which was facing her. Sometime, during the full hydro assault, she realised that I needed a drink. She rushed indoors and was out in a trice with a glass of tea on a tray. My arigato gozaimasus were gracefully accepted with numerous bows. So I again have proof that Japs can’t be ruffled that easy. And they aren’t the biggest water drinkers in the world.

In conclusion, we should have spent at least two/three night, not one, in Kevin’s apartment. Maybe we would have got our eyeful of Hakone and who knows even walked along Odawara’s unremarkable beach!

Khonoma. Breathe and let live

DSCN5524Khonoma in Nagaland, India. 10 reasons why you should be here.

Detox: All a tired soul needs is downtime in a wooden cottage in Khonoma’s terraced valleys. Pound those cobbled streets and feel the bushed limbs spring back to life. Flowers abound, especially calla lilies and roses, splashing cream and pink in the greenscape. Neat stacks of firewood and filigree trash baskets line the spotless, spit-less, excrement-free roads ideal for the barefoot traveller. The wind is high. You can sit on the roadside, perched on the edge of the terraces. You can touch the oxygen.

Accessible:  Khonoma, called the green or model village, is an hour away from Kohima in Nagaland but since a part of the road is rough, keep an extra half hour in hand. The nearest airport is Dimapur. Cars are available, whether pre-booked or otherwise. There are two homestays in Khonoma, both efficiently run by ramrod straight women. The one where I stayed had three rooms with clean linen and white bathrooms. There are little touches like hand embroidery on the lemon yellow pillow covers. The power situation is uncertain, bound by the whims of weather. March and April are the windiest months.

As close to organic as it gets: They do not use chemical fertilisers. Food on the table, which comes free with the homestays, is off the fields. The cooking is simple, mostly braised or boiled, the spices minimal. A chutney of tomatoes and Naga or King chilies is de rigueur on the table. Pork is the go-to meat here. Being fed and fattened with all the right elements and never injected with antibiotics, the homebred pigs of Khonoma come close to the lambs of Scotland and the wagyu of Shibuya. Of course nothing is officially certified here. We depend on our native taste buds. Chicken is also available. The potash-free saag tastes deliciously different.

Steps of green: The rice fields of Khonoma are friendly terrain. With the fine rain spray on your face, a walk up and down the gentle terraces is like a visit to a spa. There are narrow raised paths separating crystal clear water bodies and cropped land. There are even shelters you can dive into in case the rain gets heavy. Farmers you meet on the way are happy to share their lunch with you. Be brave. Their menu is always the same, rice boiled with fresh local catch from the waters around them. It could be anything from frogs to shrimps to anonymous genus.

The village: Post-siesta, a walk around the village beckons. To examine the local architecture. Some homes here have their own emblematic design. They sport mithun (large and gentle bovine found in these parts) horns on their main gates, a right earned only after the affluent homeowner throws a meaty party for the community. The inner doorways are festooned with skulls of beasts large and small, relics of a slowly morphing culture.

Birds in alder forests: Birdwatchers always have Khonoma on their agenda. Since the Angami elders here got together and coaxed the naturally warlike Nagas to stop killing birds, the alder forests here have become a sanctuary for the feathered ones. This is not so normal in Nagaland, as kids elsewhere in the state still naturally take to bringing down birds with slings. Their parents smile indulgently.

A part of the forest has been cleared for jhum cultivation. I come across expanses of bare forest floors of blackish umber. The weeds and other vegetation have been painstakingly uprooted and burnt. Branch-less alder trunks rise to the sky like stumps, adding a dystopian chill to the quietness. After the crop is harvested, the soil is allowed to “rest” for a while, I was told. I can’t help but gawp at the stunted avatars of the trees. It smells of a photographer’s project.

Morungs and Megaliths: There are remains of erstwhile ‘morungs’ everywhere in Khonoma. Morungs are large roomy dormitories with striking façades and roofs. They historically served as gurukuls. In true tribal tradition, groups of boys or girls would stay far away from family for a while and learn life’s lessons and local culture as well as pick up skills like weaving and woodwork from mentors during their stint in these morungs. Now, schools runs by Baptist missionaries impart board-prescribed education. Morungs have adapted to the times as picnic spots.

We come across solitary stone columns with mysterious etchings. These taciturn towers are found unannounced, in isolated spots, especially deep in the forested parts of this 700-year-old village. They are called ‘megaliths’ and no one has been able to break their code.

Otherwise unseen crafts: A girl weaves dignified scarves, the likes of which I have not seen in any city emporium. Instead of the regular black red and white Naga fabrics, I see chrome yellow, black and white, with typical Angami patterns. Another girl sells burnt pink sun-dried apple chips. An ancient man makes sturdy Naga baskets of perfect symmetry with bamboo strips. He offers thick bittersweet black tea. Nagas love their tea viscous and syrupy.

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Raid a local kitchen: Dark and cool with just the right degree of warmth around the fire in late-March, the kitchen is usually the largest room in a typical home. The hearth is either a quadrangle on the floor or a wall-mounted fireplace. There are numerous low stools near the fireside. There’s smoke but it does not seem acrid. Just friendly. A two or three-tiered wooden rack is suspended from the ceiling just above the fire. All kinds of meats and fats, vegetables, animal hides, wet clothes, anything that needs to dry, sit on those racks soaking up the smoke. Even us humans are getting gently toasted. Each house has at least a dozen Naga baskets, which lurk from overhead. Unlike in a typical Indian kitchen, there is no omnipresent coat of grease as frying is not a daily practice here. Meats and vegetables are stewed and broiled in a bit of fat and lots of water. I had a stew that Arin made with smoked pork and smoked yam leaves. It was coal black in colour. Slow food at its best. Arin says she comes to Kolkata to help a friend at a stall in a trade fair.

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A still exotic culture: It’s best to get a local guide who can decode this still-exotic culture for you, give you a peep into the recent past, tell you some folk tales by the fireside. I sit in such a kitchen listening to Arin’s friend disjointedly telling us the story of Chinewa and Ittiban, the Naga Romeo+Juliet. He says that this story is elastic, can be expanded and cut short at will. Zapu, our young guide, is by far the better raconteur. He tells a folktale about a ‘brother-sister who are more like husband-wife’. The warlike brother gets his butt bitten off in a bid to save his sister from fierce foes.

Disclaimer: Do not heed warnings (of the strictly ignorant) that you may be served dog meat in restaurants here. It is traditionally eaten here, BUT it’s way too expensive and restrictive measures too have had their impact. Dog meat has to exported from Assam, it was whispered. There are reassuring sitings of strays on the streets too.

Japan hype: Nikko

Day 4. Nov 2. Day of none-too-unpleasant ups and downs.

Nikko is hyped. Like seriously. But there’s solace in the shape of jhal muri (an Indian snack which we brought along to Japan) and chilly-overload ramen. We have already spent three nights in the cozy cramp of Nobuo’s quarters. The feeling is not bad at all.

Keeping the previous day’s warning in mind (that we should be in Nikko before at least midday in order to get the sun shining on the fall colours) we are in Asakusa, the headquarters of Tobu Rail to board the train. Woozy and early. The wait for the train is long and so is the journey. We get top angle views of all that we may have missed in our novice trawling of Asakusa. We see life by railway stations, some ethnic architecture, the little pots of plants in kerchief courtyards lining the lean old bylanes of suburban Japan. We overhead past dusty stores and restaurants with stenciled signs. that recall Bentink Street, and Amherst Street back home. These glimpses seem pure, lived in. And finally we are at our destination station from where it’s a bus ride to Chuzenji, the lake with the promised fringe of burnt oranges. We will do the shiny shrines in the central Nikko on our return leg.

It is freezing for a change. Wind chill is high. The modest Tobu bus is sardine-jammed with both tourists and local people going about their daily chores and visits to doctors. We are getting away from the city, the clothes and hair are getting less and less immaculate. The Japanese are not alien epitomes of perfection after all, and like us they jostle in swaying buses that swerve like fake Volvos at hairpin bends of which there is an alarming number. Forty eight hairpins to be precise.

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Out at the Chuzenji, it is so bitterly cold that everyone except me forgets why we came here in the first place. Autumn colours, remember? They troop off to drink coffee, whisky laced preferably. Upstairs into the seductive warmth of a café cum knickknack store. A tourist bait, run by a pleasant retired couple, the man a wood carver. I am left clutching my Lumix camera with my fingers fast losing sensation. I carry on alone towards the lake. I catch a moment of mist on the water. The lowest clouds are diaphanous beauties and they are mess up the much-coveted autumn hues in mad abandon. I so want the silly self-indulgers upstairs to see all this. So I  head for the cafe. Once inside, my resolve collapses. Rapidly, I give in to coffee and knickknacks. Unbelievably, I buy a wee wooden toy for my son in Germany, my Onga. And a tiny cheese board and knife for the house. That misty moment is lost forever. I had ended up with a single bad shot.

Finally warmed up, we hit the streets of Chuzenji. On the banks of this lake, we munch on that jhal muri (Indian snack) with mango pickle. So Chandra says something like, ‘Where else but Nikko for a thonga of jhaal muri.’ I am immune to such asides,  so I do a weak smile. But the Sinha sisters are just getting a taste of my husband’s straight-faced delivery. They go ROFL. Unhindered ROFL.

The promised autumnal beauty is a damp squib (of course to be later compensated by numerous sightings in Kyoto, Osaka and Matsumoto). So we get ashes instead of fire. There are dense nests of overhead wires hanging like matted hair everywhere. We walk towards a slim underfed waterfall. We eat a hot local snack. Finally we line up for the journey to central Nikko, with its promise of ornamental shrines. There are some Indians in the queues scattered across bus stops in Nikko, quite a rarity here. One wears a Darjeeling to, a pink woolen cap. The bus takes ages to come. We are at the fag end of the queue. I discover a warm waiting room with glass windows and a fireplace. The pink cap group opts out of this bus as there’s only standing room. But even claustrophobic vertigo in drunken buses is better than the biting wind outside, so we rush in. The second bus comes seconds after ours leave. I spot pink cap jubilantly seated by the window from. We gulp hard and tipsily steel ourselves for the harpins. How on earth did they know?

It is closing time at most of the shrines when we reach. Around 4-430 pm. The Toshugu shrine is wrapped with gold much like the man at Madurai airport arriving from Sharjah. Rini gets a firsthand view of the glam and glitter as she sneaks in without the entry ticket. The rest of us find 400 yen for one and a half minutes of dekko a con, neither do we have Rini’s chutzpah, so we stare from the boundary line. Chandra and I go down a flight of steps to another monastery amid zen gardens. So this is the authentic zen. It’s black, gray and beautiful, and stony. The living quarters of the priests and monks, we gather. I prefer this zen shrine to sexy Toshugu. It’s turning dark. We manage to catch a late bus, which deposits us at Nikko station in no time. Just two stops. Nikko, we conclude, is the Japan tourism industry’s hardsell that we allowed ourselves to fall for. In retrospect, Tobu rail’s neat package of train and bus rides is something we could have bypassed for a leisurely walk around a different part of Tokyo and a Michelin meal in Shinjuku. But our spirits are still high.

Asakusa is brightly with lights shining on freshly wet streets. The ramen joint a flight down from street level that I had spotted yesterday is waiting for us. Rini refuses to eat anything other than chicken meat, she goes for extra doses of the chilly paste instead. The eatery is operated by youngsters who smile and speak English (Olympic preparation). The service is friendly and fast. This is by far our best ramen experience in Japan. On the way to yet another spotless, fully-loaded and fully-functional (these are found even in the tiniest of places in Tokyo proper) Toto toilet, I spot a counter where solitary ramen eaters face a wall with a low opening, from where disembodied hands slips out bowls after taking the order slips.

The order slip has boxes that have to be ticked in a prescribed format. In English and Japanese. We sit at a square table and loudly discuss our choices of boxes to tick. It is anything but hushed in here. We scream to be heard over the music. Our steamy bowl of joy is overflowing at this moment. What binds us four is our touching eagerness to be happy with life’s tiniest offerings. We are aware of our near-heartbreaking eagerness to please and be pleased. It’s a nice break from the usual cynical cycle. This time round it is the bowl of solid ramen that ticks all the right boxes. Our friendly pitch is laid out, only the ball has to drop at the right length. It does. Content, we retire in Roppongi.

Japan: Day of the metro pass

Day 3. November 1. Day of  the 24-hour Tokyo metro pass. We are back in Asakusa. Entrails hurt at being in Japan in autumn, yet missing out on the colours. Even though this is just the third day here. So we make a snap decision to do Nikko. The colours arrive a bit late in Tokyo.  (May I clarify that we had not even planned the trip around autumn colours. In fact in those historic early days, we were fine with just the novelty of Japan and maybe a Michelin meal in Shinjuku. But with god’s and our timings coinciding, it somehow became a manic compulsion to catch those colours. At any cost. And fast!) In an earlier much calmer state, I had been eyeing the crater lake of Okama in the northern tip of Honshu, an inexplicably under-sold destination. Jhini had been eyeing Aomori, which is more easily accessed than Okama. But both these destinations dissolved into a million pixels due to enemy time. Two days each at the very least for either, ideally. So, shelved. For now, we are bowing to Japanese hard-sell and heading for Nikko.

It seems like we need a Tobu Rail pass for Nikko. We could have bought individual tickets but the prices are twerked in such a way that it always suits the visitor to buy the umbrella pass, which will cover the train ride from Tokyo to Nikko and a subsequent bus ride to the Lake Chuzenji and back. Central Nikko is the place for shrines. Decision made, we sacrifice food and other such niceties, yet mysteriously land in Tobu Rail’s headquarters in Asakusa only a shade before noon. Late by miles. As we buy the passes we are strongly advised to go the next day as it would take around two hours to reach Nikko and more to reach Chuzenji, by which time the place (and colours) would be in a cloudy haze. Tomorrow it shall be.

We are a hungry bunch now. It’s a grayish day with a fine drizzle. Almost everything is closed and sleepy as it is not yet lunchtime and breakfast time is up. Jhini meanwhile buys an umbrella, at which point the rain vanishes. I see a ramen place with arrows pointing underground. It is shut. We finally spy a girl attached to an advertisement board announcing platter meals. Sensing our eagerness, she quickly detaches herself from the board  and escorts us to an elevator, which opens to a large, bright restaurant done in pinewood, black, white and red posters. We get a bird’s eye view of a gray Sumeida river, some steel and glass buildings and people crossing roads. Loads of anime characters in the decor. It’s jolly. We are greeted cheerily by the girls. More happily, the food is filling and the rates friendly. There is miso soup, tofu, some meat, a ball of rice, seaweed.

Downstairs, we walk towards the riverbank where schoolkids are out with their teachers on an excursion and posing for group photos. There is some striking artwork on the horizon: A large matte gold sculpture of a rounded horizontal shape resembling neat shit. We start shooting. Google wisdom suggested that the tourist office gives a good view of a part of Tokyo. It’s a middling view at best. So I stare at a Chinese family of three valiantly sporting rented nylon kimonos and taking selfies. We talk to the staff and decide on spending a day at Ueno, the museum quarters. We ask them about Asakusa’s older streets, but the staff is clueless. Ironically, just a minute ago shots of old Asakusa were being played out on a giant screen just behind the staff! I kind of give up…

Ueno is wrapped in a dappled clear yellows. It is delicious weather suddenly, washed clean by the early rain. There are at least a half a dozen museums in Ueno, a district in Tokyo. There’s a sense of openness. The greenery gushes around us rarely interrupted by autumn shades. Seems like a good weekend picnic spot for local families. Plus the kids can also get their share of enlightenment if they so desire. There’s also a zoo lurking somewhere, as suggested by life size pictures of bears. We choose the museum of ancient Japanese culture going back to the Jomon period of 3000-2000 BC and even the pre-Jomon paleolithic era. The Tokyo National Museum. We pay entrance fees for the first time. (Sensoji temple was free.) I buy a rough-looking Jomon souvenir pendant and lose it the next day in Nikko.

Meanwhile, we have the first taste of losing each other. After doing the rounds upstairs (separately as pairs) we head downstairs together, but suddenly Chandra and I lose the Sinha sisters. We think they have started from the opposite direction and that our courses will soon collide. Turns out they miss the exhibits downstairs. There’s an ancient Indian sculpture in there. Thankfully we end up meeting just as they were about to leave and noisy expressions of glee are exchanged. Disaster averted, we resume our wanderings. It gets dark really soon and sudden in the land of the rising sun. Trees on either side are lit up with pink cherry blossom lights. A trade fair is unfurling. Loudspeakers are being arranged, chairs and tables dressed, microphones being tested for Sunday’s show.

We swing by Shinjuku on the way back to Roppongi. The metro station here is a monster labyrinth of lines. Huge crowds and crossings all over again. The crowds stand out for their impeccable behavior. Staring, ocular undressing, grabbing body parts or staged accidental touching are simply not on. Everyone is busy or is at least pretending to be busy with themselves, one another or their phones. On the other hand, if they sense that someone, a bumbling foreigner mostly, needs help, they just dive in. Most of them anyway. One lady scolds me for my amped vocal volume inside the metro carriage. Voice down, she drones several times, before I figure.

Outside Shinjuku station, it is all about velocity and decibels, a sensory overload of the purely urban kind. Above on the bridge, the trains roll out at blistering speed every other second, and below a crazy concentration of locomotives large and small step on the gas. In close competition, a massive breadth of humanity surges across the zebra crossings. Sky-high glow signs tower over the neons of row upon row of shops. We choose a high point to dine today. It is an old-Park Street style dark restaurant where Rini and I have mediocre pizzas. I rejig my mental note of that basement ramen place in Asakusa I had spotted earlier in the day.

We had bought the 24-hour Tokyo subway pass today. We have more than our money’s worth except in the last (Shinjuku-Roppongi) leg, when no amount of subterranean scampering gets us through the automated doors. We have to buy tickets of another rail company to get home from Shinjuku

Japan: A scrambled Halloween

Day 2. October 31. Manic panic in Halloween. Insomnia-struck and zombie-like, I head straight from bed to kitchen and eggs. Jhini is already grimly chewing on bread. Yes despite being gluten sensitive. Plan is to go to Tsukiji and Asakusa. We take turns to refresh ourselves in the bucket bath tub never failing to admire the precision of the technological commode. We will never get over the fact that everything works out here. It’s the climate. Surely. Rini wears a floral maxi which can pass of as kimonoish from a distance.

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Zebracadabra: The Nissan Crossing at Ginza

Underground and up. Tsukiji. Wide road crossings. We make it by 11 am to the world’s biggest fish market’s peripheries. We are still unaware that these are only ‘the peripheries’. We get distracted by a roadside shrine. Our first. We walk in, hypnotised by the absence of entrance fee. We comment on hygiene in and around the temple, smugly disparaging our fluid-heavy places of worship, we strike poses on steps. Incense burns, people are friendly, people are also busy stamping paper with rubber stamps. Creating temple mementos.

Once we are done with this temple, we stride towards the jam-packed market. The peripheries. Place is way more crowded than any of the fish markets of Kolkata. Cannot leverage arms, choose angles, take shots. We go where the crowd pushes us. Freshly dead fish under cling film are cradled in universal synthetic white. Some large fish heads, other cut and uncut are marine animals on display, some specimens are suspended, some in buckets. Sushi stalls are everywhere but nothing like the cheap prices touted by bloggers. The place is tiny and I’m open-mouthed with indignation at why Tsukiji is called the largest fish market in the world. We realize we are moving in circles, optically feasting at a feverish pace. We troop off to a second storey home-run eating place, where the prices seem good. But we are served minuscule portions. We keep ordering bowl after bowl, miniature after puny portion. Anyway, exotic it is. Fresh sashimi, tiny, liquid-filled, orange balloons of salmon roe, eel as well. Miso soup is free. Downstairs we try out a local sweet. Sticky rice flour dumpling with sweet red bean filling. Jhini runs back for second helping.

Damp squib feeling refuses to go away. Is this it then? I somehow convince the others that we should explore a bit more, proceed somewhere. Ahead. Left. Right. Flail about. We have nothing to lose (except time). Yes, I know, the fish auction is over by crack of dawn, which we were never angling for anyway. As a group we seem to have sworn off early morning activity. But even outside that auction area, there has to be some sweep of volume.

And, we have volume. But it’s too late. There are seagulls and a few carrier vehicles, a fish museum, another small shrine where there was wild commerce till 12 noon. A passing man points to the main market area, currently washed clean. Not a speck of fish scale. The stalls on the sides of a sunny, broad street indeed look cavernous. We just have to use our imagination now. We roam in the emptiness and indeed we also find places which sell sushi at the so far elusive cheap prices. It’s beside the point that they are all closed now. 12 pm closing time. The sterility of it all positively bedazzles us. There is no fishy smell. Jhini and Chandra have local beer. Rini and I stare ahead with flint in our eyes at steel utensils.

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Plastic Fall: Artificial leaves on the edge of Sensoji Temple

Next stop Asakusa for the Sensoji temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple and a top tourist draw. For Rini, it is and will forever remain ‘Asakusi’. We need to locate a metro station. We again liberally ask around. A couple asks us to follow them. We are around Ginza, I can sense. That same vibe that we felt yesterday. That smell of money. The kabuki theatre place I had googled rushes past me without warning!

http://www.kabuki-bito.jp/eng/contents/theatre/kabukiza.html

This is the place where one has to stand in a queue and buy tickets at the box office for one act of kabuki. No advance online bookings.  However, there is no time to catch a play, not even one act, as we would otherwise miss Sensoji temple, which closes its gates at 5 pm. Also, there is no question of catching that play! The kabuki players are on seasonal leave now. Autumn break. Later in Kyoto in Inari Fushi we catch a temple version of (mock) kabuki. An older man wearing pajamas thrice the size of his legs was waving at a younger man who remained on his fours, expressively imploring the entire time.

For now we keep walking. And then, we are in the glutinous density of an actual big city, no reservations. Again those expansive crossings crawling with purposeful humanity. No place for flaneurs here. Titanic buildings pasted with moving electronic hoardings the size of many storeys create a visual surround sound of brandnames. We feel wrapped up in Sony, Nissan, Canon, yes Nikon too. Jhini and Chandra need to see a Nikon store for different reasons, Chandra in quest of ‘old lenses’. Rini and I use the interim to check bad faux leather shoes at street level. The pricier stuff must be upstairs inside the womb of all those monuments. Earlier, I had noticed Chandra getting dewy eyed over mythical camera brands and expressing a wish to see the goods firsthand, an unfulfilled wish. Meanwhile, consumed by hunger pangs, I end up eating something extra sweet and hot in a tearing hurry. The Nikon visitors are back and we head underground.

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Fragrant devotion: Incense smoke adds more dimension to Sensoji
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Shining glory: This temple is all about rich craft

There are hand-pulled tourist rickshaws and hatted lads at the mouth of the Asakusa metro station. We ignore them. The long avenue, Nakamise Dori, which leads to the temple, is lined with souvenir stalls on either side. Made in China. There is an imposing gate, the Kaminarimon Gate or the thunder gate. There are red and gold plastic autumn leaves waving in the wind above us. There are arrangements of synthetic white lanterns that will soon glow, giving the area its desired festive look. In the dull pre-evening light the glamour is well hidden. The shops sell the same knickknacks, masks, kimonos, umbrellas, anime characters, dolls, rice crackers, weapon-like objects, that sweet rice cake stuffed with red beans, matcha ice-cream. A stiff and chill wind is rising. And again I see that tower on the horizon, the one we had spotted in Roppongi the night before. It’s the Tokyo Skytree. It is much nearer us now. However, it does not interest us much. We march on toward the temple. As in Beijing, Shanghai, Bangkok, devotees, mostly straight-backed women in no-nonsense clothes with eyes shut in mumbling prayer, are waving incense sticks and inhaling smoke around an elevated ashy pit. There is intensity in the air. I am at a loss to get the winning photographic composition. There is so much diversity to choose from. I need time and leisure. The gold work and the shiny deep red surface of the lacquered doors are a blur of beauty. There is a huge red lantern and a large fierce god. I wander around trying to memorise individual details but mostly I am soaking in the generalities. Numerous women and even men in kimonos are taking selfies. I shoot them, even though I know they are dressed up tourists play acting as nylon geishas and their pimps. As we head back after the darshan, a thick rope hanging from high above catches my fancy. One has to leap up and touch it for great good luck. I clamber and manage a nanosecond touch. There’s a pair of giant grass slippers staring down at us. There is a story-note explaining their presence. It’s available in google, the explanation.

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Kimono conscious: Korean girls also like cosplay

Asakusa is an old part of Tokyo. Blogs had suggested north Kolkata-like lanes lined with jampacked low-rises with an unmistakable Japanese stamp, unlike the heaving towers of globalized Ginza, very like Murakami’s petty cityscapes of blind alleys and narrow houses with a crazy well in someone’s unkempt garden, where the locals are (now) cooking Japanese staples in their homes in front of the TV after a nondescript day at work. As darkness descends and those show lanterns glow, we leave the manufactured festivity behind and go in quest of such unexceptional lanes and bylanes. We want a slice of undressed reality. But the more we walk, the further we seem to wander off elsewhere. A road is painted orange. It is called Orange Street. We stray into an area lined with stores. At least they are standalone stores, not malls. One of us walks inside one of them. A 10-minute conversation with the shop lady ensues. She seems to be saying that we need to take a bus to reach a place where we may (may) find the low-rises we are looking for.  Something’s wrong in the communication. So the unanimous decision is to give up and head back. On the way, another store of interest, one selling used winterwear in tiptop condition, distracts us. Jhini nearly buys a trenchcoat.

We decide to drop in Shibuya. In a case of carrying coals to Newcastle, we are off to see The Shibuya Scramble, which is nothing but a large multi-point road crossing where thick whorls of men and women rush from one side of the road to another every time the signal turns red. We, from the land of jostle and sweat, at least have the grace to laugh at ourselves. Shibuya Station itself is a challenge, too many lines. I thank god that we had started our metro initiation from the modest Ginza. As we are ejected from the train at Shibuya, something seems out of the ordinary. The large windows at the station are jammed with people letting out gasps. We struggle to understand what’s going on.

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Shibuya Scramble: In the thick of action

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It’s Halloween that’s going on! Of course last night too I had seen people skimming the streets of Roppongi in ultra-real horror gear. A club with Halloween signage had bouncers on alert. Well, today is the real McCoy. It’s an excuse for masses of costumed humanity to put itself on display. Durga Pujo style. That’s what those people at the station were gasping at. The makeup and costume is definitely above average. Getting orgy-ready is serious business and no expenses are spared. Halloween cuts across age lines from five to around forty and spreads across at least two evenings. Batmen, witches and hackers aside, pseudo Bollywood-cum-belly dancer clothes in pink, yellow and blue find favour with collectives of Japanese. A political statement is being made by bouncy young men wearing Shinzo Abe masks and red monokini. Above us are walls of kaleidoscopic lights, as in Ginza, once again blaring branded goods and fantastical electronic creatures.

After getting an aerial view of the great Scramble in Halloween splendour, we head downstairs and get a street level view. We are pushed to the edges, and, like in Tsukiji, we can hardly move our limbs, such is the demographic pressure. I can feel the popular pulse as we physically meld into the open air street party around us. I think of a destination, for it’s always good to aim for something: The statue of the dog, Hachiko (made famous by a film starring Richard Gere) is supposed to be right here round the corner. We might as well have tried to reach Pluto. So we simply concede to the crowd, ultimately landing on a footpath where we could stand stand still for a good five minutes. It is more of the same view. We decide to zoom off in our subterranean cars.

Back in Roppongi, a long trek ensues to the chic dinner place where we had booked a table for 8.30 pm. Again on the way, myriad Halloween people with gashes and gore, raucous avatars. We lose our way. It is close to 10 when we reach the eatery. Our feet are killing us, we finally admit. They forgive our unpunctual ways, and let us in, just a whiff of disapproval showing in the controlled smiles. Shoes outside, we pass a row of merrymakers at out feet in a sunken bar. We descend to our table, which is placed in another well. The food is good, better than last night. Pork. We also gorge on a kilo of crisp marinated cabbage, thinking it is free with the table and the water. It wasn’t. But it is delicious, we nod sheepishly. At 300 yen, it better taste fresh and honest.

Water is not easily available in Japan, no roadside fill-up stations, so it’s best to carry bottles. Drinking water from bathroom taps is not encouraged as they use recycled but unfiltered water.

Back in bed. Sleep tonight. And finally, like a baby.

Japan: The first 24 hours

Prescript: Air India inflight film selection sucks. On the other hand, it’s three seats per head. The New Delhi-Tokyo route is yet to catch on. I toss and turn in a tangle of blankets becoming steadily stale. We lose hours.

Day 1. October 30 2016. The day of arrival. We land at Narita sharp 830 am. I have nothing exceptional to report about the airport. We buy our NEX tickets. At 1000 yen for our ride from the airport to downtown Tokyo, it is the cheapest option by far. This is against the alternatives of metro, limo bus, or taxi, where rates start at 4000 yen. While the lucky among us connect to airport wifi my phone named after a red fruit does not catch the signal. We discover that we should activate our 7-day JR passes (bought online) on the day of travel. In other words, as soon as we exchange our vouchers for passes, the clock starts ticking. We plan to activate it on the fifth day, when we take a long-distance bullet train to Odawara from Tokyo.

We choose to get dropped at Ginza instead of Tokyo Central as Roppongi (where our apartment is located) is just one train change from Ginza, while it’s two changes from Tokyo Central. On hindsight, a wise move. Ginza is a small and comprehensible station for a first timer, while Tokyo Central, Shibuya and Shinjuku are dizzying mazes even for locals and veterans. Ginza station is on the yellow line, aka the Ginza line. Roppongi station on the grey Hibya line. It is easy. Really. Plenty of English speaking may-I-help-yous around. They are polishing up their English for Olympics 2020 in right earnest, the Tokyoites are.

So far we have been in enclosed spaces. Now, out of the NEX bus, my dazedness amplifies. A brilliant chill Sunday afternoon and rich young Japs are out in their perfect black clothes and spotless heels. We drag our suitcases like lacklustre hobbits, trailing scarves. Walk past stores with designer labels behind plate glass. I swiftly look elsewhere after catching a glimpse of my bedraggled self in a mirror. All I need is a good Japanese night’s sleep, I assure myself.

We are trying to locate a ramen joint. Enquiring at random, smiling extra large, being smiled at humbly, effusively, curiously by turns. Getting directed by everyone. After a while, we decide it would be best if two of us stood with luggage and the other two continued with the quest. Jhini and I soon find a joint in a basement. Many restaurants there but most are shut. First sighting of plastic food. We also locate an all-important elevator.

Old lady ramen owner lets us park our suitcases indoors as it is not rush hour yet. So we almost occupy the entire restaurant. First date with ramen is not too impressive as pork  is present only in terms of flavour and the slimmest of slivers. But at least it is hot and the bowl big. When we finish, the place has filled up, smoked up.

Ginza station. We expertly buy our Roppongi tickets from a vending machine. Ginza line to Hibya line. Efficient and clockwork-like. We have to lug our bags up the steps to the Ropponji exit as there’s no escalator in sight. It’s a straight and short walk to the apartment. Nobuo’s directions do not mention the most prominent landmark, a multiplex. A film festival is on. A film buff helps us locate the place as we are too disoriented. Nobuo has left Emergency-type regulations forbidding us to enter apartment before 3 pm. It is only 230 pm. I find a place to sit. Sinhas and Chandra take a walk down an alley in search of a Samurai. There are identical apartment blocks everywhere. Chandra rejoins me on the ledge and takes snaps of shaved and jacketed dogs of various sizes being led by their owners. Jaunty girl in track pants strides ahead carrying takeaway food. Finally it is 245 pm. We decide to break the law and enter the apartment before time.

Rini rises to the challenge of extracting the key from a box secured to a drain pipe. A car is parked there, so only one person can wedge herself between car and wall.  There are garbage bags and discarded beer bottles around the entrance. Not exactly spotless.

The apartment is true to form and expectation. Tiny. We sight a bed! Mattresses too are discovered and unrolled urgently. Furniture is moved to create space. We are settling in at the speed of lightning. Couple in bed and sisters on the floor. Three pillows, three plates. A whistling kettle. One mirror, but inside the bathroom. A square bathtub. Stain-free and bone-white. A bucket of a bathtub. Toto toilet set with warm seat. No internet. We find a router (TP link) in the shoe cabinet the next day. Also on the next day Jhini and I simultaneously spot the network name and password, which is stuck to the large desktop in the kitchen. At the exact same moment. We are stoked at the simultaneous spotting but never get it working. Nobuo is of no help, instead saying previous guests had no issues. A 7-11 store opposite the apartment has limited wifi, which primarily helps Jhini to keep track of her youngest son. A Nepalese guy works in that store.

After settling in and sleuthing around the flat, we congratulate ourselves on our great showing and set out for dinner. It’s 7 pm. We wander around Roppongi Hills, a sprawling hotel, mall and art gallery complex. Mori Tower is our first destination. I had read about a free entry with a full view of Tokyo. An illuminated tower keeps popping up on the horizon. Turns out it is far away, relatively. In Asakusa, where we’ll head tomorrow. In a different area of Tokyo. When we reach Mori it is closed, before time. Next day, we discovered Mori is no longer free.

Suddenly Louis Bourgeois’s giant iron spider, Maman, is bearing down on us and were posing under it. Have to admit, we were a spent and starved army by now. We see a window framing a glowing setup of beautiful young diners and waiters wining and dining. Sadly, there’s no room for us in there and anyway, the rule is to book in advance. We book for next day dinner. 830 pm.

We have our dinner in a less classy setup with bright strip lighting and high contrasts. We sit with slurping strangers on leggy chairs facing each other around a large table as in a large family meal setup. That’s typical Japanese style affordable public dining. Everyone is busy with smartphone or food and no one is staring at you. The man opposite us is oblivious to everything except his raw egg which he is beating to the ideal consistency. He is having the Korean rice in a bowl called bibimbap. Two friendly Indonesians speak full English sentences.