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: 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.