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.

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.

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!


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.

Fragrant devotion: Incense smoke adds more dimension to Sensoji
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.

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.

Shibuya Scramble: In the thick of action



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.