Smalltown Japan. Odawara and Iwahara

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.

Facade of a regular house in Odawara town.
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!


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.