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.

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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.