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.
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.