Japan: Day of the metro pass

Day 3. November 1. Day of  the 24-hour Tokyo metro pass. We are back in Asakusa. Entrails hurt at being in Japan in autumn, yet missing out on the colours. Even though this is just the third day here. So we make a snap decision to do Nikko. The colours arrive a bit late in Tokyo.  (May I clarify that we had not even planned the trip around autumn colours. In fact in those historic early days, we were fine with just the novelty of Japan and maybe a Michelin meal in Shinjuku. But with god’s and our timings coinciding, it somehow became a manic compulsion to catch those colours. At any cost. And fast!) In an earlier much calmer state, I had been eyeing the crater lake of Okama in the northern tip of Honshu, an inexplicably under-sold destination. Jhini had been eyeing Aomori, which is more easily accessed than Okama. But both these destinations dissolved into a million pixels due to enemy time. Two days each at the very least for either, ideally. So, shelved. For now, we are bowing to Japanese hard-sell and heading for Nikko.

It seems like we need a Tobu Rail pass for Nikko. We could have bought individual tickets but the prices are twerked in such a way that it always suits the visitor to buy the umbrella pass, which will cover the train ride from Tokyo to Nikko and a subsequent bus ride to the Lake Chuzenji and back. Central Nikko is the place for shrines. Decision made, we sacrifice food and other such niceties, yet mysteriously land in Tobu Rail’s headquarters in Asakusa only a shade before noon. Late by miles. As we buy the passes we are strongly advised to go the next day as it would take around two hours to reach Nikko and more to reach Chuzenji, by which time the place (and colours) would be in a cloudy haze. Tomorrow it shall be.

We are a hungry bunch now. It’s a grayish day with a fine drizzle. Almost everything is closed and sleepy as it is not yet lunchtime and breakfast time is up. Jhini meanwhile buys an umbrella, at which point the rain vanishes. I see a ramen place with arrows pointing underground. It is shut. We finally spy a girl attached to an advertisement board announcing platter meals. Sensing our eagerness, she quickly detaches herself from the board  and escorts us to an elevator, which opens to a large, bright restaurant done in pinewood, black, white and red posters. We get a bird’s eye view of a gray Sumeida river, some steel and glass buildings and people crossing roads. Loads of anime characters in the decor. It’s jolly. We are greeted cheerily by the girls. More happily, the food is filling and the rates friendly. There is miso soup, tofu, some meat, a ball of rice, seaweed.

Downstairs, we walk towards the riverbank where schoolkids are out with their teachers on an excursion and posing for group photos. There is some striking artwork on the horizon: A large matte gold sculpture of a rounded horizontal shape resembling neat shit. We start shooting. Google wisdom suggested that the tourist office gives a good view of a part of Tokyo. It’s a middling view at best. So I stare at a Chinese family of three valiantly sporting rented nylon kimonos and taking selfies. We talk to the staff and decide on spending a day at Ueno, the museum quarters. We ask them about Asakusa’s older streets, but the staff is clueless. Ironically, just a minute ago shots of old Asakusa were being played out on a giant screen just behind the staff! I kind of give up…

Ueno is wrapped in a dappled clear yellows. It is delicious weather suddenly, washed clean by the early rain. There are at least a half a dozen museums in Ueno, a district in Tokyo. There’s a sense of openness. The greenery gushes around us rarely interrupted by autumn shades. Seems like a good weekend picnic spot for local families. Plus the kids can also get their share of enlightenment if they so desire. There’s also a zoo lurking somewhere, as suggested by life size pictures of bears. We choose the museum of ancient Japanese culture going back to the Jomon period of 3000-2000 BC and even the pre-Jomon paleolithic era. The Tokyo National Museum. We pay entrance fees for the first time. (Sensoji temple was free.) I buy a rough-looking Jomon souvenir pendant and lose it the next day in Nikko.

Meanwhile, we have the first taste of losing each other. After doing the rounds upstairs (separately as pairs) we head downstairs together, but suddenly Chandra and I lose the Sinha sisters. We think they have started from the opposite direction and that our courses will soon collide. Turns out they miss the exhibits downstairs. There’s an ancient Indian sculpture in there. Thankfully we end up meeting just as they were about to leave and noisy expressions of glee are exchanged. Disaster averted, we resume our wanderings. It gets dark really soon and sudden in the land of the rising sun. Trees on either side are lit up with pink cherry blossom lights. A trade fair is unfurling. Loudspeakers are being arranged, chairs and tables dressed, microphones being tested for Sunday’s show.

We swing by Shinjuku on the way back to Roppongi. The metro station here is a monster labyrinth of lines. Huge crowds and crossings all over again. The crowds stand out for their impeccable behavior. Staring, ocular undressing, grabbing body parts or staged accidental touching are simply not on. Everyone is busy or is at least pretending to be busy with themselves, one another or their phones. On the other hand, if they sense that someone, a bumbling foreigner mostly, needs help, they just dive in. Most of them anyway. One lady scolds me for my amped vocal volume inside the metro carriage. Voice down, she drones several times, before I figure.

Outside Shinjuku station, it is all about velocity and decibels, a sensory overload of the purely urban kind. Above on the bridge, the trains roll out at blistering speed every other second, and below a crazy concentration of locomotives large and small step on the gas. In close competition, a massive breadth of humanity surges across the zebra crossings. Sky-high glow signs tower over the neons of row upon row of shops. We choose a high point to dine today. It is an old-Park Street style dark restaurant where Rini and I have mediocre pizzas. I rejig my mental note of that basement ramen place in Asakusa I had spotted earlier in the day.

We had bought the 24-hour Tokyo subway pass today. We have more than our money’s worth except in the last (Shinjuku-Roppongi) leg, when no amount of subterranean scampering gets us through the automated doors. We have to buy tickets of another rail company to get home from Shinjuku