Greece. A glimpse into an Athenian

The Greeks want to share their current stories as much as their past glories. Lily is our guide in Athens for half a day. Lily has stories to tell, the recycled textbook tales about her city and its antiquity, asides on olive branches and insights on rows of shuttered stores, her personal weakness for the overpriced coffee in a star hotel (for the ambience), her take on the government. They often fall on deaf ears and eyes jaded rigid. She knows when to shut up.

At first sight, she is a dissatisfied person, pissed in general at the universe for having to work well beyond her retirement years, particularly pissed at having to herd a large group of people in a schedule as tight as a bodycon gown. Pissed no end, but she has nowhere to run. Her crumpled face framed by sparse strands of dyed auburn hair, her slanted green eyes, and her shriveled figure in retro-wear are loaded stories in themselves.

She senses my interest in her rather than her Wikipedia. She lives far away from the centre of Athens, she tells me. She commutes in her car but has to park her vehicle at a distance. She has a house with a garden, which her father left her. “It was the norm in Greece, I don’t know what happens now.’” Her sister too has inherited a similar house but is having a ‘taxing’ time because of the current regime’s fiscal laws. Suddenly, she is a proud little daddy’s girl, her papery old lady skin lighting up. Her father, she says, was one of the ‘last gentlemen’ of Athens. They had a beautiful life right here. Parties. Walks. But they had to leave. She describes a scene of her father in a perfect hat, walking stick and coat out for a stroll on a perfect day being mobbed without a warning by a gang of Albanians. But it wasn’t really without a warning as the buildup was there, she says. They were only trying to wish it away. She holds back from using the I-word. It’s hovering somewhere above her tongue. Today’s Syrian immigrants are yesterday’s Albanians. That day seems to have changed it all for Lily. It pierced at the heart of the make-believe lives that the gentlefolk of Athens were hanging on to. Her resentment is hard to gag, her inner battle so transparent. She veers back to her ‘I will not complain’ persona, her defiant public stance. She betrays herself in the very next sentence. She is a widow, she says. A good man, he was. Yet memories of her husband are perhaps not as nostalgia-tinged as those of her dad, her glowing childhood. She talks a bit about her two sons, who stay away from her and are doing fairly well.

She has found a way to pay a lower inheritance tax by transferring the house’s title to her son, she says. She has to keep working, she repeats. Her sons do come down and visit her in her suburban home with a garden from London or wherever. She comes back to her father, as if looking for a pillar to lean on. ‘It’s he who named me Lily,’ she says. And she grants me a rare smile. ‘You Greeks not just live off the past but also in the past,’ I tell her lightly, taking a chance, hoping she gets me, feeling a kinship with her, coming as I do from a place like Kolkata (crumbling, geriatric). She nods, maybe understands.

It’s time for lunch in a rooftop restaurant serving American sized portions and food to match. French fries, chicken, largely unconsumed, resolutely un-Greek. Lily is quietly munching away at her single table. She gives them regular business. Soon, she is giving us a few tips on the locality. Done for the day, she is walking off to her vehicle parked at a distance, leftovers of the large lunch in a parcel dangling from her insubstantial shoulder. Her danglers, perhaps a gift from her dad, are winking in the sun.

 

 

 

Smalltown Japan. Odawara and Iwahara

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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.

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Facade of a regular house in Odawara town.
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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!

Khonoma. Breathe and let live

DSCN5524Khonoma in Nagaland, India. 10 reasons why you should be here.

Detox: All a tired soul needs is downtime in a wooden cottage in Khonoma’s terraced valleys. Pound those cobbled streets and feel the bushed limbs spring back to life. Flowers abound, especially calla lilies and roses, splashing cream and pink in the greenscape. Neat stacks of firewood and filigree trash baskets line the spotless, spit-less, excrement-free roads ideal for the barefoot traveller. The wind is high. You can sit on the roadside, perched on the edge of the terraces. You can touch the oxygen.

Accessible:  Khonoma, called the green or model village, is an hour away from Kohima in Nagaland but since a part of the road is rough, keep an extra half hour in hand. The nearest airport is Dimapur. Cars are available, whether pre-booked or otherwise. There are two homestays in Khonoma, both efficiently run by ramrod straight women. The one where I stayed had three rooms with clean linen and white bathrooms. There are little touches like hand embroidery on the lemon yellow pillow covers. The power situation is uncertain, bound by the whims of weather. March and April are the windiest months.

As close to organic as it gets: They do not use chemical fertilisers. Food on the table, which comes free with the homestays, is off the fields. The cooking is simple, mostly braised or boiled, the spices minimal. A chutney of tomatoes and Naga or King chilies is de rigueur on the table. Pork is the go-to meat here. Being fed and fattened with all the right elements and never injected with antibiotics, the homebred pigs of Khonoma come close to the lambs of Scotland and the wagyu of Shibuya. Of course nothing is officially certified here. We depend on our native taste buds. Chicken is also available. The potash-free saag tastes deliciously different.

Steps of green: The rice fields of Khonoma are friendly terrain. With the fine rain spray on your face, a walk up and down the gentle terraces is like a visit to a spa. There are narrow raised paths separating crystal clear water bodies and cropped land. There are even shelters you can dive into in case the rain gets heavy. Farmers you meet on the way are happy to share their lunch with you. Be brave. Their menu is always the same, rice boiled with fresh local catch from the waters around them. It could be anything from frogs to shrimps to anonymous genus.

The village: Post-siesta, a walk around the village beckons. To examine the local architecture. Some homes here have their own emblematic design. They sport mithun (large and gentle bovine found in these parts) horns on their main gates, a right earned only after the affluent homeowner throws a meaty party for the community. The inner doorways are festooned with skulls of beasts large and small, relics of a slowly morphing culture.

Birds in alder forests: Birdwatchers always have Khonoma on their agenda. Since the Angami elders here got together and coaxed the naturally warlike Nagas to stop killing birds, the alder forests here have become a sanctuary for the feathered ones. This is not so normal in Nagaland, as kids elsewhere in the state still naturally take to bringing down birds with slings. Their parents smile indulgently.

A part of the forest has been cleared for jhum cultivation. I come across expanses of bare forest floors of blackish umber. The weeds and other vegetation have been painstakingly uprooted and burnt. Branch-less alder trunks rise to the sky like stumps, adding a dystopian chill to the quietness. After the crop is harvested, the soil is allowed to “rest” for a while, I was told. I can’t help but gawp at the stunted avatars of the trees. It smells of a photographer’s project.

Morungs and Megaliths: There are remains of erstwhile ‘morungs’ everywhere in Khonoma. Morungs are large roomy dormitories with striking façades and roofs. They historically served as gurukuls. In true tribal tradition, groups of boys or girls would stay far away from family for a while and learn life’s lessons and local culture as well as pick up skills like weaving and woodwork from mentors during their stint in these morungs. Now, schools runs by Baptist missionaries impart board-prescribed education. Morungs have adapted to the times as picnic spots.

We come across solitary stone columns with mysterious etchings. These taciturn towers are found unannounced, in isolated spots, especially deep in the forested parts of this 700-year-old village. They are called ‘megaliths’ and no one has been able to break their code.

Otherwise unseen crafts: A girl weaves dignified scarves, the likes of which I have not seen in any city emporium. Instead of the regular black red and white Naga fabrics, I see chrome yellow, black and white, with typical Angami patterns. Another girl sells burnt pink sun-dried apple chips. An ancient man makes sturdy Naga baskets of perfect symmetry with bamboo strips. He offers thick bittersweet black tea. Nagas love their tea viscous and syrupy.

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Raid a local kitchen: Dark and cool with just the right degree of warmth around the fire in late-March, the kitchen is usually the largest room in a typical home. The hearth is either a quadrangle on the floor or a wall-mounted fireplace. There are numerous low stools near the fireside. There’s smoke but it does not seem acrid. Just friendly. A two or three-tiered wooden rack is suspended from the ceiling just above the fire. All kinds of meats and fats, vegetables, animal hides, wet clothes, anything that needs to dry, sit on those racks soaking up the smoke. Even us humans are getting gently toasted. Each house has at least a dozen Naga baskets, which lurk from overhead. Unlike in a typical Indian kitchen, there is no omnipresent coat of grease as frying is not a daily practice here. Meats and vegetables are stewed and broiled in a bit of fat and lots of water. I had a stew that Arin made with smoked pork and smoked yam leaves. It was coal black in colour. Slow food at its best. Arin says she comes to Kolkata to help a friend at a stall in a trade fair.

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A still exotic culture: It’s best to get a local guide who can decode this still-exotic culture for you, give you a peep into the recent past, tell you some folk tales by the fireside. I sit in such a kitchen listening to Arin’s friend disjointedly telling us the story of Chinewa and Ittiban, the Naga Romeo+Juliet. He says that this story is elastic, can be expanded and cut short at will. Zapu, our young guide, is by far the better raconteur. He tells a folktale about a ‘brother-sister who are more like husband-wife’. The warlike brother gets his butt bitten off in a bid to save his sister from fierce foes.

Disclaimer: Do not heed warnings (of the strictly ignorant) that you may be served dog meat in restaurants here. It is traditionally eaten here, BUT it’s way too expensive and restrictive measures too have had their impact. Dog meat has to exported from Assam, it was whispered. There are reassuring sitings of strays on the streets too.

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.

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.