Aftermath

The world is, just as I am, starting to realise the magnitude of the quake (it being the most powerful in the country ever). The news channel hasn’t stopped showing the repetitive but addictive images of devastation, and my eyes are glued to it the same way we can’t stop watching an approaching train-wreck.

Galvanised into action early in the morning soon after reading that a potential nuclear crisis looms where the Fukushima plant might be having a radiation leak, I called the airline and changed my flight, re-routed it via Osaka Kansai and pushing it back a day earlier. What is supposed to be my penultimate day in Japan today now means it’s my last day in Kyoto and honestly, I could think of worse things happening.

In the aftermath of the quake, Kyoto on a sunday morning, sails serenely onwards; many people duck in and out of flea markets, ladies dressed in their kimonos tottering off for a weekend brunch surely and other gallivanting couples dressed to the nines heading out to the heavy shopping stretch in Shijo. Many things remain unchanged – I’ve learnt to treasure my time in Japanese toilets which are so lovingly crafted to pamper the bum, the food’s got quite a bit going for it, and the crowded trains run so unfailingly.

In an attempt to regain a sense of normalcy, I visited the impressive Kinkaku-ji, golden-topped retirement villa for a Shogun whose beauty was marred by the loud chatter of tourists doing the same circular route around it as I was. Next in line was a 20 min walk southwest to Ryoanji temple (2 things north of Kyoto that should not be missed according to guides), essentially to see the zen garden of gardens, small clusters of rocks placed to arouse the imagination.

A seminal piece of work as it is, I took a first glance at the pile and then gazed at the people who sat down contemplating its meaning, and tried not to laugh. It made no sense even as I tilted my head several ways, or stared hard at it for a few more seconds than it deserved, as shallow as this would sound.

IMG_1145

IMG_1156

I think this will be my last post for this stay; hit by a strange sense of finality on the last night, I took to the streets in search of dinner in the evening that has turned fabulously cool now fit for indulgence, passing through the wonderfully bohemian feel of Sanjo-dori (it has a tin-tin shop in Japanese!) that eventually empties out onto onto the main shopping vein Shijo-dori. In the spring-air, Kyoto by night came to life.

Oh deer, I feel the earth move

If the Japanese visit Nara to begin a sort of mystical connection between their ancestors and the ancientness of their homeland, I must admit that me, the gaijin, visited for the main purpose of visiting the free-roaming deer in Nara Park.

IMG_1064

Lacking the intense interest in Buddhism – quite the exotic and foreign entity in Western eyes – temples and gardens are to me, aesthetically constructed entities for specific purposes. And that is pretty much the extent of my knowledge, other that the fact that Zen-Buddhism and its minimalist styles have been incredibly fashionable and aped throughout the past few decades. I derived some amusement seeing visitors gently butted by the deer who wanted more food. Sure, the temples were magnificent and their settings even more so in the circuit I did around Nara (Tōdai-ji, Kōfuku-ji, Kasuga Shrine), but I preferred the moving counterparts.

IMG_1032

IMG_1001

Cold, tired, hungry and irritated after a few hours of non-stop walking in Nara, I made my way back to Kyoto and straight to Misoka-An Kawamichiya down Fuyacho-dori (a few streets off where I stay) intent on trying their handmade soba noodles (again!). Presumably with a 300-year history behind them (so the vague translation goes in their English menu), I found the interior more charming than their noodles. Japanese cuisine and connoisseurship are quite the furthest from what I’m used to.

I returned to the hotel and saw 2 missed calls on the mobile. It was the mother, frantic and panicking, because a 8.9 magnitude quake triggering a tsunami had struck off the northern coast of Sendai, felt all the way to Tokyo and affecting all vital services. It struck at 2.46pm Japan time, a point at which I was nodding off in the train back from Nara. The earth didn’t immediately move beneath my feet, as earth shaking as the news was – all the bad puns intended.

This was after all, Kyoto, a fantastically historical city where you still hold the power to make time stand still and physically and spatially removed from the unfolding disaster in the north. I returned to the hotel to a damning BBC ‘s report on the news channel – the only one I understand – and with growing alarm, I realised that anyone in Tokyo would have been badly affected, where the subway, the long-distance trains and flight had all ground to a halt because of the violent tremors. It was anyone’s guess if my scheduled train-ride back to Tokyo 2 days later would actually be running, let alone the flight back from Narita.

Many frantic phone calls and an immense amount of waiting time later, it became clearer that there was a possible way to re-route a flight back from Osaka Kansai Airport. Remaining calm (the zen-vibe really didn’t rub off much it now seems!) as things made no headway was a difficult task as the devil is in the details as they say: there were hotel booking cancellations, airport transportation and other tiny details to think about. The work is incredibly administrative and exhausting, and I went to bed having made sounds of fury signifying nothing.

Pushing the Zen-button

Buggered.

The last night in Takayama was casually spent reading rather unsavoury reviews of the accommodation that had been booked in advance for the impending arrival in. It was quite enough to induce a kafka-esque panic and despair; it was also a great incentive to work on immediately cancelling (thank the lord for internet connection even in the mountains) my now dubious spot there and find a new one no matter the cost.

Now sequestered in some infinitely more expensive Kyoto hotel, I know I’ll howl quite loudly when the credit card statement arrives at the end of the month. But for now, I’ll willingly fall into the trap of playing the rich tourist, a role easily slipped into in expensive Japan which favours those with deep pockets.

Kyoto is quite rightly Japan’s treasure and with each passing minute, the stronger the temptation grows to call Tokyo quite a mistake of a city. Wandering aimlessly has been the theme throughout this entire stay so far and I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Understanding any street direction takes gargantuan effort and navigating with some rubbish maps is like – quite crudely putting it – shooting blanks and knowing it.

IMG_1155

IMG_0795

IMG_0932

Kyoto is home to 1.5 million but its well-trodden tourist strip holds an indestructible dignity that served it well through the ages; the rush of the main road and shouts of vendors fade into a weighty hush of some back streets in the Gion district. In the blink of an eye, a maiko briskly turns a corner, disappearing just as I lift my camera to photograph the girls in this oft-misunderstood profession. Even at night, the streets seem secluded save for the numerous red lanterns.

IMG_1092

IMG_0858

IMG_0877

Gorgeous and spacious Zen temples are found in odd corners, tucked in side-lanes and some souvenir shops – and then fan out gracefully against the stunning backdrop of green hills and gardens. It’s eye-candy of a different sort, designed to soothe and induce a meditative silence. I decided to walk in the footsteps of so many who went before me along the philosopher’s pathway that stretched from the Gingaku-temple to the Nanzenji compound and petted cats huddled together for warmth on the way, finally but regrettably asking another clueless Japanese lady for instructions who pointed me simultaneously in 2 opposing directions for the way back into town.

The first thought that flashes through my mind however, is an irreverent one: I think of Bridget Jones’s “inner poise”.

IMG_1122

IMG_1123

The temple and its garden are produced within the context of religion, literature and the reigning philosophy, reflecting a highly complex relationship that I can’t even begin to explain or appreciate fully – such is my shallow understanding of the architecture and layout accrued from incredibly superficial tourist-brochure readings.

Snow Country

Up blearily for breakfast at 7.30am – and found it not much less lavish than dinner. The highlight of the morning: A few slices of Hida beef placed with some mushrooms on Hoba miso paste served on top of a large magnolia leaf all of which are placed over a ceramic box with a fire – a strange, salty but rather fun mix to swirl around with chopsticks as they cook. Once again, I was generously offered an entire rice-cooker’s worth of rice. In my tiredness, I nearly lopped those into my teacup to the amusement of the host.

IMG_0622

With time to spare, I went to the Jinya mae and Miyagawa morning markets only to be rather disappointed with the sparse offerings of selling some pickled stuff and souvenirs. But Japanese packaging and marketing never fails to ensnare me; I bought some and now stare in dismay at added weight to lug around tomorrow. Slowly ambling to the Nohi bus station, I caught sight of a middle-aged Australian lady holding an English map of Shirakawa-Go. Pouncing at the opportunity to speak to someone who could possibly understand me, I asked her about the map (she was convinced I’m English after a few sentences) and we struck up a brief conversation about Japanese efficiency, the recent Australian floods and general travelling cluelessness.

As it turned out, we were both headed for Shirakawa-Go – a mere 50 minutes bus ride from Takayama – and as I found out, she and her husband, are supposed to move further on to Kanazawa after a few hours of sightseeing. Having bypassed Tokyo’s madness, she was enthralled by Japan thus far, having grown increasingly confident about navigating their way through a jungle of linguistic hell.

IMG_0597

IMG_0512

The falling snow and greater elevation were bitterly cold, but undeniably thrilling, glinting brilliant white under the sun that peeked out occasionally from the clouds. Scarily deep snow showed no sign of thawing yet at Shirakawa-Go, a UNESCO heritage site of cute, steeped thatched roofs positioned like hands clasped in prayer, designed specifically to withstand the heavy weight of snow. Easily navigable by map, its smallness means that the village is easily covered on foot over 2-3 hours. It is a far cry from Tokyo’s unrelenting pace, a capsule frozen (pun fully intended!) in an era that bows to the elements.

IMG_0638

Snow is everywhere, so threateningly deep and clingy that it looks like Christmas never quite left, Japanese-style. Mercifully free of strong winds however, the stroll around tiny lanes is a reminder of my own dwarfing physical presence amidst the circling mountain-chains.

IMG_0503

Taking to the streets again for what I perceived would be my last thorough round in Takayama and in search of kitsch, I hopped into several stores once more and then lingered over free sake samples. The resultant slight choking it induced was obviously involuntary but it definitely gave some nice warmth that ran gently through the veins and emboldened me to try a bit more.

That however, doesn’t quite mean that public bathing is up next on the itinerary. Not quite yet, but soon.

The traditions of Takayama

My personal quest (I’m still asking myself when this crept up on me) for Japanese-manufactured sunscreen came to an abrupt halt the day I needed to leave Tokyo for the Japanese Alps. It was also a great opportunity to escape what was fast becoming an unwilling staple: the Tempura Soba.

Vaguely grateful that my endeavour could continue in Kyoto, I packed and went my merry way – in the pouring morning rain to board the Shinkansen to Takayama (a 4.5 hour journey), a town stuck high up in the mountain, impassable in winter because of its heavy snowfall at times even in the 21st century.

IMG_0339

IMG_0328

The Japanese have so far, been unfailingly polite but those living in Takayama display a happier hospitality, perhaps for the want of human contact after a hard winter. Quite literally called “High hill” in Chinese characters, the little alpine town finds its fame in its festivals in April and October, both of which I obviously miss. There’s still some to see though and its main draw is its Edo-period buildings within the heritage section of town now converted to shops selling kitsch and snacks.

IMG_0659

A rather hard walk with the bags 15-20 minutes north of the station was Oyodo Yoshinoya, the place I made last minute bookings with after cancelling my J-Hoppers hostel reservation, wanting that short Ryokan stay with its private onsen. For that price, the pseudo traditional Japanese lifestyle is all yours depending on the number of nights you pay for. Oyodo Yoshinoya’s impeccably situated, got a fantastic family atmosphere and I felt an attachment to their toilets forming after discovering that they smelt of pine wood. The thinness of the futon and tatami-mat proved to be pure torture for my back however, and I now dread Kyoto’s sleeping arrangements that are in no way dissimilar.

IMG_0689

Immediately enlivened by the relative lack of crowds and quaint shops, I glided down the streets with a determination to ignore some lingering incessant tourist chatter and promptly covered the town’s main streets and walking circuit by the late afternoon.

IMG_0447

Dinner in the ryokan was a lavish affair of traditional Hida region specialties put together, considering that all the food’s for just 1 person. To my horror, more plates of beef and other unnameable dishes came in as I was eating halfway until I could only apologise in sign language – a combination of tummy rubs and contorted facial expressions – when I felt too bloated for more.

Less lost in translation

The compendium of snapshots Tokyo that I’ve captured on camera is by no means exhaustive. Flying solo compounds this feel. Alarmingly, the packed streets of neon lights and the relentless consumer lifestyle look very similar in the few wards of Tokyo that I’ve visited: Shinjuku, Shibuya, Asakusa, Akihabara, Ueno, Ginza compete for business, where streets begin to look ugly and characterless. These places are very much living paradoxes: free-spending lifestyles and effusive hospitality – even the toilets have heated seats and buttons to aid bottom-washing – provide a strong veneer of civilisation underneath a web of complex social hierarchy governing these behaviours that I don’t quite ever understand.

IMG_0226

IMG_0227

It was this consideration that made me initially quite adamant about leaving the city again for yet another day trip to Nikko, only to be put off by a total of 4 hours in a train when yet another long journey awaited me to Takayama on Monday.

So Sunday was grudgingly spent in Tokyo. Ueno Park was the first stop at 9am, famous for its avenues of blooming cherry blossoms in April, and also for being place of residence to the homeless. But Ueno is also a site of many museums and on a whim, I queued up for a general exhibition ticket to the Tokyo National Museum, only to have a lovely old woman tap me on the shoulder and hand me an access ticket to all exhibitions for free.

IMG_0275

IMG_0267

IMG_0277

Old ladies were my treat for the day it seemed. A few stops by the Tokyo Metro away from where I stay is Asakusa, a ward known for its convivial and immensely festive atmosphere because of its temples and old district. Bustling with crowds rushing to get into the temple, my reprieve was found in a quaint tempura restaurant with cheery but friendly old ladies who laughed at my attempt to order Ebi Tempura soba in soup.

IMG_0301

Shibuya and Akihabara were next but the highlight was a hidden enslave closer to Ueno – a small but increasingly crowded cat cafe. In a space where moggies were on show, I couldn’t help feel sorry for them as they were disturbed from all sides by humans prodding them. Some had learned to sleep through the asinine behaviour of some guests. I left after 15 minutes, having petted them as much as I could, anxious to escape the influx of young couples waiting to fawn over the creatures.

Hakone-Mt. Fuji Circuit

I bravely tackled the intimidating pressures and congestions of city life by removing myself from Tokyo physically, escaping to the Hakone-Mt-Fuji circuit the day after I landed, buying a Hakone Free Pass (dealt with solely by Odakyu) which allows free transportation within this region. A day trip had to suffice despite the large amount of moving around and travelling.

circuit

IMG_0057

Ueno (Tokyo) – Shinjuku (Tokyo) took 40 minutes. The Odakyu Romance car (just a fast train with a fancy name) took nearly 1.5 hrs, depositing its hapless passengers at Hakone-Yumoto station, from which one’s own creativity kicks in.

IMG_0084

I chose to take yet another slow ride – yet another 40 minutes – via the Tozan line up to Gora before boarding the cable car for a short ride upwards to Sounzan.

The ropeway at Sounzan terminates at Togendai (30 minutes) offers several stops in between, and culminates with a slow sightseeing cruise (another 40 minutes again!) on Lake Ashi. I got to step on snow, see some cats with their unfriendly owner and see Mt Fuji quite clearly.

That was the fun bit – the furry moggies probably wanted food.

IMG_0140

IMG_0194

Hakone-Machi was the first stop at which I hurriedly disembarked, opting to walk through the old Edo highway of cypress trees built originally in the 17th century to shelter those who walked from the heat of summer and the cold, snowy winter.

It wasn’t a long walk to MotoHakone-Ko among in the woods that still had some snow lining the ground at which a bus brought me straight back to Hakone-Yumoto to board the Romance car once again back to Shinjuku. The crowds however, didn’t evaporate magically as I’d naively thought. On the contrary, it felt as though the Tokyo weekend crowds had simultaneously decided to take a similar day trip.

Lost in translation

Japan – Tokyo at least – is quite a crazy place, with even crazier people. Why do they wear masks quite freely? I’m left wondering if it’s because of illness or a fear of contracting disease. Why are the women obsessed with whitening their skin and using so much mascara with their falsies? Why do the men look naturally pervy? Why that enduring obsession with kawaii, or cuteness?

Clogged with sensorial overloads, neon lights and incessant noise from loud chatter, trains and human buzz, contemporary Japan has left me overwhelmed and quite unexpectedly distraught. Tokyo is better thought of as a conurbation of cities put together – has never been so cramped and camp. It wasn’t too long ago that I quite emphatically laughed at Lost in Translation only to find myself in that very position, sharing quite unwillingly, a kinship borne out of frustration in a city that consists of gibberish, wealth-flaunting, technological zeniths and gadget absurdity. I was quite quickly convinced that I didn’t quite want to spend any more time than necessary “soaking up the atmosphere” as some travellers have encouraged in forums.

Landing quite shakily in the A380 at 7.30am Tokyo time, (that plane’s really just an excuse to fit even more people in a tiny space), I was told quite merrily by the pilots that it was zero degrees outside. After dragging the bags to a small hotel in Ueno by the Keisei Express from Narita International, I realised that the lock and key set on my luggage had given out, and feeling embarrassed, asked for a lock breaker from the reception. Grabbing an unwitting blond man – probably either Russian or French who looked a little like Fabio – who came out of the lift to ask the reception some question, I asked him to break the lock on my luggage.

“Could you please break this lock?” I asked, hurriedly explaining that it was probably damaged in transit before he began to form thoughts of my insanity.

“What?!” Apparently it was quite an unconventional request.

“Do you have the key?”

“Yes, but I tried –”

“Give me that…” Rambo/Hercules grabbed it from me and managed to twist the lock open leaving me gaping in slack-jawed admiration, his aura of heroism soon after dispelled when he sat down and blithely lit a cigarette, presumably recovering from the effort of twisting a small luggage lock open.

“Recommend to buy new lock,” he instructed quite grimly.

I wholly agreed. Yet another task on the errand list: make seat reservations, look at day trips for the next 2 days, look at long socks, sunscreen and to buy a lock. I knew I reached the end of my tether when a toiletries store repetitively blared Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl interspersed with cheery Japanese advertising.

IMG_0024

IMG_0017

Seeing as the check-in time was at 3pm, I re-packed as quickly as I could, and took off for Shinjuku and the skyscraper district with the Metro’s open day ticket, returning later to Ueno’s bargain hunting strip Okachimachi. As lively as it was, I think I felt the happiest when I spoke to 2 Japanese salespersons with relatively excellent English.