Around the world in 30 days (2)

After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.

We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.

We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.

I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.

This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.

The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!

This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?

My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.

I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.

My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.

I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).

From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.

I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.

Narrow escapes

Yesterday was my second encounter with a cyclone. Fortunately cyclone Nisarga made landfall about 40 kilometers south of earlier predictions, and so missed us by about 80 kilometers. These are enormous disturbances in our atmosphere, so we got rain and high winds all day. But it was the kind of weather we see two or three times every monsoon, so it was not hard to weather. The incident brought back memories of another narrow escape: from typhoon Nangka when I was in Japan five years ago. That was a super typhoon which weakened into a minimal typhoon when it made landfall. The featured photo was taken at Shirasagi-jo, the White Heron Castle in Himeji, a few hours before the landfall. I’m not one to carp at these near misses.

Totoro and neighbour

I seldom have long conversations with my oldest niece any more; she is too traumatized at the end of a long day counseling people traumatized by the long lockdown to talk much. So it was a pleasure to chat with her the other day about Studio Ghibli movies. I’d just finished seeing Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. She said her favourite was My Neighbour Totoro. It is a beautiful movie; two young girls getting to know the natural world around them, full of pauses and asides, nature spirits and fantasy.

The lockdown traumatizes me when I think of all that I could have done if I wasn’t locked up at home while the epidemic rages out of control in Mumbai. The thought of infected people being turned away from over-full hospitals, dying without care, is enough to give you sleepless nights if you think about it. When I think of how much of a privilege it is to be able to have a safe place to continue to live in, it can also induce trauma about the unknown social changes around us. I guess I deal with it by changing focus. I’m very happy that long and wasteful meetings are slowly phasing out in favour of the core work. The extra time goes into household chores and the little new skills and interests that I’m picking up. Studio Ghibli is one of them.

Love in Tokyo

We ordered sushi for dinner. Half the people in the restaurant were too young to remember the kitschy song Sayonara Sayonara from the sound track of our childhood, which was our first tenuous link to Japan. While we polished off the last bits of ginger, The Family asked “Shall we go to Japan on our anniversary?” I swirled a slice of ginger through the soya sauce. Did I really hear that right? I looked up. “Japan?”, I asked. She nodded. I said “Of course.”

There are many Japans. You could visit for the temples and castles. Or you could want to see the crowds and bustle of the cities. What I like are the obsessions of the Japanese. I can walk around all night, looking for little shops which sell rice crisps (see the featured photo), or the vending machines with hot tea and cold coffee, or pachinko parlours with their zombie clients. I love the fact that I could decide to have a haircut after midnight and find a hairdresser’s open. I have wandered through streets, stopping at shops which sell ink and paper, looking at the calligraphy on display. I would love to go back to Osaka and look for the shop which made a name stamp for me. I have a fond memory of a little bar in a basement in Kyoto which specialized in whiskey and jazz.

What’s the best season? You can take your pick. Perhaps it could be the middle of winter when the streets are thronged by people in masks, and you have to warm your hands around a flask of hot sake. Or perhaps it is spring when it seems that most of Japan is drunk while the sakura is in bloom. I like the hot muggy summer, so like home, when the sound of crickets (photo above) keeps you company through sleepless nights. Autumn is special, when leaves turn colour in the temples of Kyoto or Nara and you are supposed to spend evenings looking at the moon. We’ll spend only a couple of weeks in Japan next year. I wish we could spend a year there.

Seagull’s eggs

I’m an avid collector of Japanese sweets, but this is the first time I brought home the Japanese sweets called Kamome no Tamago (Seagull’s eggs). So I was very surprised to find how popular it is (see here, here, and here). Apparently the factory which makes this sweet was damaged in the Tohoku earthquake of 2011, but has clearly sprung back into production. I learnt that the chocolate and cake covering over the white bean paste was a revolutionary idea when it was first made, but the sweet is now a very common omiyage (travel souvenir).

I didn’t know that, but I’m happy. So is The Family, and so will my niece be, when she recovers enough from her flu to bite into this. If I have anything to complain about, it is that the white bean paste seems to be a little sweeter than the more common red bean paste. If you are worried about calories, the company has the full nutrition facts on the web.

Jelly and fish

jelly

Here’s another lingering piece of Japan. The Family loves these wobbly balls of agar jelly. There are many varieties of these. The particular ones I bought this time have a sweet bean, and some fruit cut into the shape of fish. Does that make it a jelly fish?

I realize that I do not know what these things are called in Japanese.

After a trip to Japan

A trip does not quite end when your plane brings you back home; at least not when I get back from Japan. For years now, every time I’ve left Japan, it is with a bagful of things to eat, picked up from airport shops. That’s how I first discovered the pleasures of Tokyo Banana and Franz the chocolatier. I brought back honey glazed dried fish, until The Family completely embargoed that; a ban that extends to dried octopus as well.

Mochi was our favourite for many years. We distributed boxes of wagashi to our extended family, and these lovely rice sweets with bean-paste filling were widely appreciated. The Family found Yatsuhashi (sheets made from glutinous rice, wrapped around sweet red bean paste) very special. My mother fell in love with monaka (azuki bean jam sandwiched between crisp mochi wafers). My nieces became familiar with the words mochi, daifuku, manju and anko. Opening a box with unreadable writing and tasting what was inside became a family game whenever I returned from Japan.

The selection of things available at airports has changed over the years. This time I found very few traditional sweets: dorayaki, green tea mochi and a daifuku. There were a lot of cakes and other baked sweets, sometimes with interesting fillings. I did find a large box of senbei (rice crackers). Usually I pick these up from a specialty shop, but this time I’d forgotten to do that. From Kobe I’d picked up the local specialty: caramel custard (called purin in Japanese). Surprisingly, the caramel comes in a separate pouch!

2015-08-09 15.30.34Tucked away in a box of various teabags at home, I found some genmaicha. This is bancha (low grade Japanese green tea) mixed with roasted rice kernels. I like the slight nutty taste of this kind of tea. A morning’s snack of senbei and genmaicha is not haute cuisine, but is something I quite like. That’s the photo at the top. Such short armchair trips in Japan will continue for a month or so, as we work our way through the boxes I got this time around.

Semi

閑かさや Shizukasa ya In this stillness
岩にしみ入る iwa ni shimi iru stinging the stone
蝉の声 semi no koe [is] the cicada’s trill

From “The Narrow Road to Oku” by Basho

Summer arrived in the last two days before I left Japan. How does one decide? For the record its not by the sun or the stars, nor by the heat and humidity, but by the cry of the cicadas.

Japan has a thing about these large and unprepossessing insect, named semi in Japanese, which are supposed to call only in summer. The monotonous ji-ji-ji sound which I heard while walking to lunch was probably the large brown cicada which the Japanese call the Aburazemi. If it makes you feel any better, the Latin binomial is Graptosaltria nigrofuscata. There weren’t too many of them, and it was too early in the season for kids to be out trying to catch them. But a few cicada do a summer make.

Sunday in the air

kujukuri

While cruising in a Dreamliner over Asia at this time of the year one sees nothing except a sea of clouds. Dreamliners fly at an altitude of 12 kilometers, with a cruising speed which is over 90% of the speed of sound at that altitude. At the end of July, Asia is covered in a blanket of rain clouds. So you get the best views when the flight takes off or lands. Today, as I flew out of Narita airport in the morning, the ascent to cruising altitude seemed to take twenty minutes or so. This is long enough to get a lovely view of Japan from the sky.

The river visible here is the Tone, the town is likely to be Tsukuba, and the distant hills to the north is then the range which includes Mount Tsukuba
The river visible here is the Tone, the town is likely to be Tsukuba, and the distant hills to the north is then the range which includes Mount Tsukuba

We took off in a roughly north-easterly direction, and then circled back south and west. We flew over Kujukuri town almost immediately. The plane was pretty low when I took a photo of the marina (top) and the stream of mud which seems to have been washed out to sea recently. Interestingly, Google Earth shows a similar plume, so this erosion seems to be fairly constant. People were still advised not to go out to sea, so I was surprised to see the wake of a boat in the lower part of the picture, near the shore.

We climbed slowly. The most striking sight I saw next was the Tone river with its multiple dams and reservoirs. I took several photos, but the one I liked most is the view over a town which is probably Tsukuba, looking north towards Mount Tsukuba in the distance. The ragged remnants of tropical storm Nangka were too far to the north to affect the weather in the Tokyo region. As you can see in the photo, there are only scattered clouds.

It was a great sunny day, and I had a lingering view of Japan as I left. We flew over Tokyo and Osaka. But by the time the craft reached Osaka, we were already above the continent wide sea of high altitude cumulo-nimbus. You feel rootless suspended between the clouds below you and the emptiness of space above you. We dropped below it eight hours later when we landed in Delhi.