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.

Trying to pack it in

A satisfying end to a day in Tokyo: grilled cod with miso dressing, pureed radish and grilled chilis.
A satisfying end to a day in Tokyo: grilled cod with miso dressing, pureed radish and grilled chilis.

You can make plans, but if you can’t foresee all eventualities then they never quite work out. So its best to treat the plans as suggestions to build upon. My half day in Tokyo did not exactly work out the way I had planned it.

Before we left Delhi, the captain of our flight announced that the route would veer south to avoid typhoon Chan-Hom. Normally we would have flown north of Mount Everest, over Xi’an, Busan and on to Tokyo. But we actually flew over Mandalay, Guangzhou, and Miyazaki to approach Narita from almost due south. Even so, and although we flew at a height of 12 kilometers on a Boeing Dreamliner, the journey was not smooth. We rattled and shook all the way. The night’s flight prepared me about the news from China which I read the next day. We landed in Tokyo at about 9:30 in the morning, a little more than an hour later than I’d expected.

By the time I reached Tokyo station, it was nearly noon. Since my hotel room would not be available till two, I had decided to leave my luggage in the station and see something before checking in. I gained a little time by buying a preloaded Suica card, a smart card which you can use on the Tokyo metro station, instead of spending time buying tickets repeatedly. But then I lost a little time getting lost inside the Tokyo station while searching for available lockers to keep my luggage in.

It was a sunny morning, but hot and muggy. I decided to visit the Senso-Ji first. The place looks good in bright light. It was crowded and fun as a Buddhist temple in East Asia always is. It didn’t take long; in two and a half hours I checked into the hotel. All I’d known about it was that it was near Tokyo University and a the baseball stadium called Tokyo Dome. I discovered that on Sunday that the Tokyo Dome City is a permanent fair with rides of various kinds. Fortunately the place shuts at some time, so my sleep was not be punctuated by shrieks of kids on a roller coaster. After a shower I took the train to the Meiji Jingu. This was peaceful and serene, a big change from Senso-Ji.

The sun was setting as I lost my way in the park, skipped people watching in Yoyogi Park, and went on to Shibuya. Coming out of this large station by exit 2, one can almost miss the statue of Hachiko because of the rings of tourists around it. I walked into a cafe for a wonderful slice of chocolate cake and a large cup of black French coffee. Then I stood around the pedestrian scramble gawking. Among the things which I learnt from watching the big video screen in Shibuya is that the Japanese make end-of-the-world science fiction movies which could give the Avengers a run for their money.

Not exactly what I had planned, but not way off either.

Historic Tokyo: Meiji Jingu

jingua

The Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito, ruled from 1867 to 1912. The emperor’s shrine is one of the major sights in Tokyo. I arrived at the Meiji Jingu late in the afternoon. The approach roads were flanked by tall trees which filtered the golden light of the sun and gave the place a gloomy serenity which perfectly evokes the idea of a shrine. I passed one of the tallest gates I’ve seen (photo above). I’m pretty certain that I’ve been here before, but I have to disinter the photos taken before the days of electronic cameras in order to make sure.

These wide but gloomy avenues eventually reach a little fountain with ladles laid out so that you can scoop up water to wash your hands with. I wonder whether the fanatical cleanliness of Japan can be traced to such religious rituals. Notions of ritual cleanliness have gone quite the other way in India, where spiritual purity trumps mere bodily cleanliness. I’m sure some doctoral students are busy investigating these differences for their theses.

ome

After washing your hands you pass through another gate, and then cross into the final courtyard before the shrine. Around a tree in one corner of this large courtyard are hung tablets called ema. You can buy a blank tablet for 500 Yen and write your wishes for the world on it. It hangs here for others to come and inspect. From the fact that some people were searching quite hard, I guess it is a bit of a hobby for some. In Japan Otaku is everywhere.

jingucourt

After this, broad stairs lead you to a point where you can look at the shrine. The chrysanthemum of the emperor (kikunogomon) is on rafters, lanterns, brass inlays on the doors. Beyond a railing which still separates the emperor from common people is the rest of the shrine. I saw people praying here: claps, offers of money and bows, all go into these prayers (the shrine’s web page gives you the right way to pray). I think Shinto makes a distinction between the person and his soul, because the web page of this shrine says that the deities in the shrine are the souls of the emperor and his consort. There’s an echo of ancient Chinese beliefs in all this.

jinguexit

The sun was very low by now, and I gave up on my plan of walking over to the part of Yoyogi park which has cosplayers. Instead I took a side exit which eventually brought me to the Kita-Sando metro station. This route was almost deserted, but the surrounding greenery was extremely beautiful. Beyond all the rituals and the deification of the emperor it is the memory of this lovely man-made forest which has stayed with me for the decades since I first came here.

Planning half a Sunday in Tokyo

My trip to Japan involves half a Sunday in Tokyo, day after tomorrow. I’ll spend a night in Suidobashi, very close to Tokyo Dome. I found that it is not just a baseball stadium but also a nice place to hang out. I’ll arrive in Narita in the morning, and will not be able to get my hotel room until 2 in the afternoon. I guess I’ll have to do my Tokyo tourism in two halves: lunch and early afternoon, and then evening and night. So, if I’m too tired to walk around Tokyo for half a day and half a night, I can just hang about near the dome in the evening.

Shibuya and its pedestrian sprawl may be worth looking at even on Sunday. The area is full of cafes and restaurants, so it may be good for lunch. Blogs tell you that Starbucks is a good place to take photos from, but it is closed for renovations now. Perhaps I’ll try out the L’Occitane cafe near the Hachiko exit for a shot of the scramble. If I can’t, then I’ll have to scout around and waste my time. I really don’t want to do that, because I want to get to Harajuku quickly.

Harajuku may be one-stop Tokyo, with both high-culture and otaku subculture living cheek by jowl. I think I have seen the Meiji Jingu shrine on my first visit to Japan, but I should go there to verify. Shibuya and Harajuku are neighbouring metro stations. Yoyogi park is also near the shrine, and on Sundays is full of people in cosplay. This would be a great place for photography usually, but it rains a lot in July and Sunday afternoon may be a washout. Blogs suggest a walk around Takeshita Dori, a teenager’s fashion street. I’m not a shopper, and I know better than trying to shop for a teenager, so I could easily give this a miss.

In the evening I might go to the Asakusa neighbourhood. I imagine that walking up the Nakamise Dori to the Senso Ji may yield great shots in the evening. This is a Buddhist temple, so I expect a lot of smoke and bustle. That’s just the thing to keep you awake if you are mildly sleepy. The temple is open till 5 in the evening, but the grounds are always open. I guess if I reach after 5 I will miss the smoke and bustle, but may get nice photos.

My time in Tokyo is too short to browse in Akihabara, have breakfast near the Tsukiji fish market, sit in Ueno park, spend a long evening in Roppongi, or get in my first visit to Odaiba. Unless I get enough sleep on the flight out of Delhi, I might not even get to do the three things which I have planned.