Monday, August 06, 2007

Nine Day in Japan - Osaka, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Odate, Tokyo

‘What do you think of India and how is it different from Japan? ‘. An innocuous question by my Indian colleague to Japanese appeared to have flummoxed him so much that it took him more than six hours to muster the strength to say it “ First – Cleanliness, Second : Car Honking and Third : Punctuality ”; For me, it was all summed up as “ Public Behaviour”. The comments may have been in jest but conveyed the truth. For an Indian and that includes me, there is no way but to concede to his argument. I wish one day, one small part of India will defy his statement making it punctual, disciplined city free from any pollution be it noise, water or air.

This was another visit to Japan within a span of one year but this visit was different from previous one and few others before that. As my Kansai airport bus entered Hankyoo terminal in Osaka downtown, I could see few men on a make shift podium next to Yodobashi electronic stores, screaming on microphone with motley of crowd listening to him. Next day, when I read the news of Prime Minister’s LDP losing majority of seats. I learnt it was an election speech that was an exception to the otherwise noise-free environment of Japan.

Next day was Sunday – and I was keen to make full use of it. I had been to Nara, Osaka harbour and Universal Studio in all my previous visits. Kyoto was a part of the schedule. My earlier choice was either Kobe city or Hiroshima. But Hiroshima was far away. I was suggested Ise Jingu and my colleague even sent me a link It looked great but I had no idea about the significance of this place till I visited it.

Ise Jingu to Shinto religion is what Mecca is for Islam and Kashi or Tirupati for Hindu is. Shintoism is deeply rooted in the daily life of the Japanese. It is a belief of man's coexistence with nature. The temple is divided into two precincts that need to be traversed by bus. Outer shrine – Geku and Inner shrine – Naiku. Naiku has Amaterasu-o-mikami (the Sun Goddess) while Geku has Toyouke–no- Omikami (the goddess of agriculture and industry). These two shrines of Ise Jingu Shrine are the supreme shrine of Shinto while hundreds of other shrines have been spread all over the country. From Osaka, travel to Ise Jingu took almost two hours but with Japan railway system as smooth as first class journey in air, I didn’t feel tired till humid and hot weather overpowered me on that day. With sun beating in force and little breeze flowing – those packed lush green cedar trees didn’t offer much of a respite except shade. Ise Jingu is a city, a station, a temple and a pilgrimage place. It’s a spiritual place that is a must for every pious Japanese to visit when he is married, his wife is due to give birth, or child is born. It even extends to seeking success for new business venture. Entry to inner sanctum of the temple is not allowed for commoners. Only the emperor , Empress and the priests are allowed entry into the main shrine while others can worship from outside by clapping twice, bowing ones head and then again clapping but not before cleansing ones hand and mouth with holy water(Temizusha). How similar is this ritual to ablution in Islam and holy bathing in Hindu. As in the case with any Hindu Pilgrimage, Shinto shrine too is adjacent to river; Mitarashi riverbank offers stone steps leading to Isuzu River to purify oneself before one enters in the most sacred areas of Naiku. There is something unique about Ise Jingu. This temple gets shifted to a new place – within the precinct – after every twenty years. Why twenty years? Answer could be both scientific and spiritual. The shrine is made up of wood and thatched straw that decays and new technology is a must to preserve the structure. Perhaps, twenty years is also a time to welcome next generation. Every new piece of God’s dwelling is prepared and consecrated by holy water of river Isuzu, this starts every 12 years. It was to happen on the very day that we visited. We couldn’t have been more fortunate. Seeing passionate devotees chanting prayers and dragging the log of the wood through the river water reminded me of devotees in Maharashtra going to Alandi or Pandharpur. Shintoism believes god’s presence in every form of nature. Be it sun, water, air, tree and Ise Jingu has abundance of it - clean air, clean water and lots of trees - some are as old as 400 years. Perhaps, Japanese paranoid of cleanliness may have had his roots deeply embedded in Shintoism. According to Kazuo Honda priest at one of Shinto shrine "The most important thing is to show gratitude that we are allowed to live. If we pay reverence with a sense of appreciation, manners will be observed naturally. There are no absolute taboos in Shintoism." There is one structure that is ubiquitous to any Shinto shrine. It is Torii – a pie shaped structure with two upright pillars and two cross beams -made up of either stone or red painted wood. Any Shinto shrine in Japan is amidst greenery and so is Ise Jingu with 13,600 acres of Cypress, Cedar and Pine trees and with mountain range of Kamijiyama.

Next working day was company budget meeting. Seeing my company’s CEO made me happy. I am always awed, inspired and intrigued by these self made CEO’s who singlehandedly create a global business empire. My career started with listening to the stories of Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard. But in later years, I met Mike Cudahy of Marquette and now Mr Sano of Nipro. It was interesting to note that budget meeting would just not commence until arms on the clock would not approach the appointed time. Till such time, bosses would do small talk while juniors would attentively sit upright. No one dares to speak or say in front of the boss but scenario changes in reverse gear at the evening party. Here every junior comes forward and goes berserk throwing all the stress that is accumulated in working hours. Bosses too know the importance of this ‘release button’ before another ordeal of disciplined regimentation of productive output starts at 830 am next day. At the party, once the first helping is completed by the restaurant hostess, the young support staff girls get up and start serving their bosses with refill of sake or beer. Bosses, always make it point to let these girls seek the gratitude of serving their masters. It reminded me of our family functions when ladies would first serve all the men and only after that would have their meal. This was my second visit to this restaurant that served sumptuous eight course crab speciality meal. Starting with cold crab, it moves on to the crab sashimi:, Chawanmushi, Tempura, Cheese baked rice with crab, Crab Rice, Soup, and ends up with Dessert( no crab this time !!). They taste yummy with soya sauce and wasabi. Years ago, my first crab specialty meal in another restaurant was served with surgical implements that required bit of a skill to eat. This one was all done in an easy manner.

I forgot to mention of my first evening meal of Okonomiyaki at Yodobashi. Okonomi means "what you like" and yaki means "grilled" or "cooked". Osaka Okonomiyaki is like a pan cake. The table is fitted with grill in the center; waiter cum cook brings all the ingredients, mixes and grills in front of you while you guzzle Asahi or Suntory beer. This is very similar to Korean restaurant but over there, we need to cook our dish. The dish does require egg that comes as a coating but not before a batter made up of flour bounds shredded cabbage, spring onion, cheese along with either meat or sea food. The resultant product taste similar to Omelet.

Kyoto is one my favorite cities in the world. It has serenity of spiritual temples surrounded by pine trees, Youthfulness from students from the universities and international flavor from tourists from all over the world. Kyoto doesn’t have any high-rise buildings; every structure is preserved to maintain the essence of ancient capital of Japan. But the city is not old, Kyoto station is a hallmark of modern architecture that combines steel and glass not just to house trains but accommodate murals, paintings, fine dining restaurants and shops that sell exquisitely colored Kyoto sweets. Presentation is everything in Japan. I don’t think any culture in the world that has codified every social behavior with unique expression and gesture. My first visit to Kyoto covered golden temple (Kinkakuji) and Kiyimizu temple. This time it was Shinto shrine and 124 standing Buddha’s of Kamakura period.

The official name of 124 standing Buddha temple is Rengeo-in( Temple of Lotus King). But the popular name is Sanju-sangen-do ( Sanjusangendo means the "Hall of 33 gen", 33 being an auspicious number in Buddhism. It is believed that the Goddess of Mercy will help man in times of distress, incarnated as one of 33 different shapes on its mission of mercy). The statues are housed in the main building with one gigantic sitting image of Buddha sits in the middle, flanked on each side by 500 slightly smaller statues, all of them in neat rows side by side. In total, this place has 1001 statues. The smaller statues are not all that small but the size of a human being. Juichimen – senju sengen kanzen known as Kannon and The statues are made of Japanese cypress. 124 statues are from the 12th century and the others from the 13th century as remaining statutes got burnt in the fire. In front of the Kannon are 30 guardian deities, inspired from Hindu Mythology but others representing combination of virtues and vices? The statues are from the Kamakura period (12th-14th century). The sight of all these statues housed in one hall is overwhelmingly awe-inspiring. It definitely was for me. The front rows of deities nearest to the visitors are identified individually by plagues naming them with info about them, e.g. Wind God, Thunder God, etc. I realized that I had very little knowledge of Hindu mythological figures. It’s sad that photography wasn’t allowed in the main hall but it’s understandable with chunk of treasure losing to fire. Visiting Shinto shrine in Kyoto was pale in comparison after the visit of Ise Jingu.

Visiting Kanazawa city made me go first time on the Sea of Japan bordered by Japan Alps. Train ride from Kyoto to Kanazawa is similar to Nice Cannes except train moves at fast speed. I got a chance to visit Kanazawa castle that would stand no chance to even Shaniwar-wada of Pune of course with the exception of cleanliness. Kanazawa, is famous for two great gardens. We visited the one opposite castle – Kenrokuen, most beautiful Japanese landscape gardens. But our visiting in the afternoon in hot and humid weather sapped all the energy. I wonder what must be the beauty of this place during rainy season. This garden is a man made masterpiece with huge tress pruned like bonsai, carefully selected stones and rocks along the planted flowers and shrubs. Kenrokuen like Kyoto garden has beautiful cherry trees in spring, those irises in summer and transform into red and yellow foliage in autumn. In winter the snowy scenery make the gardens spectacular. All these sceneries are so beautifully captured on Japanese calendars.

Travel from Kanazawa to Akita Prefecture was initially planned by night train. But it was abandoned as train service was disrupted due to recent earthquake. Travelling by air spared drudgery of sleeping in a cramped sleeper bed. Akita Prefecture, tucked away in the northern part of Japan is truly a gem. Flanked by mountains, cedar trees, rice fields, it’s like three dimensional canvas painted with different shades of green till it’s mixed with sky blue horizon. I tried hard to think why these mountains don’t have any barren patches or why tall cedar trees have definite pattern and smooth contours. I think answer lies in the livelihood of human beings. Most of the Indian forests are fuel for people who reside nearby, they cut trees at random and at convenience to make their ends meet. With population outpacing natural growth of trees, Indian forests look jarringly motley of brown spots with burnt foliage of bushes. This time there was no time to visit Lake Towada - a crater lake above 400m above sea level and deepest one in Japan. . Visit to Yuze hotel – Ryokan in Japanese was as soothing as usual. This time, dining was in western style but we had Japanese Sashimi. Dipping in hot water bath didn’t evoke same pleasure as was the first time. Perhaps, continuous travel was taking its toll.

Tokyo is another fascinating place. I made sure that I visited Ginza – a place that is equivalent to New York Times square. I had visited this place in 1984. Nothing much has changed. Neon lights, restaurants, big branded stores. Search for Indian restaurant made us roam every by lane of Ginza district but we managed to find Raj Mahal when we were thoroughly vanquished by stress of walking and hunger. Visit to Akhiabara was a replica of 84 with the exception that Sony play station 3 has replaced Televisions and digital cameras with the analog ones. Riding a bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka was seeing an old winner losing out to newer and fitter ones. I hope bullet train one day would surpass TGV and Shanghai magnetic rail in terms of speed.

My last day of departure was as eventful as was my first day. This time there was no election speech but as we reached Osaka, people were everywhere. Most conspicuous were host of Kimono clad young girls – and they were there in hundreds, Osaka station and streets were teeming with people. Kimono clad girls had their left hand tied to Kimono while taking small steps with their wooden sandals while right hand held a small basket that housed flowers and embroidered hanker chef. Their male companion held her delicate hand and with folded fan ensuring that her make up was not drained with sweltering heat of late afternoon. Some men too wore Kimono but rests of them were clumsily dressed in Jeans. As the evening descended, fireworks began in the sky (hanabi). I could see them as my bus started its journey back to kansai.

There is one aspect of Japan that made a mark in this visit. And that is functionality. Japan is meticulous about the functional efficiency than showmanship. Their aesthetic sense prevails only when if all criterion of functional efficiency and effectiveness are surpassed. Japan doesn’t have underground electric power cabling. Most streets have a wooden pole that creates mesh of wires and so are antennas that are mushroomed over the roofs. Cabling layout in suburban railway is done in a manner that any maintenance would not disrupt the flow of traffic. So are the floor tiles, they look not so fancy but they take rigors of million legs everyday.

Tompt in virtual tourist says “ Life is too short to live this planet” . As I add new historical, spiritual and natural place in my repertoire, my respect for this beautiful earth grows manifold. Would my India also one day join ranks with Japan in terms of cleanliness, punctuality and public behavior?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your comments, one of few Indians who notice so much. I have harped on cleanliness being India's way out of poverty and misery for years, few have understood me.
My concerns are great about this.

Congratulations for your pretty daughter.
Would appreciate it if I could have some Indian associations contacts int he Gulf. My email is: best wishes,mythili

5:52 PM  
Anonymous Babs Suesia said...

Hello Milind!

I went to your blog. You have great photos, and you have been to very special places!

Interesting! Most interesting was reading about your thoughts, I think you agree with the best with travelling, no matter how beautiful places and interesting things to see, best is all the fantastic people you meet.

I was travelling in asia 1986-1987, and the meeting with people was even greater then the great wall, the terracotta army, and so on.

I travelled alone with the transibirian railway from Helsinki to beijing. Then I had planed to go south throu China, but on the transibirian railway I met to ironladies from Sweden (60 and 73), they were going to Tibet, and I joined them. It was one of my high-light on my travelling. Of course the nature was fantastic, and the air.. and everything. But the kindness of all people, and the strange kind of wake-up I got fom this absurd situation: In Lhasa the inhabitans was longing for Dalai Lama, I went to the Pottala palace, and the beautiful park behind the temple. Everywere i met people asking me from news or pictures from Dalai Lama. Then when I came home to Sweden, 1989, Dalai Lama travelled in Sweden, and I went to the local cathedral and listened to him.

He became a big hero for me after that, just talking about love and peace, even if he and his people have been treated so bad. I have his book "Joy" (don´t know if that is the correct english title?) and it helpes me many times.


1:22 PM  

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