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Monday, July 25, 2011

Japan tour - Day 6 and 7

Shrines, temples, geishas

Kyoto was the former capital Japan, where the emperor lived from 794 to 1868. It’s now the cultural capital of Japan. Japan has two major religions: Shintoism and Buddhism. And interestingly most people are both Shintos and Buddhists, and many of also Christians!

That’s what people are if one looks at the customs they follow: the naming ceremony of a child is a Shinto one; most marriages are largely Christian ceremonies; and when one dies, there’s a Buddhist ceremony. So, it’s very difficult to find out to which religion a Japanese person belongs to! There are around 1,600 Buddhist temples and 360 Shinto shrines in Kyoto.

Ninjo Castle

Saw many shrines and temples. One of them was Ninjo Castle. It was the home of the first one of the Shogun rulers in 17th century. During their rule, all administrative and military power was with the Shoguns, the emperor was just a reverential figurehead. Just like the PM- President relationship.

In 19th century, when the Shoguns handed power back to emperor, the castle became the property of the imperial family. It was later donated to the Kyoto city administration and renamed Nijo Castle.

While in a Buddhist temple the deity is obviously Lord Buddha, in a Shinto shrine, there’s no one particular deity. The shrines are where the Shinto god or the kami resides. People come to shrines to pay respect to the kami and also pray for good fortune, that may be related to any aspect of life.

The sacred objects of worship are kept in a chamber and it’s not visible to the devotee. This is unlike the statue of Buddha in a temple that is visible to everyone. The kami represents Nature and there are thousands of shrines dedicated to many Shinto gods.


Exam shrine

For example, the Kitano-tenmangu shrine is one that is associated with education and there is a huge rush of students before examinations. The shrine is dedicated to Sugawara Michizane, a scholar and politician, who was exiled by his rivals.

There were a number of disasters after his death. The shrine has been built to appease his soul. This scholar Michizane is associated with the Shinto god of education.


India connection

We next went to Sanjusangen-do temple. There are 1,001 statues of arranged on a slanting raised platform, which is an amazing sight. 124 of them are original and the rest were made when the temple was renovated, after a fire destroyed the temple in 1266.

There is an India connection here. There are 28 statues of guardian deities which are Hindu gods placed in front of the 1,001 statues of Buddha. The temple hall is 120 meters, the longest wooden structure.

Find your love luck

From here, we headed to Kiyomizudera temple. It’s up on a hill from where we get a good view of Kyoto. Behind the temple’s main hall is the Jishu shirine, dedicated to the god of love and matchmaking.

In front of the shrine are two stones placed 18 meters apart. It’s said that if you can walk blindfolded from one stone to the other, then you will successfully find a love. If you can’t find the stone, and you need assistance of another person, then it means you will need an intermediary to find your love.

3-Stream Waterfall

At the base of the Kiyomizudera is Otowa waterfall. There is a raised platform over which water flows in three streams. People walk up to the platform, drink water from one of the streams using a long spoon (cup).

Water from each of the stream is said to have a different benefit: one for scholarship, one for love and the third for longevity. You are not supposed to drink water from more than one stream. The cups, after use, have to be tucked back into an ultraviolent cleanser.

Geishas

Kyoto is also the place where you find geishas. They are not prostitutes as some people think. They are professional entertainers. It’s tough to be a geisha. Girls have to undergo tough and strict five-year training. Lots of girls, unable to withstand the rigour, drop out.

They learn dance and music and other art forms. Their job is entertain guests with performance arts and conversation. The geisha dinners take place typically in tea houses. It’s a very secluded, private and expensive party.

It’s not easy to walk into these places. You need a recommendation from an existing customer. Customers are not usually billed at the end of the dinner. Instead all the costs are added up and deducted every month in equal instalments from the customer’s bank account.

In Kyoto there are 200 geishas. There are also apprentice geishas, who can be distinguished from the fully trained geisha by the way a particular knot at the back is tied. There are also fake geishas, who are merely dressed up as geishas, just encourage to tourists.

They can be spotted fleeting across streets, and tourists merrily photograph them, and go back with the satisfaction of having seen a geisha. Unfortunately, because of lack of time, I couldn’t see any geisha, though I did see many people dressed up in kimonos. But everyone dressed in kimono is not a geisha, though a geishas wears kimono.

After an overdose of shrines and temples, I headed back to Aino, three stops after Sanda, to see a local festival. Residents of the area had gathered at a large ground. There were many entertainment stalls and eateries around. There were games, music and dance performance. One of them very much resembled Garbha dance during Navratri.

Interestingly, a group of software engineers from Kerala working in that area put up a food stall. There were chicken, samosas, pappadams and payasam. It was a run-away hit with all items being sold out very fast.

Quite exhausted, there is hardly any energy left to pack by baggage. My Japan tour has come to an end – leaving tomorrow, from Kansai airport back to Bangalore via Bangkok by Thai Airways.


Day 7 – July 24

Left Sanda for a station near Osaka by train. From there took a Kansai Airport Bus. Left Kansai at 11.45 am. Reached Bangkok at 3.15 pm. The connecting flight was at 9.20 pm. There was lots time to roam around.

I was dumbstruck at the beauty and expanse of the Bangkok airport. Hundreds of shops. But what is most striking is the landscaping. Never seen an airport more beautiful than this – floats and statues that depict Thai culture and tradition. An amazing work. You really don’t know whether to shop or just admire walk around admiring the beauty of the artistic works.

Back in Bangalore at 11.30, last night.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Japan tour - Day 5

A-Bomb Dome and Trams

Didn’t want to miss Hiroshima, the city that was reduced to rubble on August 6, 1945 by the atomic bomb dropped by America in retaliation to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour. Took a JR train from Sanda to Kobe at 7 am. From Kobe took a Shinkansen at 8.45 am to Hiroshima. Thanks to the Japan Rail Pass, I didn’t have to pay anything.

Hiroshima -- just can’t believe that there were no human beings alive in this entire city 66 years back. Well-laid out, spaced-out, beautiful city just takes your breath away. And trams – our idea of it is a slow-moving relic on rails on the road. Far from it, in Hiroshima. It looks like a modern, swanky tourist bus, only that it runs on rails. And they are called Streetcars here.

The tram from Hiroshima railway station stopped right in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome or locally Genbaku Dome. This was originally the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall designed by Czech architect Jan Letzel.

The bomb exploded right above the hall, and portion of the building along with wire framework was left standing amid the ruins all around. It has left as such as a grim reminder of the tragedy.

Nearby is the Flame of Peace, lit on August 1, 1964, for the peace for victims and to pray for world peace. The flame was used at Hiroshima Asian Games in 1994.

There is also Children’s Peace Monument. This was built in memory of Sasaki Sadako, who was exposed to radiation when she was 2 years old. She died 10 years later of leukaemia. When she was ill, her many friends and well-wishers folded 1000 paper cranes, a Japanese custom when someone is ill. But she died.

Went to the Hiroshima Peace Museum. Paid a ridiculously low (by Japanese standards) entry fee of, I think, 50 yen. A walk through the museum is as much an educative experience as it is saddening.

There are lots of photographs and videos explaining the history of the development of the atomic bomb, and its horrors. A huge pair of photos – of Hiroshima before and after the bombing – is a stunning illustration of the unimaginable effect of the atomic bomb.

Remains of loved ones, like pieces of clothing and letters, donated by relatives and friends of victims are displayed. One of them is the school uniform worn by a boy. Very ironically, Japan, though campaigns for abolition of nuclear weapons, relies heavily on nuclear reactors for electricity. The story of how it all went wrong tragically at Fukushima, post-tsunami, is recent history.

From here, took a taxi to go to the 16 century Hiroshima castle. It’s a beautiful structure. The original castle was destroyed in the bombing, and what stands is the reconstructed one. On display are history of the Hiroshima, of the castle, life and culture of castle town, and weapons that were used during that period.

The typical dresses of the samurai are separately displayed for visitors to try and take photographs. On the 5th floor is an observation platform that gives you a panoramic view of the locality. There is an admission fee of 360 yen.

Kobe's Ropeway and Herb Garden

It was around 2pm and my friend and I headed to a restaurant at a nearby mall for lunch; after that took a Shinkansen to Kobe, the city that was ravaged by an earthquake in 1995. Nearly 6,000 people had died. Once again, the city gave no impression that it had been reduced to a rubble.

This city has a number of ropeways or cable cars. One that is most famous is just five minute walk from the Shin-Kobe railway station. (Shin in Japanese means new.) There is an entry fee of 1,400 yen for up and down cable car ride and entry to Nunobiki herb garden. Some people use the cable car only one way, and prefer to trek up or down the other way.

The cable car ride presents a breath-taking view of the forest below and of the city. There is the beautiful Nunobiki herb garden, where I am told, there are around 75,000 herbs of 200 varieties. Right up the slope is the herb market, a small herb museum and performance hall. There are a number of herbal products in the market. You can relax with snacks and drinks. The museum gives you peak into the science and uses of herbs. There is also a hall for aroma therapy.

We then took a train to see the Kobe airport. It’s a beautiful ride overlooking the port. It’s an amazing story of Japanese farsightedness in planning. There’s a fledgling IT and Biotech park. To ensure quick connectivity to the area, the authorities have a rail link and also built an airport. Interestingly the airport is also being developed as a tourist destination.

You don’t need to a air-ticket to enter the airport building. Walk through the building, shop if you want, get into restaurant and head up to the top floor. You will reach the vast expanse of the rooftop that has been beautifully landscaped.

Sit there to enjoy the cool breeze, and see planes taking off and landing. One can also see the sunset. Unfortunately, we missed it because of clouds. All for free, as of now. I can visualise this presently quiet airport becoming a popular get-away spot.

It was around 7 pm, and we headed back home. Decided to take a bus ride now: since is not direct bus to Sanda, took one to a place called Flower Town. These buses are like our Volvos, very comfortable. Most of these inter-city buses take the expressway, so the travel time is reduced. From Flower Town we took a train to Sanda. An amazing day that began around 7 am. Saw a lot, enjoyed a lot, learnt a lot.

Now looking forward to the trip to Kyoto tomorrow.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Japan tour - Day 4

Meiji Shrine

In the morning, I set off for Yoyogi Park. It’s located at the site of the 1964 Olympics village. I was told that nearby there is a Shinto shrine. That’s what made me choose this over Shinjuku, more of a commercial and entertainment hub. What I missed though was walking through and getting lost in the world’s busiest railway station at Shinjuku.

I took a subway from Ikebukuro to Yoyogi station. I asked the ticket inspector as to from which side I should exit in order to go to Yoyogi Park. He replied in broken English that I had got down one station earlier! Yoyogi Park and the shrine are near the next station: Harajuku.

Quite perplexed as to why Yoyogi Park should be so far away from Yoyogi station and closer to the next station, I nevertheless exited the station and thought of walking around Yoyogi. I met two college students, a boy and girl, and I asked them how far is the Park from the station, and if I could walk.

She made a painstaking attempt to tell me in English that it’s quite far. (Very few Japanese can speak English.) They took me to the nearby junction, where there was a map of the locality. They very patiently showed me the route I should take. Their effort at helping me was typical of Japanese. They are very kind and considerate. These two were rushing, probably for their morning classes, but patiently spent five good minutes to explain to me the route.

I took a deep bow – the extent to which you bend shows the extent of your gratitude. I was really short of time, so I traced my way back to the Yoyogi station and took a ticket to the next station: Harajuku.

The Meiji shrine is indeed close to the Harajuku station. Later, I realised that this was the southern entrance, and the northern entrance was near the Yoyogi station. The tranquil forest within which this shrine is located took me by complete surprise – a world of difference from the busy city area.

Immediately after the massive Torii gate (the typical entrance of a Shinto shrine), there are thick trees on either side, fully blocking any sunshine. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken.

Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan in 1867. It was during this period that Japan became a modern and westernised state fully integrated with other countries.

This shrine is open on all days, but admission to the Treasure House and the Inner Garden is after payment of a fee of 500 yen.

It took nearly 3 hours to walk around the premises. There was little time for Yoyogi Park. Just had a quick short round of the place, and I headed back to Harajuku station. Around 1 pm, I was back at Ikebukuro, and after lunch, took a train to Tokyo for my onward journey to Osaka.

Bullet Train and Japan Rail Pass

We all grew up reading about the Japan’s technological marvel on rails called Bullet Trains,  Shinkansen in Japanese. It’s an amazing success story. Ever since the first one began running in 1964, there has not been even one fatal accident.

It’s Japan’s answer to saving time to increase productivity. Afterall they value time so much. The train speed reaches almost 300 kmph. The inside ambience is close to that of a plane. It runs so smooth on the dedicated railway lines.

The bullet train is costly, so for a tourist – who is planning to do a bit of traveling around Japan -- it’s advisable to take a Japan Rail Pass. With that you can travel unlimited on Bullet trains, Japan Rail trains and in buses operated by Japan Rail. These passes are not available in Japan but only abroad.

I obtained one from the Japan Airlines office on St Marks Road. You can take one for 7 or 14 or 21 days. The one for 7 days, that I bought, cost close to Rs 17000. It depends on the exchange rate.

After I reached Tokyo station, and headed to the Japan Rail pass exchange counter to swap the coupon I got from Bangalore for the pass. It’s a 5-minute process that includes filling up a form with some personal and passport details. Take good care of the pass, since if it’s lost there’s no replacement.

The Shinkansen for Osaka left Tokyo at 3.30 pm. There is one almost every half or so. Not just this train, there are plenty of Shinkansens connecting major cities of Japan. It’s an amazing network of trains, not just the Shinkansens, but the entire train network.

By the way, the entire train network is private. Nearly 70 per cent of it is owned by Japan Railways and the rest by a few dozen other private firms.

Trains are the most popular way of getting around places in Japan. It’s very reliable. After all, the success of public transport depends entirely on reliability. You never find too many people waiting for trains. Everyone reaches just 5 minutes before the departure time.

On the platform there is a clear demarcation as to where the doors of the train will be, and people line up there. And, unmistakably, the train stops in a way the people are right in front of the door. Everyone waits for the passengers to disembark, and then people board. Remarkable discipline!

I reached Osaka – some 550 km southwest of Tokyo -- at 6.30 pm, in three hours. On the way I saw Mt Fuji at a distance, partly obscured by clouds. My friend and school mate Prageeth was at the station. We then travelled to Sanda, some 35 km northwest of Osaka, where he stays and works.

Looking forward to the Hiroshima trip tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Japan tour - Day 3

The first thing I did this morning was to call up the front desk of the hotel for an update on the typhoon that was to hit Tokyo today. There was good news: hurricane had changed direction. But there was still threat of heavy rain in the evening.

I was moving from Tokyo city centre to Ikebukuro today. So the threat of rain meant, I had to move early afternoon. I was planning to move only in the evening. Now I had to do any sightseeing in the forenoon itself.

Since Google event was in Roppongi, there was nothing more to see of this international business and entertainment centre. It has some of the tallest buildings in Japan. Roppongi Hills is 48-storey tall (need to check that figure) and houses offices of some of the best known brands in the world.

Akihabara

Since the weather in the morning was clear, I decided to head to Akihabara. I took a subway from Roppongi on the Hibiya line. That’s the Electronics capital of Japan. I am told post-World War II this place was the hub of blacketmarkteering in electronics goods. Gradually the place developed into a well-organised commercial centre. The products leave you more confused and bewildered because of their sheer technological superiority.

There was one 5-floor book shop. My search for English books took me to the 4th floor, and all that was there were books like Obama's The Audacity of Hope, Harry Potter series, Advanced Javascript and Indian Face Massage!

Ikebukuro

Around 2 pm, I moved to Ikebukoro for an overnight stay there. I took a subway again on the Hibiya line but now in the opposite direction. Changed line at Ebisu and shifted to Japan Rail's Yamanote line.

At Ebisu station while I was looking at the map, I heard someone asking me in accented Hindi: "Mushkil hey kya?" I looked back surprised and saw a western looking late middle-aged man in black pant, white shirt and black shoes, waiting to move on while waiting for my response. I quickly said: "Looking for JR line to go to Ikebukoro." He said, "I will show you. I am also heading in the same direction."

A bit skeptical of this sudden development, I nevertheless followed him. We got talking while he helped me get my ticket. As we travelled, he said he had been to India many times, to Goa, Shimla, Delhi and Mumbai. He said he was an engineer and works in England. He checks oil pipelines, and said he was looking at the prospects of joining ONGC. He also said, "My wife is an Indian, so I must take care of her fellow citizens."

He was mighty impressed when I said I was a journalist and more so when I said I work with The Times of India. He spoke excellent British English and said he was in Japan for some business work.

He got down at Shinjuku and asked me to visit the town. He suggested that he could give his phone number. But I wasn't sure if I would visit the place. He exuded all the courtesies and benevolent nature one associates with a Japanese.

Shinjuku, the guide says, has the busiest railway station in the world. There are over-ground and underground railway lines, over 100 exits and handles over one million passengers a day, I am told. I wanted to see the station, if not the city, but there was no time.

Lively night life

In 20 minutes, I was in the commercial hub of Ikebukuro. The city seems to have two sides: one quiet traditional area and the other busier commercial hub. In the quieter area is a Shirdi Saibaba temple.

There are lots and lots of shops, plenty of eateries and entertainment hubs. It's lively in the night with lights, sound and lots of people. There are plenty of Family Mart department stores. There are so many that you can’t use it as a landmark! Co-existing with these family stores are KFC, McDonalds, cloth marts, pubs, men's store, massage parlours and other sleazy entertainment houses. Some of these spots announce their services so explicitly.

I am told these are perfectly okay, as long as no law and order problems are created. Police are at the spot within seconds of being alerted. That happens very rarely. Whatever they are doing, the Japanese are a disciplined and law-abiding set of people.

I saw an unusual sight: a fluttering Indian Tricolour. That was in front of an Indian restaurant. Later I realised that most of these Indian restaurants display the Tricolour outside, so it’s difficult to miss. Waiter Prasad Adhikari told me that Japanese love Indian cuisine; especially nan and chicken curry. I found one of these places full with no place to sit.

In the evening, I walked around the place. Saw a huge building resembling a mall. I decided to go in. It was indeed a mall. I took an escalator down, and ended up in the Ikebukuro railway station! I was puzzled. It was another exit of the railway station. Later I realised that most of the railway stations have huge stopping complexes and lots of eateries: the railway station and mall merge into one another.

Planning to go to Yoyogi Park and nearby Shinto shrine tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Japan tour - Day 2

The day of Google's Mobile Revolution event. It was a show casing of multiple uses of the smartphone bringing the world to our palm as it were. There were presentations by many Googlers behind Android, translation, voice recognitions etc.

The refrain was future is all about Android and smartphones. Speakers illustrated how the OS was becoming popular by the day and how it is making our daily lives easier. India journalists met with some of the key speakers for separate interactions in the post-lunch session.

It was a rainy and windy day here. There is forecast of storm hitting Tokyo tomorrow morning. Hope it passes fast and weather clears.

If the weather is clear I hope to go around the city tomorrow. Keeping my fingers firmly crossed. crossed.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Japan tour - Day 1

Airlines customise menu for passengers still I was pleasantly surprised to be served idly-vada-sambar in Bangkok-Tokyo Thai Airlines flight.

Very good sevice on board. Don't know if it should go to the credit of the pilot, the landings at Bangkok and Narita, Tokyo, were smooth. Smooth as silk as the ad goes. If you weren't looking out of window, you wouldn't know you landed!

I thought I would read during the Bangkok-Tokyo leg of the flight but quite deprived of sleep, I could hardly keep my eyes open. Reached Bangkok at 6 am local time and at Tokyo at 4 pm.

Like airports of any big city, Narita overwhelms you by its sheer size. It's about 70 km from Tokyo.

The taxi drive on 6-lane track was done in less than an hour. The lush greenery closer to Narita is replaced gradually by giant concrete structures closer to Tokyo.

The many flyovers, total absence of any garbage or even litter on the streets, noiseless, orderly traffic... What a world of difference!

Saw a bit of Tokyo by night as we walked from hotel to a nearby restaurant for dinner. Roppongi is a youth hangout and has a vibrant night life.

If you are a strict vegetarian, Japanese menu can be very difficult. Though I prefer vegetarian ended up having non-vegetarian here. Interestingly, many things we consider non-veg passes off as veg here.

I was asked today, how many Indians don't have egg but are ok with milk and other dairy products though they are all animal products! So it's all about perception and mindset.

Looking forward to the big Google 'mobile revolution' event tomorrow.