Japan – beyond the kimonos

Growing up, my dad narrated the story of a Japanese lady who stitched the torn seat of the train she was traveling by. Exceptional people, I thought

My memories also include, a Japanese calendar that used to change every year. Starting December I used to look forward to a new kimono-clad lady that would adorn our side wall. In my little head, it was an event!

Japanese women in Kimono. Waiting for her loved one at the sight of perfect blossom.
Shot near Kamo river, Kyoto

Fast forward, 16 years later, I knew a lot more about Japan. I knew about the lightning-quick Shinkansen, the beautiful Geishas, stunning cherry blossom and Japanese tenacity in the wake of natural disasters. Drawing a ten-day plan we hopped onto our Nippon Airways flight. A simple itinerary with five days in Tokyo, followed by five in Kyoto – and day trips from our two base locations.

As we boarded our first metro, the melodious chant of “Shibuya, Shibuya” echoed from the recorded announcement. Once inside, I noticed that in spite of the metro being fairly crowded, there was pin drop silence. For a minute it felt like inside a church. With people considering it inappropriate to talk while in trains, especially on phone, it took me time to realize the etiquettes in Japan were very similar in almost all public spaces. On the escalators, people stood on one side to allow others to rush past. Though what took us by surprise was the sheer humility of the people. Like the ticket collector that came out of his office and walked with us to the bus stop so that we didn’t get lost. An old couple bowed down multiple times to say, arigato gozaimasu (thank you) when we offered our seats on the train. Our calligraphy class hosts who offered us homemade regional delicacies after learning about our love for food. It was an incredible experience.

For the Japanese Cherry blossom is the essence of Life, an ephemeral phenomenon, a reminder that life is short but absolutely beautiful!

“The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.”

~ The Last Samurai

And the Japanese celebrate it with aplomb! We could see entire families pulling in with bags of food and drinks in various parks. With rugs placed below the cherry trees, there was finally some noise and laughter!

Tears of joy, is an expression that I would now associate with cherry blossom. A walk along the Kamo river with shutterbugs finding the perfect pre-wedding shot, a stroll in Kyoto’s obnoxiously beautiful botanical garden or peddling around the city with no particular destination but just soaking in the cherry pink, red and white that nestles along the red and green thatched roofs.

Cherry Blossom
Shot at Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
An artist makes an impression. Shot at Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo
Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto.
Fox, Kitsune, is considered to be messenger of the spirit, Inari, having super natural significance.
Ueno Park, Tokyo
All dressed up! Shot at Ueno Park, Tokyo.
Tulips at Botanical Garden, Kyoto.
At the beginning of Spring, tulips add to the astonishing beauty of Japanese Gardens
Tulips at Botanical Garden, Kyoto.
Shot at Kyoto Botanical Garden
Hanami celebration. Kids play as parents relax under the trees. Shot at Shinjuku Gyoen

During the blossom period, everything from tea to snacks is flavored with cherry flowers, including Senbei. Being from India, snacks made of rice are a staple for us but Senbei is in a different league in terms of texture, taste, and variety. But what turned out to be a surprise package was the Japanese patisseries. Japan can truly pass as the new France. Be it chic boutiques or food cars, pastries in Japan are surprisingly mouth-watering and delicious. The love for green tea is evident from the souffle and KitKat that dominate the restaurant menus and supermarket racks respectively.

Food presentation is an art form in Japan. Restaurants advertise various meals in transparent boxes, including sushi rolled nicely with different fish that coerces you to pick up more than you could bargain for.

While there are limited things I did prefer from the Japanese food delicacies, there is no dearth in Japanese gaming options. I have had my fair tryst with gaming, but when you walk across four storied buildings dedicated to games in Akihabara, Tokyo, you know the Japanese are in a different league. Zealous gaming centers aside, there are buildings dedicated to animated character toys, electronics, and cameras that intend to test your credit card limits.

Speaking about cards, many shops including some McDonalds don’t accept cards. For a technology-driven country, this was a real surprise. 

Technology is a big part of Japanese life, from robotic companions to robotic deliveries in restaurants, the most astonishing was the smart toilets. With lights, seat temperature, water, flush, music – everything controlled by the microcontroller, it was more like a throne that Jon Snow would aspire for! (or so I thought until Jon was sent off!)

While the Japanese are still rooted in their traditions and values, they are more modern and digital than the west! It is this contrast that is both perplexing and interesting and makes me want to visit this beautiful country again.