Discover Japan Beyond Its Cherry Blossoms | Verve Magazine
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June 29, 2016

Discover Japan Beyond Its Cherry Blossoms

Text and Photographs by Huzan Tata

During a winter visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, we discover history, entrancing natural vistas, and an undying love for the island country

It’s been barely a few hours since our arrival in Tokyo. “In my next life, I want to be a rock in Japan and just sit in one spot in a garden, watching nature and life pass by,” I hear someone say, and I can already see why. Every sight is like a picture postcard, and even in the chilly December cold, warmth emanates from the people around. Toshisan (san is the equivalent of the Indian ‘ji’), our guide, welcomes us, bowing incessantly and smiling excitedly, as though this Japanese adventure is going to be as much his discovery as ours.

Traipsing through Tokyo
Japan’s capital since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Tokyo is the perfect example of a hybrid city. Temples stand beside skyscrapers, blossoms provide as much colour as neon lights and traditional food is available as commonly as top sartorial trends. At Asakusa’s Nakamise market in the heart of the city, it’s a riot of colour and action. Teenagers with selfie sticks, old women with shopping baskets and schoolchildren feasting on street food are common sights. We get our first taste of a Japanese sweet — the melt-in-your-mouth ningyo-yaki, a small snack with red bean paste filling. We savour the mini delight as we walk into the Sensō-ji temple complex at the end of the shopping street, through the giant kaminarimon (thunder gate). The smell of incense and the motion of prayer wheels add to the serenity of the moment. Fortune tellers abound, and worshippers are seen taking blessings by sweeping the holy smoke above their heads. We join in — much to the amusement of the locals — and are later awed by the architecture of the monument. Tokyo’s oldest temple, Sensō-ji was built for the worship of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Stop at the entrance with your back to the main building, and you have a perfect view of the busy street, and the five-storey pagoda on the right of the temple.

Our next stop is the Tokyo Skytree — a popular tourist spot, where one can get a night-time view of the city skyline from a height of 455 metres. We are excitedly exploring the Star Wars exhibits at the mall, and stocking up on the edible souvenir, the Tokyo Banana Heart. But my mind wanders back to the peaceful environs of the Buddhist Senso-ji temple. I too, slowly but surely, am starting to fall in love with this land of pagodas and cherry blossoms.

Everyone I interact with before my journey tells me not to keep my hopes up regarding a good view of Mount Fuji. So I am ready for a cloudy day and a foggy glimpse of the mountain. But the gods at the Asakusa temple, that I had prayed at the night before, must really love me, because the skies open up, the weather is pleasant, and the visitors’ centre’s doors seem only too welcoming. After viewing a short film on the creation of the mountain, we head towards the terrace for a dekko of the world’s largest active volcano. And right from the snowy peak to its contoured edges, the sight is one to capture for posterity. One could see why this culturally vibrant UNESCO World Heritage site is so revered by the Japanese. It is not just a natural vista — Shintos (followers of the country’s major religion) believe that everything is created by god, and Fujisan, as it is lovingly called, is no less than a deity to them. We are beginning to revere it too. After photo ops at Lake Yamanaka — where views of Fuji, the water body, and the trees and flowers lead to several frame-worthy moments — we head off for our first Japanese meal.

Houtou udon, noodles made from wheat flour, is a staple food of the natives. As we sit on the floor pillows, with our legs folded under us like true locals, the large bowls arrive. Toshisan eats the soupy broth with vegetables in an instant, working like a magician with his chopsticks, but we are struggling with our own. Giving up, some of us ask for forks, and soon enough, are devouring this wartime food of the samurais. Bland for our Indian palates at first, we spice it up with condiments, including the zingy seaweed vinegar.

Kyoto’s cultural marvels
The Shinkansen — the fastest bullet train in the world — pulls into Kyoto station at the exact time it is scheduled to (in Japan, even a minute’s delay puts people in a tizzy), and though early evening, it is pitch-black outside. But, with neon lights all around, it is the best time to explore the city — that has been described as home to ‘1680 temples, 900 cabs, 1.5 million people, and 50 million tourists’ — on foot.

A walk around the erstwhile capital’s Gion district is like a journey through the past. Start at Minami-za, the oldest kabuki (drama) theatre in the country. Lit up and decorated with striking murals of performers and scenes, this is the best bet for an authentic experience of Japanese theatre. Walk down Gion corner, and spot geishas and maikos (apprentices of the former) as frequently as you spot local teahouses or ochayas. But though Japan’s best known performers — thanks to Arthur Golden’s famous novel — these geishas do not like to be followed or photographed. As throngs of tourists wait outside a geisha house for a peek, the female entertainers glance through windows, in search of a quick escape. Tired of waiting to see the result of this cat-and-mouse game, we continue onwards. We step into a sushi bar — quarter plates, each with a single sushi roll, are travelling on a conveyor belt, and people are picking the ones they’d like to eat. Though I have been averse to letting anything remotely raw slide down my throat before this, I succumb. I try the prawn, tuna, and salmon sushi, dipping each one in soya and wasabi, and gulping them down in an instant. What better way to have your first taste of a dish than in the country it originates from? I sip on some sweet umeshu, wine made from ume (plum), and toast the successful devouring of my first sushi.

Kyoto is a land of castles and temples. Serving as Japan’s capital from AD 794 to 1868, the city is rich in historical and cultural value. We head into the Fushimi Inari Shrine complex, where vermillion gates welcome us into the sanctuary dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. We learn how to clean up before entering a Shinto place of worship — fill water in the ladle provided, pour it down your arms for ‘purification’, and wash the instrument for the next person. We pay our respects at the main altar before heading to the pathway through the sacred torii gates. These arches number over 5,000 and wind through the mountains. What fascinates me the most is the omo karu ishi or ‘lifting of the stone’ ritual. Make a wish, and then lift the stone. If it turns out to be lighter than expected, the wish will come true. If it’s heavier, there will be difficulties. I try the task, and leave with a satisfied smile on my face.

At Nijō-jo Castle, we are walking in the footsteps of the royals. Built in 1603 for the first Tokugawa shogun (feudal ruler), the palace is decorated with delicate carvings, tatami straw mats and lavish murals. But what intrigues us are the nightingale floors. Designed with dry boards, these creak and make a chirping noise (similar to that made by a nightingale) at even the slightest of pressure. We walk as stealthily as possible — some of us are on our toes — but this security system of the shoguns is infallible.

I think that nothing else on this trip can be as magnificent as Fujisan. And then we head to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. Lush trees in green, yellow, orange and red welcome us as we enter the pebbled premises. We are resigned to the fact that we are in the city of cherry blossoms at a time when they are not in bloom — but that is one reason to return someday. As we pass through the gates, I stare in awe at the shining building that catches my eye. Representative of the Muromachi period of architecture, the gold-foil-covered lacquer pavilion houses Buddha’s relics. Three levels high, this gorgeous monument is surrounded by a garden and sits in a lake, its shining yellow reflected in the water below. A phoenix — known as Hō-ō — is carved on the shingled roof. Being in Japan, I exclaim once again, is like walking through a postcard. We stop at the Sekka-tei teahouse, built for the shogun during the medieval Edo period. It provides visitors with the best view in the house — that from the erstwhile patron’s eyes. We are in awe of the golden temple. “This is what heaven must look like,” I overhear someone say.

Amusing Osaka
Who could guess that I would live for a few hours in the home of a favourite literary character, in Japan of all places? When we enter Universal Studios Japan (USJ), we are tired from a long bus ride from Kyoto, and full from our lunch. But as soon as we hear that USJ is home to the only Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Asia, the child within us jumps up in excitement. If Kyoto is the land of history and ancient culture, Osaka is Honshu island’s commercial centre, known for its popular culture, nightlife and street food. Zoos, art galleries, concert arenas, gardens and of course USJ — the city’s points of interest are for the culture- and adventure-savvy.

After a thrilling two hours at USJ, where we behave like kids in a candy shop, we get our dose of history at the Osaka Castle. Surrounded by a large stone wall, this 16th-century building was struck by lightning and got completely burnt down in 1665 before being rebuilt in the 1930s. The five levels on the outside are quite deceptive: the palace actually comprises eight floors. We get a view of the majestic castle from the lake opposite, and stroll around the premises in one of the many gardens that dot Japan, and which we are so yearning to never leave.

Before we board the Shinkansen to Hiroshima, we buy lunch. The bento box — packed meal — is filled with octopus legs, pork, rice balls, noodles and seaweed. We enjoy this feast on the move, and whip out our phones to click pictures of the aesthetically designed lids, complete with pictures of the country’s natural wonders. In Japan, I’m no longer surprised to discover, even lunch boxes are beautiful!

Living history in Hiroshima
One atomic bomb was dropped on the city in August 1945. And in a few seconds, bloody bodies were piling up in the river, and all the land — save for the walls of one building — was devastated. We are standing in front of this structure that is preserved in the skeletal state it was left in on that fateful day, except that now it has a reconstructed dome, the Genbaku Dōmu. There is complete silence, questions and comments can be saved for another time; this is a moment of remembrance and mourning. As a student of history, I have studied the world wars in detail, but standing at the site of one of the worst destructions in recent times evokes a feeling that no textbook can induce. We walk around the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, paying our respects at the children’s memorial — beautified with tiny paper cranes created by kids from across the world — and marvelling at the peace flame in the centre of the garden. This fire will only be put out when nuclear weapons are completely abolished from the world, we learn. “So, never,” Toshisan says, quite matter-of-factly. We are stunned into silence again. Our walk ends at the cenotaph in memory of those who lost their lives in the tragedy. ‘Please rest in peace, for…shall not repeat the error’ reads the plaque. The subject of the sentence is missing because, we learn, the blame of war cannot be put on any one person or country.

As we wait on the benches outside the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, we relive the moments spent inside the building. Pictures of people struck by radiation, actual clothes and items that were recovered later, images of the first flower that bloomed in Hiroshima six months after the tragedy…we are preoccupied by thoughts of what we have just encountered. On our right is the museum that we walked through in pin-drop silence, and on our left is French artist Clara Halter and architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte’s creation, the Gates of Peace. Dedicated to the historical city, the structure symbolises Dante’s nine circles of hell, and includes a 10th one: Hiroshima. This is our final sight in Japan before we leave for our flight back home. As I get an arresting aerial view of Fujisan from my plane window, I ponder what I had heard on our first day here. I, too, want to live my next life as a rock in Japan, watching life pass by.

Strolls through Sagano
This is a forest like no other. A walk through the Sagano Bamboo Grove, in the Arashiyama district on the outskirts of Kyoto, is the perfect escape from the hustle of the city. It towers several feet above you on either side, but the sun’s rays find the gaps and fall onto the only walking path in the area. Crane your neck, bend down, sit on your knees or lie flat on the ground — capturing a picture of the groves and people together in one frame is a challenging task due to the height and curve of the bamboos. A stone’s throw away from the Togetsukyo Bridge, Sagano is, to put it simply, one of those must-see-before-you-die places.

Water worship at Miyajima
A 10-minute ferry ride from Hiroshima, Miyajima Island is most famous for its Great Torii, the 54-foot-tall Shinto sacred gate that, at high tide, seems to float on water. The island, around 700-metres away from the shrine, is a tourist haven. Feast on grilled oysters at a street stall. Photograph the deer that hop around, poking their noses into the bags of unsuspecting tourists. Shop for lucky charms and traditional wooden crafts (miyajima-bori). Or simply explore the Itsukushima Shrine — ‘the shrine on the sea’ — and the many other attractions of the island.

Far and away
EAT okonomiyaki, a savoury omelette. Our favourite was the pork okonomiyaki at Benbe restaurant in Hiroshima — top it off with a side of sashimi and a glass of cold sake.
BUY maneki-neko, cats made of ceramic or plastic, common Japanese talismans that are believed to bring good luck to the owner. Lucky charms for good health, love, wealth, and success are available at most temples.
EXPLORE Tokyo’s Ginza district that provides the best of entertainment, luxury shopping and dining.

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