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Stranger than fiction

Stranger than fiction
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First Published: Fri, Dec 17 2010. 07 03 PM IST

Rising sun: (Clockwise from top/left) Tokyo at night; the colours of autumn at the Sensoji temple; the group near Kawaguchiko and the bamboo forest near Kyoto
Rising sun: (Clockwise from top/left) Tokyo at night; the colours of autumn at the Sensoji temple; the group near Kawaguchiko and the bamboo forest near Kyoto
Updated: Fri, Dec 17 2010. 07 03 PM IST
What brought you to Japan?
This was a holiday with our closest friends, and something that we had been planning for almost a year.
I’d always been fascinated by Japanese culture, both the sane and the quirky, and especially by the Japanese philosophy of minimalist design. My husband is a Haruki Murakami fan who’s wanted to visit Tokyo ever since he read South of the Border, West of the Sun. One of us was a foodie who wanted to get a real sushi experience, and others were happy to come along and explore a new and interesting destination.
Thanks to planning so far in advance, we managed to get real cheap flight tickets to Japan—Rs30,000 via Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia Airlines. Once in Japan, we used Japan Rail within Tokyo (you can buy the voucher in India) and travelled by the iconic Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto.
Who did you travel with?
There were nine of us—me, my husband Sandeep and seven of our closest friends.
Did you plan an itinerary? And once you got there, were you able to stick to it?
We used a travel agent in Bangalore to get our visas, air tickets and Japan rail passes; but we planned out itinerary ourselves and booked our accommodation online. We tried to stay close to the city centre or to railway stations—we stayed in the Sunroute Plaza near Tokyo’s Shinjuku station, and in Hana Hostel, a Japanese style inn in Kyoto.
In Japan, we relied mostly on guide books, walking city tours applications on the iPhone, and took advice and directions from hotel staff who spoke English.
Rising sun: (Clockwise from top/left) Tokyo at night; the colours of autumn at the Sensoji temple; the group near Kawaguchiko and the bamboo forest near Kyoto
Our original plan was to visit Tokyo for the pop culture, Kyoto for the Zen gardens and religious shrines, and Kawaguchiko for the views of Mount Fuji. We stuck to our general itinerary, but did cut down on some sightseeing to relax and generally hang out.
The nights were great fun. Bars and restaurants stay open really late. We also happened to be in Tokyo during the Halloween weekend, which was an amazing experience.
Was there any place you’d have liked to go but didn’t find time for?
We could have definitely spent more time in Kyoto’s Zen gardens and Buddhist shrines which are absolutely beautiful. We were lucky to catch the autumn colours here. Also, Tokyo has so many fun things to do and see. Ten days are definitely not enough in Japan.
What part of the holiday do you remember most fondly?
Japan is a fascinating place to observe, especially because of its unique culture. The Shinto—Buddhist shrines and the Zen gardens which are the spiritual centres of country are absolutely stunning and serene.
Tokyo was amazing for different reasons. There was Harajuku, where you see high-street fashion brands in the shops, people dressed in new-age fashion on the streets, and very occasionally, groups of people “cosplaying”—dressed up in costumes of their favourite cartoon characters. We also went to Akihabara, which is a geek nirvana. It’s brimming with 10-storey shopping centres with entire floors dedicated to different gadgets and electronics. This is also where the otakus—the subculture of people obsessed with gaming, electronics and manga—hang out.
How vast were the language and cultural gaps, and how did you bridge them? Was there any particular discovery that emphasized this?
The deeply ingrained order and politeness was a revelation. We were in a small tempura restaurant in Kyoto which had floor seating and the tables were very close to each other. A couple of women, who were seated at the next table, which wasn’t even an arm’s length away from us, were talking to each other but they were so soft-spoken that we couldn’t hear them throughout our meal. And no matter how hard we tried to whisper, only our voices were heard in the entire restaurant. So obviously, the Japanese are as different from Indians as they can be!
In Japan, most people are rather private and do not like people intruding into their space, and their lack of knowledge of English may restrict their conversations with you, but if you attempt to convey your point across with a mix of English, a few Japanese words and some hand gestures, they are quite willing to help you. Also, some young Japanese are attempting to learn English, so in informal settings like bars and restaurants you may meet friendly Japanese people who will chat with you.
The shyness and privacy is abandoned in bars or the fancy Shibuya restaurants though, especially with the younger people. And they’re quite curious to know more about you. But language barriers really do tend to limit their interaction with foreigners.
What were the hospitality and food experiences like?
Japanese food can either be the biggest attraction for someone to travel to Japan or the biggest deterrent. If you like sushi or seafood, a Japanese vacation will be heavenly, but if you’re vegetarian, get ready to starve! So vegetarians and people who don’t like seafood should carry some ready-to-eat food or mixes. You will find the odd vegetarian restaurant though, especially in Kyoto.
Food and dining is considered somewhat of an experience in Japan. There are many unique concepts that you can try like the Standing Sushi Bar or the Kaiten Zushi (Conveyor Belt Sushi) or the colourful Bento Box (Japanese lunch box).
It’s a bit difficult to find restaurants serving other cuisines, especially at times when you have a tight schedule and want a quick meal.
Warnings about food etiquette are a bit exaggerated, or perhaps we were forgiven because we weren’t Japanese. Nobody was as strict as we expected them to be. But practising with chopsticks is a good idea, because most restaurants don’t have forks.
If you did it again, what would you pack and what would you plan for?
I’d definitely pack more fashionable clothes. We were in casual travelwear all through, and Tokyo is one of the hippest and most fashion-forward cities in the world. No one, absolutely no one, is casually dressed in Tokyo.
As told to Aadisht Khanna.
Radhika Mahadevan, 29, a marketing manager at a big IT firm, had wanted to see Japan for years after falling in love with the Japanese design aesthetic. Earlier this autumn, she and her friends made the trip they’d been dreaming about
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First Published: Fri, Dec 17 2010. 07 03 PM IST