The last time I was in Japan was as a young Japanese language student, when I fell in love with the country through its language—I travelled through the country on the bullet trains, stayed with a host family in Osaka and learnt the intricacies of kanjis. I arrive in Tokyo after decades, on the day of the Hozuki Ichi—an ancient legend from the Edo era says that visiting a temple dedicated to the bodhisattva on this special day will equal 46,000 such visits on any other day. The frenetic energy of the city hits me almost immediately.
Everywhere I see stalls selling small pots of ground cherries in a shade of flaming sunsets and delicate glass wind chimes. The Hozuki-Ichi, named after an orange flower believed to have healing properties, has over 100 flower stalls set up around the Sensoji Temple. The legend goes that a samurai’s apprentice saw the god of fire in a dream, who told him about the Hozuki’s magical and healing properties. Along Tokyo’s oldest shopping street, Nakamise Dori, I see young women—in kimonos and carrying bamboo handbags—try their luck at o-mikuji stalls. This is just a random fortune telling on strips of paper rolled into wooden drawers. “Most probably they are likely to be tourists,” says my guide Toshi san. “Japanese women hardly wear the kimono anymore!”
Toshi San worked with Honda Corporation almost all his life and trained to be a tourist guide after retirement. And being Japanese, he naturally took it seriously—he has files of figures and statistics, historical dates and events about all the towns that we visit. He is close to 70 but walks faster than any of us, often springing up the steps as we wait for elevators.
Tokyo is a beguiling mix of cutting-edge and the traditional. I see small shrines and Japanese gardens in the shadow of towering skyscrapers and legions of nameless sarariman in black and white at pedestrian crossings. Every department store has the staff assembling to greet the early shoppers with bows. It’s a common sight to see children as young as five or six travel alone to schools with their yellow hats and backpacks. “They run errands for their family and even help in cleaning in school... Probably, it also has to do with high levels of safety and a low crime rate,” explains Toshi San. Most visible on nameboards and products are cutesy mascots and images that the Japanese thrive on—Hello Kitty to Manga characters and friendly bears. Coming from India, there is also a pleasant sense of déjà vu in the practice of taking off footwear outside homes and shrines; of washing your hands outside temples; of sitting on floor cushions and eating on low tables.
Tokyo really comes alive at nightfall, when the neon lights bathe the city and giant screens flicker to life; lanterns hang outside small izakayas and restaurants and the smell of yakitori wafts in the air. Walking in Ginza, the most expensive real estate in the world, is an eye-opening experience. Glitzy buildings that are covered in curtains of neon and the latest kid on the block—Ginza Place, with its lacy façade made of 5,315 aluminum panels. A 12-storey flagship of the clothing giant Uniqlo, with a Pepper robot outside, invites visitors to experience its pleasures. Kyukyudo is one of the oldest stationary shops in Tokyo, offering reams of wrapping paper in shades of vermillion and gold; sheets of writing paper and envelopes; slim pens for calligraphy and origami paper in stunning prints. This is stationary heaven. I pick up some pens with traditional motifs and have them wrapped, almost reverentially, in gilded paper.
The Japanese people are said to “eat with their eyes”, and every meal is also about the aesthetics of arrangement and plating of food. We have a shabu shabu meal—a traditional dish which usually has beef strips but we are treated to the vegetarian version.
Every table is provided with a small stove where a large pan has water boiling seasoned by seaweed. The waitress drops in fresh vegetables one by one—Chinese cabbage, different kinds of mushrooms, small cubes of tofu, sliced carrots. We dip into tiny bowls of sticky rice accompanied by vinegary soya sauce and pickled radish. Over the next few days, I have many other Japanese meals—with an endless array of mini-portions presented like edible poetry, on beautiful fluted cups porcelain and china bowls. We learn Japanese etiquette too: don’t bend and eat from your bowl; hold your bowl in your hands and kiss it; don’t leave the chopsticks upright, in your bowl of rice.
A rite of passage in any visit to Tokyo is a visit to the Imperial Palace. The magnificent Edo era castle with a moat and two gates is off-limits except for a couple of days in the year. We see the castle from a public plaza near the East Garden. The Japanese royals still hold sway over the local people. It’s the world’s oldest heredity monarchy after all. The family operates under hereditary, male-only succession rules, although there have been eight empresses in past centuries. The winds of change are sweeping over this family, with Crown Princess Masako in a reclusive state for many years, and the granddaughter’s recent announcement of her decision to marry a commoner—her college sweetheart.
Over the next few days, I travel around the country. From the castle of Kumamoto, damaged in the 2016 earthquake, to the port city of Nagasaki, which has a tragic past, but is also the cradle of Christianity in Japan—here, secret Christians worshipped in stealth for decades. We travel through iridescent green rice paddies and towering mountains to Beppu, the hot spring paradise of the country. The omnipresent motif throughout our trip is the outstanding standards of cleanliness. No one throws garbage anywhere on the streets. You won’t see rubbish bins around the cities, because people take the rubbish to recycling bins. The pine trees and gardens are manicured to perfection. Every seat in a bus is provided with a small plastic bag as a waste bin. And one of the high points of my sojourn has been the automatic toilets with warm seats, buttons for washing, drying and even music to mask “noises”.
And then there are the quirky parts of the culture that surface and fascinate me. In an evening in an izakaya, as we dig into our meal, conversation veers to married couples and I discover that in Japan, there’s the salary you get from your company, and if you are a married man, there’s the salary you get from your wife. It’s called okozukai, translated as “pocket money”. Traditionally, Japanese women control a family’s finances and the husband’s salary is directly credited to her account—in a country where nursery school can cost as much as $1,000 a month, it makes sense. “If I want to have an evening out with the boys, I usually request my wife for a small allowance,” says Yamada san, who works for JNTO. I am fascinated by this concept of a “husband salary”.
What I really find mind-blowing are the ordinary things that the Japanese take for granted—the attention to small details and rituals. It is, after all, the country where it takes 10 years to master the knife skills essential to making sushi. The vending machines dispense everything from cold coffee, magazines, green tea and even flowers. Musk melons come perfectly packed in boxes with small plastic caps. Kit Kat comes in 98 flavours—from watermelon to green tea and strawberry cheesecake. Plastic food samples are placed outside every restaurant, crafted with uncanny resemblance. When we sit down in restaurants, special baskets are thoughtfully provided for us to store handbags. The way the streets are swept—with meticulous precision—is almost spiritual. Police officers in their koban (police boxes), in cities around the country, provide directions to lost tourists.
The Japanese have a name for forgotten articles: wasuremono. And stations have a lost and found section; chances are that if you lost something on a Japanese train—from a mobile phone to a umbrella—you will find it here. Tokyo’s Metropolitan Police Department said it was given a staggering total of $32.7 million in lost cash last year, according to a Bloomberg report. I leave my watch behind in a hotel in Kumamoto, in the flurry of an early check-out. Much later, when I remember, Toshi San makes a call to the hotel. Sure enough, they not only have the watch, but also a small hair clip that I have forgotten. They promise to mail it to my address.
As someone said, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” And in Japan, the little things matter.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and Japanese language specialist who believes in serendipity and the power of a hug.
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