Balancing The Familiar And The Unfamiliar In Japan

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In the spring of 2014, I travelled for three weeks in Japan. I spent months saving for it, and researching where I would go. I wrote to the Japanese Embassy in London and travel agencies to send me free brochures. I made a decision to travel alone so I would be forced to practice the little Japanese I had managed to acquire in two years of study. It was a trip rich in experience and fulfilment, one that I documented heavily and still escape into or take inspiration from. As a student of Japanese with an insatiable appetite for Japanese culture, the trip was like a field study.  It has taken me over two years to digest the detail of those travels, not the least because many of those experiences surprised me or challenged me to reassess my notions of Japan. 

3)Miyajima - Letting Yourself In

Darkness enveloped Miyajima just as the ferry pulled in. Expecting to see the ‘floating’ orange gate, synonymous with tourism brochures of Japan, I was surprised to be greeted instead by the Itsukushima Shrine cast in a dimness as the tide went out, leaving the foot of the gate caked with silt.

Visitors, like me, tumbled out of the ferry in a daze, petting the stray deer walking around the island, then walking up to the giant gate. The shops were shut and the island bore the air of one being asleep and dreaming.

On returning to the hostel back in town, the night drifted with conversations and laughter, displacing any disappointment at not having seen a shrine floating in the sea.

The next morning, I went back to the island. Daylight transformed the scenery, and as the renowned orange gate came into view, levitating in the sea as promised, it captivated me so that I couldn’t bear to take any photographs. When the ferry came to a halt, everyone went outside, in one direction. Having been there the night before, and harbouring a desire to walk alone, I went the opposite way.

After a few moments, I met an old Grandpa. We had a conversation; my first attempt at trying to understand real-time native Japanese in Japan. Several things escaped me but from the moment that Grandpa started talking to me, I knew it would be a memory I would wish to return to in the future and I made an additional effort to understand what he said.

When we parted ways, I walked along the path checking the name tags of the trees, listening to the sound of the sea and the wind through the pines and laurels and thinking about the elements of simplicity that had made an exchange between two strangers who would likely never meet again, so special. I stopped when I came upon a large wooden gate. There was no one else in sight and I didn’t notice any other signs. I went inside.

There was a gravel path surrounded by a garden of bonsais manicured to perfection, statues of Gods, ponds with koi fish, and a house. I looked around – still no one but me. 

‘Shitsureishimasu’/’Excuse me for interrupting’, I said. In my crime of breaking several cultural rules at once, I thought about pausing and at the least, removing my shoes before going in. But that would mark my intent with such precision that I left them on and let myself in. There was a Zen garden. I stood by it, forgetting all sense of time or the physical world, haunted. Finally, I walked around, finding rooms behind sliding doors that housed more statues of Gods, even a toilet. When I had explored the house, uttering more ‘shitsureishimasu’-es hoping these could redeem me, I went outside the house, then the gate, and bowed.

I continued the hike and more people joined the path. I noticed a passer-by I had seen earlier during the day, sitting on top of a large rock. It seemed like a good place for lunch, so I asked if I could climb up. We ate our launch, talking about our days, the paths we took. He quizzed me about the path I took, but I couldn’t bring myself tell him about my secret intrusion. We talked about why we travel and the choices we make in leading the lives we want to lead. We stopped to take in the view of Miyajima - boats bobbed in the water on one side, the sea specked by small green islands, the orange Itsukushima shrine, the forests of Mount Misen adding a rich hue to the scene. A serenity that I hadn’t felt before, came over me. It dawned on me that the place I had entered before might have been a temple.

Situations like the closed temple door, have present themselves before me since, in travel and in daily life. I aspire for more caution, and am more respectful about preserving the sanctity of a space. But on occasion, a new world fills me with such intrigue that I just can’t help but let myself in.

2) Hiroshima - The Influence of the Daifuku and the Japanese Bow

The Shinkansen pulled up in to Osaka station. A signal sounded, announcing the bullet train’s departure in seven minutes. In this interval, the passengers from the previous journey stepped out on to the platform, the train attendants cleaned the carriages and the toilets, and the passengers travelling to Hiroshima boarded the train. It was an early morning on a weekday and there weren’t that many people. Nevertheless, there was no one rushing to get out and no one rushing to get in - the flow of people was natural - and we left for Hiroshima as scheduled in a clean train, seven minutes later.

I sat in a carriage by myself, eating my first daifuku of the trip. These traditional Japanese sweets, made of mochi (glutinous rice flour) and anko (read bean paste) are of a texture that can be unfamiliar to the non-Japanese taste buds. I had tried these sweets in London and although they gave me an illusion of being closer to Japan, I hadn’t been able to appreciate their taste. As I finished my locally sourced daifuku and was forced to acknowledge the lack of a strong impression, a train conductor who couldn’t have been less than the age of eighty, came to the door of the carriage, and bowed to me, despite me being the only one in that carriage. I wondered if he had awarded me with this reverence because he noticed my backpack on the rack above and classified me as a tourist. Just then, he bowed to indicate he was leaving, went to the next carriage which was empty, and bowed again, this time to nobody at all. I wanted to call out to him and ask if he loved his work that much but he seemed so absorbed in his work, that I thought it would be rude to disturb his concentration.

Hiroshima station had a locker for my backpack – Japan seemed to be full of these conveniences – solutions for last minute desires that a traveller may have forgotten to research.

I walked to the Peace Memorial Park.  The city was less crowded than Osaka and cleaner. There were lots of cafes and restaurants, showcasing an obsession that Japan seemed to harbour with Western European restaurants modified to suit Japanese taste.
I had lunch on a bench in the serene park surrounding the museum. The trees and the sound of birds with the occasional child passing by, provided respite, accentuating the fragility of life and the resolve of human beings to persevere in their survival.

I stopped to watch a group of school girls standing and singing outside a clutter of shopping malls, till I realized it was a promotional campaign for a bank. Groups of guides stood asking for donations in loud voices and another group handed out tissue packs with advertisements at the back. Each little girl sang in her own pitch. It was all a little bit disorienting.

Walking along the river and under the shade of the trees lining the path, a Japanese band was playing some acoustic songs. At the Atomic Bomb Dome or Genbaku Dome, the only structure to remain standing after the nuclear explosion in 1945, there were many tourists and I began to feel the energy of Hiroshima and its history.

I then visited the Peace Memorial Museum, which was built in the 50’s and has exhibits about the explosion. There was a focus on survivors (hibakusha) and the effects the explosion and the radiations had on them - cancer, mental deterioration, death.

The mayor of Hiroshima writes every year to discourage countries from conducting nuclear tests. There were explanations for why Hiroshima had been chosen for the bombing for its strategic location. I saw some Japanese visitors stop at an exhibit that showed how one of the surviving soldiers recalled two young boys asking him if Japan would win the war and him replying in the affirmative, knowing that loss was certain. 

Although the museum lacked detail on the role of Japan in the war, there were sections about the propaganda of war, the government trying to ‘enlighten’ its citizens to fight for victory and nothing else.  In the end, the victims of all disasters seem to be the powerless who seek to live ordinary lives. I got a stamp on my postcard and was glad to leave the museum. I felt helpless and overwhelmed by the damage that we can bring to each other. I noticed that most visitors, like me, were crying as they left.

 I bought myself a momiji-manju, a speciality maple shaped daifuku from Hiroshima and walked by the river, listening to the amateur acoustic bands. The atmosphere here was lighter - a lot of people seemed to be locals who were just enjoying a sunny day. 

That daifuku seemed delicious to me and when I finished eating it, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, something compelled me to bow. I bowed to no one in particular, just as that train attendant had. Unlike his bow, which to me had denoted pride, perhaps my bow had more ambiguity, inspired in part by shame and part by respect for the human spirit.

1)Osaka - Resetting a Visitor’s Expectations

Upon arriving at the airport in Osaka, I read my travel journal – “I am curious about Japan and yet I harbor no expectations from it. I believe it will feel  familiar, for I know it a little already.”

When I reached the airport, all the signs were in Japanese Kanji and lack of sleep gave way to disorientation. I found the rail station, went up to the station inspector, summoned up some courage and said in Japanese, “Excuse me sir, can you please tell me how I can get to this hostel?” The station inspector smiled, and replied at length. I smiled back; I understood 2% of what he said. “Thank you so much. But…do you speak any English?” I asked. The train inspector smiled and shook his head. I had been warned to watch out for the Osaka dialect, but now those nuances escaped me, leaving in their wake, the feeling of incomprehension from my first ever Japanese lesson.

I resorted to using my phone and managed to get on a train to the comfort of Japanese culture and real-life I could finally relate to – children in cute attire, lots of old people, a strange girl reading a thick manga, a teenager with One Piece branded headphones, and the passing sound of the Japanese fumikiri or railway crossing. 

At Nishinari, I walked out of the station to find a street lined with homeless old men and their shacks. Unlocked bicycles lined the opposite side of the street and the homeless men were taking it in turns to ride them around in crisscross paths, most showcasing a toothless grin. At the hostel, wondering if I had chanced on a film set, I exchanged my ‘outdoor’ shoes for some ‘indoor’ slippers, and ticked another cultural trait I recognized. I met a young Chinese traveller in the bathroom and we exchanged (in broken Japanese and English) our observations on the strange location of hour hostel.

My plans for the day were to traipse through the city. The streets were deserted barring the homeless. I walked into a covered arcade, full of shops that sold nick knacks. Some of the proprietors stood outside, as though beckoning to me.  Just past the arcade, I could see high rise buildings. The arcade appeared to be at the edge of a poverty ridden, hidden world, offering an escape to modern city life on the other side.  I walked past sky scrapers and lanes with quiet residential houses, till I reached the Shitennoji Temple.

After taking in the Zen gardens of one of Japan’s oldest temple complexes, I sat below a sprawled out Cherry blossom tree, enjoying my salad, edamame crisps and matcha ice cream – being vegetarian in Japan was going to be a challenge. A pair of young siblings ran around the tree and turtles sunned themselves in the temple pond. The siblings stopped running, waved at me and shouted hello.

Going to one of Osaka’s busiest shopping districts right after garnering so much peace, wasn’t the best idea I had all day. The district was full of pedestrians, dressed in all sorts of fashion. A lot of the shops, restaurants, cafes, seemed to have started out with a Western frame in mind, and then switched over to Osaka-style half-way.

By dusk, I was at Osaka Castle, the last of the cherry blossoms were still on the trees, and there weren’t that many people about. The castle had a time capsule – a project to encapsulate the daily life of the 1970’s for the benefit of future generations.  I sat on a bench by the capsule, contemplating the lengths that human beings go to in order to communicate with each other.

That evening, I had plans to meet an old friend from London. We took a taxi to Dotonbori – full of neon lights, restaurants and throngs of people crossing each other on the Ebisu bridge.  We took a cruise on a boat with a loud guide; the lights of the shops, love hotels, restaurants along the canal flickering with mystery. It was like being in a matsuri or Japanese Festival of kitsch. 

My friend took me to eat okonomiyaki (Japanese savoury pancakes). As excited I was by the prospect of an authentic Japanese okonomiyaki, I didn’t have too much hope of it being vegetarian. I noticed then that my friend had been nursing a bottle of oil. My friend proceeded to explain to the chef that I was vegetarian and he was to use this oil to ensure that my okonomiyaki was free from the chunks of meat/fat the normal oil had.  The chef looked at me, looked back at my friend, and then said in Japanese, “That’s so strange. Does she have a weird religion or something?” My friend refused to give in. Finally, the chef laughed and cooked me a delicious okonomiyaki which I ate with relish.

When I told my friend I was staying in Nishinari, his jaw dropped. “I’ll take you home”, he said. At the door of my hostel, I bid my friend goodbye and said to him, “Masa-san, thank you so much, you really went out of your way to drop me home. I am travelling to Japan all the way from London, you know.” 

“Sneha-san, I didn’t want to intrude or scare you, but I thought you might have booked a popular hostel after searching online. This is the reason that I asked where you were staying. I guessed you may not have realized that you are sharing this neighbourhood with almost 100% of Osaka’s homeless. There’s a brothel some streets away and I have heard there are even yakuza groups here…” 
“Ah I see, no, I hadn’t quite realized…all of that.”  
We looked at each other and laughed. 

To start my tryst with Japan in Osaka was something I had deliberated on a while. Where you start your travels can set the tone of your entire trip. At many points, sauntering in Osaka was like sauntering through the back lanes of Commercial Street in Bangalore, or Les Halles in Paris. The commercial districts and the way people moved through the city, reminded me the most of being in Mumbai. 

Despite my claims of being expectation free, in anticipating a sense of familiarity with Japan, I had set an expectation for Osaka that the city had considered and then reset. I left Osaka with mixed feelings but firm in my resolve of setting aside at least half of my mind space to being open to the change my travels would no doubt bring to my conceptions of Japan.

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