E-Zine / Sep 2010 / Where the Sun Rises


July 10, 2010 has been the longest day of my life. 40 hours long, numerically speaking.

We boarded our flight back to California on July 10th at 5:30 PM at the Narita airport in Tokyo, and landed at San Francisco at 11 AM...still July 10th, still more than half of the day left to catch up on some sleep. I can't sleep at all in a flight. When the plane was touching down on the runway at San Francisco, I was thinking, awash in fresh memories of a perfect vacation amidst a hazy half-awake jet-lagged trance, that exactly 16 hours ago, we were strolling in the Shinjuku-Chuo Koen ('Koen' means park in Japanese) at 11 AM on July 10th in downtown Tokyo, being amused by the co-existence of an open-air public gym (for grown-ups, not the kids' gyms that you see in every park) at stone's throw from the serene Meiji Jingu ('Jingu' means shrine) in the park, and being surprised by the sight of a few makeshift homeless shelters bang in the middle of the otherwise manicured greenery surrounded by the dazzling skyscrapers. Japan is full of interesting contradictions and oodles of things to observe and internalize. So a visitor is never bored.

I consciously did not log on to Facebook (other than a few momentary digressions) during our vacation week. But if I were to post a status message in Facebook summarizing my experience, it would most likely have been something like, "It is a really beautiful country full of pretty and welcoming people. Efficiency, punctuality, and service are at an entirely different level in Japan. You can survive in Japan knowing only English. Throwing in a few Japanese phrases here and there doesn't hurt. And yes, it is an expensive place."

Sapporo: Getting our feet wet in all things Japanese...


Our first destination in Japan was Sapporo (in the Northern island of Hokkaido), famous for its eponymous beer and the 1972 Winter Olympics. My husband Bikash had a conference at Sapporo. We had a very brief layover at Tokyo airport en route to Sapporo on July 4th. We were a bit nervous about whether we would be able to catch the connecting flight, because, we had to clear immigration and customs at Tokyo as our port of entry in Japan, and the United Airlines flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was almost half an hour late. The queue snaking towards the immigration counters was frighteningly long. But the speed at which the queue moved, and we got done with our immigration--fingerprinting, photograph-taking and all--made us totally impressed with the famous Japanese efficiency. Clearing customs and checking our luggage in for the connecting flight were also done in a jiffy, smoothly managed by a young airport crew comprising a noticeably high proportion of young Japanese women, leaving us with enough time to relax at the gate for the flight to Sapporo. If I absolutely have to whine about anything about our first impression of Japan, it would be about the level of air-conditioning at the airport. I guess we are used to expect a rather cool temperature setting in the American airports. Japanese people, like the Indians, seem to be more comfortable at a warmer ambient temperature. May be it is an Eastern thing. May be the philosophy is what's the point of creating an artificially cooler ambiance temporarily when you have to face the hot and sticky summer outside anyways. Summer is uncomfortably hot, specially in the central and southern parts of Japan on the Pacific side.

The taxi ride from the Chitose airport in Hokkaido to downtown Sapporo, where our hotel was, was more than an hour long. The sight of a driving range just outside the airport reminded me that golf is huge in Japan. And so is baseball, at least as a spectator sport, evident by the prominent hoardings everywhere. We also spotted Hollywood movie stars lending their faces to sell everything, the most frequently-sighted ad being Leonardo DeCaprio looking vaguely mysterious in a car tire commercial! I couldn't help but draw parallels with Bill Murray's ageing-American-movie-star-shooting-for-a-Whiskey-ad-in-Tokyo character in "Lost in Translation," one of my favorite movies that had genuinely intrigued me about Japan. As soon as the taxi picked up speed in the expressway leaving behind the more industrialized areas, the billboards were replaced by rain-drenched lush green trees and vines on both sides of the expressway to ease our tired bleary eyes. June and July are the months when the rainy season peaks in Japan.

We reached our hotel in mid-afternoon. From the moment we stepped out of the taxi, we encountered countless courteous staff members at every step of the way, bowing down and uttering "Arigato gozaimas" ("Thank you very much" in Japanese) almost too frequently to make us feel rather self-conscious. I could not shake off the feeling that I hadn't done anything special yet to deserve that kind of a royal treatment. It takes a little while to get used to the fact that customer service is ingrained in the cultural DNA of the Japanese people. We never experienced anything short of superlative customer service in our week-long stay in Japan, split between 4 nights in Sapporo and 2 nights in Tokyo.

Ohayo Sapporo...

The next day, our first 'morning' in Sapporo started really early, 2 AM to be precise. Our son Gogol's body clock was yet to reset, and he was wide awake at 2 AM. We wanted to entertain him with cartoons on TV. But alas, there were only a handful of channels on the TV, and there were absolutely no cartoon channels. I was surprised. Aren't the Japanese the gurus of cartoon? What about the famous Japanese "anime"s and "manga"s? Apparently, cartoons are more popular in comic books and video games than on TV, and Japan is not big on cable/satellite TV anyways, especially outside of the real big cities like Tokyo (Bikash shared his global network engineer's professional knowledge with me.) Thank God we packed Gogol's Nintendo DS. That kept him busy for some time, before, to our utter delight, the horizon started to light up behind the mountains beyond the Sapporo skyline. It was not even 4AM! Sun really rises early in Japan.

Sapporo is a paradise for hikers at all skill levels, and we couldn't be happier to head out early for a neighborhood hike by the side of the Toyohira river that flows invitingly just outside our hotel. Gogol flaunted his Japanese skills by saying "Konichiwa"(Hello) and "Ohayo"(Good morning) to early morning recreational anglers, mostly elderly men, and brisk-walkers, mostly elderly women. I later learnt that average Japanese men live till 78, and average Japanese women live till 86, and there are more than 30,000 centenarians in Japan. It is a country of healthy people.

By the time we were heading back to the hotel for breakfast, we spotted men and women streaming out on the streets on their way to work, on foot or on bicycles, most of them formally dressed. It was Monday morning. Though I have to tell you, the Sapporo morning scene was nothing like the sea of workforce that we witnessed in the later part of our trip in downtown Tokyo around the Shinjuku train station, that apparently serves more than 3 million people daily! We joked in Tokyo that it looked like a penguin colony, as the formal suits were primarily of binary colors--black and white. Formal dressing is almost ubiquitous in Japanese workplace irrespective of the kind of job that you do. Not surprisingly, we spotted countless tailoring shops and even ready-made formal clothing stores both in Sapporo and Tokyo.

Tourism spiced with social observation...

We didn't do any research regarding what to do before coming to Japan. The plan of not planning worked out beautifully, as we got to make random decisions, picking things-to-do from the many brochures stacked in the hotel lobby, and got to rejoice the outcome each day. Among the touristy things that we did in Sapporo, including hanging out in the Odori Park at the heart of the business district in Sapporo, shopping and dining in the Sasukino shopping district, and visiting the beautiful lush Botanical Gardens maintained by the Hokkaido University with a breathtaking rose garden and an enviable taxidermy collection, Gogol was the happiest visiting the Maruyama Zoo. The zoo was really impressive, as we got to see some Hokkaido natives, such as the Tundra wolves and flying squirrels. That Japan is a fairly conservative society was evident in the design of the rest areas inside the zoo. There were dedicated closed-door rooms for the nursing mothers in the rest areas, and the doors of the nursing roosm and the ladies' bathrooms reached down to the floor to seal the users' modesty. Gogol rightly pointed out that the zoo was the only place where he saw of lot of children. The famously declining birth rate in Japan is acutely visible everywhere (see this article: The national statistics of an average of 1.2 child/couple has a lot to do with Japanese women choosing to marry and bear children later than ever in favor of enjoying a rewarding career. It almost became my hobby in Japan to study the body languages of working women to have an idea of how powerful and comfortable they seem to feel. As expected, the Tokyo women looked a lot more confident. But in a smaller city like Sapporo, which I believe gave us a truer glimpse to the overall socio-economic reality of Japan, the one or two women who looked like they were enjoying a power dinner with their male colleagues, did stand out among the plethora of women who were just 'playing their part' in looking attractive in fashionable clothes, and/or performing efficiently in the routine sorts of work, relatively speaking. However, I have to add that I strongly felt that, just like Indian women, Japanese women are going through the coming-of-age phase, taking strong strides towards playing meatier roles outside of home.

Doing touristy things in Sapporo also included visiting the famous Hokkaido Jingu in the Maruyama Koen. It is a Shinto shrine, where we got to witness the confluence of the more ancient nature-worshipping traditions of Shintoism with the relatively modern and perhaps a bit more ritualistic traditionas of Buddhism. You can write down your wish in a scroll, and tie it on a rope in front of the shrine. Gogol added his wish among the thousands of other wishes. His wish was to see his pet goldfishes healthy when he would get back to California after his vacation.

Serene Serendipity...


While walking back to the underground metro station from Maruyama Koen, we caught a glimpse of some very intriguing statues behind the criss-cross of the immediate foliage. We were too curious not to explore what was there, and it turned out to be the most precious serendipitous discovery of our entire Japan trip. We found an uphill trail that led to the top of Mount Maruyama. The trail itself was not that arduous, but what gave us goosebumps were the numerous statues of Lord Buddha sprinkled in the virgin wilderness lining the trail, each of the statues different from the others, showcasing the vivid imaginations of the worshipper-sculptors. The statues were not sophisticated works of art, barring a few. But the most remarkable thing that we noticed was that all of them had at least a piece of ritualistic cloth, looking like a baby's bib, covering the torso area, which is kind of surprising, because we are used to seeing mostly bare-bodied Bodhisattwa statues. I later read that the statues are of Kannon Bodhisattwa, who is sometimes considered a female incarnation among some Buddhists in Japan. Hence, the urge to cover the torso of the statues, I guess. I remembered that we used to periodically visit the Asian-art-focused Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian museums when we used to live in Washington, DC. Seeing the statues in their original setting, rather than in a museum, made me feel as if I was riding an organic time tide that was transporting me to the ancient times. I thought anything additional to this experience would be a bonus--I was already bathing in the much-sought sense of wonder that brought us to Japan in the first place.


As intriguing as Sapporo was, Tokyo did impress us with its own brand of charm. I have seen some huge metropolises, but Tokyo screams Megapolis! Yes, the greenery was missing, but there was some harmonizing design symmetry visually palpable in the city that made even an asphalt jungle looked pretty, despite its enormous size. I guess the city was largely rebuild after the world war II with a very careful vision of how it should look like when it rises again. The measured architectural aesthetics of the hotel lobby itself (we stayed at the Hilton at Shinjuku) drew us in. Again, the hotel attendants were bowing down left and right, but by this time, we were relatively used to that gesture. The view from our hotel window on the 23rd floor compensated for the meticulously furnished but undeniably compact floorspace of the room. Finally in Tokyo, Gogol had access to multiple cartoon channels, but he chose to hang out at the window sill, and when Gogol was asleep, I saw Bikash setting up his tripod by the side of the window to capture the city's night glory. The lady in the family was too happy to see the guys in the family being smitten by the city, forgetting all about their respective electronic addictions.

The Mountain and the Valley...


On our second day in Tokyo, we decided to head out to Mount Fuji and Hakone on a conducted bus tour. We had the most entertaining tour guide, who I should thank for many of the demographic and geographic statistics that I have sprinkled throughout this blog (so, if he was wrong, I am wrong too). Mount Fuji is 12,388 feet high at its summit. Our bus took us up to the fifth station (at a height of 7,500 feet) en route to the summit, where the paved road ends. We were literally walking through the rain cloud when we got down from the bus to walk up to the rest station. I felt so nostalgic, thinking about our trip to Kedarnath (in the Himalayas) back in 1992, where we did a 14 kilometer hike on foot through rain and shine with my parents and my siblings. I ended up buying a bunch of picture post cards, and wrote a little note to my parents on one of them. It was the pen-and-paper version of my private 'tweet'...didn't matter even if my parents didn't get to see it instantaneously. The tour guide said there is a post office at the summit of Mount Fuji, which is still operational. Would have been nice to post my post card from there, I guess. But this time, we had to be satisfied with just the view of the summit, and perhaps with a dream of coming back to scale all the way up sometime in future.

Next stop was Hakone, the famous historic town nestled in the volcanically active Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park. It was still raining hard. But the rain endowed Hakone with such an out-of-this-world emerald hue that I forgot I usually don't like rain that much. We had a nice lunch at Hakone, and then went on to ride hanging cable cars (they are also called 'ropeway' in Japan, just like in India) across the mountains to go to Lake Ashi at the center of the Hakone valley. The cable car ride was interesting not only for the views that it offered from the elevation, but also for the co-passengers that we got to share the ride with. We met an American-Mexican couple (the husband lives in Mexico, and the wife in Arizona), who were vacationing in Japan. They said they spend most of their together time vacationing outside of either America or Mexico before they can sort out the immigration thing.

A dragon-shaped boat ride on Lake Ashi was the last activity of the day, before we went back to the tour bus. In a brilliant stroke of tourism-business-wisdom, our conducted tour gave us the option of going back to Tokyo in the bus, or taking the bullet train ("Shinkansen") from Odawara station to Tokyo. The train ride came at additional cost and inconvenience, as we had to arrange our own transportation from the train station to our hotel, while the return journey by the bus was at no additional cost, and included door-to-door service. It was raining pretty hard. On a regular day, opting for the train would have made no sense. But when you are in Japan, you can't go back without stepping into the Shinkansen. So we took the train, and finally reached our hotel exhausted and drenched. But what is travel if you do not do a few crazy touristy things! That was our last night in Japan. We topped off the night with a fantastic traditional dinner at an authentic Japanese restaurant. Let me tell you, if you thought Sushi is the staple food in Japan, then you will be in for a surprise, when you actually visit Japan. It might be a small country, but it sure knows what variety food, and in everything else.


On our way back, while admiring the intricate Origami art collection at the Tokyo airport, I kept thinking that, Japan, with its abundant beauty and complex culture, has sure whetted our appetite for more trips to the Orient.

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E-Zine / Sep 2010 / Where the Sun Rises