First day in Japan

We pasted my badly-drawn map of Honshu on the wall, showing the kids exactly where we will be and when, did last-minute packing, set up the Skype, called the cab and said goodbye.

It was more painless than I thought. Trin was already asleep so there were no teary goodbyes. Mum was already in the house and I left feeling a pang that we were leaving for two weeks but this was moderated with the thrill of travelling once again. Didn’t hurt that we had a business class flight on Singapore Airlines to look forward to.

With KH more the savvy business traveller than I, he was a lot more sanguine about the perks of travelling business class. It bordered on the embarrassingly uncool when I pestered him to take pictures of me in my seat, in the priority lounge etc. But let me say that it was nice, right from check-in, to be given special treatment:  priority boarding, no fighting for overhead stowage space, someone takes your jacket, plies you with drinks, asks you when you prefer to have your meals and knows you by your name… Very nice indeed.

Forgive me for being extremely uncool right now when I say the highlight of the flight for me was the fantastic seat that could recline to an almost horizontal position, the ample space that allowed me to actually toss and turn unlike the sardine I usually feel like in economy class. Like a kid with a new toy I felt like pressing every button until I was reminded that it would be VERY uncool! I settled for the horizontal max that gave me a very comfortable night on the plane that left me ready to hit the ground running in Osaka the next morning – a first for me on an overnight flight.

We landed around 8.30am in KIX. It was easy taking the Nankai limited express train to the Nankai Namba station. You could take the snazzy Rapi:t α which would cost 500yen more than the limited express but get you there in about 9 minutes faster. We didn’t bother because the limited express was leaving earlier than the Rapi:t α and it was cheaper.

It was a great feeling to be back in Japan. It took a while to once again figure out how the ticket system works but like riding a bike, it all came back after a while. For me it was exciting just to be taking a commuter train once more and seeing the familiar townscapes along the way.

My first glimpse of cherry blossoms was at the seaside park at Rinku Town. That got me really hopping with excitement on the train. Yet that was tempered with the sobering reminder that these seaside towns, so similar to those in the north-east, could so easily have met with a similar fate. In fact on the plane flying over Shikoku and parts of Kansai, I thought I saw some concrete structures set in the sea like breakwaters, not connected to the land at all. I guess these must have been seawalls erected to safeguard the town against a tsunami. These and the towns that I now saw on the way in to the city, must have been similar to those in the northeast too.

Once in Osaka, it was easy to make our way to the heart of Dotombori where our hotel was and dump our bags. Dotombori or the Namba area is a great place to stay. Apart from it being the heart of the food and shopping district of Minami, there are several intersecting train and subway lines that can take you anywhere in a hop, skip and jump.

From Namba, it was easy to just take the Midosouji line up two stops to Yodoyabashi and then transfer to the Keihan line. By sheer luck, we found ourselves standing at the right door to the double-deck cabin of the limited express train to Kyoto.

Must say the Keihan limited express is super luxurious and probably one of the more comfortable trains we took throughout our trip. Plus the ticket is cheap. From Osaka Yodoyabashi to Kyoto’s Demachiyanagi station (last stop), it took slightly less than an hour and just 460yen.

From Demachiyanagi it’s about 20minutes walk to Ginkakuji and the start of the Philosopher’s Walk in northern Higashiyama. That was the game plan. We would start north and work our way down the Philosopher’s Path towards Gion and the Sanjo-dori where we would meet a friend for dinner. Along the way, hopefully we would catch lots of sakura.

Unfortunately, the cherry blossoms were not in full bloom yet. Probably only 20% were out. But for a sakura newbie like me, that was good enough. It also didn’t stop a fairly decent sized crowd from also walking the Philosopher’s Path. Even cab drivers waiting for a fare got out of their cabs to snap a couple of shots.

The silver pavilion, or Ginkakuji, was fairly crowded. After so many visits to Japan, we finally made it here but somehow, the crowd and the route we had to follow took the shine out of it and we felt a bit underwhelmed.

first goshuin at Ginkakuji!

Here I remembered belatedly that I had forgotten to bring my seal book full of goshuin (seal of proof or calligraphy at a temple or shrine) I had been collecting from the last trip. I bought a new one for 1200yen and got the first page inked in here at Ginkakuji. In retrospect, I’m glad I bought a new seal book because by the time my trip ended, all the pages were almost filled!

It’s always interesting to watch this being done. So many different reactions. Indifference, chattiness, pride, seriousness, curiosity, or even secretive. It shows in the brush strokes too. One shrine attendant – a young lady at the Heian jingu shrine – was brusque and indifferent and brushed me off when I tried to watch. The attitude showed in her strokes – they were weaker and seemed tentative and unsure. But in many, particularly the older monks who take each goshuin very seriously, the brush strokes are firm, sure, sweeping and generous.

Further down a quiet lane, we encountered the serene mossy roofs of Honen-in and a bunch of senior citizens armed with huge and impressive cameras and various assortment of photographic equipment. My little Lumix looked a little forlorn next to this formidable arsenal of big-barrelled, long-nosed tech wonders. The group of seniors, mostly ladies, were listening and nodding as their teacher pointed and gestured, lecturing on the finer points of photography. A nice blue-sky day for an outdoor photography class.

Curiosity led us up the steps and into Anraku-ji, a small temple a bit off the tourist radar. Hardly any crowd but lots of these:

Camellias as big as your fist, lush and fat and extravagant, in red, pink, white, yellow. The sakura might not be out in full glory yet but at Anraku-ji, the stars were the camellias. The little temple is known for their camellia bushes and for special showings in spring when the garden is in full bloom.

A wooden gate was left ajar. Peering through, I saw this:

A small field full of yellow flowers and trees whose branches were still bare. I stopped to take a picture and was very quickly joined by others who also thought this was a pretty scene.

Kyoto is full of unexpected surprises. In the quiet residential neighbourhood we trek across to reach the Heian jingu shrine from the Philosopher’s Path, we encounter not one, but TWO love hotels. Very circumspectly designed buildings, no flamboyant decor but with posters and signage that advertised two-hourly rates, half-day rates and a full-day rate and of course, entrances and exits that are separate, carparks tucked away behind the building away from the street and discreetly designed so that nosy folks like me cannot peer in to see  more.

In all the days I spent in Osaka, known for its flamboyant over-the-top themed love hotels, I never saw any. Yet here in this upscale neighbourhood, there are two!

The Heian jingu is a big and colourful temple complex. The wide expanse of gravel in the forecourt and in the courtyard give the shrine a spacious regal feel. And no wonder because two emperors are deified at this shrine – the emperor Kammu who founded the ancient capital of Kyoto and the emperor Komei whose rule had marked the beginning of the transition of power from the shogunate back to the imperial family.

Heian jingu also known for its weeping cherry trees in the garden but when we visited, the sakura was barely out so it would not have been worth it to pay 600yen for the special admission fee. But I got another goshuin here. Each goshuin, by the way costs 300yen and it bears the temple name, the date, location.

From Heian jingu, we moved on to the colourful gaiety of Yasaka jinja, retracing part of our last trip. The last time we were here, we tried the beef on a stick (slabs of thick beef marinated in wine served satay-style) and it was lip-smackingly good. We tried to re-create that moment but it was not to be. Not sure if the stall was the same one but this time, the beef was so tough and chewy my jaw ached. Sad. Let this be a lesson to me that some experiences are best left to be savoured in memory!

lanterns at Yasaka jinja

Yasaka jinja waa bustling. It was a lovely evening. The lanterns were waving in a light breeze, stall-holders were calling out to visitors and like good street markets everywhere, there was a lot of food – hot dogs, okonomiyaki, yaki soba, takoyaki and even carnival games with their cheerful line-up of toys and prizes to be won. Add the contraband fake DVDs  and Hokkien pop blaring from speakers and we could well have been in any pasar malam in Singapore or Malaysia.

Yasaka jinja merges into Maruyama Park. It occurred to me that the lines between commerce and piety are often blurred. I read somewhere that Japanese take on a mix of Shintoism and Buddhism in their lives. Shintoism with kami for practically every cause and petition, is usually associated with fun, merriment, a certain joie de vivre (the barrels of sake stacked at Shinto shrines ought to give you a hint already) while Buddhism practices sobriety, restraint and contemplative consciousness of thought and action. So often when it comes to weddings, it’s off to the local Shinto shrine but when it comes to death, it’s Buddhist rites for the send-off. It’s really the best of both worlds. That both Shintoism and Buddhism co-exist quite happily together in a complementary fashion in the lives of the Japanese, and in many cases even sharing the same worship space is probably one of the earliest examples of religious tolerance and harmony.

At Maruyama, the star attraction, the weeping cherry was nearing full bloom, branches drooping gracefully with clusters of flowers. Around it the other trees in the park were not yet in full bloom, but the hanami brigade was already out in full force. All around were blue tarps laid on the ground, shoes off, portable stereos playing, and groups of young men and women having their hanami parties – some even brought portable grills.

It was good to see that some traditions still stood despite the sense of solidarity amidst the loss and tragedy that had struck their country. Hanami best sums up how life should be embraced – in the company of friends, with good food, merry-making and lots of sake! Is there any other nicer way to get sloshed than under the snowy blooms of a cherry tree? That while they enjoy the fleeting beauty of the sakura, that barely stay on the branches for a week, such too is life – whose beauty, good times and happiness are all too fleeting and best enjoyed in the present.

That and the fact that the girls were bare-legged in mini-skirts in what must be single-digit temperatures! It had been a hot afternoon but as the evening wore on, Kyoto’s chill wrapped itself well around us and we were just amazed that they could sit like this in the cold and still think its fun! My Kyoto-based friend explained drily: “They’ve been well-trained from young. Have you seen the winter school uniforms of young schoolboys? They wear shorts!”

The first day ended with a nice dinner in a small obscure (well, I would never have found it on my own!) family-run restaurant on Kiyamachi-dori. Kiyamachi-dori runs parallel to a narrow canal called Takasegawa. In days of old, the canal would be used to transport goods. One alley away would be the  famous Pontocho where we last wandered in pursuit of a mirage that vanished among the wooden lattices as soon as she appeared.

There in a small house off Kiyamachi-dori, we had dinner with a friend who lived in Kyoto, a writer whose work I admired greatly from her regular newspaper columns on Japan. She brought us to a restaurant called Menami which specialised in obanzai ryori. Menami was run by a woman who had inherited it from her grandmother.

Obanzai, lesser-known though no less delicious than her glamorous cousin kaiseki ryori, is the more robust, down-to-earth, filling, traditional home cooking from the kitchens of Kyoto families.

Here are some pictures of what we ate. There are not as many pictures as I’d like –  but what can I say? We were hungry and after a while, eating took priority over pictures. But I can assure you – every bite was delicious. Yuba tofu, abalone, an assortment of sashimi, braised pig hock with daikon, grilled root vegetables and others whose names I forget – they were all too good.

Dinner was somewhat contemplative and subdued. We talked about how the triple whammy up north had affected Japan and how the fears of radiation out of the fallen nuclear plant are keeping visitors away. Even the Japanese are not immune to fear and irrational action. In her neighbourhood recently, my friend said, there was a run on bottled water in the local combini.

After dinner, it was a long train ride back to Osaka’s Yodoyabashi station. And perhaps because it had been a long day, we didn’t read the signs correctly and got on a train that would not have stopped where we wanted. Something woke me from my nap just in time to realise we were on the wrong train and then to quickly wake KH and jump off the train onto a deserted platform. After one or two more hitches we managed to transfer to the right train headed for the right station and then back to Dotonbori.

The next day – Nara. Packed with temples, deer and lots more walking!

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1 Response to First day in Japan

  1. nadya says:

    i always want to visit japan. hope that i have the chance this year. good documentary tho 🙂

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