Turning 60 almost feels like a triumph .. I have no idea how I made it this far and that too in fairly good shape and for this I am truly grateful . So here am celebrating the 39 th anniversary of my 21 st birthday and I am ready to fall in love with Life all over again !
I grew up listening to stories of war , the sweet scent of victory ,the despair of defeat and Japan figured prominently amongst them and ever since I have loved every thing Japanese ! Its culture , its rich history , constitution and its people . And of course its brilliant writers!
For those who love Murakami, and all the cats, jazz, whiskey bars, mysterious women and glimpses of modern Japanese life , heres a surprise for you, theres a whole world of magnificent novels by Japanese authors who din’t really receive much in terms of recognition by the press for their work.So if you are ready then please add them to your reading list. I promise theres something for everyone here mysteries and thrillers, teen horror, relationship dramas, and twisted yakuza-related crime stories… all taking place in locales that may be unfamiliar to most of us . I know each one of them will get your imagination churning and your passport begging for stamps. And thats how we found ourselves signing our Japan Visa application .
Japan is a world apart … literally a cultural Galapagos where a unique civilisation blossomed and today thrives in delicious contrast of the traditional and the modern. Its spirit is strong , warm and welcoming! Its hard to condense Japan in one post yet I have made a modest attempt… here is …in brief our dream visit !
For anyone interested in the Japanese feudal era of Shoguns , Samurai and Diamyō a visit to its beautiful castles is a must !
The 16 th century Osaka castle is a masterpiece in architecture . General Toyotomi Hideyoshi built this castle as a display of power .Each floor of the main castle will fill you with opportunities to immerse yourself in Japanese culture and history ! It is surrounded by a moat and orchards of plum, cherry and peach trees !
I believe it took about 1000 vessels to transport the massive size stones from all around Osaka to construct the castle. Every Samurai was asked to contribute rocks as a gesture of allegiance to the emperor !
Niji-Jo castle now declared a world heritage site has kept watch over the vicissitudes of the Tokugawa family . It has witnessed some of the most important events in Japanese history . Tokugawa Ieyasu unified the country after a long period of civil war and ushered in over 260 years of peace and prosperity . The castle also served as the Kyoto residence of the Shogun .
It consists of six connected buildings of the Shion-zukuri architectural style which was typical of the Edo period. The interiors are magnificently decorated with wall paintings of the Kano school , intricately carved transoms and exquisite metalwork fittings . Interestingly the floor boards in one of the corridors of the palace sound like the song of the nightingale when people walk through . This I believe is caused by the clamps moving against the nails in the wooden beams supporting the floor . Mistakenly this was intended to announce the presence of intruders.The castle is surrounded by beautiful gardens .
Shrine through ..
Shinto and Buddhism are the two main faiths in Japan . Temples abound every where in the city’s beautiful landscape .
Itsukusima temple .
The Itsukusima shrine is located on the beautiful Miyajima island . The famous floating Tori gate is a very popular tourist attraction .It is dedicated to the three daughters of the Shinto deity of seas and storms, and is built on piers over the water of the Seto Sea . It was considered to be too sacred for commoners to tread upon.The island has no hospitals or cemetery!
The Todaji temple in Nara is the worlds largest wooden structures and houses the tallest bronze statue of Buddha (almost 15 metres) Bishmonten and Komokuten are a pair of guardians that watch over the Toda-ji and its precincts !
The Nara deer park is adjacent to the temple complex and deer roam freely in the temple premises . There are these tiny kiosks that sell cookies for the deer. In true Japanese style the deer bow after they recieve their treat! If you dont have anything for them then just raise both your hands , they wont bother you after that ! Deers in Shinto are considered to be the messengers of God !
The Golden pavillion
The Kinkakuji temple was formally known as Rukaon-ji temple and popularly refered to as the golden pavilion . It is a three storey structure and the top is covered with gold leaf and capped with a golden phoenix. The pavilion successfully incorporates three distinct styles of architecture which are shinden, samurai, and zen, specifically on each of its floors .
Tenryu -ji shrine
The Tenryu -ji temple in Arasshiyama is a popular Zen temple . It has many shrines and its beautiful gardens , bamboo grove and Togetsukyo bridge. Our visit here was a balm for the soul .
The Kiyomizu dera is an independant Buddhist temple. Not the confuse it with the one in Yasugi. We were told that not a single nail was used in the entire structure. It takes its name from the waterfall within the complex in nearby hills. Kiyomizu means clear water, or pure water. It is believed that the water from the three streams have magical powers.
Gastronomical delight .
Japanese cuisine combines the traditional and regional dishes . Though the common Washoku consists mainly of sticky rice and miso soup along with a number of sides of all kinds of vegetable ( the mountain vegetables are delectable) and seafood both cooked and raw.
For me , until now Japanese food did not go beyond Sushi , Sashimi and Tempura . I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in most homes these are made only for special occasions.
Historically Japanese shunned meat . I was told that in the 1880’s meat dishes became popular . Food inspired by foreign lands like Ramen, dumplings , gyōza , spaghetti and hamburgers were adopted but with Japanese variants!
We dint have the inclination to discover the night life of Japan but were told that a visit Dōtonbori in Osaka was a must ! It is strategically situated along the Dōtonbori canal ! The first thing that came to mind was … this is how Lady Gaga would look like if she were a city ( with due apologies Lady Gaga) It is an over the top neon madhouse where human peacocks prowl beneath giant plastic crabs . We got carried along by the human tide. It is The place to sample the best Takoyaki (octopus balls ) and automatic sushi!!
The dairy rind .
Cheese and milk do not lend themselves well to Japanese cuisine. It was introduced into their menu by the Meiji dynasty . So its often eaten as snacks on crackers or Japanese breads . I love cheese so I looked forward to it patiently on my breakfast buffets . White cream stew is also a popular home comfort food. I’m forgetting many other popular preparations.And I’m deliberately forgetting cheese as a ramen topping, although it does have its admirers here. Recently though cheese is popping up at specialty Sake izakaya. Our friend and guide Cherry had suggested we explore a couple of bars in the Kanda neighbourhood of Tokyo that pair Sake with fresh made cream cheese. Foreign cheeses are popular here as well. I was mildy surprised to read that Japan is the 6th largest cheese importer in the world. The imported cheeses are still prohibitively expensive, but its heartening to know that there is a craftsman approach to cheese here !
Tea tales .
A post on Japan will be incomplete without a mention of its love for tea . It is not just a beverage but a way of life here .Its hard to choose a tea here but if one goes with the recommendation of the owner of a tea house one cant go wrong . We got very disapproving looks when some elderly locals saw us browsing thru the Starbucks menu in a rest area !
There are two types of Tea gatherings one the Chakai and two the Chaji . A chakai is a relatively simple affair and the hospitality includes confections, thin weak tea, and perhaps a light meal. A chaji is a more formal gathering, usually including a full-course Kaiseki meal followed by a few varieties of tea and confections . A chaji can last up to four hours . I hope to be invited to one such on my next visit .
The Scintillating Shinkansen .
We travelled by the Shinkansen or “bullet trains”, as they are often known. It was my first time and I was impressed . It was a culture shock to see the ticket collector coming around with a trash bag and bowing every time someone tossed in an empty bottle or a wrapper !!
We did most of our sightseeing by foot ! Renting bicycles is quite popular with tourists ! Though we took the ropeway to the hot springs Owakudani .. we dint get to see them due to heavy fog .
Some of the interesting landmarks worth visiting were the Diet building , the rainbow bridge , the Sky tree observatory and the magnificent gardens that surround the temples and castles .
Our visit to Mt Fuji was a washout due to rains but we got a sneak peek of the peak during our amphibious bus ride on lake Ashi. Below is the scene at level 5 Mt Fuji !
We took a Shinkansen to Hiroshima . Standing in the Atomic bomb dome , being a part of history and recounting the horrors of the explosion was a deeply moving experience. Meeting with families of survivors and listening to their story was so humbling . The Peace park contains a large collection of monuments. The Children’s Peace monument in memory from of Sadako is beautiful. We saw brightly coloured origami paper cranes all over as a symbol of peace .We signed the petition against nuclear weapons in the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial hall!!
It was with a heavy heart that we said Sayonara to Japan ,its loving people and our friends ! Looking back it strikes you how the culture thrives in harmony with nature . Its a different civilisation and one must be prepared to forget what one has learnt earlier . Its an intellectual challenge and a great learning experience . Japanese culture has maintained its identity, so specific and untouched . Their use of technology is impressive !
This proverb is a reflection of the special values that are truly and so uniquely Japanese !
I left a little bit of my soul in Japan so planning to go back someday to see the places we could not on this visit !! Nihon sugu ni o ai shimasu !! Anyone willing to be my travel partner .. let me know !!!
ले गई दिल बुड्डिया Japan 🇯🇵की ..🎸🎺🎻!! The Kimono was the complimentary nightwear in our hotel in Hakone ..we had an amazing room with a view .. lake Ashinoko )
Arigato dear Spouse for this unforgettable vacation ! Gratitude to my awesome family and friends who made my day extra special in every way !!!
*Ryu Murakami( the other Murakami )