Tokyo – Quintessentially Asian (2013)

Tokyo – Quintessentially Asian (2013)

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Not only does the ATM promptly spit out my perfectly valid global cash card, but to add insult to injury, on the ATM screen, two comic figures—a boy and a girl— nod and bow their heads in commiseration. Try the machine a second time, and it beeps in panic. The comic figures have been replaced by squiggly Japanese characters blinking in red, which one presumes, is a warning. Arriving at Narita, one of the most modern airports in the world, you would expect things to work better. Most ATMs refuse global cards. Currency change counters are already closed and if you think you can swipe your credit card everywhere, instead of handling unfamiliar currency— one that runs into tens of thousands even for simple purchases— think again. Except expensive outlets, the rest accept only cash in this city that prides itself as one of the finance capitals of the world. Outside Tokyo, it is virtually impossible to get by with only a credit card. Fortunately for me, my hotel has sent me pick-up.

My faith in Japanese technology is restored soon. Japanese excel in the art of pampering your bottom, literally. While outside temperatures may plummet to below zero, loo seats are kept comfortably warm. An array of buttons, much like a console in a plane cockpit, serves up a variety of ablution options, at a water temperature that does not scald. Sensors function like silent ghosts, switching on lights, activating the flush and faucets and so on. In fact, wherever I went in Japan, my first challenge was to divine the faucet controls. And Japanese gadgetry – be it mobiles, note pads or cameras get snazzier, sleeker and smaller. .

Tokyo dazzles, with its steel, glass and chrome high-rises, lit by neon lights and LEDs. Yet, this city does not intimidate the way Beijing does. Small town Tokyo still peeks out of the forest of spires. Tiny houses with even tinier gardens line the narrow alley ways. Not a square inch of land is wasted in this densely populated country. Japanese diligence and attention to detail is evident everywhere right from the way the laundry is pegged to the lines to the artistic arrangement of tiny potted plants at the doorways of homes.

Tokyo is a city that seems to have grown and expanded gracefully. The roads are narrow and hence run one on top of the other. It is still possible to walk or cycle on the lower levels, even on the high-street. Scores of bikers, especially old women, confidently pedal away, doing their own shopping or chores. Never mind if it starts drizzling while you are pedalling. Just stop at one of the numerous vending machines that dispense umbrellas. Vending machines sell almost everything– from condoms to travel insurance, from eats and drinks to ice cream. If you find it difficult to figure out the denominations of coins below 100 yen, you just scoop whatever coins you have and dump them into the machine which does the calculation for you and spits out the surplus.

It is easy to figure out the Tokyo Metro with its meticulous colour-coding and numbers. From Asakusa, home to the touristy Sensoji shrine to the glitzy Ginza, Tokyo Metro almost makes taxis redundant. Everyone seems to be in a tearing hurry, yet, there is an underlying orderliness and courtesy. Or at least so we Indians might think. Tokyo Metro authorities, however, are not impressed. Metro stations sport eye-catching posters that exhort commuters to behave. From tongue-in-cheek teasers to pictorial representations of dos and don’ts commuters are constantly reminded to behave.

I head to the ultimate pilgrimage destination for all Japanese. Yasukuni is a Shinto Shrine for all those who laid down their lives in the service of the Emperor — a shadowy but revered figure behind the imposing and inscrutable walls of the imperial palace next door. Yasukuni has evoked controversy, for enshrining even war criminals along with other martyrs. The shrine authorities insist that they also served the Emperor and hence deserve a place here. Protestors in black vans parked outside the shrine belt out music and distribute pamphlets to lodge their protest.

At all Japanese shrines and temples, there is a little tank with bamboo-handled water scoops for pilgrims to purify themselves before entering, much like we have in our temples. Exquisite lanterns are ubiquitous. Prayer frames are festooned with identical white chits (sold at the shrine itself) each with entreaties inscribed by hands of the devotees. At the magnificent Meiji shrine, beer makers’ guild has placed its offerings in the form of freshly-brewed beer stacked in a row of caskets. The shrine is located in a lovely pine forest, right in the middle of busy Tokyo.

Many of us have our own misconceptions about the Japanese, gleaned largely from Manga comics. If you come to Tokyo expecting to see spiky-haired youngsters sporting psychedelic hair colour and pierced all over, you might be disappointed. Although fashion-conscious, Japanese boys and girls are generally soberly dressed. Manga comics have given way mobiles. And Japan seems to be the least adventurous, gastronomically too. Try finding international food— pizzas, pastas or burgers outside of 5-star hotels. Ramen rules. Restaurants have plastic mould reproductions of the food they sell, prominently displayed at the entrance. And the Japanese smilingly refuse to recognise or accommodate vegetarians. If you’re the sort who dislikes sea weed or sea food or a vegetarian, you might as well prepare to live on biscuits and fruit.

I make my way to greet Hachiko, the dog who waited for his master at Shibuya station every day for 13 years. He did not know his master had been killed in an accident. Tokyoites have erected a statue for Hachiko in this busy square. Hordes of Japanese kids take their pictures beside Hachiko, invariably sporting the sign V, whatever that means. The busy Shibuya station which millions of commuters cross every week is now known as Hachiko square.

The high streets are full of young boys and girls who cajole pedestrians with their mellifluous sales pitch.

In fact, calling out to customers is a rampant practice in Japan. Glitzy Ginza, once considered the rival of Champs-Élysées for hosting the maximum number of designer labels has now bowed to other districts in this shopping-crazed city. I wrap up my visit to Tokyo with a quick trip to Senso-ji temple (all temples have the suffix ‘ji’ ). The temple is crowded with worshippers, all Japanese. Rice cake stalls do brisk business. The route is lined with touristy kitsch. Incense wafts from giant vats. Large Japanese families spanning three or four generations are a common sight. After a week in Japan, I come away comforted by the thought that this country is quintessentially Asian, despite all the glitz and glamour.

(Published in The Hindu dated Feb 23, 2013)

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