Japan tends to evoke “awe” in most people and rightly so. With its heady concoction of modernism and traditionalism, it not only leaves you “Lost in translation”, but also “Lost in amazement”. The first thing that hits you when you land into Tokyo, besides being jet lagged, is the smooth efficiency with which you get whisked through immigration, through baggage collection and to the transportation that you need to take to your next destination, with the very frequent greeting “Kon’nichiwa” (hello in Japanese) accompanied by the humble bow that we identify the Japanese with. In an ultra modern city like Tokyo where nothing is recognizable, night seems brighter than day, the English alphabet doesn’t exist, such politeness and humility stumps you!
Media and tourists highlight Japan for its robot and maid cafes, ‘in your face’ porn, bullet trains, but is that all the country has to offer? My visit to Japan opened my eyes to a country that has so much more, in terms of culture, beautiful country side, gastronomy (much more than just sushi) and the Wabi–Sabi way of life. Wabi–Sabi acknowledges three simple realities: “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect”.
It is this very philosophy that got me addicted to discovering this country which so proudly stands tall “undeterred” through its earthquakes, tsunamis and nuclear attacks. Besides visiting the big cities, it is the smaller towns that offered me a cocoon of calmness from the alien city life.
Kanazawa, a quintessential city on the west coast of Japan, is well known for its seafood, magnificent gardens, geisha districts, samurai houses and ninja temples. But being a food lover, my most frequent haunt was the Omi-Cho Market. Each morning, I was diligently present to sample “one of the country’s freshest and best seafood basket”. Being the only “Non Japanese tourist” in the market, I did receive some curious onlookers and some ardent ‘Ninja style’ stalkers. From being cheered upon by a bunch of senior Japanese men to try yet another fresh sea urchin to being offered a plate of succulent fresh oysters and scallops, not only did my taste buds experience ecstasy but my mind opened up to a world of sea food that I was missing out on. Visiting the grounds of Kenroku-en Gardens was another highlight of the trip. Considered as one of three most beautiful gardens in Japan, one can see the balance of elements in the landscape – tranquility, spaciousness, antiquity, the water bodies and the colorful play of red and yellow leaves in autumn. The Myoryuji Temple or the Ninja-dera, was not really a home to the fearsome warriors but the name was derived from the numerous traps and secret doors in the design of this temple, which were built to repel intruders. Worth a visit, as the deception begins from outside, the temple looks like it is of two floors, but in reality from inside it is of four floors! Walking the Geisha districts of Higashi Chaya-Gai and Nishi Chaya-Gai District, was tremendously educational, to see the quaint old buildings preserved, some of them converted into tea houses, museums showcasing geisha culture, luxury restaurants (ryotei) and also getting a glimpse of the Geisha-san swiftly walking by. But the most charming of them all and my favorite was the district of Kazue-Machi along the Asano Waterfront. Come late evening and this picturesque little district lights up, walking along the river, you are immediately transported to a bygone era.
Just an hour’s drive from Kanazawa is the UNESCO heritage site of Shirakawa-go, a historical and charming village that resembles a fairy place. It is well known for houses constructed in gassho – zukuri architectural style, to counter the heavy snow it receives every year. No nails or other metal materials are used in the construction of these houses. It is particularly interesting to visit these houses to understand how the farmers build the floors, keeping in mind silkworm rearing requires a warm place during harsh winters. It is an outstanding example how traditional life has adapted to its harsh environments and socio economic conditions.
The highlight of my trip was Mt. Koyasan, the most sacred mountain in Japan, also the headquarters of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism. A power place – rich in ancient forests, sacred mountains and stunning pagodas! Getting to Koyasan can be quite the challenge, but once there, you feel a Zen-like stew of comfort where tradition is paramount. Okunoin is not only the largest cemetery in Japan, housing over 200,000 graves but more importantly, it houses the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon Buddhism. The Torodo Hall with its 10,000 lanterns and the Mausoleum is a must see. Staying a night with the monks in the temple lodging (shukubo) at Koyasan is recommended. The experience lends a much needed spiritual cleansing along with an astounding vegetarian cuisine that numbs the senses. Shojin Ryori is a devotion cuisine popularized by the Buddhist monks in Japan, largely vegetarian, with foods derived from soybeans like tofu and vegetable oils like sesame, walnut and rapeseed. Vegetarian food never tasted so good!
Though Japan is a technological trend setter; tradition, discretion, humility and simplicity permeates the fabric of their daily lives. Many travelers choose to visit Japan and explore the big cities only – Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Nagoya, these are important too, but the essence of experiencing true Japanese culture lies in exploring the towns outside these major cities.