Travel enthusiast NIDHI TAPARIA nds herself wooed by the gentle magic of JAPAN in the SAKURA SEASON
Travel enthusiast and Citadel columnist NIDHI TAPARIA finds herself wooed by the unobtrusively efficient and gentle magic of JAPAN. She narrates her traversing experience during the SAKURA SEASON that is celebrated on a grand scale in the region.
After coming back from my rst trip to Japan, it’s been tough to scrub away its traces on my mind. Because Japan is truly rst world and makes you think, as it showcases innovation of thought, old-world cultural charm, natural beauty and discipline with an efcient ease.
“What a strange thing! To be alive beneath cherry blossoms.” ― Kobayashi Issa, Poems
Japan in cherry blossom season has so much wonder attached to it. I realised that at one of the Hanami (outdoor parties that are held in Japan during the cherry blossom season) parties, wherein I was reminded again and again of how lucky I am to be in Japan during the cherry blossom season! While gazing at the blooming white and pink owers, I was awe-struck with the beauty of the blossom season. During the night of Hanami, I witnessed the obsession and celebration around the country about the Sakura and its gentle magic. From Sakura themed icecreams to body gels, to food delicacies, to décor, to guides, Japan celebrated its unofficial national flower unabashedly! The Sakura around the rivers, Meguro and Sumida in Tokyo, was a sight to behold! Similarly, the Philosophers Path in Kyoto would make a pretty picture from any angle! It was clearly a reflection of Japanese precision and thought. As for cherry blossom spotting, one must visit Meguro River, where pink lanterns, bustling locals and yummy eats and zzy pink drinks accentuate the ambience of the river. While at the spot, I was feeling the impact of the dense population that Tokyo is so famous for. Besides, The Philosophers Path, lined by a mix of quaint and up-market restaurants, was charming even on a cold, rainy day. One can sample orange cake and coffee at Pommeor, catch an art or music showing at Green Forest or sample the five course meal at Monk. Personally, I was mesmerised by the Sakura Tunnel Road in Kobe that sloped downward, and the cherry blossoms obliterated almost everything in sight. It truly showcased the beauty of the blossom, although far from the hustle-bustle of town. Next, I witnessed Shinrin Yoku, the art of the forest bathing that was set up in the 1980s by Japanese medical practitioners. We walked around in the Bamboo Forest at
Aarashiyama just to be with the trees. The forest is referred to as one of the most beautiful groves in the world. After strolling in the forest, we (my husband and I) took up the challenge of scaling the 1,000 orange gates of Mount Inari in order to test our stamina and strength. I walked up the 18 spots while my husband caught a catnap. I would recommend that readers try it rst thing in the morning so that you can enjoy this beautiful space without jostling with others.
The thought to minute detail was visible through the 15 days I spent in Japan. A small machine was
installed outside a mall as to wrap wet umbrellas in plastic so that visitors don’t drip on the oors of the mall. The National Art Center in Tokyo had an umbrella stand which allowed visitors to lock their umbrellas before proceeding to view the artworks inside! Besides, the Nijo Castle had the facility of leaving footwear at the entrance or carrying it in a clear plastic bag, should you worry about it being stolen! The thoughtfulness was visible even in the Shinkasen, Japan’s famed bullet train, which made travel across its two capitals, Tokyo and Kyoto, an absolute breeze. It was equipped with charging spots, luggage spaces, smoking rooms and a small make-up room armed with a curtain for you to freshen up or nurse your baby! It is indeed designed thoughtfully. Japan has vending machines in abundance. I found it at Roppongi Station, Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama and the Japanese opera theater, Kabuki. Usually found in pairs, they sell everything from beverages (soda, water, coffee, juice, beer, etc) to cigarettes and even ramen packets! Living spaces i n Japan are undergoing tremendous changes because of innovation. The reinvention of the capsule hotel with a blend of function, style and affordability is nding much favour with tourists and locals. From being traditionally coffinsized sleep places frequented by Japanese salary men who missed their last train home after their long drinking sessions, the capsule hotels now are reinventing
themselves as fashionable accommodation. I stayed at 9 Hours in Shinjuku, which was safe, stylish and secure! In addition to the separate lifts for men and women, the hotel offered QR code-based keys, stylish nightwear, slippers and award winning amenities. The capsule was super spacious enough to tame my claustrophobia fear! Also, First Cabin, where the reception turns into a bar, or Centurion Capsule & Spa, which is a luxurious spa, sauna capsule just for women, was worth the money. Co-living has now become a big hit in Tokyo! Our experience at Roam Tokyo was one that changed me forever. Large apartments designed tastefully and thoughtfully with a common lounge, co-working areas and a community kitchen are architectural marvels of Japan that have hit the sweet spot between the facilities of a boutique hotel, community and buzz of a hostel/ small neighbourhood, and also industrious atmosphere of a coworking space. With community dinners every week, plus art exhibits and joint traipsing around the city; all of it made me have serious personal and work conversations with strangers from over 20 countries who are now all connected!
Japan is a mix of old worldcharm with obsessive new age indulgences. How else do you explain the survival of ancient Japanese opera or Kabuki running to packed houses? Based on a combination of music, theater and dance, Kabuki has multiple acts
that are performed only by men. With exaggerated movements and elaborate costumes and make-up, these acts were fascinating and spell binding! We had an English guide on a tablet handy at our experience at the theater in Ginza and found this a fascinatingly local experience, as it was a seasonal performance. We enjoyed the performances with eats, beer or even some mochi (traditional Japanese sweets). The other one, which is a mustdo in Japan, is Geisha spotting. Known as Geikos in Kyoto, they are easy to see, especially during the cherry blossom season. Attached to Ochayas (Japanese tea houses) and skilled in conversation, music and dance, Geikos and Meikos (Geikos in training) are easy to spot in the Gion area and during Cherry Blossom evenings. We spotted a few Meikos before a pre-dinner stroll in the Gion area with white make-up, red lips and elaborate hairdos as they walked between engagements. Also a popular and sure shot way to see them is to watch the annual performance of Gion’s Geisha called Miyako Odori (Cherry Blossom Dances) that was held in the night at the historic Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theater in Kyoto. Much has been said about the public baths in Japan, be it an Onsen or a Sento. They’re both communal hot-water baths for men and women, although similar in nature. An Onsen is lled with natural volcanic spring water, known for its rich and healing mineral content, while Sento simply uses heated tap water (although some do add minerals and infusions to the water). We tried the Inariyu near Tokyo’s very famous landmark, the Imperial Palace. The water here is provided at 44 degree Celsius and it was just what our tired feet and tired minds needed. “If I have a problem with my boss, I will usually bring it up in an Onsen, where there are no layers of clothing and it allows all the negativity to ebb away,” said a local who we met. Gaming, comics, fashion and music are equal obsessions in the country. So while Pachinko parlours (places to play arcade games and gamble) are widespread, so are Internet cafés, which allow you unlimited Manga, DVD, drinks and internet with even VR and AR facilities. I thought this would be something a young-me would have enjoyed till I bumped into a lady old enough to be a grandmother in the bathroom! Japanese women are ridiculously stylish. Full blown make-up sessions in a capsule at 6 am or on the train to work were a common sight. And you cannot miss the Kawaii girls at Harajuku Street or at the Kawaii Monster Café!
The one question that I’ve been asked as many times about Japan is, how did I manage my vegetarian food? While options were many, it was also easy to get by on the streets. One of my favourites was T’s Tan Tan; a vegan ramen place inside Tokyo Station, which we sampled before boarding the Shinkasen train to reach Kyoto. Yummy ramen with
tomato base and curry with rice were outstanding. The second time we trod in, we found ourselves staring at a 45-minute queue at this popular place, which announces proudly on its walls that it serves no meat, no sh and no dairy in its food. Also worth trying was the touristy sushi train restaurants. Heiroku Sushi at Shibuya was the easy-to-eatsushi-experience. Vegetarian options of cucumber and avocado were made fresh in front of our eyes and were easy on the stomach and wallet too! An afternoon tea is a must-do in Tokyo. Along with their signature tea from 1886 with free refills, the Peninsula also served sandwiches, homemade organic scones with their original clotted cream and petit fours made with seasonal ingredients on its tea-stand. The majestic chandeliers added an additional touch of style to the traditional afternoon tea setting at the Peninsula Hotel. A teddy bear walked around happily to click pictures. For us, the setting was amplied by two ladies jamming on the violin and the Kotu (a traditional Japanese instrument) respectively. Though nothing could beat the purist experience of drinking coffee at the bean-specialist shop Koffee Mameya in Omatesando, where the owner Eiichi Kunitomo served up coffee after showcasing his 16 speciality coffee beans and playing barista himself. However, what literally took our breath away were the rooftop bars in Tokyo. It was tough to pick a favourite, given how edgy they were. The Black Bar at the Aman, Tokyo offered spectacular panoramic views and a glimpse into the mystery of the Tokyo night, along with its colour co-ordinated drinks and a charred nori plate! Our picks were the Blackberry Espresso Martini and the Black Rum Mojito. A different slice was available to sample at the Rooftop Bar on the 52nd Floor of the Andaz Tokyo, where award-winning mixologist Ryuichi Saito mixed up a selection of cocktails based on Japanese tea, fruits and owers! Next, we stepped into Golden Gai, six alleys in Shinjuku that houses tiny, slightly ramshackle but buzzing bars, each with its own signature décor, drink and buzz! Cover charge is clearly mentioned and we made new friends and bumped into travellers from other parts of the world. A popular one is Albatross, where gorgeous crystal chandeliers were seen hanging from the ceiling as the disco balls cast light and shadows across the room. All of t his, however, paled in comparison with the Japanese people. From the white-gloved railway conductors to the lovely girls at the Maid Café, or even those quietly reading books on the metro; the people in Japan were helpful, polite and disciplined. We were escorted to our restaurant in Akasaka when we lost our way, we had a polite hostess at the ANA counter whisk us through check-in when we had a mix up reaching Narita Airport, and the one I will never forget, a sweet girl at my Capsule Hotel, pulling out a spare toothbrush using sign language to offer my zapped self early in the morning! For any traveller looking for an experience beyond the ordinary, Nippon is just perfect and an absolute must-do on any bucket list during the Sakura season! All in all, it was one magical journey that I ever had in my life!
Bamboo Forest at Aarashiyama, Kyoto
Shochiku’s Kabuki, one of the popular theatres in Japan
Brewing coffee at Koffee Mameya, Tokyo
1000 gates of Mt. Inari at Kyoto
High tea at The Penninsula, Tokyo
The Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto
...savouring noodles at Tokyo station
Nozomi Shinkasen, the high speed bullet train of Japan
Sakura & Pink lanterns at Meguro River
White cherry blossoms!