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.

Citadel - - CONTENTS -

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 efcient ease.

“What a strange thing! To be alive be­neath cherry blos­soms.” ― Kobayashi Issa, Po­ems

BEAUTY

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.

IN­NO­VA­TION

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!

UNIQUE CHARM

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 BUZZ

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 am­plied 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

Nidhi Taparia

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!

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