How can the land of the rising sun, cherry blossoms and samurai lore be anything but fascinating?
It is like having strayed into Discovery’s Travel and Living Channel. “This is the Land of the Rising Sun,” I declare to the invisible camera. From the 37th floor of a posh hotel, it looks more like Lego land below with tiny cars and brightly coloured toy trucks. Across, is the splendid Tokyo Bay.
And, impossibly slender sky scrapers (isn’t the place supposed to be earth-quake prone?). I am in Japan! The unreal feeling refuses to quit. There is still more excitement ahead — the continuation of a story that began back home in 1983.
A team of Japanese climbers were stranded at Nun Kun, when leader of the expedition, Fumihiko Maeda was swept away by the Suru river.
Fortunately, he held on and an Air Force Helicopter rescued him. One of the pilots was my husband.
Twenty five years later, an e-mail to the Japanese Alpine club enquiring about Maeda’s whereabouts yields an immediate response. Maeda says he and his wife Yoko (also a part of the alpine team) would be delighted to meet me at Tokyo.
They do, and show me around. The first stop is Ueno Park, for the cherry blossoms — Sakura as they call it there.
A sight for the gods as one drives through avenues bordered with the delicate pink and white flower-laden trees. My trip has coincided with Hanami — blossom viewing.
The arrival and the short life of the blossoms is a much feted event.
And, Ueno Park is in the thick of celebrations.
A wooded area with temples, museums and a viewing bay from where there are miles of cherry blossoms visible. People picnic, others pray at the shrines or cheer an impromptu folk music and dance performance.
Difficult to believe that Ueno once was the scene of a bloody battle that was won by a Samurai, Saigo Takamori (made popular in the movie The Last Samurai). A statue of Saigo San and his dog stands tall in the park.
There are parks and water bodies everywhere in Tokyo. Even a densely built up area like Ginza is dotted with green. Benches complete the picture of repose in the midst of the hurly burly.
There is art on the subway walls, and florists, cafes and confectioners make the underground, festive. The subways are confusing, but perfectly safe. One hears of how complete strangers will escort you to your destination even if it is out of their way.
Everyone bows to you in Tokyo. You only have to make eye contact and a graceful bow comes your way. It bowls you over as no words ever could. Even in the snobbish Ginza (Lonely Planet describes it as Tokyo’s answer to New York’s Fifth Avenue) where the world’s leading fashion brands have their stores, the courtesy is unfailing.
Maeda and Yoko take me to Narita and the home of Sachiko (another mountaineer) and her husband Hiroshi Honda.
There is wine and vegetarian sushi in my honour, with wasabi (a pungent mustard-like paste, delicious but one that explodes in my head and leaves me weeping!). There is also strawberries, tempura, green tea and heart-warming hospitality.
The next day it is the Boso-no-Mura Museum — an interactive museum of Japanese architecture, where a recreated village street is flanked by homes and workplaces of blacksmiths, weavers, potters, tool makers, etc, exactly as they were hundreds of years ago. I wander through the living room of a Samurai, peep into a stone well, warm myself near a farmer’s kitchen-stove, sit in a palanquin, admire tatami mats, and watch a potter adding details to pottery (you can paint a piece of pottery too, and it will be displayed there).
Samurai costumes, kimonos and a demonstration of a tea ceremony completes the Japanese experience. The idea, I am told, is to foster pride in the history, tradition and culture of Japan.
This is done through interactive programmes and workshops on Japanese heritage for school and college students. Then there is the 1000-year-old Narita San Shinshoji temple. Established by Priest Kanjo, the temple’s deity is Fudomyoo.
On behest of Emperor Suzaku, Priest Kanjo carried the deity from Kyoto to Narita to perform religious rites there to suppress a revolt.
It worked and the uprising was crushed.
A temple, and a tale
When Kanjo prepared to carry the idol to Kyoto, it would not be moved. Fudomyoo declared he wanted to remain at Narita forever to relieve the misery of the people of the region.
And so, the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, in its incredibly beautiful settings came into being. Sadly, time runs out. It is well nigh impossible to do justice to a country like Japan in a mere five days.
I must come back for more. I only hope I don’t have to wait for Maeda San to climb another mountain.PANKAJA SRINIVASAN