The two faces of Tokyo

On the quiet streets of Tokyo one morning, I see a parade of penguins with a quick and purposeful gait. I am to see the penguins in other places at other times of the day too — at supermarkets at lunchtime buying boxes of sushi, at Pachinko gaming parlours late afternoon and in the evening again on the roads. They are the famed salarymen of Japan, in their black suits and crisp white shirts, working loyally and tirelessly for giant companies all their lives.

Everywhere I turn in this city, there is a visible dichotomy between the old and new. I get off the Metro and walk through a shopping area inside the station, larger than many malls in India. And at a short distance from the exit, I enter a Japanese home to witness a traditional tea ceremony. It is a different world here. The lady of the house is in her kimono and the students, here to (re)learn their traditions, are men in business suits.

tea ceremony

On my first day in Tokyo, I mostly walk around the city, heading first to the Asakusa Kannon temple. There are dozens of locals tying wish cards and lighting incense sticks to appease their gods, even as tourists gawk at them.



My next destination is the famous Akihabara district with its dazzling displays of the latest and the best electronic items. Shops here have a bewildering array of gizmos and I find myself unable to make a decision on an iPod I had planned to buy. But more importantly, it is all business — nothing ritualistic or traditional about this area. And in the evening, I head to the Roppongi Hills Mori tower to see night slowly descend upon the city. The elevator takes me up 52 floors with a whoosh, before I can say skyscraper. Such varied experiences on the same day — it should have given me a hint of the shape of things to come.


In Tokyo, everything is organised: from entertainment — cat cafés (Hello Kitty hangover?) where people unable to manage a pet at home can, for a largish sum of money, play with their favourite cat — to excretion, in the form of temperature-controlled intelligent toilets (and oh, they are addictive).

There is a lot of talk about Japan’s, in particular Tokyo’s, global identity and modern ways but to my uninformed eyes, they seem as conformist as ever. While the style on the street is definitely avant-garde (think of Tokyo as an Asian Milan), people with tattoos are viewed with suspicion. Even tattooed teenagers trying out their newfound coolness are not allowed in several places including city buses and trains.

And they take their rules very seriously. My guide almost weeps in embarrassment when her cellphone suddenly rings in the middle of a Metro ride. There is no written law; it is just impolite and therefore not acceptable to disturb other passengers. That kind of discipline is ingrained and imparts them with a great dignity, even while noisily slurping noodles from a bowl.

I have read a lot about the Japanese love for all things aesthetic and sensual. Their preference seems to be for straight lines rather than curves, perhaps an extension of their need for tidiness. On my way into the city from the airport, I see building after building, a Legoland of little square boxes balanced delicately on top of each other. Even their kimonos, graceful as they are, fall straight and feel somewhat restrictive compared to the sari, which is all about enhancing the curve.


The Japanese sometimes come across as gruff but I find that it is mostly due to their inhibitions about language. And they try hard: they gesticulate, smile, point and somehow manage to help when needed. In my case, the girl leaves her shop unattended to walk me to the exit (I manage to get lost inside a train station — don’t ask). And the minute I point my camera at someone, they stop what they are doing and pose for me with that quintessential V sign. Even little children.

I am fine with the fact that many Japanese cannot speak English. The only time I have a ‘lost in translation’ experience is when, after a long day of sightseeing, I flop on my hotel bed and switch on the TV. All the programmes on all the channels, some twenty of them, are in Japanese. You would think the BBC or CNN or anything to do with the outside world would creep in. No. Even the Telebrands shopping channels are in Japanese. I cannot complain, because I watch in fascination, trying to imagine what the voiceover is saying. And anyway, how different can advertising for tummy fat reduction miracles be in another language?

This is the most fascinating culture I have seen, even if for a short time and from a distance. Japan is a country torn between the allure of a shiny modern persona and the strength of its strong traditional heritage. And nowhere is this struggle more evident than in Tokyo.

Must-dos in Tokyo: Visit the Asakusa Kannon temple and Roppongi Hills tower, make a day trip to Mount Fuji, watch a kabuki performance, attend a baseball match, buy a kimono, shop at Shibuya district and eat sushi.

This was originally published in The Hindu Sunday Magazine, January 06, 2013.

Not just a cup of tea

For the first time in my life, I am petrified by the prospect of having tea. I am in Koomon salon sat Tokyo’s Chou-Ku neighbourhood to watch a traditional tea ceremony called sado or chado (meaning ‘the tea way of life’). As my hostess shuffles into the room on her knees, everything I’ve read about how formal the Japanese are comes to mind and I’m hesitant to walk in. But Yukiko-san who has been running the salon for 18 years, instantly makes me feel welcome.

My story on the Japanese tea ceremony in the October issue of National Geographic Traveller – read the rest of the story here.

Kimono show in Kyoto

In the short time I spent in Kyoto, I made a pit stop at the Nishijin Textile Center, for a bit of shopping – I wanted to buy everything and finally bought a gorgeous sake cup set. I am thinking of using it as a shot glass! – and then their famous kimono fashion show (several times a day – timings on their page). It was a lovely experience watching these women walk on the small stage, pleasant smiles and elaborate hair-dos in place. And oh, those pretty pretty sashes (called obi). For the first time, I began to get a faint idea about the Japanese notion of beauty.

Actually, the word is not walked but sashayed – effortlessly in what seemed like constricting garments. And the traditional footwear for kimonos (called zori or geta) worn with white split toe socks called tabi was not elegant by any standard but worn by these women, it seemed a perfect accessory and only added to the ‘glide’ effect. I could not really tell the difference between the various kimonos displayed during the show – some did seem more ornate than others and were perhaps meant for different occasions or seasons. I wish there was some accompanying commentary to explain but in all, it was a fun fifteen minutes.

The obi – front and back views

And those gorgeous hair decorations

Also read: in the Conde Nast Traveller – Know Your Kimono

18 random things I noticed in Japan

I found Japan a really really complex culture – and coming from another, that is saying a lot. Back in India for a couple of weeks now, I am still taking it all in and am ambivalent about my feelings for the country. For now, a few observations…

~ The women are all super fashionable and elegant – whether they wear a kimono or Western clothes

~ Most signboards are in Japanese, especially when you get out of Tokyo

~ The bullet train experience is definitely worth all that money – although when you are inside, you do not feel the speed. Needless to add, trains run perfectly on time

~ Japan is super expensive and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise

~ All Japanese put up a V sign when they pose for the camera, even small children

~ They are extremely polite and friendly people – they can sometimes come across as gruff because they do not speak English and are very shy talking to strangers

~ They must easily be the most disciplined people on earth – rules are everything and they panic at the thought of breaking any rule

~ Green tea is a much loved flavour and found in everything from ice cream to donuts

~ I cannot but admire their courage – the atomic bombs, several earthquakes, more recently the tsunami and the nuclear disaster – you wouldn’t think of all this when you see the country because they bounce back from whatever is thrown at them

~ Japan does not easily reveal either its modern or traditional side easily – I think you need years and years to dig through what is visible

~ The country does not reveal its beauty easily either – prima facie the main cities look like any other glass and chrome world city

~ While there are still some old squat toilets, the modern ones come with a variety of buttons to press, including one to warm the seat (and how much I loved that!)

~ Whenever you enter a shop or restaurant, the staff smile and say irashimase and when you leave, a polite arigato gozaimasu

~ It is difficult, if not near impossible to eat tofu with chopsticks

~ Bento boxes are an art form in themselves and should be treated so. There are also loads of vending machines everywhere dispensing water bottles and a variety of cold drinks

~ There are pachinko gaming parlours everywhere and they seem to be crowded all the time

~ Men in black suits with impeccable white shirts walk briskly on the roads at all times of the day and night

~ The Japanese have an excellent aesthetic sense and seem to value visual appeal more than anything else – everything is a thing of beauty

A maiko in the making

From wikipedia – Maiko (舞妓?) is an apprentice geisha in western Japan, especially Kyoto. Their jobs consist of performing songs, dances, and playing the shamisen (three-stringed Japanese instrument) for visitors at a feast. Maiko are usually aged 15 to 20 years old and become geisha after learning how to dance (a kind of Japanese traditional dance), play the shamisen, and learning Kyō-kotoba (dialect of Kyoto), regardless of their origins.

More here

Here, the maiko I saw in Kyoto…

And for a fascinating glimpse into the elaborate make up worn by geishas, watch this video – the red eye liner is particularly interesting. And the lips painted thin and red. I could spend all day (and almost did) watching more of the maiko / geisha getting ready videos.

Update: Yuki says on flickr – “hensin, or fake geisha. She is an ordinary girl who has visited a “transformation studio’ so that she can be dressed like this for a few hours in order to take photos. Not a real maiko [apprentice geisha] – Don’t worry though, henshin are sooo common during the day, many tourists come to Kyoto every year, some come just to see the maiko & become henshin. Its like how you can pay to dress up as a cowboy in those old western towns. It’s a fun attraction, but henshin shouldn’t be confused with the real thing”

OMG, imagine going through all this effort just for photographs!