Oct 27, 2017

What to do when you need a Tissue in Japan

If there is one country that does things differently it’s Japan. Frankly, they hover between being weird and totally innovative. One of the most innovative things I have seen in Japan is Tissue Pack Marketing. Something as simple and as mundane as tissue paper packets are used very effectively as means of advertisements.

The first time I encountered this type of marketing was when I was walking down the street in Osaka minding my own business when suddenly this young girl jumped in front of me and started waving a tissue pack under my nose. While I gingerly touched to my nose to see if there was something on it that had made this kind stranger offer me a tissue pack, she started talking about a makeup product, smiled, handed a very bewildered me the tissue pack and left. It was then that I realized that there was a paper advertising the makeup product  at the bottom of the plastic packet. 

Tissue paper marketing is a sort of guerilla marketing popular in Japan. It’s cost effective and hits the human psychology pretty well. Think about it, if you are handed a flyer advertising a product you’ll most likely throw it in the bin, but who would say no to a free pack of face tissues. By the time you have gone through the entire pack you would have probably glanced at the advertisement at the bottom of the transparent wrapper at least a dozen times.

Also, this strategy seems to work on the Japanese sense of obligation pretty well as most Japanese will tend to think that if they have got something free they might as well as look at or consider the product that is advertised.

An estimated 70 billion yen worth of tissues packs are distributed every year in Japan and they advertise everything from a new spa to cheap loans to makeup to car rental companies

People giving out these packets are usually youngsters in school and college out to make some extra money. They are there everywhere, standing strategically at all busy roads and station exits. Seriously I sometimes wonder why shops in Japan sell tissues when all you need to do is walk down to the nearest station and at least three different smiling young men and women will hail you in their high pitched nasal voice and offer you a free packs of tissues.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or understand Japanese all you need to do is grab the tissues and smile a thank you. You get your free tissues and the business gets a potential customer.

Another reason the tissue pack marketing is so effective as compared to adverts is that the tissue distributors can easily target a certain demographic. For example as a foreigner I might get advertisements for Japanese language schools or makeup or travel companies.What I most certainly won’t get is advertisements for shady pubs or a massage parlor. My male Japanese friends may get these though !

Tissue packs even when not used for advertising, can be pretty interesting. Most tissue packs across the world will have mundane pics of the manufacturer but some of the packs in Japan have interesting covers such as that of Mt Fuji, Bullet train etc. These packs are often kept as mementos by tourists. 

Then there is a wonderful thing called lotion tissues. Extremely soft and very soothing to the skin. The best of tissues in India will seem as rough as burlap once you have used them.

Although I usually turn down my nos at freebies, I never said no to a pack of free tissue in Japan, even bringing them back to India and using for as much time as I could. 

I don’t really know if I am helping the products being advertised in the tissue packs but tissue paper manufacture must have gone up a wee bit thanks to me ! 

Sep 20, 2017

The work from home Chronicles

I hurt my knee a month back and instead of limping to work every morning, I decided to work from home. I saw it as a respite from the never ending commute and traffic and had lovely visions of myself simply rolling out of bed, padding over to my desk in pajamas and starting work. I was so kicked by the fact that my journey to work would be reduced to 1 minute from I hour.

No more power dressing, no need to iron all those formal clothes, hell no need to even comb my hair if I didn’t feel like it. No more standing in line at the office microwave to heat my packed lunch, no more tepid coffee from the office dispensing machine.

No one to see you if you are checking your mails with the toothbrush still in your mouth or if you are watching Mr. Bean videos on the side as you type serious mails to your team.

Life was going to be so good.

The reality my friends is something totally different.

Within a week I was so bored and desperate for company, I was holding imaginary conversations with my plants. I was so used to getting up, getting dressed and being out of the house that I just couldn’t handle the change. I didn’t know I would crave so much for what I always thought of as a mechanical life.

You sigh with deep longing when you look at your work clothes, all those neatly ironed trousers and formal shirts, ethnic kurtas hanging neatly in your cupboard and wonder if you will ever wear them again. You read articles about dressing up well even when you are working from home but somehow getting dressed in good clothes and then going nowhere seems to make you even sadder.

You miss the buzz that an office gives you, the in and out of colleagues from your cubicle, the constant chatter. The silence and peace that you longed for so long now just depresses you. You know you are in serious trouble when you even start missing those snotty juniors who you were always admonishing for making too much noise.

Getting up and making tea and eating all those healthy snacks by yourself is not as much fun as you thought it would be. It was so much better to walk to the cafeteria and share your food with colleagues and enjoy the chat sessions around the water cooler you till now thought of as banal and a waste of time.

When you are working from home, you end up working more because you are never really out of office. In office, Lunch or tea breaks and even loo breaks mean being away from your desk, chatting with people for a while. Now unless you learn to strictly set time away from the laptop, you will end up spending all your time there, even eating in front of it.

You also realize that Conference calls are the bane of your existence.

It’s amazing but with uncanny precision, just when you have gone off mute and started to speak the damn street dog will start barking just outside your window and a zillion cars will honk together – You are not really supposed to blow your car horn inside a residential colony but then which self-respecting delhi-ite follows rules!

Meanwhile, your manager and team mates are sitting in one conference room, right next to each other, with the speaker phone on just for you and you are using every muscle in your body to try and hear what they are saying. The connection is so bad, the only way you can hear them is if they shout right into the phone which obviously they don’t so finally you just resign yourself to laughing when every-one is laughing and then saying “I have no questions, Thank you” in the end while desperately hoping that nothing substantial has been discussed in the call.

I can never forget that one fateful morning when I attended an important client call in my night shirt with my hair standing up in tufts and suddenly in the middle of the call the client wanted it to turn it into a video call instead of a telephonic one. I set a world record for changing clothes, combing my hair and dabbing on some makeup that day, all the while pretending that there was something wrong with the laptop camera.

Since you are at home all the time, your family kind of forgets that you work. You might be busy making an important presentation or struggling with formulas in an Excel sheet and your mother will disturb you just then because she can’t figure out how to make a whatsapp call, wants dabbas taken down from high shelves, wants to know what to get cooked for lunch or if she can wear this saree when she goes out today.

You in turn will shout at them all the time to lower the TV volume, not to talk loudly, not to call people over, walk on tip toes and not even breathe if they can help it.

Work from home has its good moments too. You can take quick breaks and walk around the garden, check FB or twitter without your colleagues peeping over your shoulder, even brew yourself some coffee while on mute during meetings. If you are working on assignments that require no support from others, you can pretty much tweak your work hours to your convenience or sneak out for a few hours to work from a café.

Work from home is a wonderful concept. Specially for people who have kids to take care of or even those of us who want a little bit of flexibility and time for ourselves in our lives. Believe me not having to commute everyday does take away a lot of stress and adds a whole lot of time to your day. And largely uninterrupted work hours do wonders to your productivity and creativity.

Having said that, I have realized I am the kind of person who needs to be up and out of the house and interact with others to a certain extent. An ideal situation for me would be a work from home once or twice a week when I can work according to my own schedules and avoid the commute.

In my opinion, work from home works very well for free lancers and self-employed people but not always for people who are employed full time in one organization and need to connect with the rest of the employees a lot. Unless that organization has a widely accepted culture of work from home, and I honestly think that’s still lacking in India, You just end up making a lot of effort to stay connected and network.

I guess, I will go back to working full time from office sooner or later, but till then let me make the most of it by writing mundane blog posts and teaching my plants how to speak Japanese.

Jul 13, 2017

Japan's Summer Singing Sensations

One fine summer morning in Japan, just after sunrise, I was woken up by a sound that can only be described as a cross between high decibel screeching and a rasping sound. It reminded me of the worker who sits outside buildings being constructed in India and slowly and steadily cuts iron rods into pieces while the noise from his machine pierces your skull till you want to die.  

I opened the sliding door of my balcony and stepped out. No one was in sight but the sound was almost unbearable outside. Then I remembered my Indian neighbors had talked about seeing a pressure cooker in one of the local shops and wanting to try it out. I wondered if this is what a Japanese pressure cooker’s whistle sounds like.

All through the morning as I dressed, ate breakfast and left for work, the noise continued unabated. If this was indeed the pressure cooker whistle, I wondered what my neighbors were cooking!

But it was not the pressure cooker because the sound followed me all the way as I walked to the train station. Mercifully the sound shut off as soon as I entered the underground station.

My office was surrounded by a whole lot of trees and as I stepped out for some fresh air during my lunch break, the sound hit me again. By now I was sure that it was some kind of animal or bird but for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what exactly it was. I couldn’t see any new species of birds except the huge crows that perpetually seem to dot the Japanese urban areas. The whole day, each time I went out I would be assaulted by this deafening sound but mercifully it stopped in the evening. I went to bed thinking that this is just one of those unresolved mysteries of Japan to add to my list. But that was not the end of it. I got up the next morning and the first thing that I heard was that sound again. This went on for three days till I thought I would go mad with the suspense and the noise. None of my Japanese colleagues seemed bothered by it; no one mentioned it and I wondered if they would think their Indian colleague has gone bonkers if I mention a weird sound that I hear as soon as I step outdoors.

I was put out of my misery after a few days when I went out to lunch with one of my Japanese colleagues and she casually said “Oh it really feels like summer now that the cicadas are singing non-stop”. I stared at her I total disbelief. Was that the sound of the cicadas? Were those innocuous looking bugs capable of emitting such shrill, ear drum piercing sound? And honestly how can the Japanese consider it singing!

Apparently, the cicadas that seem to live underground and incubate for years on end get out of their stupor in summer and invade Japan like an enormous dirt colored army. The ‘music’ that they make is actually their love song. They obviously don’t believe in wasting even a moment of their short lives over ground because they spend their days lustily singing for their mate from sunrise to sunset. Once they find their mate and the female lays the eggs, the cicadas quietly wither away and die leaving behind flaky wings and shells that carpet all areas near trees and make a crunchy autumny sound as you walk on them.

I never got used to the sound. For me it just made a shrill unpleasant background noise I could do nothing about and once the cicadas started dying, I did my best to side step over their crusty bodies that littered the ground. Strangely, the Japanese kids seem to be rather fond of these bugs. While kids from other countries spend their summer holidays swimming or riding bicycles the kids in Japan spend their summer afternoons chasing cicadas with butterfly nets. You can see them standing in groups under trees, flapping their nets about and trying to coax the cicadas to fly down. I don’t really understand why they want them as pets because after a few weeks the cicadas would be dead anyway.

In Japanese culture, the cicadas represent the concept of ‘Mujo’ or the impermanence of all things. Naturally, the Japanese poets with their preoccupation with loneliness and death and the transient nature of this world find the cicadas a fascinating topic to wax poetic about.

Basho, the famous Haiku poet sums it up perfectly in these two Haikus:

A cicada shell
it sang itself
utterly away.

And I so agree with Basho when he describes the sound the cicadas make.

Stillness -
the cicada's cry
drills into the rocks

Whatever the cultural or philosophical significance of the cicadas, to me they will always be those cacophonous creatures that almost drown all my other memories of a Japanese summer.

May 31, 2017

The loo with the view

The only time I envy my fellow travelers of the opposite sex is when we need to use a loo while travelling in remote areas. The male members of the group discreetly retreat behind anything that half hides them while we female members run around looking for a place where we can go about our business in relative privacy.

The biggest challenge comes while traveling in the mountains. The well-traveled routes usually have washrooms that may be nothing more than just a canvas covering three sides. But, however rudimentary at least they offer you some privacy. 

As you go higher up, even these basic amenities are missing. When you love mountains and your idea of traveling is to go to far flung obscure places where most of mankind in the form of noisy tourists has not reached, please remember that Vidya Balan and her Shauchalaya abhiyan has not reached there either. 

At first, you spend your time marveling at the unspoiled and pristine beauty. Then there comes a time when you’ve had enough of the scenery and all you can think of is of your discomfort because you need to go to the loo. The subzero temperature and the endless cups of hot tea that you have gulped do not help matters at all. The scenic mountains, the pine trees, the pretty sheep dotting the valley hold no interest to you and the flowing rivers only serve to remind you that well .. you need to go. So while your co-passengers might think that you have your nose stuck to the window coz you love the view all you are doing is looking for anything that might act as a pit stop.

But for miles and miles, all you can see is desolate mountains or vast valleys that are devoid of a single shrub or rock you can go behind. You are on the verge of bursting when you see an area that has rocks big enough to act as temporary loos, you scream at the driver to stop, grab some tissues from your bag and make a beeline for it. 

The search for the perfect rock ! 
Obviously for the not so seasoned travelers going in the open tends to be a pain and primitive beyond anything they have ever experienced. But tell me, isn’t the view from your outdoor loo much better that the white or light pink tiles and walls we usually stare at in the normal boring loos. Imagine looking up at snow peaks, mighty deodars and pine trees or a vast valley covered with little flowers spread right before your eyes as you go about your job.

But remember, never to get so engrossed in the view that you don’t even look where you are going. The grass that you are just about to water hides insects and even leeches that can turn your behind into an itchy mess in minutes.

In one of our treks, one of the ladies went and sat down without seeing and got a leech stuck to her fair and ample bottom. On another trip, a girl jumped up and shrieked in alarm because there was a small rodent like animal intently watching her as she took a tinkle. To be fair, more than anything else the poor animal must have been rather alarmed to see a huge strange animal staking its territory in what the poor animal thought was his territory.

Camping in the open has its own “pitfalls”. Unless you are staying at a campsite that will probably have makeshift loos, you need to go out in the open. Searching for that suitable place in the dark is not funny especially when every twig that breaks seems like a bear about to charge you. Even proper campsites are not without their own adventure. The tent serving as the washroom is usually away from the other tents and the lighting there is rather poor at its best. One friend set out for her nightly ablutions armed with a huge torch. Somehow she ended up dropping the torch down the hole, so now none of us could see where we were going, only where we had been.

What I have learnt over the years is to grab a chance to use the loo where you stop. Be it a dhabha or someone’s house or a petrol station; go even if you don’t need to coz you never know where the next pit stop is going to be and what it’s going to be like.

Another thing that my travels have taught me is that an umbrella or a shawl do much more than simply shielding you from the sun or protecting you from the cold. In the absence of anything else, they help in protecting your modesty from the eyes of strangers.

Traveling is an adventure and traveling off the beaten track to areas that give you nothing in the form of basic facilities can either be a great ordeal or an adventure of a life time. It simply depends on your perspective.

The outdoor loos may not offer you the best of amenities but they do offer you something even better – a view that you will never forget.

Aug 3, 2016

The one with elusive peacocks and angry bees

About a month back four of us decided to escape the Delhi heat by going off to the mountains for a few days. The fact that at this time the mountains are almost submerged under a deluge of rain didn’t deter us at all.

Weeks of relentless rain and a few cloudbursts finally convinced us that a journey up in the mountains can be a little more adventurous than what even we would like. So we cancelled it and thus began our search for alternate destinations. From Shekhawati to Pushkar to Jaipur to Landour to Kasauni each destination was scrutinized and rejected for one reason or the other.

Finally we decided to spend our weekend on a farm near Alwar. We planned our trip with visions of taking lovely walks through the farm and eating healthy organically grown food.

Of course the fact that in monsoons the whole farm will be a muddy squelchy mess didn’t cross our minds neither did the fact that there are barely any vegetables growing in monsoons forget organic ones.

So on the rainiest day Delhi had seen in a decade we set off. Inspite of incessant rain and flooded roads, we still managed to cover a considerable distance in two hours. Our problems began after we started looking for the turn towards the village where the farm was located. Navigation both human and google was rather inept and after innumerable missed turns and wrong directions from locals who kept directing us to the wrong place simply because they could not understand our pronunciation of the village name; we finally reached the village.

The gate to the farm was so small that we almost missed it. Once inside, our car entered a veritable tunnel of verdant green foliage. There was a stone wall on one side with a vibrant bougainvillea trailing it. Trees on both sides of the unpaved lane were bent almost double with rain and wind and formed a canopy over us. The narrow bumpy road opened up to a parking area on one side and rooms on the other. Beyond the rooms was more farmland.

Ever since we had arrived we could hear the sound of various birds but the koels and the Peacocks were the loudest. So after we had fueled ourselves with tea and paranthas we set off to explore the farm and hopefully see some peacocks. The ground was so wet that it was like walking on a huge muddy sponge. The rain had infused new life in everything and young plants and shoots sprouted everywhere. The leaves on the trees were thick and glossy and the raindrops glistened on them like diamonds. It was as if the world was just made up of different shades of green with occasional bursts of other colors in the form of flowers.

We were quite enjoying our walk inspite of having to squelch through ankle high grass. What we had not accounted for were the creepy crawly insects that come out in this season. Very Soon all parts of our bodies that were exposed turned red, swollen and itchy with mosquito and insect bites. We were either swatting away at mosquitoes or gingerly stepping and hopping over innumerable snails and earthworms on our path. But all this was nothing compared to the beast that awaited us just at the next turn.

We realized that the sound of peacocks was very loud from one particular direction and we hurried there in the hope of seeing a few. What we did see instead was a ferocious dog bounding towards us. Two of us screamed and froze on the spot. The third brandished her umbrella like a sword and I was torn between laughter at their antics and alarm because honestly I am not too fond of dogs myself.

The four of us decided that the best policy would be to keep as still as possible and hope that the dog goes away. We stood there stock still, hardly daring to breathe while the dog stood and stared back at us; tail raised, quivering all over and making strange throaty noises that we hoped were sounds of welcome but looked more like warning growls.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he went off in the direction he had come from and we fled back towards our rooms, all thoughts of photographing dancing peacocks abandoned.

Non-stop rain and blood thirsty mosquitoes made further forays into the woods impossible. So we just sat in the verandah and enjoyed the tranquility. The farm was away from all civilization and the only sounds were of the soft rain falling, the rustle of leaves and the songs of the birds; sounds that we rarely hear in the rush and madness of our urban existence. It was the perfect place to be still and enjoy the sound of nature.

But that was not to be.

Suddenly the quiet afternoon was shattered by the earsplitting sounds of a machine. We looked up to see a tractor coming over the hillock near our rooms. A few farm hands sat on the tractor, along with our driver. Apparently he had made friends with them and they were all enjoying a ride together.

They continued to come up the hillock, tearing through the over grown grass and shrubs. Suddenly there was a loud yelp, the tractor came to a grinding halt and everyone sitting on it jumped off and ran in different directions as fast as their legs could carry them. One minute they were sitting on the tractor laughing and joking and the next instant they were running through the trees with their arms flaying over their heads. It was comical to watch.

Meanwhile, the engine of the tractor was still on and the monstrous beast stood there making strange chugging noises. It seemed that in their rush to run from whatever they were running from, the men had not even stopped to turn the engine off. After some time they came out from their various hiding places and cautiously approached the tractor. we watched totally intrigued as they quickly switched off the engine and retreated to safety again. None of them made the effort to climb on the tractor and take it away. It just lay there, like a huge red beetle among the trees. Later, we found out that they had inadvertently disturbed a bee hive and the angry bees had descended on them like a huge buzzing missile. Most of them had managed to escape being stung but an over zealous bee had followed our driver right up to his room. He emerged in the evening, the area under his left eye swollen but thankfully his good humour intact.

Everyone on the farm had reassured us that peacocks always come down from the trees in the morning. The cook told us how a couple had seen peacocks dancing in the area adjoining the kitchen while they ate their morning parathas. The farm boys told us stories about how they have to shoo away peacocks from the parking lot every morning and how they dig up and eat up all the plants.

So it was with great expectation that I opened the door to our room the next morning to photograph the peacocks I was sure would be preening all around. Instead, I was greeted with our friend the dog going round and round in circles in the verandah and a few squawking ducks.

The elusive peacocks continued to tease us with their songs throughout our stay but refused to come out of the deep woods. Forget photographing them, we didn’t even get to bring back a single peacock feather.

Oh well, as the saying goes, Jungle mein mor nacha, par kisne dekha !

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