Aug 12, 2020

Song of the cicadas and other Japanese summer follies

For the Japanese, it is not spring till they have seen the first cherry blossom and it is not summer till they have heard the cicadas sing.
Normally, you would wake up with blissful silence around you till one day you are rudely shaken out of deep slumber by a sound that is similar to the sound your grandfather's ancient alarm clock made back in India. This is the cicadas tuning up for their summer concert. All through the summer, you will hear this sharp, drill-like noise till the entire island is positively vibrating with it. A sound that I loath because not only do I find the sound highly annoying but it also signifies the beginning of one season I detest the most in Japan – Summer.

The sound besides the sound of the water are the cicadas and their symphony. 

It rains non stop all through June and July and Japan is perpetually hidden behind a layer of rain and mist, making everything seem all mysterious and surreal. But as soon as August begins, the rains suddenly disappear to be replaced by clear untarnished blue skies. The sun is out in all its glory and perhaps miffed that it had to spend two months behind clouds, now shines down with a vengeance. It rises at 4.30 am and refuses to set before 7 pm making the day not only long but torturous for those who need to step out. Japan being an island does not help at all as now the hot and humid air rolls over from the Pacific so that you feel as if you are trudging through a sauna. If the sun doesn’t kill you, the humidity does.

Heat exhaustion or Natsubate is very common in Japan, but the Japanese being Japanese, have found several ingenious methods to deal with the heat.

One is the Fan. We have all seen pics of Japanese ladies daintily fanning themselves with pretty paper fans. But with technology, there has come a newer version of the good old paper fan. Come summer and shops are flooded with small battery-operated handheld fans. You can see a lot of people walking about outside while holding these fans close to their faces. I find it a bit silly and would prefer a traditional fan if I must use one, but whatever works!

Portable fans at Tokyu Hands store
Portable fans at the Tokyu Hands store

Another interesting thing are the cooling sheets. They are small methanol gel filled sheets that you can put on your forehead or on the back of your neck while you go about your work. They give you an instant cool feeling. There are also special cooling sheets you can put under the soles of your feet and on your ankles when you have been walking a lot and your feet and tired and hot.  I have tried them and now this is the first thing I stock up on as soon as summer starts. 

Another quirky Japanese invention are the sweat pads that you put under your clothing – usually around the armpits and they absorb all the sweat. Japanese deodorants are usually very mild and for the life of me, I cant understand why they would make something like these sweat pads instead of just making heavy-duty deos.

If you don’t like the idea of sticking sweat pads under your clothes there is something called the shirt spray very creatively named as 'Shirt cool'. You spray it on your clothes just before you put them on and every time you sweat the substance in the spray reacts and gives you an instant cool feeling.

All these things are displayed in shops under a sign that has a lot of ice or snow with penguins and polar bears sliding ecstatically in it. Once you see this sign you will trip over yourself in a rush to buy all the products under it so that you can feel as cool and happy as the polar bears.

Another interesting thing about Japan is the food. Every season they come up with some interesting food combinations. The flavor of summer is usually mint. Everything right from ice-cream to chocolate to cookies to coffee is mint flavored. This year even my hairstylist offered to wash my hair with a mint shampoo.

One traditional Japanese dish that I am extremely fond of eating in the summer is zaru soba. This is cold soba noodles eaten after dipping them in a light summerish soy broth. I find them very tasty and refreshing.

Besides the interesting food items and ingenious inventions to beat the heat, the saving grace in summer are the firework festivities held throughout the country. August is also the time for the Obon festival. Obon is when the ancestors are supposed to visit you and they are welcomed not only by solemn Buddhist ceremonies but feisty Obon dances. This year corona has put a dampener on all festivities. 
So, with not even the fireworks or the Obon dances to lure me outside, I shall stay indoors while the summer lasts, gorging on mint ice cream and cold soba and dreaming of October when it is pleasant once again and the leaves start turning a reddish-golden in the anticipation of autumn.  

Jun 30, 2020

Meiji Shrine - A Spiritual Oasis

5 am on a quiet Saturday morning found me walking towards the train station instead of lying snuggled up in bed. My plan for the day was to visit the Meiji Jingu Shrine and take a refreshing morning walk through the forest surrounding it. In the land of the rising sun, sunrise is at 4.20 am during summer and by 5 the day was already promising to be one of those hot, breathless summer days with bright blue skies and not a cloud in sight. I wanted to make the most of the day before heat and humidity drove us indoors. 

Oasis of calm in the midst of an urban jungle 

Nestled deep within lush green woods right in the heart of Tokyo, the Meiji Jingu is dedicated to the spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji, who reigned from 1867 till 1912 is known for the modernization of Japan and opening the country to the west.
To reach the shrine, you walk through a winding forest of thick trees that seem to form a wall of dense foliage. You can enter the forest from Yoyogi or Harajuku, both extremely busy districts, but as soon as I stepped inside, the city seemed to magically fall away. The only sound I heard was the wind rustling through the leaves. Even my footsteps seemed inordinately loud on the gravel. The serene walk through the lush green forest calms your senses and you are almost in a zen-like state by the time you reach the shrine.

After walking for about 15 minutes you reach an imposing 40-foot high torii (gate) made entirely of cypress. This is the official entrance to the shrine. A Torii is supposed to separate the spiritual world from the physical, material world. As soon as you pass under the Torii you are supposed to be in the presence of gods. 

The massive Sake barrels add a splash of color

Before you walk towards the shrine, you see an interesting sight – bright, colorful barrels of Sake or Japanese wine. Sake is also used as an offering to Gods in Japan and these barrels have been donated by Sake manufacturers from all over Japan. The Sake is used in religious ceremonies at the shrine.

A place of great spiritual aura

The main gate to the shrine is magnificent and sheer size boggles your mind.

The main shrine is inside a huge courtyard with entrances from three sides. The shrine was designed by the architect Chūta Itō and built in the traditional nagare-zukuri style using Japanese cypress. The roof of the main building is made of copper. 

Almost in front of the shrine stands two camphor trees bound together by a holy rope called Shimenawa. This is supposed to be a spot of great spiritual power. People flock here to pray for everlasting relationships and marital happiness.
The air was heavy with the fragrance of camphor. 
I had never seen a camphor tree and never knew the smell emanating from them could be so strong. It all added to the spiritual aura of the place. In the quietude of the morning, the shrine did seem to vibrate with the spiritual aura it is so famed for. 

Moving away, opposite the camphor trees is the place where people hang Ema or prayer plaques. You can buy these wooden plaques at all shrines, write your prayers and wishes on them and hang them here. 

Dignified in its austerity 

The Shrine is majestic but almost unadorned, its severe lines enlivened here and there by delicate woodwork. One would expect a shrine dedicated to an emperor to be flashy and colorful but there is great dignity in the austerity of the Meiji Shrine.

The shrine is also famous for Shinto weddings. I was too early to see an actual wedding but I did catch a bride and groom as they got ready for one.

A visit to the Inner Garden completes the experience

The Meiji Shrine is also known for its Inner Garden. The garden existed even before the shrine and Emperor Meiji and his wife were frequent visitors. The beautifully laid out garden has an arbor, a tea house that the emperor had built for Empress Shoken. 
The tea house is on a gentle slope of land, surrounded by greenery and overlooking the pond. 

The pond is a delightful place at all times and the clear blue sky, the cluster of lilies floating in the water, and the colorful carp weaving through them made a pretty picture.

Different flowers bloom all through the year, but the garden is particularly famous for its irises. The Irises were in full bloom when I visited.

With its imposing torii gates, austere yet dignified architecture, tranquil forest area, and a beautiful garden, Meiji Shrine is the epitome of Shintoism. A must
visit if you are in Tokyo. 

Jun 9, 2020

The Masked Japanese

The world has discovered masks now thanks to the coronavirus but the Japanese have been using them for a long long time. When the Japanese leave their house, don’t forget your mask is as common a refrain as don’t forget your keys.

When I first visited Japan, almost 15 years back, I was taken aback to see the number of people wearing masks. Outside of a hospital and besides a doctor, I had never seen anyone wearing a mask. And here were normal people, going about their daily lives– all wearing masks. I was completely bewildered.
Are they all seriously sick? I wondered. As time passed, I got used to the mask-wearing Japanese and realized it is as common as wearing glasses or a scarf. Infact the mask-making industry is a multi-million-dollar industry here.

The Japanese wear masks for various reasons– a lot of which us non-Japanese would find very difficult to comprehend.
The main reason of course is Health. A surprisingly large number of Japanese have hay fever allergy and wear the mask to avoid inhaling pollen. You will see a lot of masked faces during the pollen season. For the same reason, a lot of Japanese wear masks during the Flu season. Japan is a very densely populated country with overcrowded trains and cramped, often claustrophobic public spaces. Wearing a mask when you are packed like sardines in a train ensures that you are not breathing in any bacteria or germs that might be floating around.

But a more important reason for wearing masks is the Japanese emphasis on proper social etiquette and the concept of Enryo. Simply put, Enryo means to be considerate towards others. It can be seen in Japanese habits of not talking on the phone while inside a train or not picking up the last bit of food from the common plate in case anyone else wants to eat it. The Japanese wear masks to not only protect themselves from infections but to make sure that they don’t pass on their germs to others around them. This reminds me of the Jain monks in India. They cover their mouths so that they don’t inadvertently inhale small inspects. The meat-eating Japanese have no such qualms but they are considerate enough not wear masks so that they don’t give their germs to anyone.

It has been touted that the main reason for japan beating coronavirus is that most of the population was already wearing masks so that the spread of germs was much less. The government did not have to educate people about wearing masks. It came naturally to the Japanese and they were already taking this precaution before the government asked them to.

Another reason is more psychological. The Japanese tend to be reserved by nature and wearing a mask gives them a feeling of being socially distant from others. It also allows you to mask your expressions – the Japanese firmly believe in not letting the other person know what they are thinking through their facial expressions. Wearing a mask may also provide privacy and make you less approachable by indicating to others that you do not wish to talk or mingle with them. 

Coming from India, a country where social interactions and informality is the norm, this need for social detachment and inherent social anxiety amazed me. Even after being associated with the Japanese for a long time, interacting with people who wear masks is something I am still very uncomfortable with. It is unnerving to talk to people when you can only see their eyes and can never make out their reactions to what you are saying. 

Japanese who are always in the eye of the public also tend to wear masks to protect their privacy. There are some convenience store workers or bank employees who I would never recognize at any other place because I have never seen them without a mask. The reason could be that they want to be polite towards the customers and make sure that they are not breathing any germs on people or merchandise. But some people do it to remain incognito. 

Another reason has to do with vanity. Grooming and keeping a perfect appearance is paramount in Japan and you will rarely find a woman who is not well-groomed and without makeup. It is considered a disrespect to others if you appear before them slightly less groomed or without a perfectly made-up face. Masks are very handy if you just want to dash across the road for an errand and can't be bothered to put on some makeup. Wearing a mask hides most of your face and no one will ever get to see you au naturel. Showing their natural behavior or face is something most Japanese are not comfortable with. Masks can also be used to hide a slight imperfection – like a pimple. 

The mask seems to offer the Japanese protection both physically and psychologically. It remains to be seen if the other countries will follow Japan's cue to adapt masks or discard them as soon as the COVID scare is over.

May 29, 2020

The Golden Week that turned to brass

The first time I experienced emergency was when I was a mere babe in my mother’s arms. Indira Gandhi had declared an emergency in India to deal with political disturbances.
Now so many decades later, I face a different kind of emergency in a different country. In April, Prime Minister Abe declared an emergency in Japan to deal not with his political opponents but with the Corona Virus.

The thing is, Abe is no Indira Gandhi, and coming down with force is something that the Japanese are not good at anyway. So, this was a sort of pseudo emergency. Transport was still running and almost all businesses were open.There was no enforcement, the government just politely requested people to stay at home and avoid crowds. Surprisingly even without any strict enforcement, people actually followed instructions from their government. For an Indian like me, this in itself was something new and baffling.

Most offices declared work from home in March and I have been at home ever since. The past few months have been an interesting study on how to spend a lockdown alone.
The first few days were fun. There was no pressure to get up very early, quickly cook breakfast and lunch, and then leave for work. I could simply roll out of bed and switch on my work Laptop. All I had to was make sure my hair was neatly combed and I had a good shirt on whenever we had video calls. This fun period lasted only a few days until I started feeling like a sloth and a sense of lethargy set in. Also staying in my pajamas the whole day was not liberating. It was just depressing. Eventually from lolling about in my pajamas, I moved to the other extreme of dressing smartly every day even though I knew I was not going anywhere. I even started putting on a bit of perfume and makeup. Surprisingly it all helped.

Until now, I had loved my compact and easy to manage apartment but suddenly it started feeling highly claustrophobic and inconvenient. Earlier I just used it for sleeping and putting together quick meals but now that I was spending all my time in it, its shortcomings became all too evident. The kitchen was just too small to cook regular meals and I kept banging into my few pieces of furniture while trying to move about. There is not much you can do in a small space and pacing up and down inside the apartment didn’t help relieve boredom at all except that I now know that I can take exactly 32.5 steps in my apartment.
Soon, I was so bored that I started looking at myself in the mirror and asking aaj khaane mein kya banayun. And in response I snarled at myself because roz roz same question!
I am not a very social person and don’t always need company but after a few days with just myself, I could barely tolerate my own idiocentricities.

Japan is not like India or Spain or Italy, where neighbors will stand in their balconies and talk or cheer each other with a glass of wine and hold musical concerts. My neighbors would have found it very strange had I suddenly started talking to them after ignoring them for a better part of the year. So, I thought this is the perfect time to call my friends and family back home in India. But that was no fun at all. Half of them were in a constant hurry and a terrible mood because they were busy juggling work, family and missing their maids more than they would miss a limb. The other half were busy turning the lockdown into a productivity contest and churning up every dish from jalebis to banana cakes, doing weird fitness things like climbing their living room wall or turning into gardeners by growing everything from dhaniya patta to exotic flowers.

Busy or not, they all did have one thing to say to me -How lucky I was to be alone at this time. I had all the personal space I wanted without the entire family breathing down my neck and I just had to cook and clean for myself. Ah well, the grass being greener on the other side and all that!

The worst thing about the emergency was that it ruined the Golden week for me. Golden week is a period of five glorious continuous holidays in Japan at the end of April. I spend my entire year in anticipation of these holidays. This is a time when Japan has the perfect travel weather. Not too cold and not too hot. What numerous plans I had for the golden week and not one included staying indoors. But now I was faced with almost an entire week cooped up inside the house with nothing to do but fret and worry.

Strangely enough, it was the park near my house that eventually saved me from death from boredom or worry. Wearing a mask and armed with a sanitizer I started going for daily walks. The park not only became my place of daily exercise and rejuvenation but, now that I had more time on my hands, a delightful study of nature. I had a chance to observe the cherry trees right from when the first few buds started appearing till the trees were covered in a pink and white cloud of flowers. This experience turned out to be more enjoyable and personalized than going to a crowded tourist spot to see the cherry blossoms as I had originally planned. After the cherry blossoms came the delightful wisterias, irises, and azaleas. Every day had some new flower, some new shade of green on the leaves to look forward to and marvel at.

I used to see a lot of Japanese sitting in the park reading and some even working on the laptop. Houses are usually small in Japan and almost everyone was feeling the lack of personal space. With all cafes closed, sitting on a park bench and working seemed like a good option.

After I had moped around enough I realized what a golden opportunity this time was to just relax. For the past year, since I had moved to Japan, my life had been a frenzy of continuous activity and at times rather stressful. Here was a chance to slow down and do what I wanted, the way I wanted.
Eventually, I settled down to a quiet routine of office work through the weekdays and working on writing and reviving my long-forgotten blog over the weekends. Writing has always made me happy and it was just the perfect thing to do at this time. I also finally started going through the 100 unread books on my kindle. The most unexpected thing I did was to decide to learn how to cook some basic Japanese food. I am not too fond of cooking and this decision came as a surprise even to me. But Japanese recipes are quick and easy to cook and I could finally learn how to use those interesting looking local vegetables and herbs I saw at my grocery store.

The downtime gave me time to unwind, relax and take stock of a lot of things.
And you know what, I am not the slightest bit guilty about not learning any new skill or utilizing every moment of my time productively. I got through this emergency living on my own and with my sanity Intact. For me, that’s about enough!

Japan goes back to normal life starting Monday. Now that I am so used to my own company and solitude, I think I might just miss it!

May 4, 2020

Hokokuji - The Green Cathedral

Today is Midori no Hi or Greenery Day in Japan. A National Holiday to give thanks to nature and the bounty that it gives us. Nature and religion go hand in hand in Japan. Shintoism in its purest form is the worship of nature and the same concept has been absorbed by Buddhism in Japan as well. All shrines and temples here are surrounded by some form of natural beauty - be it a pond, bamboo groves, or trees. The best of autumn leaves, cherry blossoms, wisterias, or any other seasonal flowers of Japan are always found blooming in shrines and temple Gardens.
Kamakura – the temple town near Tokyo is a place I visit very often. I love walking up and down its narrow winding lanes and visiting the numerous Buddhist temples. Each temple right from the temple of the Great Buddha to the smallest one has something unique to offer. My favorite is the Hokokuji Temple.
 A Zen temple, Hokokuji is the family temple of the Ashikaga clan and very well known for its bamboo grove. Infact some people find the bamboo grove here more beautiful than the famous Arashimaya bamboo grove in Kyoto. 
You enter the temple through a gate and walk through a small and immaculate garden that has paths paved of small white pebbles winding through the green grass. A few Bonsai like trees are scattered here and there. The whole appearance is of a Zen-like state created in a small space.

The steps that lead up to the temple look ancient and don’t seem to be man-made. It’s as if nature crafted them out of stones and the roots of the trees and then covered them with a carpet of moss.

The main temple has the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha, sculpted by the famous Buddhist sculptor, Takuma Hogen. Frankly, it is not a very awe-inspiring building.
But then the true magic of Hokokuji lies behind the temple, in its bamboo grove.
The grove when you come near it does not seem to be anything special. Till you enter it. It has about 2000 bamboos and is very dense. As soon as you go inside, all sounds fade away, except the occasional rustle of the leaves. The rays of the sun filter through the tall bamboos as if from a very great height and fill the grove with an almost mystical and surreal light. You feel as if you are walking through a great cool, green cathedral. As you slowly walk through the grove, your chaotic mind is stilled and spirits refreshed.

One of the main reason temples, especially Zen temples are surrounded by woods is so that the monks or even visitors are able to calm their senses just by walking through the temple grounds.

Dotted here and there, between the bamboos and under other trees, covered completely with moss are small statues of Buddhist gods. This temple is nothing but greenery and nature in different forms and shades.

A traditional Japanese tea house is nestled deep within the bamboo grove. You can sit there with your bowl of green tea and simply gaze out at the beauty around you. 

The tea house is a popular place, full of people but you don't hear much conversation. Everyone is content to take in the serene surroundings and just be. 
The small garden, the bamboo grove even the way the tea is presented all speak about Japan’s love for nature and aesthetics. 

I find myself veering away from the more famous and crowded temples and going back to temples like Hokokuji again and again. For me, God exists not inside great buildings but in nature. Being in nature is how I commune with God.

Note-Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I do a Shrine of the Month post there. Each month, I will be doing that post on the blog now. 

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