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.
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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. 

Apr 16, 2020

Life in Japan during the Coronavirus


Japan was one of the first few countries to be infected by the coronavirus thanks to a regular influx of people from China. Inspite of that, Japan remained largely unaffected till March. The first case was detected as early as January but the rise in number of cases remained extremely slow.
While the world locked down and frantically prepared to battle the virus, life for those of us in Japan went on as usual. The only major impact was on the tourism industry. Although it was cherry blossom time and peak tourist season, a lot of people had started cancelling their international trips and there was a drastic drop in tourists. This had an unexpected effect. The Japanese suddenly realized that perhaps for the first time in their memory, their country was not inundated with foreigners at this peak tourist season and they all came out with a vengeance to enjoy the good weather. Popular destinations like Kyoto recorded almost no foreign tourists but a marked increase in local tourism. I visited Kamakura, the temple town near Tokyo, sure that I would have the place to myself but was surprised to find the shrines choc a block with the Japanese. It was as if the virus did not exist at all.  
 By March, Japan started taking the virus a little more seriously and a lot of tourist spots as well as schools were closed. But there was no stopping nature! Cherry blossoms were blooming and like every year popular cherry blossom spots were crowded with people. In true polite Japanese fashion, the government kept requesting the people to avoid crowds. The Japanese however, were not the ones to let a mere virus dampen their pleasure of enjoying the cherry blossom season that lasts for a mere two weeks but is something that they wait for the entire year. A few did stay home, but they were the minority.
Meanwhile the world continued to speculate on how Japan continued to defy the virus. The majority of Japan's population is aging (like Italy) and that along with its proximity to China should have posed a great risk. However, Japan had clamped down on visitors from China right from the beginning and had promptly isolated the infected cases. The population though aging is in great health with a strong immunity. Another reason is that social distancing has always been a part of Japanese culture. This is a country that shies away from handshakes and casual touching. Bowing is the acceptable form of greeting. Another factor was the widespread usage of masks in Japan. Even before the world discovered masks through the coronavirus, they had always been a common sight in Japan. With their fetish for hygiene and health, the Japanese use the masks as protection against germs and allergies. Hay fever season begins around January here and a lot of people were already wearing masks to avoid inhaling any pollen as well as any cold germs that might be floating about.
Having said that, it was still baffling how Japan with its densely populated areas and crowded trains managed to keep the numbers so low.
A very strong opinion was also that the government was hiding the true figures or testing less because Prime Minister Abe had his eyes set on the Olympics and had no intention of letting go of his Olympic dream.
 Things started going downhill by the end of March when suddenly a lot of cases with no travel history popped up. While it took Japan around 70 days – from January to mid-march to reach 1000 cases, it took a mere 10 more days for the figure to reach 2000. The identified clusters were mainly entertainment areas with restaurants, karaoke and pachinko parlors. Governors in the most affected areas of Tokyo and Hyogo started asking people to stay indoors on weekends and evenings. Perhaps the Japanese felt that the virus here worked only nights and weekends !
After intense pressure from the medical community, on 7th April Prime Minister Abe finally declared a state of emergency in Tokyo, Osaka and a few more areas. Unlike India where lockdown was clamped almost overnight, the Japanese government took its time. The leaders huddled in meetings day after day while we kept hearing reports on how 'discussions to prepare for the announcement of an emergency' were being held. There is a lot of emphasis in Japan on following the proper procedure and protocol and reaching a mutual consensus before making a decision. There was no reason why things should be expedited now.
The emergency when it finally came was very different from other countries. As per Japanese law, the government cannot force people to stay indoors or ask the businesses to close or work from home. All it could do was strongly request people to avoid the three Cs – crowds, closed spaces and conversations at short distances. There can be no fines or punishments if people don’t comply. Public transport is still running, the roads remain open. The emergency is just to make the citizens aware of the gravity of the situation and allow the government to take economic measures.
So how successful this emergency is, depends entirely on the people of Japan. They are a highly disciplined society, known to follow their leader, view all requests from the government as orders and always put society and Nation first.
But at the other end of the spectrum is the hard-working Japanese who considers his work as the highest duty. There are still people who would consider working from home as shying away from responsibilities and not being a good employee. Unlike the west, work from home is still a very alien concept in Japan. With their emphasis on face to face contact a lot of traditional companies just cannot comprehend remote working. Also, there is still a lot of paperwork here and digital signatures have not yet replaced the company seal.

With the current figure of around 8000 cases, the numbers still remain comparatively low as compared to other countries like US, UK and Italy.
Let’s see what the coming weeks bring !


Apr 13, 2020

Glories of a Japanese Spring

Most people associate spring in Japan with Cherry (Sakura) blossoms but before the cherry blossoms drive people into a flower viewing frenzy at the end of March, there comes the Plum blossom season in February. According to me, it is the Plum or Ume blossoms that truly herald spring in Japan. With colors ranging from pristine white to light pink and almost reddish the Plums looks very pretty against the clear blue of a typical Japanese winter Sky. It is still cold in Japan when the plum blossoms start to appear and they do a marvelous job of adding color to the drab leafless winter landscape.


After the long cold Japan winter seeing the first plum blossoms always fills me with happiness. The cheerful flowers seem to tell me that the air might still have a nip in it, but spring and warmer days are not too far! They remind me of a line From Shelly’s poem If Winter comes, can spring be far behind!




The Beginning of March brings a new kind of excitement. The days are longer and warmer but this is not what makes people more cheerful. It is the anticipation of Sakura. Right from end of February, the newspapers and magazines start publishing region wise predictions about cherry blossoms – when they will first start blooming and when will they be in full bloom. The Japanese follow these reports with as much interest as some of us follow share prices. In Tokyo the cherry blossom season is officially declared open when the first blooms or Hatsu hana appear on an ancient cherry blossom tree at the Yasukuni Shrine.
Yasukuni shrine may be the official symbol but all of us here in Tokyo have our own personal Cherry blossoms spots that we keep our eyes peeled on to see if the blooms are out or not. The park near my apartment is lined with sakura trees and everyone right from the joggers streaking past, sedate old ladies walking their dogs, the salaryman quickly crossing the park on his way to a meeting or young mothers pushing strollers, would glance up in anticipation to see if the blooms are out yet. For a week or so I watched the buds grow bigger and bigger every day during my walks. And suddenly one day there they were, the first cherry blossom of the season. They sure did put a spring in our steps.

Cherry blossoms can be found all over the city but there are some areas in Tokyo like the Ueno park and the Meguro river front that are known for their cherry trees. All sorts of events are organized during this time and food stalls are put up everywhere. The cherry trees are lit up at night for night viewing or Yozakura. There are also Hanami or flower viewing parties that are usually loud and boisterous get togethers where friends and family gather under cherry trees and have a daylong picnic. It is a cheerful time, everyone is happy to leave the winter behind and looking forward to spring and summer ahead. 
This year, the pleasure of cherry blossoms was marred by the corona virus. By the times the blooms came out, the government had started asking people not to go to crowded places. Hanami parties were banned and all events canceled.
The Japanese however, were not the ones to let a mere virus dampen their pleasure of enjoying the cherry blossom season that lasts for a mere two weeks but is something that they wait for the entire year. A few did stay home, but they were the minority.

I chose to not go to the popular, crowded cherry blossom spots but I did have my local park where walks under the tree-lined paths gave me a lot of pleasure. 
 


Sometimes just viewing rows after rows of cherry blossom trees is just a bit much for the senses, but the park is very green with a lot of other trees and the white and light pink cherry trees popping out against the greenery made the perfect visual experience.




This selective viewing in peace was perhaps much better than being jostled by crowds and trying to take a picture of the trees without a thousand people photobombing it.
When the flowers appear on the cherry trees, there is not a single leaf on them. Perhaps this is what makes them so special, a drab brown tree with naked branches one day and the next day covered with delicate petals. But when tender young leaves start appearing on the sakura trees and the ground under them becomes a carpet of cherry blossom petals you know the cherry blossom season is about to end. 






The season lasts all of two-three weeks and reminds us of the impermanence of things. Whatever has come will go, to be replaced by something else – something different but perhaps equally beautiful.
Cherry blossoms may have gone, but soon the bright and happy summer flowers will arrive – The Japanese lavender, hydrangea, azaleas,sunflowers and so many more. I wait for them in anticipation of better times ahead so that we may all go out again and rejoice in nature!

Apr 3, 2020

The Tall Girl in Japan

A lot of you who follow me on Facebook must have realized that I now live in Japan. It is an enchanting land but between you and me I think I have chosen the most unsuitable country to live in. Let me give you a very sincere piece of advice if you must work out of India chose a country according to your size. I mean look at me, all five feet nine inches living in a country that even on the world map seems narrow and cramped.
I could have chosen Canada – where everyone is tall (and handsome), where there is enough space for you to take long strides without banging into things and where the shops overflow with lovely clothes – all of which fit you. Instead I chose to live in Japan, a country that makes you feel as if you are living inside the dollhouse you had as a kid.
Space is at a premium here. The apartments are handkerchief-sized, the rooms so small that when someone as tall as me stretches out on the bed, my legs hang out of the balcony. This is a world where you get used to standing in tubs and showering because the tubs are so small that the only way you can have a bubble bath is if you curl up in a fetal position with your knees touching your ears. I am just thankful for a detachable showerhead. Washing my hair in a crouched position would be no fun at all. The loo is an interesting place with all those high tech toto toilets but the toilet is so low that you keep wondering when your butt will finally hit the seat.
The kitchen platform and bathroom sinks are perfect for a five-feet person but for someone like me, it is like viewing them from space. I never know if I am applying my makeup correctly because the mirror cuts me off at the neck. My greatest achievement in Japan has been finding a bed that fits me. Of course, that huge bed now takes up most of my apt and leaves space for nothing else. Sheets and quilts are another business altogether. I don’t think there is a quilt ever made in Japan that can keep me completely warm. If you like to pull up the quilt till your shoulders be prepared for frozen toes when you wake up.
It is not only the apartments. One would think a better world awaits once you leave your tiny claustrophobic abode. But that is not to be. It is as if the Japanese in an attempt to save space started making everything in child sizes. The seats in buses are so small that I sit with my legs jammed against the seat in front of me and half my butt hanging out. Obviously, I take up most of the two-seater leaving no space for the poor petite Japanese wanting to sit down.
In trains seats are not a problem but you do tower over everyone else giving you a nice birds-eye view over everyone’s head. The positive is that you don’t have to breathe in everyone’s sweat during the hot Japanese summer because your nose is high up in the air. But things are not hunky-dory here either. You need to be on a constant lookout against the advertisements hanging from the roof lest you bang your head against them and with every lurch of the train the handrails play a tattoo against your head.
Sometimes you just want to escape from everything and have a nice relaxing meal. So, you go to a restaurant dreaming of a piping hot bowl of noodles. A lot of restaurants have counters where you sit in a row with other diners. If the restaurant is even slightly crowded, they will request you to sit at the counter if you are eating alone. There needs to be an award for tall people who need to fit their butt on to the tiny bar stools and also somehow fit in their laptop bag, handbag and long legs and pointy elbows in the narrow space. I barely enjoy my meal because I am always worried about my elbow dipping into my neighbors Ramen bowl. Everything is so close to each other, even If I manage to get myself a table, I am always in a perpetual state of anxiety about how I would manage to squeeze out between the tables without juggling the table and toppling my neighbor’s meal on his or her lap.
Japan is known for its great fashion sense. I remember on my first visit here I entered a clothing store with great excitement. Only to slink out totally embarrassed a while later. The only thing that fits me well in Japan is a scarf. This is a country where S is normal, M is what XL is to the rest of the word and sizes beyond that just don’t exist. If you manage to buy a shirt you can button yourself into, the sleeves will end well above your wrists, the shirt length will be so short that it will barely clear your navel and your ankles will invariably peep out of even the longest pants that you find on this island. I now walk past all those fashion clothing stores with my eyes averted. Buying shoes is equally embarrassing. The salespeople will not even bother to assist you. They will glance at your feet shake their head and tell you nothing exists in your size. The best thing to do is stock up when you go home. You start treating clothes and shoes with more care than your diamonds because you know you will never be able to buy more here if you run out.
Back home, you may be a normal human being, but in Japan, you turn into a combination of Gulliver and Bigfoot.

So, dear friends in keeping with my current state, this blog has been renamed the Tall Girl in Japan. I promise to bring you the stories of my latest escapades and adventures from the Land of the Rising Sun and Short people!

I do hope you will enjoy them!

 

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