Dec 4, 2015

The Japanese and the Changing colors of Autumn

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners.

It's Autumn in Japan right now, and the country is ablaze with color.
Today, In the Japan and I series, I talk about Japan and how it celebrates Autumn. 

The time I miss Japan the most is during Autumn, when the trees undergo a spectacular wardrobe change, shedding their usual green to don capes of red, orange, rust and vermilion. 

The average Japanese associates very closely with nature and the change of seasons. Both the cherry blossoms in spring and the fall colors in autumn make the normally placid Japanese quiver with excitement. They follow the path of autumn across the island with bated breath. Weather reports on TV add a separate section on autumn forecasts and discuss the color of leaves with as much seriousness as they discuss issues of international importance. Websites like this give information about where the autumn colors are at their peak and when they have reached the ‘End of Season’ stage.

Autumn starts first in Hokkaido, the northernmost and coldest tip of the country and then travels south, slowly turning the island into a palette of colors.

Autumn, inspite of its mélange of colors, somehow makes you introspective. For me it used to be the best time of the year, melancholic yet very beautiful. The famed Cherry blossoms in spring signify youth and vibrancy whereas autumn leaves somehow seems to depict sadness and the impermanence of things. The way the Japanese welcome these two seasons is also slightly different. The Cherry Blossom period, which is also much shorter, is heralded mostly by boisterous sake parties held under the trees. Autumn on the other hand is a time to explore the forested hillsides and shrine and temple grounds at a more sedate, leisurely pace.

Japan’s foremost religion, Shintoism has its roots in Nature. Most of the shrines in Japan are in solitary spots in mountains or their surroundings have been meticulously cultivated so that they always have spectacular natural views.

The shrines are a delight to visit at any time. But during autumn they are a visual treat. Their surroundings are aflame with color, and the simple elegance of the shrine beautifully compliments the autumn foliage.

Some of the most famous autumn viewing sites in Japan are in the temple town of Kyoto. The popular shrines like kinkakuji and Kiyomizudera are always choc-a-block with people taking in the autumn splendor. During weekends, people queue up to take a picture of a particularly good autumn view.

Once during my annual autumn pilgrimage to Kyoto, l decided to leave the more famed shrines behind and go up to the smaller shrines higher up in the hills.

I walked up the narrow path, my feet crunching on the carpet of dry red leaves, the maple leaves forming a brilliant tapestry of colors over my head.

At the shrine, I sat down on a solitary bench besides a pond and just stared at the reflection of the leaves in the crystal clear water. The sky was an azure blue, but the air had the chill of the coming winter in it. In the distance the bells of the shrine rang softly, continuously. And in the sound, there was something of the autumn’s solitude.

The Japanese rejoice in Nature by not only viewing it but also by incorporating it in all facets of their life.

As the season changes, so does their clothing style. Scarves and jackets come out but what is more interesting is these clothes are in autumn colors like rust or orange. You will also find a lot of handbags and wallets with autumn leaves depicted on them.

Shop fronts are decorated with plastic maple trees. Even the food undergoes a change. The plates and serving dishes might be decorated with red and gold leaves. Kirin, the Japanese beverage maker comes out with a special autumn version of their Beer. And it’s not just the packaging that’s different, this beer is supposed to go well with traditional Japanese autumn foods such as chestnuts. Not to be left behind, Starbucks come out with Pumpkin Pie Latte.

Autumn in Japan is not just visually stunning, it’s an experience, made even more special by the unique way the Japanese celebrate the different seasons.

To read the previous posts in the Japan and I series, Please click here 

Oct 5, 2015

Of Biscuit Loving Monkeys and Finding Happiness (Part 3 of the Chail Trip)

We walked back to our rooms refreshed and rejuvenated after our walk in the woods. As we neared the hotel, we saw a huge monkey sitting on a window ledge. It was soon joined by another one from inside the room. It had food packets in its hands and its mouth was smeared with something white. Which idiot would leave their window open I asked my mom before realizing that the window was ours. Luckily some of the hotel people had spotted the monkey too and they raced upstairs, grabbing some long poles enroute. It took them quite a while to drive them away and the room looked as if the hurricane had swept through it. Thankfully the door to the sleeping area was closed so our luggage was safe but the monkeys had gone through our food very methodically, opening packs of biscuits and namkeens, eating what they liked and throwing away what they didn’t. Chocolate biscuits and powdered milk seemed to be a great favorite but they had spat out the aam papad and haldiraam namkeen.  The room had a trail of half eaten biscuits, interspersed with another white trail of powdered milk and sugar. It took half an hour and the combined effort of three of the cleaning staff to restore order.

The wind whistling through the trees and the chirping birds woke us up early the next morning. There were no human sounds. We trooped down to the now empty lawn. The sun was yet to rise and the hills were still dark smudges. It was cloudy and the hills were swathed in mist but the sun made very valiant efforts to peep through it. No one was about except us. It was quiet and very serene.

Later, as we waited for the usual tourist hoards to descend on us we discussed how to spend the days away from the maddening crowds. But surprisingly there were hardly any visitors for the next two days. The hotel staff told us that the rush is usually limited to Sundays.

We walked through the woods, deep, dark, Tranquil. The great pines and deodars were bent with age; almost covering the narrow path with their leaves and forming a canopy that made you feel as if you were walking in a cool green cave. To be honest, we could see the bare patches where deforestation had taken place, the noise of traffic was sometimes louder than those of the birds but I could still make myself comfortable between the roots of a tree, sprawl on the plush velvety grass and read. If we listened carefully we could still hear the streams murmuring in the undergrowth and the wind talking to the pine trees.  There were still wild berries to be plucked from the bushes and conversations with red cheeked kids on their way to school.

The people who enjoyed the holiday most were my parents. Frankly, if left to myself I would have chosen to holiday higher up in the mountains, closer to the mighty peaks and snow rather than a hill resort. But this holiday was as much for my parents as it was for me and it warmed my heart to see them take longs walks together or spend time over endless cups of Kangra tea and books.  

I suppose Happiness is also  growing old together ! 

Sep 22, 2015

In Search of the Ever Elusive Peace (Part 2 of the Chail trip)

Lovely readers, please forgive my long absence from the blog. But I am back now and to make amends here’s part 2 of the Chail Trip.

To refresh your memories, please read Part 1 here.

I stomped down the stairs and almost threw my bag into the car. Then I plonked myself into the passenger seat and continued to sulk.
The reason for my grumpiness was that after hearing me wax eloquent about our childhood sojourn to the hills, my parents had for nostalgia’s sake agreed to take another trip to Chail.
All this should have made me happy. Except that my parents had decided that they were too old to drive in the hills and didn’t trust my city driving skills a wee bit. And so they had hired a driver. Here I was with visions of finally driving through the winding roads and now I would just have to relinquish the driver’s seat to someone else.

My mood improved considerably as we left the city behind. Our first stop was Solan. Nestled into the foothills, the Solan of my childhood was a picturesque little town with quaint houses that had sloping tin roofs painted either red or green. Solan was where the exotic hill fruits would start making an appearance - apples and peach and cherries and plums. Buying fruit there was a sacrosanct ritual for us. The locals would sit with the fruits from their trees spread before them, extolling us to look at how red their apples were and how juicy their plums. The women wore lovely silver nose rings and necklaces with beads and usually had red cheeked kids clinging to them. It all made a pretty picture.

The Solan of today was grotesquely different.

The pretty roofs had given way to ugly motels and restaurants clinging to the hillside, like a tottering pack of cards about to collapse any moment. The once green hill slopes had trash strewn all over. Deforestation was rampant and we could see bare rocky patches everywhere. Seen from afar Solan just looked like an ugly festering sore on the hillside.

We squeezed past trucks and buses spitting black oily fumes and hotels selling pizza and masala dosas (Oh what happened to the pakora sellers!). The friendly fruit sellers were replaced by big concrete shops, the owners doing business in a very brisk and unemotional manner.

Apparently, Solan had discovered tourism.

Soon after we came across our first mountain stream. The streams as we remembered them had such crystal clear water that we could see the colorful rocks underneath. The water flowing over the rocks made a lovely tinkling sound as if it was singing merrily to itself. The only sounds were that of the birds, the wind through the trees and an occasional horn of a passing car.

This time we were welcomed by a different kind of music. A few shacks selling snacks had sprung up haphazardly along the stream and one enterprising fellow had set up chairs and tables in the middle of the stream. People sat there knee deep in murky water, guzzling beer while Bollywood songs blared and small helper boys waded in with their orders of momos and kathi rolls.

It was as if a maniac had taken the pretty picture of my childhood memories and completely distorted it.

We drove on towards our hotel.

Our hotel was originally the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala, now converted into a hotel by the government. As we neared it, all of us were soothed with past memories of dimly lit, quiet halls with their magnificent paintings, the delicious food and above all the beautiful palace grounds with their border of pretty flowers and the forest just beyond with its promise of lovely walks in the deep and dark woods. It wasn’t peak tourist season and we hoped to have the palace almost to ourselves.

But as the car rounded the steep curve to the hotel we froze in shock. The lawn in front was chock-a-block with people. They lounged on the grass, trampled on the flower beds to pose among the flowers and kids played cricket on the lovely manicured lawn. The huge hall was swarming with tourists clicking pictures of everything, even sitting on the antique furniture and pretending to play the maharaja’s piano while the erstwhile maharaja seemed to look down disapprovingly from his portrait.

The Himachal tourism people, recognizing the immense potential of the palace had decided to throw it open to the general public and not just people who had reserved rooms there.

Another thing that we noticed was the number of monkeys. They were everywhere. They looked down at us disdainfully from the roof, the trees, even sat on the parked cars. There were always monkeys in the area but the cute little things we remembered were replaced by huge threatening louts bent upon stealing stuff. I saw a monkey quickly dash inside the open window of a parked car and snatch a pack of chips from an unsuspecting child.

As we were shown to our rooms, we were told to securely lock our windows before leaving the room unless we wanted our stuff to be plundered by the monkeys.

Once inside, we settled down on the comfy sofas facing the huge bay windows that overlooked the lawn. I opened the windows to let the cool breeze in, put my feet up on the ottoman and breathed a sigh of relief. “Peace finally” I thought, sipping the lovely kangra tea and biting into a crispy Pakora.

But our peace was shattered into a million pieces by a cacophony right under our window. I looked down to see a group of about twenty ladies with an army of servants carrying vast amount of food and other paraphernalia needed for a picnic. The ladies continued to hassle their servants about the proper placement of rugs and cushions under the trees while the monkeys watched curiously from the branches. Oblivious to their audience, the ladies settled down and proceeded to open one of the numerous food baskets. Immediately, the monkeys came swooping down and were off with the paranthas and sandwiches. The ladies rose as one to shriek loud admonishments to the monkeys in chaste Punjabi and yell at the servants to drive them away. Finally they philosophically decided that since they couldn’t eat outdoors a round of antakshree was just what was needed this afternoon. The noise their singing made had even the monkeys scampering away in alarm.

Upstairs in our room, nerves were getting frayed and tempers running rather short.

Desperate for some peace and quiet we all decided to go for a walk. After reminding each other to close and lock all windows, we bolted out of the room, secure in the knowledge that the other person must have checked the windows.

We went past the lustily singing aunties who had proceeded from singing Bollywood hits to the more raunchy Punjabi songs and escaped into the peaceful woods beyond the hotel. Soon we were all engrossed in various activities. I read, my mother took a walk walked under the pine trees and my dad snoozed.

Meanwhile, the monkeys had discovered our open windows.

To be continued......

Jun 8, 2015

How it All began (Part 1 of the Chail trip)

When I was in school, summer holidays meant Chandigarh. The whole family would gather at my Grandparents with nothing in mind but to spend the long summer days in a sort of lazy stupor, eating mangoes and litchi, watching movies and going to the lake in the evening.

Chandigarh also meant trips to the Hills. The hills that seemed so remote when we were in Delhi formed a constant backdrop for our lives in Chandigarh. We could see them from the balcony, their dark blue jagged outline rising sharply against the summer sky that was bleached almost white by the summer sun, or peeping through the mango and guava trees as we played in the Garden.

The trips were usually unplanned. Someone would complain about the heat and how boring everything was and then gaze morosely towards the hills. And just like that we would be off.

Sometimes we made a picnic out of it, leaving early in the morning, driving all day through the winding hill roads, stopping whenever we were hungry or felt like a dip in the streams that periodically ran along the road. Sometimes we were gone for days, staying in Dak Bunglows, ancient with creaking wooden floors, each with its own personal ghost story.

Invariably it was my mother who drove during these trips. She was passionate about driving. Even now it is very difficult for anyone else to get behind the wheel while she is in the car.

Chail was one of our favorite Hill destinations. Quiet and peaceful, it was not too far from Shimla but with none of the hullabullo and touristy crowds one associates with popular hill stations. The small town is surrounded by woods, deep and dark not unlike Robert Frost’s poem. It is one of the last stops in the ‘Hills’, for the climb after Chail gets very steep and you reach the mountains, snow clad and much less gentle that the rolling hills left behind.

Chail’s claim to fame is the Palace of Maharaja of Patiala that has been converted into a hotel by the government. This pretty little Palace is perched on top of the hill, the area surrounding it levelled to create a huge lawn the size of a football field. The forest comes up to almost the edge of the lawn so that you step off the manicured lawn and straight into the woods.

We used to hike up and down the numerous trails shaded by giant deodar and pine trees. The sky peeped through the thick leaves at intervals, but mostly you got the feeling that you were walking inside a green, airy and cool cave. The trees here were ancient, their barks dark and wrinkled, their branches thick as a man’s thigh.

At places, there would be a wide gap between the trees, a sheer fall that gave us a direct view of the valley below. We could see a patchwork of fields; the green and brown livened by the bright clothes of the women who worked in them.

Our hikes always ended at one of the numerous Chai-Pakora stalls that spring up everywhere in the hills. These small stalls dished out absolutely tasty, crunchy pakoras that we washed down with sweet milky tea.

Chail also meant fruit. Peach, Apple, Plums, Cherries and Apricots. Trees laden with them and the locals sitting right below those trees on small jute durries selling the fruit they had plucked just hours ago. It gave a whole new meaning to eating fresh.

Years passed. Trips to the hills became infrequent as more important things like college and then jobs replaced the simple pleasures of walking through woods or splashing in mountain streams.

Last month, as I battled the traffic on yet another dry, dusty and hot day that so typifies the Delhi Summer, I was seized with an overwhelming desire for silence, to hear nothing but the song of the birds and the whisper of the wind.

What we all needed I decided, was a visit to Chail. That would provide a perfect interlude in our busy lives.

Or so I thought.

To be continued …....

May 12, 2015

Traveling Solo in India - Guest Post !

I am delighted to present a Guest Post I wrote for Roshni of the Indian American Mom fame. 

Roshni lives in picturesque San Diego with her Husband and her two sons (Little A and Big A). Her  blog’s Tagline is ‘Juggling two rich cultures through life and parenthood’. And she does just that – very effortlessly and with a lot of panache! Her blog is filled with anecdotes about Life in America with her family as well as posts that talk about her India connection.  It all makes for very delightful reading!

Guest posts always make me jittery. I just never know what to write. My usual reaction to them is to bury my head under the pillow and mumble lame excuses. 

So when Roshni asked me to write something about being single in India I was rather clueless about what to write. A lot of her readers are Non-Indians. I did not want to portray a depressing picture to them; neither did I want to paint a false rosy one. In the end, I just decided to write about what it's like to travel in India.  I do hope you enjoy reading it ! 

As someone who loves to travel, and often travels solo, I think India is the best and the worst country to do so. With its temples and monasteries, palaces and forts, beach resorts and mountain treks, it has something for everyone.

Unfortunately, India is also a rather inquisitive society. We will make your business our own and take an active interest in your life, often give unsolicited advice and feel offended if we are not privy to each and every detail of your personal life.


Apr 16, 2015

The Japanese and the Sound Princess!

In many ways, Japan still remains a mystery to the rest of the world. For here, the ancient and the modern not only coexist but seem to do so in great harmony. The land of the rising sun is as comfortable with its bullet trains and cutting edge technology as it is with Zen and Geishas.

Japan has a unique culture, with its own peculiarities and quirks that seem natural to the Japanese but intrigue all foreigners.

I have already written about the Japanese love for the Hot Bath. Lets take things a little further today and talk about the Japanese Toilet ! 

A lot of things have shocked and amazed me about Japan but nothing has left me more flummoxed than the Japanese Toilet. 
On my very first visit to Japan, I stumbled off my flight half asleep and entered the airport loo, only to be confronted by a bidet that had so many buttons and controls on it; it almost rivaled an airplane cockpit. 

Scary. Especially when you come from the land of lota and running water! 

Once you have used a Japanese toilet, cleaning your butt will never be same again. Thanks to their fetish for using technology everywhere, they have turned the morning perch on the throne into a total pleasure ritual. 

The Japanese bidet literally spoils you for choice with its various butt cleaning options. By simply pressing a few buttons, you can choose exactly what part of your ‘tenderness’ you want the water to hit. You can also adjust the water temperature as well as the pressure by choosing between a low pressure setting, a high speed jet stream or a massage feature with oscillating and pulsating streams of water(ahem!). After you are squeaky clean, just press another button to let warm air gently dry your behind. It’s rather a surprise that a hand doesn’t shoot out to tenderly pat and powder the said area as well. 

Earlier the Bidet panel used to be only in Japanese leaving most of the foreigners totally baffled and intimidated. Fortunately most of the modern bidets now come equipped with rather graphic pictures or English explanations otherwise the non-Japanese speakers literally wouldn’t know what hit them and where! 

Even now, some of the hotels have signs in their toilets that request the user to make sure he is sitting on the seat before pressing any button. Or the poor unsuspecting, bumbling foreigner might just have water squirted all over him!

The more technologically enhanced washrooms also give you deodorizer spritzers, motion sensors that open the lid when someone walks in and a flush that will run as soon as you get up.

Another fantastic feature that I totally appreciated during winter was the seat warmer. This lets you adjust the temperature of the seat so that you have a nice, toasty warm place to sit on. Infact during the Japanese winters, the throne might be the most comfortable place to be on, since Japanese homes hardly have any central heating to speak of!

In most Japanese homes, the toilet is in a separate area from the bath. Such throne among thrones, you would think, certainly deserves its own space. The toilet enclosure however, is just big enough to accommodate a medium sized person. Anyone taller than average (and the rest of the world is usually taller than the Japanese average) will have trouble fitting in. I know of an almost 6 ft 4 inches tall Canadian friend who actually has to sit with the door open and his knees sticking out!

The Japanese save water as well as space in the most ingenious manner. Most homes have a toilet with a small sink mounted on the cistern. When you flush, the tap on the sink automatically releases water. As you wash your hands, the water goes inside the cistern, to be used the next time someone flushes. 

Something that speaks volumes about the Japanese aversion to anything even slightly indelicate is the ‘Oto Hime’ or the ‘Sound Princess’. Japanese women being the sensitive sort, hate the sounds that betray their activity inside the toilet. The solution till a few years back was to flush continuously to drown all other sounds. 
 Then an enterprising Japanese company thought of a small device that emits a sound whenever activated. So now by just pressing a button, the Japanese ladies can camouflage all noises and do their business in peace and without embarrassment. The camouflaging sound can be anything, a soothing tune, a song, or even the sound of a flush running.

In my humble opinion, along with eating Sushi, taking a dip in the Onsen and wearing a Kimono, using a Japanese toilet should rank as one of the greatest cultural experiences of Japan.

It takes a while to get the hang of such comforts, but once you do, you wonder about the primitive manner in which you have been using the washroom till now. It will make you forget about buying the usual camera and laptops, all you would want to do it is smuggle home a Japanese Toilet!

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might like to read more about quirky Japan !  Please click here to read the rest of my posts in the Japan and I Series. 

Mar 23, 2015

The Leg Room Chronicles !

For the past few months I have been travelling so much that I have been literally living out of suitcases. I usually love travel, even if it is related to work. What I do not love is the bit where I have to sit cramped in flights forever !

Only someone who is as tall as me (or taller!) will understand how difficult it is to fit all 5 feet 9 inches of me into a conventional airplane seat. What makes my life even more difficult is that majority of my long distance flights are to Japan. In my humble opinion, when that country was designing airplanes, they did not even consider anyone over the height of five feet four inches. 

You get in the flight, already feeling out of place because you are towering over the rest of the passengers and then you try to pour yourself into the cramped space the seat provides. The seats are so small, the leg space so negligible that after you have squeezed in along with the pillows and blankets and headphones the airline so thoughtfully provides, your derriere is half hanging out of the seat and your feet are so cramped that your chin is almost touching your knees.
Not Pleasant! 

Invariably, once you have managed to squeeze yourself in, the person infront of you decides that this would be an ideal time to get his money’s worth and reclines his chair as far as it would go. I’ve had people recline back their seats so much, it almost felt as if they were napping in my lap !

And so begins the war between the “Recliners” and the “Legroomers”. You can either (depending on your mood ) politely tell the person in front to straighten his seat a bit or gently but consistently keep nudging the back of his seat with your knee till he gets the hint.

Domestic flights within India are equally bad. Increase in number of seats has naturally led to a compromise on comfort and one gets the feeling of travelling like cattle herded into a cramped space.

Over the years you develop a strategy on how to make your hours in that airless hell as least uncomfortable as possible. The first thing is of course to try and get the seats right in front of the plane or the ones near the emergency exit. My flights are often late night ones and usually the web check in ( that also allows you to choose your seat) opens 24 hours before take-off. I have set alarms to wake me up in the middle of the night so that I can be the first to log in the airlines site and book myself the seat with the maximum leg space.

The seats on the emergency exit usually do not have a window view but then I would rather stretch my legs than sit all hunched up gazing at the beautiful panaroma of clouds floating by.

If you can’t manage the front seat, the second best option is to get an aisle seat and try to sit slightly diagonally. This requires you to be very careful about your jutting knees and elbows that the stewardess is sure to bang into with her food Trolley.

But the battle is only half won if you have got that aisle seat. As soon as you make yourself comfortable and stretch your cramped legs the sweet old lady next to you would need to use the washroom in what seems like every couple of minutes. As there is no way she can hop over your long legs you will have to get up every time and of course every time you get up you bang your head on the overhead compartment.

And it’s not just about leg room. What do you with those long arms and pointy elbows that refuse to fit just anywhere. There have been many subtle wars with my neighbor in the next seat over elbow space. Both of us looking resolutely ahead while trying very hard to push the other person’s elbow aside in order to occupy that coveted space on the armrest.

In majority of my flights, I usually end up sitting with my feet clamped together and my arms jammed on my sides, not unlike a trussed hen.

More travel lined up in April. Suddenly video conferences and telephone calls (however long they might stretch) seem like such an infinitely better option than getting on a Jet Plane !

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