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.
 

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