Oct 24, 2020

Japanese Curry and an Indian Love Story!

The famous Japanese curry chain Coco Ichibanya opened its first restaurant in Gurugram, India a few months ago. A foreign company opening a curry joint in India may seem like carrying coals to Newcastle except that Japanese curry is not like anything that we eat in India.

When my Japanese friends ask me for the recipe of Indian curry, I honestly don’t know what to tell them. Do I tell them the recipe for lentils or a mixed vegetable or do I tell them how to make sambhar, or maybe a fish or chicken curry? The truth is, India does not have something called Indian curry. What we do have is a whole range of dishes with an astounding variety of ingredients and taste. It is said that in India, every 100 kms or so, the local dish changes.

To the Japanese, who have spent all their lives in a homogenous country with one language, one culture and food habits that are more or less consistent across the island it is extremely difficult to comprehend the vast diversity of food that we have in India.  

 So, what exactly is Japanese curry?

 Japanese curry is orangish-brown in color, thick in texture and has a taste that veers towards sweet rather than spicy or tangy. There is no taste of fresh spices or condiments. When you make Japanese curry, there is no sound of jeera popping in the ghee, no heavenly aroma of fresh ginger, onion and tomato and green chilies sizzling in ghee or oil. Japanese curry is simply a blend of few basic spices, thickened using flour or potatoes. Most of the time the curry paste also contains chopped apples – hence the slightly sweet taste.

The supermarket here is full of packs of ready to eat curry. There are boxes selling curry paste that you can add to your meat or vegetables and even pre-cooked packs of chicken or beef curry.

The most common and famous curry dish in Japan is Kare – Raisu or curry rice. Which is nothing but a plate half filled with rice and half with a brownish curry with some meat or very thick pieces of potato and carrot and beans nestled in it.

Over the years, curry has become as popular as ramen or sushi in Japan,may be even more. Research indicates that the average Japanese household has curry at least once a week. The Japanese have become so enamored with curry that they now even have a curry ramen or soba –usually eaten in autumn and winter when the weather turns cooler because curry is supposed to have heat-inducing properties.

The Japanese also eat curry bread which is nothing but curry flavored dough made into buns filled with vegetables or meat.

image - wikipedia

Since the Japanese are used to the taste of this curry, most Indian restaurants also tend to offer a curry that is similar to the taste of the Japanese curry. Luckily over time, the number of Indian restaurants have grown and now they serve curries slightly closer to the Indian taste but still nothing like what you eat in India or even in other foreign countries like UK and Canada.

 There are many versions of how curry was introduced in Japan. The most popular version is that it was introduced by the British sailors in the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) who brought it with them from the then British occupied India. Over time, the original version was modified by them till nothing remained of the original taste.

The British soldiers may be responsible for getting curry into Japan, but there is a much more fascinating story of how the Indian version was introduced here. Surprisingly, that story has to do with our freedom struggle.

Almost every Indian knows Rash Behari Bose – the freedom fighter who founded the Indian National Army. But not many know of his Japan connection.  Ras Behari Bose fled to Japan to escape the British after his attempt to assassinate Lord Hardinge, the then viceroy on India. Once he reached Japan he took refuge with a Japanese family sympathetic towards the Indian freedom movement. He continued to support the Indian freedom movement from Japan and eventually with the help of the Japanese authorities founded the Indian National Army that was later taken over by Subhas Chandra Bose.

But there is another interesting and romantic angle to the story of Rash Behari Bose. He fell in love and later married the daughter of the Nakamura family he took refuge with. 

But a few years later tragedy struck and his wife passed away suddenly. His in-laws owned a Bakery and in 1925, he along with his Father in law decided to introduce authentic Indian curry to japan. He personally selected the ingredients and decided on the cooking Style. Japan’s first Indo curry (Indian curry) restaurant was opened behind the bakery. 

This restaurant still exists in Shinjuku area of Tokyo. I have eaten there, and if not 100 percent authentic, the Nakamura curry is closest to the Indian taste. Even now packets of this curry are sold under the brand name “Nakamura Curry”

 The only time I ate curry in Japan was when I was taken to a restaurant by a well-meaning Japanese who felt I must be missing the Indian food and eating curry would make me happy. I could barely choke down that thick sweet curry and have not really stepped into a curry restaurant since. I stick to other authentic Japanese dishes like sushi and ramen and leave the Japanese to gush over their curry rice. I feel the most sorry for the unsuspecting Indian software engineer, who comes to Japan and missing the ghar ka khana makes a beeline for the curry shop. What a shock he is in for.

To my friends in India all I want to say is - If you do want to try the Japanese curry in there – go with an open mind. Because what the Japanese have done to our food is exactly what we have done to Chinese food – turned it into something unique and entirely different from the original version.

Aug 18, 2020

The Legacy of Renkoji Temple - Ashes of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose

Renkoji Temple stands in a quiet residential area in Tokyo and at first glance looks rather simple and unassuming. It seems just like one of the many neighborhood temples that dot Tokyo, till you peep inside its usually open gates. Inside, you will find a very life-like statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. 

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the Indian revolutionary and freedom fighter had a very deep connection with Japan. Very few people know about the small but significant influence Japan had on India’s freedom struggle and the Azad Hind Fauj. 

During World War 2, In a quest to find support for a free India, Subhas Chandra Bose first traveled to Germany and then decided to ask for support from an Imperial Japan. He made the long and arduous journey from Germany to Japan in a submarine. As soon as he landed in Japan, he was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Tojo who promised him full support in his fight for India’s independence. Bose assumed the mantle of leading the Indian Independence Movement from outside India and supported by the Japanese aid and influence, proceeded to revitalize the Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or INA) that was originally created using Indian soldiers who were taken prisoners of war by the Japanese during their campaign in South East Asia. The resurrected INA fought alongside the Japanese soldiers against the British forces in Burma, Imphal and Kohima and for a short while managed to turn the tide against the British.

Unfortunately, things changed with Japan’s defeat in World War 2 and on 18th August 1945, three days after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s unconditional surrender, Netaji boarded a plane, supposedly to escape to Manchuria. The sequence of events is somewhat clear till this point, but after this point, there are many theories. The most accepted theory is that the plane caught fire over Taipei and Netaji lost his life in the plane crash.

It is widely believed that his ashes were brought back to Japan where they were handed over to the priest at Renkoji temple for safekeeping. His ashes remain interred there to date. Besides Indian dignitaries, members of Netaji’s family have also visited the temple and Netaji’s daughter Anita Bose Pfaff has also requested the Modi government to conduct a DNA test on the ashes kept there. She along with a large fraction of people believes that her father did indeed lose his life in the plane crash. 

Image - Wikipedia

Every year, on 18th August, the purported death anniversary of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the inner sanctum of the temple is opened to the general public and a memorial service is held inside in Netaji’s honor. Last year, I had the opportunity to visit the temple and witness the ceremony.

The Renkoji temple belongs to the Nichiren sect of Buddhism and is inspired by the Goddess of Wealth and Happiness. The alter is indeed magnificent but what makes it significant for us Indians is the huge photograph of Subhas Chandra Bose kept at a place of prominence. Beside it is a tall wooden plaque with his name written in Japanese. On that day, the alter was beautifully decorated with huge candles making the gloomy interior radiant.

wooden plaque with Netaji's name written in Japanese 

The ceremony was officiated by the head priest and Buddhist sutras were chanted for more than an hour. During the ceremony, the silence was absolute, and we were asked to respect the dignity of the occasion and not click any pictures. I was touched by the sincerity and reverence with which the Japanese pray for the soul of someone who does not belong to their country and whose ashes they just have in their safekeeping. After the prayers, we were allowed to go up to the altar and pay our respects. 

The complete altar with the chair on which the priest sat to officiate the ceremony

On the right of the altar, surrounded by incense and flowers was a small box that contained the purported ashes of Netaji. The box is usually kept inside but is brought out once a year every August 18th. 
Although the Indian Embassy in Tokyo pays for the upkeep and maintenance of the ashes, the head priest at the Renkoji temple considers it a great honor that they have been given this responsibility

The ashes 

Amongst the motley crowd of Indian visitors, you will also find a few Japanese whose families in one way or the other have been associated with Bose and the INA. When we spoke to them, they had wonderful tales to tell about Netaji’s association with their fathers and grandfathers. It was heartwarming to see how much he is still revered there and how his tales of valor have been passed on to the younger generation. 

Outside, in the temple grounds, behind the bust of Netaji are plaques carved with words from Indian dignitaries who had visited the temple, right from Rajendra Prasad, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and most recently Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The Indian government began the process of declassification of files related to Bose on 23rd January 2016, but even now the controversy continues around Netaji and whether the ashes at Renkoji are indeed his. 
All controversy aside, I find it a matter of immense pride and honor to see one of our freedom fighters remembered with such reverence outside our country. 

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. 

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 !


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