No prizes for guessing what this article is about — Japan. Paraphrasing an article I read, if there is one phrase you should memorize when visiting Japan, it is “Arigato Gozaimas”, meaning thank you. And this article is a thank you to Japan for the wonderful experience it offered me for the one week that I spent there. I have to be a bit hasty about one point here. People stand in line to board the train! I come from India, which is equally (if not more) crowded a place, and people claw their way into trains. Japan showed me that you can be very civilized despite the size of crowd. There goes my first reason for a thank you. From here, I will stick to my story in a chronological manner, as my experience in Japan make more sense that way.
I had the fortune of visiting Japan for the International Conference on Computational Photography (ICCP) in Tokyo where I presented my work. The conference was for a total of three days, but I stayed in Japan for one full week to do some sight seeing. My plan consisted of shopping in Tokyo, visiting temples in Kyoto, see a castle in Osaka and then back. Oh I completely forgot to mention, to board the fascinating bullet train, the Shinkansen! I took the JR green pass for a week which ended up costing less than all my train journeys combined, so I recommend it to anyone taking more than two Shinkansen trains. My focus in this article is three major themes — food options for vegetarians, travelling alone, and visiting the less known places.
Let’s start from the very beginning. I boarded the flight from Pittsburgh, … okay may be not that beginning. I stayed in hostel Shimokita in Shimokitazawa, which was quite close to University of Tokyo. The hostel is a small and quiet place with capsule beds that are quite economic and comfortable. I had some great conversations with people from Sweden, Hong Kong, Canada and Germany. I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting a good stay for a short while. The conference was from Wednesday to Friday, during which I mostly hung around with my colleagues and friends. I did visit Akihabara where I purchased some Gundam kits (they are awesome!). Naturally, the first couple of days were extremely confusing to me. Lucky for me, my Japanese labmate stayed with me, who became my unofficial tour guide. He explained all the tiny details of traveling around in Tokyo. As you might have read elsewhere, Japan relies on cash transactions, so do get some cash before hand. I did not do that, but Seven Eleven came to my rescue. Oh and Japanese landscape is punctuated densely with Seven Eleven, and if you are a vegetarian like me, this will be your one (and a lot of times, the only) way of filling your tummy. However, thanks to my ever so helpful labmate, I also came across Chabuzen, a vegan ramen place, and boy! It was the best ramen I’ve had. I’ll mention about it again towards the end.
Alright, let’s get started with the touristy details. I planned to take a train to Kyoto on Saturday, stay there a night, go to Osaka on Sunday, stay there a night, then return to Tokyo on Monday. I was to travel alone, to visit several well-known temples, with a heavy bag (more about it towards the end), in a country where I could not communicate, or even read some of the sign boards, and with a curiosity for culture. I was so very
excited freaking out. I traveled alone in Europe before and that was easy to manage due to English sign boards, but I wasn’t sure I was prepared for Japan. Nevertheless, I braved it, particularly because I wanted to feel like an adult who can be responsible for himself.
So then I took the Shinkansen to Kyoto (Hikari) on Saturday morning, carrying a voluminous bag with several unnecessary things, and with great excitement. The train journey was a memorable experience, due to the speed at which it moved. This caused a fascinating rolling shutter artifacts in cellphone camera images which made vertical poles look tilted. A bit of computational photography at every step in the journey!
Then I got off in Kyoto and headed out to Fushimi Inari shrine, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the god of rice harvest, and well known for numerous orange arches made of wood. It was a wonderful place, and since it was my first temple in Japan, I was very fascinated by the wooden architecture. But, I made the cardinal mistake of visiting the wonderful shrine on a Saturday. The place was chock full of people with barely any space to walk freely. You can move away from the crowd if you take a trek uphill to the “inner shrine”, which offers a good view of the Kyoto city as well. Thus started my intense efforts to move away from crowd, and enjoy temples in the way they were intended — in peace and tranquility. That said, Fushimi Inari is a must visit place, particularly due to the vibrant orange arches.
I came out and then headed out to Tohfuku-ji (which means Tohfuku temple, and hence Tohfukuji temple means Tohfuku temple temple, which sounds strange) which was walking distance from Fushimi Inari. From what I reckon, not many people know about this shrine and hence it was comfortable to roam around and study the buildings. This was the first time I saw such a huge archway made of wood.
This was my hint to search for less-visited places in and around Kyoto (and as we shall see later, I did the same with Osaka). But to stick to my day’s schedule, I decided to visit Ginkaku shrine. This is less of a shrine and more of a beautiful garden. I faced the same problem as with Fushimi Inari, that of crowded place. This ended my day’s travel and I decided to retire in the hostel I booked in downtown Kyoto. Resting in the hostel was a wonderful time to sit and plan for the next day, and my goal was clear — old temples, which were not tourist hotspots. I stumbled across the perfect combination — Horyuji — the 1400 year old Buddhist temple, half an hour from Nara. This meant a more than two hours detour from Kyoto, and a tryst with semi-rural areas of Japan. I couldn’t hold my excitement.
Horyuji was the best temple I visited in Japan. The main pagoda is 1400 years old with minimal additions. The study hall contained a large Buddha statue along with two Bodhisatvas and the four heavenly kings protecting the four directions. It is interesting to note that most Buddhist temples in Japan depict the four kings in a warrior-like pose, with an angry face and wielding deadly weapons, and the same was the case in the study hall. However, as you move to the main hall, you see a different depiction, with the four kings in serene pose, simply holding earthly elements. This temple was a living memory of the transition of Buddhism from Indian to Japanese style. While I could not take photos of the shrine, you can find more information here. Continuing outside, one can see the door guards, called Kongo Rikishis. These clay structures are the oldest existing guardian statues in Japan. Door guards always have a powerful presence — and the Rikishis were no different. My fascination for the guardian statues goes back to Indian temples, where the Dvarapalakas stand in a stoic manner, warning about intruders entering the temple.
With a satisfied mind and a body full of energy, I decided to explore any nearby temples further. I then stumbled upon Todaiji, a temple very close to Nara station. The suggestion turned up when I searched for temples around Nara, and hence did not know what to expect. At the risk of sounding like a click bait, I’ll say it. What I saw next blew my mind! It was unbelievably huge and incredibly beautiful! Todaiji is a tourist hotspot, but make no mistake, you cannot skip going to this temple. Luckily, I was able to maneuver through the crowd and get a good look at the Buddha, Bodhisatvas, and the four kings. The temple will stay in my mind as a wooden marvel. That such a massive wooden structure was constructed around thousand years ago, and is standing today is simply mesmerizing.
I then went to Kohfukuji, which had several art pieces of the heavenly kings. That ended my journey on the second day. By this time, I realized an unrelated thing — my bag was unnecessarily heavy, and that in future I would carry smart, and light. It was in the ballpark of 10 kilos and left me with either strong shoulders or a weak spine.
I went later that day to Osaka, where I stayed overnight, and begun planning for the next day. The initial plan was to visit Osaka castle, and then get back to Tokyo. However, if I learned anything from my previous visit, it was that I should be doing some more research before I set out to a popular tourist spot. So I woke up early next morning, and I read several blogs to see what the castle scenario in Japan was. And it was most useful, as I ended up boarding a train to Hikone, a place two hours away from Osaka to visit the Hikone castle.
Hikone is one of the few castles in Japan that are still in the same condition as they were built and hence is of national importance. Combined with the fact that it was a weekday (Monday) and is far away from major stations, Hikone was not too crowded, and hence was able to thoroughly study the castle and its components. While the castle itself never saw any major wars, its military fortification is fascinating. If you are visiting the castle, do look out for square and triangular holes in the wall that were supposed to be used for shooting arrows and guns. I got lucky that day, as a volunteer in the museum explained the details of the artifacts, with emphasis on their history. Ah, and not to forget the cute Hikone mascot, Hikonyan, the ambling white cat.
I then had some great food in the market nearby and headed back to Tokyo. I took the Hikari again, and rested comfortably in the train, thinking about the amazing solo trip I had these three days. I wish I could see around more, but time was of essence and had to fly back the next day. However, back in Tokyo, I had to revisit Chabuzen and taste one more dish of theirs. So I set out that night and went and had curry ramen, a dish that left my wondering if good food is all that’s required to bring world peace.
So that was it! Japan is a country of some contradictions. Owing to how safe the country is, it was quite easy to travel anywhere alone without much trouble. At the same time, not knowing Japanese hampered my communication with others, and could not fully appreciate the info boards in temples. Similarly, being a vegetarian was quite hard. But I got incredible vegan ramen in Tokyo. But one thing is without contradictions. The people are very helpful. The lady behind the desk in Hikone tourist center marked the order in which I should visit places and gave me the map. My labmate helped me the first three days with everything, and everywhere, I was thanked profusely, even though I should have been the one to thank them.
And hence, for all my wonderful experiences, the rich culture, the tasty food and the incredible hospitality, Arigato Gozaimas!
Some tips that might help you if you are planning a travel:
Vegetarian Food: This was a difficulty. You can easily survive; Seven eleven always has something that you can eat. You might feel slightly out of place if you are a foodie. No explicit details are mentioned about the ingredients on most items. I searched for the names on Google to make sure they were vegetarian.
Money: My debit card did not work in ATM machines in station. Once again, Seven eleven came to rescue. They have a fixed charge for each transaction, so draw in excess before hand. If your home currency is USD, you can sell back the Yens for a good price.
Backpack: Travel light, and buy a good, light backpack. Take a tablet or laptop, as it will be useful when planning out. Do not carry more than you need. For example, the hostel/hotel you are staying at may provide you towels, so do not carry it. Always carry a water bottle, as you never know when you are thirsty. That said, the vending machines are everywhere and you can hydrate yourself easily.