Have you been to Japan recently? #travel

Japan Tokyo snowJapan fascinates me. I’ve written about the country a few times, including here, but this time was different in one essential way: my first real experience of snowfall. (This is a long post, so if you’d rather only look at pictures of Japan, click to enlarge each of the photos.)

The night we landed in Tokyo, they forecast blizzard conditions. Now, to most people that would be troublesome (and in fact entire crowds got stuck in huge traffic jams inside some of Tokyo’s tunnels) but having been born in the heat and dust of central India, and now a resident of hot and humid Singapore, I’m ashamed to say that the prospect of a blizzard filled me with glee. Wasn’t disappointed, either.

Snow, Tokyo, Japan

The first flurries of snow led to more once I emerged from the airport, and despite stockings and coats, the icy winds chilled me to the bone. Perverse me loved every bit of it.

In the car, as I watched each snowflake make its way to the road, riding the wind, free and alive for one moment before it fell with a tiny splat on the ground, I thought of how much it resembled human life. Ruled by the vagaries of circumstances, a brief journey that would end in oblivion. Like memories and history, some would gather and remain, as fluff on trees and shrubs, as mounds on the roadside, only to melt and disappear in time.

On to more cheery thoughts. Right after we checked in we met a Japanese friend, only to learn of his retirement after 43 years of work at one company–and of course, we decided to celebrate.

We took a bus and a train from Shinjuku to the Tokyo station, and then walked through the snowy pavements, not letting a bit of wind and snow deter us, our noses frozen, spirits high, and took a few (obviously hazy) photographs of my first walk in snow. Try not to laugh, gentle reader, at my various imbecilic attempts to catch and taste snowflakes. Let’s just say I was glad there were few witnesses to said event. Our elderly Japanese friend of course made sure to throw enough snow at me to make me burst into helpless squeaks, and breathless, un-seemingly-teenagerish giggles. I wasn’t ashamed, didn’t care. This was apparently the coldest (and snowiest) week in Japan in 40 years, and I loved every bit of it!

Japan, Tokyo Tempura
Sake bottle, and our Tempura Chef

Tempura Dinner

We ended up at an unassuming-looking but super-fancy tempura joint (this link takes you to fancier pictures of our food than I would ever take– we ate almost the exact same menu) near the Tokyo station, with a magnificent view of the snow, with waitresses in fancy kimonos who smilingly put up with my lengthy, clumsy (frozen hands, no gloves) doffing of entirely un-fancy hiking boots, jacket and cap (I had had no time or reason to change from my traveling clothes geared towards comfort rather than elegance).

The chef cooked each piece in front of us, and served it with directions on which sauces to dip it in. I didn’t want to offend him by taking too many pictures, and anyway, I’m an eater of food, not much of a picture-taker when you put a delish spread in front of me–so I only have a picture of the appetizer course.

The food lived up to the exorbitant prices (it was a once-in-a-lifetime splurge, I guess), the tempura super-light, fluffy and crisp on the outside, the seafood and vegetables remarkably firm on the inside. Entirely worth the humiliating lacing and unlacing of boots in front of an audience of graceful waitresses, if you ask me.

Tokyo Japan Appetiser
Appetizer course before tempura dinner

The hot sake kept the conversation flowing, and warmed our insides. Best tempura dinner I’ve ever had, and I can only hope our friend enjoyed it as a much as I did.

By the time we returned to our hotel, the graceful dark branches of trees stood silent and shining, laden with snow, which fell in brief flurries whenever a particularly strong gust of wind struck.

I stood there, behaving myself this time, and let the awe of all that white magic sink in.

To all of you who have grown up with snowfall, I don’t know if it seems magical at all, but that first night, as I looked out from my hotel window, I thought I’d been transported to a winter wonderland. When I slept, I dreamt of snow.

Buying Stationery in Tokyo, and the changing face of Japan

StationeryOf course, I spent the next day walking about in the snow, trying to find the right ear warmers, neck warmers, leg warmers and so on. The rest of the week went by, shopping for stationery of course, at Tokyu Hands, at Muji, at Itoya. Japan has an obsession with paper, be it one to write on, or to make their fragile traditional doors or cover their windows.

Japan, Tokyo, SnowAs a writer, I’m obsessed with paper as well (and of course, ppens and notebooks), and these stores have entire floors of them, especially Itoya, which is a venerable Japanese institution with eight floors of craft and stationery goodness. You can take a lift up, but must walk down all eight floors if you want all the stuff on the topmost floor.

Some of the trains now make announcements in English, and the Citymapper app has made changing trains and buses a breeze. A far cry from nine years ago, when I made my way around the city with a lot of help from the local populace. The city is now overrun by Chinese tourists, who do not lack money, but seem a huge contrast to the polite, subtle Japanese, who love cleanliness, attention to detail, and a love of aesthetics. This time, I spotted notices everywhere in Mandarin and English, advising the public that smoking or spitting while walking on the roads is prohibited.

A Shinkansen trip to Osaka

After two days in Tokyo, I took a shinkansen day-trip to Osaka on another cold day, armed with the right shoes and warmers this time. The super-fast train offered brief glimpses into the outskirts of Tokyo and the hinterlands.

Dried-up rivers looking cold and lonely, their rocky bottoms visible, thin streams flowing down the middle, flanked by rows of egrets hoping to catch their breakfast. Slant-roofed, snow-hushed villages, toy cars parked beside tiny homes, dark groves of tall fir trees, flanked by factories bubbling with white smoke, a lone man stumbling across icy fields, children playing football in bright orange shorts in defiance of the weather, grey cemeteries upon a hill, all gravestones the same size, behind the hills a brilliant white peak with sunlit clouds on an azure, cold sky, the train making its almost noiseless way past leafless trees standing tall, dry  branches waiting for the flowers of spring, and three black ducks in a small, still pool.

Osaka JapanOblivious to all these wonders outside, sat dour men in well-tailored office clothes, frowning at excel sheets in Japanese. Even as the blue seas beckoned when we neared Osaka, these men on work trips kept their faces firmly in the service of their laptop screens, the cans of Asahi beer, the seaweed-rice-meat sandwiches, till I wanted to shake them and make them look out the window.

The Osaka Castle

Once out of the station, I made my way to the Osaka castle, helped along by train officers in their deeply accented and sparse English, the Citymapper app and the Suica train card. Surrounded by the loud and omnipresent Chinese tourists, I made slow progress towards the Osaka Castle, up a small hill. It is surrounded by a moat, and its charming lines and white contours provide many photographic opportunities.

Japan Osaka Cast;eI hung around on the outside, having seen the Odawara castle before and enough shogun history to last me a while. The Osaka castle was burned down and had to be re-built, so it feels new-shiny, and not worth the time I spent sharing my sandwich with sparrows that hopped up on my shoes, and the much braver pigeons that flapped down and landed on my knees, to eat out of my hands. I sunned myself, watched young women walk their Cavalier King Charles Spaniels in perambulators, the small dogs prettied up with ribbons, wearing their sweaters, shoes and socks, and looking on, silent and curious, as their well-coiffed owners made polite chatter.

Gorging on Octopus at Dotonburi

After a long walk through the Nishinomaru garden, I took a train to reach Dotonburi, in order to sample the food Osaka is famous for.

I reached in the early afternoon, and took a walk down the relatively empty Dotonburi canal-side, joined a queue for Takoyaki, and after two helpings of the dish, tried an Okonomiyaki for size.

They were ideal food for the zero-degree weather, and warmed me enough so I could brave the increasing crowds.

Japan, Osaka, Dotonburi
Takoyaki at Dotonburi
Japan Osaka Dotonburi
Along the Dotonburi Canal

By 5pm, tourists and locals alike thronged the many bridges across the canal, and enthralled me with their obsession for selfies and the various heights they jumped to, and the lengths they swung over the bridges in order to capture the right pose.

Japan Osaka Dotonburi
Tourists posing for pics at Dotonburi

I bought a pretty woolen cap, and the elderly, very kind Japanese saleswomen chatted with me in English that sounded like Japanese. Their smiles widened when they heard I was from Singapore, where they’d been ‘twotimes‘, and told me it was ‘a pressure to meet‘ me. Startled at first, I realised what they meant, and told them it was a pleasure for me too. Eight years ago, when I first visited Japan, it was a fairly insular country, but English is seeping in now.

Japan, Osaka, Dotonburi
View from one of the bridges over the Dotonburi canal

On the way back, the shinkansen ran late (a super-rare event, according to friends), due to snow near Nagoya, and as compensation I received half my one-way fare. At 1 am, I turned in, a tired but not unhappy tourist.

I’ll write the next part, the trip to Kanazawa, Shirakawa-ko and Ainokura– and if you have read so far, I hope you’ll join me for the subsequent leg of the trip next week!

For more pictures of the trip, click here.

What about you? Where did you travel in 2017? What travel plans have you made for this new year? What does travel mean to you? Do you sample the local cuisine, wherever you go? Do you buy stationery? Have you ever been to Japan? If yes, what was Japan like, for you?


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43 comments

Add Yours
  1. pjlazos

    I’ve not been to Japan but it’s on the list. I love to travel more than just about anything other than staying home (I’m part hermit, and part full of wanderlust). I try all the local stuff, take pictures of all that I can, hike mountains whenever possible, light candles in every church I pass, have not thought about buying stationary before, but you bet I will now, and since I grew up with snow, I know exactly what you mean. I love when it snows, how it stops the world from its busyness, how each snowflake is unique, how it falls in a way that makes you ponder the deeper meanings of life, and I love to look out my window and see the earth blanketed in snow more than seeing a dull, brown landscape. Japan sounds awesome through your eyes! I hope to go someday.

  2. hilarycustancegreen

    I enjoyed this trip very much. I’ve never been to Japan, though my husband and my old boss have and have many friends there. May be one day… I’d love to see the gardens, especially.

  3. Shilpa Garg

    Japan fascinates me. Thanks for taking us on a virtual trip to Japan with this comprehensive travelogue and lovely pictures!

  4. Rajlakshmi

    I have always felt buying winter clothes in the visiting country is a much better option… I have never seen the snow but when I reached Sydney in the middle of winter, none of my jumpers or slacks worked. I had to buy a big coat here. Your description of the winter wonderland is making me feel some serious wanderlust. I love japanese cuisine… Simple and nourishing all at the same time. And paper, they sell such delicate and beautiful types of paper. Beautiful captures. I would love to visit Japan someday.

  5. Soumya Prasad

    Japan has been on my bucketlist since forever! I want to visit everyplace there that sells Ramen, yeah that’s a goal 😀

    Loved the pictures and the experience you had. Plus, you got to taste snow. How adorable that is 🙂

  6. Alison Juste

    9 years ago was also when I first went to Japan! And yes, I was going to comment you must’ve experienced the snow storm that slowed Tokyo! Pretty rare for it to snow there, so lucky you! 😉 (I had to survive 2 years, incidentally the biggest snowfall in Hokkaido for the last 40 years? Hah, weather has a sense of humor!)
    Good to know you enjoyed your trip! But you make me want to go back and visit… :'(

  7. the bespectacled mother

    I have to tell you this, Damyanti, I read the post at a slow speed taking in every detail as my mind could. I am sure the names of places won’t stay but your experience will. I am enthralled by the beauty of japan and the simplicity of Japanese people. I look forward to read the next part.

  8. d Nambiar

    It was nice reading about your adventure in the snow. I understand. Seeing snow is something and and seeing it fall for the first time is something else. For me it happened in that order and I enjoyed walking while it was snowing and raining together. 🙂
    You’ve painted such clear images with your words. I thoroughly enjoyed your travel account and look forward to reading the coming posts on your Japan trip.

  9. ccyager

    I live in a place where it snows many inches every winter, but it can still be magical to see big, fat snowflakes drifting down and feel like I’m in a snow globe. A high school friend married a Japanese woman and they live in Yokosuka (I think that’s correct) north of Tokyo. But I have never visited Japan. I would have spent hours and hours shopping for stationery! We no longer have many of those kinds of stores because to write a personal letter and mail it using the postal service is rare for personal messages. But I still love stationery and mail. My big travel days may be over due to health considerations, so I travel vicariously through you! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Cinda

  10. CaroleHeidi

    That thrill of snowflakes on your tongue and the weird not-quite-real wonder of it all? I get that every single time it properly snows, even now.

  11. Sudesna Ghosh

    I visited Japan with my parents as a child. I am actually planning to visit again this year, so your post came at a great time! Last year, the travel bug hit me and I decided to see a few new places in India – Jaipur, Udaipur, NCR region, Vishakhapatnam. This year, I have visited Silchar, Assam and am supposed to check out Raipur in a few weeks 🙂

    I love meeting people from different cultures and also try out local food – it has become a bit difficult since I became a vegetarian. I grew up between the US and India, so I’ve always thrived in multicultural environments. Oh, one big reason that I wish to visit Japan – they are cat crazy like I am!

  12. Jacqui Murray

    Thanks for this preview. My son is stationed in Okinawa with the Army so I will be going to visit in 2019. Tokyo is definitely on the list (I’ll be coming from Southern California, USA).

  13. Paul

    Lovely post! I truly enjoyed your pictures and your lively descriptions! 🙂 I’m glad. to hear you are enjoying your Japan trip. What a wonderful place. When I’m asked what I like most about Japan, I freeze up every time, because I find it difficult to think of one thing that I like more than the other!

    I think my best experience was Japan in the Spring time. The cherry blossom are stunning…there’s no other way to put it. Interestingly enough, what I love about Japan is also what many Japanese do not care for and that’s the condensed space. It’s nice that Kyoto is only a short time away from Osaka. It’s the ol grass is always greener on the other side syndrome! Here I am living in a whale of a country where it takes forever to get anywhere. Whereas in Japan a short, and enjoyable train ride gets me to another marvelous place! With delicious food.

    Damyanti, thank you so much for the great post. I hope you’re having the best of times!

  14. writershilpa

    You tasted snow! That’s cute! I taste the rain each time it pours here! 😛
    The stationary place seems like a Wonderland, Damyanti. I would love to give that a visit. I love losing myself in stationary shops. I may not buy anything, but just feasting my eyes on every object there makes me feel it was time well spent!
    Loved your pictures and the descriptions. And, looking forward to the following post of your Japan trip !
    Enjoy!

  15. Julia Lund

    I’ve never been to Japan, but have seen snow each year of my l7fe at some point. One winter, as a student, it was so deep I couldn’t leave my house. Other years, there has been just a smattering in my home town. But l8ve it or hate it, the first flakes to fall always cause some excitement, ‘Will it lie?’ being the main topic of conversation. But then, here in the UK, weather is always the first topic of conversation.

    Looks as though you had an amazing trip; food for memories and stories.

  16. simonfalk28

    The tempura sounded delicious, Damyanti. You’re right about it being a longer post. But, we who kept scrolling were rewarded. As you mused about eating snowflakes, I thought of one of our Australian poets, Bruce Dawe. He once wrote an ode to a corn flake. Perhaps there is an ode to a snowflake out there somewhere. Like yourself, snow is a rarity to me and I relished your delight. I had no exciting trips in 2017.

  17. Saurabh Chawla

    Wow! You had a great time 🙂 I haven’t been to Japan but surely will look forward to it as my next destination. Time to make adjustments in my travel calendar!

  18. ianscyberspace

    I haven’t been to Japan since retirement but spent a lot of time there during my assignment to the Asia Pacific area. It is a very beautiful country with amazing contrasts from the urban sprawl of places like Tokyo/Yokohama to the remote villages in hill country. It is such a privilege to be there during cherry blossom time. I can remember being snowed in at the Hilton and unable to do business for a few days. Quite cold taking the trains and I never got used to being crammed into carriages by platform pushers to make sure each carriage was full to capacity and beyond.

  19. magickmermaid

    Japan is definitely on my list of countries to visit! Your trip sounds wonderful. Love the photos.
    Eating the local cuisine is one of the best parts of traveling! 🙂

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Thanks, the photos are mostly on my phone. You should definitely visit!

      Yes, eating the local cuisine is an easy way to get some inroads into the local culture.

  20. chr1

    Aesthetically, I find the snow creates a neutral background palette, and tends to clean things up. It covers and traces underlying shapes…masking some things and enhancing surprising details.

    Nice post!

  21. JT Twissel

    I’ve never been to Japan. I’m not fond of long plane rides so I tend to travel closer to home. But I enjoy watching travelogues of Japan – particularly the countryside.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Japan is a long way from Singapore, as well…but I’ve fallen in love with the country, and have braved several plane rides now for my visits. The countryside is truly spectacular, especially in summer.

  22. macjam47

    Oh, Damyanti, I am so happy you got to experience a real snowfall! I will never get accustomed to seeing that beautiful fresh white snow cover the bleak winter landscape. It is mesmerizing! II didn’t go anywhere far away, but we did travel to Boston to see you son and his lovely family. Being with family trumps all other vacations for me. ♥️♥️♥️

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Yes Michelle, that’s the best kind of vacation– one with family!

      Fresh white snow covering a landscape is indeed quite magical.

  23. Audrey Driscoll

    I have never been to Japan, so thanks for this virtual tour. Interesting that your first experience of snow should be there. I read somewhere that the Japanese have a “snow aesthetic,” even pruning shrubs to hold snow in the most attractive ways, and incorporating snow references into poetry.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Aesthetics is the Japanese superpower. I’m sure they do have a snow aesthetic– the trees, especially in the imperial garden in Tokyo, and the Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa looked sculptured.

  24. Alex J. Cavanaugh (@AlexJCavanaugh)

    Your first snow! I grew up with it and it’s still magical to me.
    I don’t know if we visited the castle or not. I spent the first few years of my life there and could once speak fluent Japanese, but being a young kid I don’t remember much and would love to go back.

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Alex, this explains your Ninja powers! So cool that you can speak Japanese. I’m sure it would come back if you spent some time around Japanese people: I’ve seen that happen to with others and their childhood languages.

  25. hilarymb

    Hi Damyanti – that was a lovely journey or series of to share with you … what a wonderful time and so glad the snow suited you …catching snowflakes is fun – when one hasn’t seen snow for a while … but more so when it’s a rare occurrence. You certainly made the most of your trip … while the celebratory dinner with your friend has made my mouth water and sounds way better than my coffee!! Looking forward to the 2nd part – cheers Hilary

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Thanks, Hilary. I did enjoy the food there and am now focused on losing all that extra weight I gained!

      Hope to post the next part in the coming days, and also visit your blog.

      Travels have meant that I haven’t visited as often as I’d have liked.

  26. Melody Daggerhart

    Ah, I lived in Japan for six years, and it is my favourite place on earth! ^_^ Thank you so much for sharing this. Made me a bit “homesick”, but in a sweet way. I used to live in Aomori-ken, which is just under Hokkaido, so we always got loads of snow … and then loads more when we actually went to Hokkaido! I loved every bit of it. I’m a snow/ cold weather -loving person, though. So, no, it never gets old for me. 🙂 I didn’t mind getting up at 4:00 a.m. to dig out the car. It was peaceful and pristine seeing the trees and mountains under the moonlight and snow. I named my cat Tsukimori (moon forest) as a reminder of that experience. Snow in Tokyo, though! Wow! That IS unusual! Next time go to Hokkaido in the winter. Check out the Sapporo winter festival, usually happening around this time of year. They have enough snow to cover bicycles and cars. ^_^ And the most gorgeous ice sculptures you’ve ever seen. … I love Tokyo, too, though. I’m so glad to hear you had a good trip, and this article warmed my heart today. I miss it so much. <3

    • Damyanti Biswas

      Hokkaido is definitely on my list next.

      So glad this brought back good memories, Melody. I did see snow high enough to bury me standing up, but that was in Kanazawa.

      Tokyo seemed ill-prepared for snow, and yes, it was their coldest winter in nearly forty years. I’ve seen light snow flurries in Japan before, in Kyoto, but that evening in Tokyo was my first proper snow, and as you can make out, I was delirious with joy!

      What a wonderful name for your cat, and I envy you your stay— I’d love to live there for a while.