Japan 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!
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.
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
Of 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.
As 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.
Oblivious 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.
I 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.
They were ideal food for the zero-degree weather, and warmed me enough so I could brave the increasing crowds.
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.
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.
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?
I co-host the monthly We Are the World Blogfest: I’d like to invite you to join, if you haven’t as yet, to post the last Friday of each month a snippet of positive news that shows our essential, beautiful humanity. After a break in the month of December, it is back for its first outing in 2018.
This monthly event has brought smiles on the faces of a lot of participants and their audiences, and somewhat restored their faith in humanity. Here’s a sampler. Click here to know more. Sign up here and add your bit of cheer to the world on the next installment of February 23rd!