“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” — Terry Pratchett
It was about midway through my 12-day long holiday that the thought occurred to me. I had almost backed out of this trip — it wasn’t high on my list, it was expensive, and I wasn’t even into anime. Yet, here I was, walking down the streets of Shibuya, feeling completely at ease in completely foreign environs. Japan and its people embraced us — a group of ten friends from Bangalore — with open arms, warm hearts, and a great deal of food. Our short trip took us to Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and offered us a life-changing glimpse into a world of customs, culture, and Oriental charm.
A trip to Japan in Spring is incomplete without feasting your eyes on cherry blossoms, or sakura, and that’s what defined our first couple of days there. Starting in bustling Tokyo, we first headed to the East Garden of the Imperial Palace in the Chiyoda Ward, where we spent ages admiring the blossoms in the evening light. As dusk began to descend, we made our way towards the Meguro River, a favorite spot for night-time cherry blossom viewing. Throngs of people milled about with pink champagne in their hands, admiring the trees as petals floated gently down to the water below. Surrounded by these gentle boughs of blossoms, we sat down for a quintessential Japanese meal of sushi at a nearby restaurant — a traditional place with low seating. As an Indian, sitting cross-legged on a mat is nothing new, but I was pleased I had chosen comfortable pants for that initial outing. And as I shook off my jacket and slipped off my shoes, I was also incredibly grateful that I’d worn new socks. Blogs I had read before my trip had prepared me, and I came armed with several new pairs.
Those first two days passed in a blur, after which we settled into a slightly more relaxed pace, taking in the sights along the way as well. For instance, my friends and I fell in love with ‘Milk Cocoa’ from a local convenience store called Family Mart, which then became a daily ritual of sorts. Of course, sights were to be seen. Hokusai may have enjoyed 36 views of the majestic Mount Fuji, but we got just one — a day trip to Lake Kawaguchi to see the famed peak, which turned into a leisurely day of sipping Japanese beer and feasting on matcha-flavored ice cream. The mountain itself, obscured by the clouds, served as a majestic backdrop to a casual outing with a group of friends.
These casual outings were made much more comfortable with the clothes I’d packed. And knowing there would be a lot of walking, my shoes of choice were comfortable sneakers, which I paired with über-comfortable (and oh-so-flattering) joggers. I’d also taken several tank tops and sweaters, so that I could mix and match looks to appease my inner fashionista.
300-odd miles away from this bustling metropolis lies a city that is cloaked in old-world charm — Kyoto. The former Imperial Capital is just a three-hour bullet train ride away, and that’s where we camped next. The city, quieter and quainter, offered us a peek into an entirely different side of Japan. The cab drivers happily chatted with us as they drove us to various spots, asking us where we were from and urging us to try their favorite Japanese desserts at their favorite places. We strolled through Gion district, sampled street food at various shrines, and cycled through streets and alleys.
Besides being famous as a city of Geishas, Kyoto is also home to a number of shrines and temples — from the gorgeous Kiyomizu-dera on the side of a mountain and Yasaka in Gion to the famously orange-gated Fushimi Inari-taisha. Kyoto is also located fairly close to other tourist spots, and so we used our Japan Rail Pass to explore towns and cities nearby. We made half-day trips to Nara and Arashiyama — the former to see their sacred deer, and the latter for the fantastically tall bamboo forest the area is famous for. Despite all of this sightseeing, our short time there felt like a mini-vacation — a slice of paradise in an otherwise fast-paced trip — thanks to the city’s innate aura of calm.
Further south on this island nation is the port city of Osaka. A quick 15-minute ride on another high-speed train, the city is less busy than Tokyo, but is filled with just as many things to do. By this time, we were all truly in love with all things Japan: the food, the weather, the people, the shopping, the neon lights, even the subway! It’s very easy to understand the subway maps once you’ve been there for a few days, and so we split up and went off in different directions to tick off items on our lists. Some of us shopped for souvenirs, others went in search of certain dishes we hadn’t sampled yet, and the rest just soaked in the flavor of Japan by walking around Dotonbori, Osaka’s hub of nightlife, food, and stores.
Whether it’s a weekend or many weeks, the end of trip is always a bittersweet time. We cling on to our memories, and frantically try to cram as many sights and sounds into the remaining hours. Our last few nights were more mellow, somehow, as we tried to get our fill of all things Japan. And so, we finished our trip with another sit-down sushi meal. We ordered plate after plate, sampling everything we could, hoping for just a few more days or weeks to do more and see more.
As the trip drew to a close, and I packed my many small gifts and knick-knacks back into my suitcase, I was glad I’d had the foresight to carry lightweight underwear and sports bras — the extra space and kilos meant I could take back a lot of Japan with me. The morning of our departure, I put on my good old black joggers, slipped on my sweatshirt and bundled up. Not just against the cold, but as a way to comfort myself. The country was an experience unlike anything I had imagined, and gave me so much more than words could do justice to. Even though I had made my peace with leaving, my heart ached as I said goodbye. Japan — a land steeped in history, often misunderstood, but always hospitable — had changed me, enlightened me, and left me wanting more.