Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Kyoto - What a let down

After Tokyo we were to travel to Kyoto.

Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan. A city that has some 1600 shrines or temples. It is also a sort of cultural and arts and crafts centre. Kyoto is some 2 hours 45 minutes away from Tokyo by the Bullet Train. Bullet Trains are called the Shinkansen and come in many flavours. Generally they are the same equipment meaning the actual locomotive and bogies are all the same and generally the speed and rapidity at which they travel are the same, the difference normally is in the number of stops. The fastest [by which I mean using the least time] is the Nozomi category, which, as the proud holder of a Japan Rail Pass, you cannot use. You are relegated to the Hikari category. This is a bloody fast train by itself. We reached Tokyo station and waited for our train. The punctuality of the trains, the uniforms of the Conductors and Drivers was a sight to behold. The cleaning crew waiting to clean the train was quite something. If our rail karmacharis ever reach this level India will be a superpower.

The cleaners waiting to enter the train

Soon, we reached Kyoto and got off. Kyoto was a dump. After the majesty of Tokyo, Kyoto was a hopeless dump. I hated it on arrival. To get around in Kyoto you buy a combined bus and subway pass. The busses were ok, better than our BEST busses, but they were damn slow, crowded and often you could not board as they were so full. So getting around was a bit of a challenge. To add to the difficulty in getting around is the fact that the shrines, especially the important ones are in different corners of the city. So you spend a lot of time travelling in a bus. All guide books suggest you do one area of Kyoto each day so you don’t end up travelling back and forth too much. That said, getting anywhere is at least 45 minutes to an hour in an exceedingly crowded bus. Once there, pay an entrance fee, visit the temple or shrine and another very crowded bus takes you to another shrine. It’s easy to get shrined out very fast.

Kyoto was filled with backpackers, generally American with some Australians and a smattering of British and Europeans. Kyoto was full of very pretty handicrafts shops, coffee shops and all things pretty. If you have ever been to Ubud in Bali or Thimpu and Paro in Bhutan you will know what I am referring to. Lots of Jholawallas all around, the `green’ types, the vegans and those absorbing the culture. Lots of pottery shops, beautiful cup `bashi’ shops [if you know Marathi].

The Pontocho area is a strip of restaurants along the river. Everyone says you should go there to eat. Horrible tourist trap. We fled in minutes. The Nishiki Market is also highly recommended. It was nice but odd with all kinds of shops without much of a focus. You had food shops, trinket shops; handicraft shops all cheek by jowl.

The Nishiki Market

The shrines are all right. They do have beautiful gardens but the shrines themselves are rather thin if I could use that word. Many of them are quite new as they have been reconstructed. You pay an entrance charge to get in and all you see is one structure. It may be reasonably beautiful, but besides that there is nothing. Most readers will know that I am an India basher, but, even I will admit that our temples in Madurai and the Golden Temple [which I have seen] and Khajuraho, Jagganath [which I have not] are far far better, richer [culturally] older than any of the shrines in Kyoto. HRH the Queen of Kutch, who is greater believer in Temples and matter of spirituality than cynical me, also thought that the shrines were underwhelming and unimpressive.

The must-see-shrine in Kyoto is the Kinkaku-ji shrine with its majestic gold roof. Certainly very pretty if you can push your way through the hordes of Japanese tourists (mostly school children), jostling for the perfect photograph. Another much touted place that left us cold was the Ryoanji Temple with its Zen Rock Garden, I mean seriously, what on earth was that all about? Seven rocks randomly placed on some sand and hordes of people meditating the significance of it all!! We were certainly not feeling very Zen at all.

 Kinkaku-ji shrine. Quite nice - reconstructed 1930

The hordes

The Zen Garden with the stones at the Ryoanji Temple. People simply stare at the stones.

The Ginkakuji Temple

I wondered what was wrong, why both of us were feeling let down? Were our expectations too high? HRH the Queen of Kutch then did a bit of research and found several travellers forum on the Internet especially on the Lonely Planet website that voiced exactly what we felt. I am reproducing some passages from these conversations:

‘I've always said that Kyoto is the most overrated place I've ever been to. Yes (mandatory caveat) there are some small pockets of relative "beauty" but overall it's just your typical concrete and overhead wiring Japanese urban monstrosity.

The problem for me, is the way that Kyoto is promoted as a "historic" city, full or traditional Japanese culture. But it’s not -it’s an ugly, bland modern city with the scattered remains of a history now largely gone. There ARE many beautiful places in Kyoto - lovely small shrines dotted around, charming ryokan, Kiyomizadera and Kinkakuji are certainly worth seeing, and the mountains are nice... but the problem is that the city itself, as a whole, is neither beautiful, nor historic.

And that’s not what you would expect, from the way people talk about it. They never mention that it’s basically just a modern, anonymous Japanese city full of 7-11s and gas stations. Every place of interest or beauty is located right next to a supermarket or a pachinko parlor. There is no sense of walking down the street and stepping back in time, no unbroken historical streetscapes. 

Having visited other "historic" cities in Europe and Latin America that really were like that - almost perfectly preserved - I thought Kyoto was rather lacklustre by comparison.

So we were not alone in feeling like this. Ultimately, Kyoto was a huge disappointment for me. HRH the Queen of Kutch is more tolerant and easygoing, so her disappointment was probably less, but all the same it was certainly not worth the visit.

Pity. Bottom line, Kyoto is a disappointment.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Tokyo - Things to do and see

Tokyo is a grand city, almost majestic. Tall graceful skyscrapers, impeccably clean, wide roads with no garbage in sight and the beautiful almost calm oasis of the Imperial Palace in the dead centre of the city.

Tokyo is a real powerhouse. It is a mighty city. Except for the Imperial Palace and Ueno park, there is no, and I mean no, green space anywhere. I have no idea how kids play.

The upmarket area of Ginza and Marunouchi rival those of London and France. Every brand you can think of is there. The shops themselves rather deserted but they are there. To a large extent the quieter and more sedate areas of Ginza and Marunouchi reminded me of Zurich. Calm, a dignified grace and elegance and people going about unhurriedly.

We visited the Imperial Palace Gardens. A long walk along the moat that protects the Palace was quite nice. Everything was clean and pristine. The magnificent tall buildings along the road looked even more so in the clear air. There really is something with clear air. I felt the same when in Sweden a few years ago. Everything looks clean; it feels like you have cleaned your spectacle lenses. Photos are so much better too. The Imperial Palace Gardens were pretty. Not beautiful, but pretty and shocking clean and well maintained. Some of the old structures when juxtaposed with the modern building created an interesting and, for me, a captivating contrast.

Ueno Park is the cultural centre of Tokyo. You have a Park in the centre which has an avenue of Cherry Blossom trees which, when blooming are a sight to behold. They were not blooming. In the area around the park you have the important Tokyo Museums. We did a quick breeze thru them. Quite nice. Small in scale to the big ones in London and America. Ueno Park did have a Pagoda and a temple to keep photographers happy.

The great Tsukiji Market is quite something. A bit of tourist information for all you future travellers. The entire market will be shut down and the new stadia for the Olympic Games 2020 will come up here. The market was a scant 2 odd kilometres from our hotel so it was a convenient walk. The main Tuna auctions happen very early in the morning. However, what is generally not known is that only 120 persons per day are allowed to see the auction as `tourists’. To do this you have to be there at the designated spot at between 3 am and 3.30 am and even then it is first come first served. We had no intention of doing this. A fish auction between `Macchiwalis’ at Versova or Sassoon Dock does nothing for me. I see no reason why an auction in Japanese would raise my blood pressure. Am I justifying my own shall we say, laziness? Possibly, but, honestly, it was not something I was willing to work so hard for.

Tuna Belly -chilled not frozen

No I do not know why this one is red.

Frozen Tuna Belly

Conch - our holy shell. They eat the insides. All Japanese will go to Hell

Used thermocole boxes

Tsukiji is a market much like all the great markets around the world, Borough, Billingsgate and Smithfield in London, Le Harve in Paris and so on. So, a lot of action happens early. The shops, restaurants and support around the market are alive and well till much after. In Tsukiji things are open and buzzing till about noon. Anyway, we were there by 9 am and it was busy. Tsukiji is a large, very large and with hundreds of staff rushing around at breakneck speed on their little electric carts. These go terrifyingly fast and they seem to whizz around in all directions. You really have to be alert or you will have a serious injury. Another thing, please wear sensible shoes when going there. Fish, water, blood, scales and general fish parts are on the floor. It is not at all pleasant walking around in flip-flops like many of the visitors were doing. In fact when asking for directions at the Concierge, the Concierge actually came out of her area to examine our footwear! Ours thankfully passed muster.

The thing to do is to enjoy a meal of Sushi at one of the stalls around the market. This is far simpler said than done. There are many stalls all with Japanese signage. You have no idea of convention, tradition, standard operating procedure, nothing. Add to this there are enough foolish tourists, like us, gawking, and a fair number of mildly irritated locals. Not a good combination. The next challenge is to not get stung. The famous sushi stalls, much like Bade Mia at Colaba have worldwide recognition and fame. However, you can be stung by a bill of 20,000 Japanese Yen per head before you know it for your breakfast! 20,000 Japanese Yen is INR 12,000/-.get the picture? Now, I do not like Sushi, while HRH the Queen of Kutch does. So in addition to all this, I had to play my hand delicately by extricating myself from a meal of raw fish and rice while encouraging HRH the Queen of Kutch to partake. Anyway, she was magnanimous; I loitered outside watching Japanese Omelettes being made while she had her Sushi. It was sheer providence that we stumbled onto an excellent, internationally well known Sushi place which served very good Sushi at extremely competitive prices. This was sheer chance and the fact that we liked the look of the place from the outside. Maybe I should start believing in God! HRH the Queen of Kutch had a 12 piece meal of 6 types of Sushi [two each] at a very reasonable 3000 Japanese Yen [INR 1800]. She declared it delicious. I had a Cheese burger from MacDonald’s for lunch 135 Japanese Yen [INR 75]. It was delicious.

Sushizanmai - the restaurant 

That is a what she ate

How to make a Japanese omlette

Asakusa Temple is another Tokyo sight. 16th to 18th May is the time that there is a festival around the Temple. We were told that it would be very crowded. So we went there on the 19th of May. It was less so, but boy, was it crowded. The whole atmosphere was similar to the `Zatra’ or fair that used to take place at Mahalaxmi when I was a little boy for the 9 days before Dussera. Lots of stalls selling local delights, both food and trinkets and souvenirs. So you had Kimonos. Japanese hand fans, chopsticks and God knows what else. The Temple itself was fairly imposing though unimpressive. The Pagoda nearby was off limits.

A few words about the department stores in Japan. The upmarket stores like Daimaru, Takashimaya and Isetan are really something to behold. The lower floors have readymade food and pastries on offer. Japanese really, and I mean this honestly, know how to pack, gift wrap, parcel and present things especially food. If you buy anything, food or otherwise, it is beautifully packed and handed over to you with a smile, a thank you and a bow. So civilised. The quality of the pastries both aesthetically as well as taste wise are superlative. Japanese pastry making and decorating skills are unsurpassed.

Each pastry proctected. A spoon, a tissue and a gell pack to keep them cool.

Akihabara is a part of Tokyo they say you must visit. We did. It is the area dedicated to all manner of electricals and electronics - think Lammington Road. You have Cafe Maids, girls ddressed as waitresses who invite you to the cafe, fawn over you and implore you to buy the latest phone game. Games, computers, phones, cameras, clock, basically everything electronic is sold from here. It could have been utterly captivating except for 2 things. First we have virtually no interest in gaming and the like and secondly, we cannot read write or speak Japanese. Everything is in Japanese. Even digital clocks have day of the week and month in Japanese. Pointless for us. Cameras have their software and consequently all the menus in Japanese. More pointless. Anyway. But point remains it is an absolute Mecca for electronics. 

We had a Japan Railway Pass. This is to be bought from your country of residence. This pass is well worth it. It is very simple to use. You simply get onto any JR train, no questions asked. Just show your pass and get on. Some JR trains like the dedicated airport trains – Narita Express from Narita Airport to Tokyo Station, the Haruka from Osaka Airport to Shin Osaka Station – are also included on the pass. The Japanese Bullet Trains called the Shinkasen, which come in, so to speak, several flavours, can be used by you `free’ if you have the pass. It is only the very fastest Bullet train called the Nozomi category that is off limits. But that is no worry as the Nizomi is only marginal faster than a Hikari category. The only matter which is confusing is that there are several train operators in Japan, not only JR. This means that all non JR operators will not honour your JR Pass. This is a problem and often irksome. Most subways for example are non JR so you cannot use then without a separate ticket.

Getting around in Tokyo is a breeze, with all manner of trains, subways and busses being available to you on a JR Pass. Taxi’s are plentiful too if that is your preferred mode, but frightfully expensive.

Cleanliness for them is probably more than Godliness. Everything is so clean. More often than not you will see them polishing glass. All glass anywhere is spotless. Cars are spotless and totally clean with all chrome parts shining. Taxis are immaculate, drivers often wear white gloves [taxi drivers] and peak caps. Credit cards are taken in a taxi with a smile, no questions asked. Friendliness and helpfulness of people is unquestionable. But more on this aspect later.     

Tokyo is certainly impressive as a city.