My week long trip to Japan is over and it is nice to be home. Our flight in each direction was delayed by more than three hours. On the way up, a thunderstorm over Osaka prevented the plane from landing and we had to cool our heels on the tarmac in Nagoya until the skies cleared. A thirteen and a half hour journey turned into a toe curling sixteen and a half hour confinement within the belly of the plane. On the way back the delay occured on the ground, at the Dallas Fort Worth airport, due to "technical" problems. So after a 12 hour flight from Japan, the three hour transit time in Dallas dragged on to six and a half. We reached home at midnight - bedraggled and grimy. But Ali, our lonely cat who was left in the care of a petsitter was delighted to see us.
It was also fun to read the blog from a distance - enjoying the lively articles posted by Sujatha and Joe in my absence. (Dear Sujatha and Joe, thanks a lot. You don't have to stop just because I am back!)
This was my third trip to Japan in the last eight years. I have traveled to Japan each time strictly as a tourist, accompanying my husband who visits for professional reasons. The longest trip lasted two weeks. I do not speak the language except for a few common words and phrases. I have only lived in hotels, traveled to interesting places with the help and meticulous guidance of our many longtime Japanese friends, some of whom have accompanied us on our travels. And although I have had numerous unusual and interesting experiences in Japan, I have never really lived there and faced life on a mundane, day to day basis. It will be somewhat presumptuous therefore to claim any deep philosophical insight into Japanese culture and way of life based only on such limited, fun filled exposure to that country. The only thing I can say for sure is that every time I go there, I am struck by the picture post card beauty of Japan and the unfailing courtesy and friendliness of its people - not just our friends but also total strangers.
Japan, I often like to say, is Disneyland masquerading as a country. It is neat, clean and everything works like clockwork. Smiling people bow to you at every juncture and in a couple of days, you too become adept at bowing deeply at strangers. White gloved workers clean roads, operate elevators and drive tourist taxis. Being a small country with very fast trains, it is possible to see a lot of Japan in a short time. To date, I have seen Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Nara among the bigger cities and some picturesque little towns and islands in southern Japan - one of them atop an active volcano. Every place is spotless and the people friendly. Wild haired teenagers take the trouble to throw their cigarette butts and beer cans into the nearest trash receptacle. And most impressive, young women walk the streets alone, late at night in big cities without fear. I love the delicious food in Japan. But I can imagine vegetarians having a bit of a hard time there. Almost everything contains fish or meat. Pastries, tea and coffee are very, very good, and TV shows very, very bad. Japan is technologically highly advanced and the technology and modern conveniences are incorporated artistically and unobtrusively within the natural beauty of water, forests, mountains and ancient artefacts. Land is in short supply. Yet the Japanese are very conscious and concerned about maintaining as much of the natural beauty of their countryside as possible when building new structures. Recycling of trash is undertaken methodically and painstakingly by nearly every Japanese citizen (perhaps more about this practice another time). Another example of Japan unselfconsciously blending the ultra modern with the traditional; in most public places, bathrooms have western style commodes as well as Asian squatting toilets. (In a hotel in Tokyo, I once came across a women's bathroom where the taped sound of a waterfall plays in the background when the toilet is in use.)
On my recent trip I visited Osaka, Kyoto, Hiroshima and Nara. Of these, I had seen Kyoto and Hiroshima before. But this time my sister had joined me from India. It was her first time in Japan. So I had a lot of fun revisiting some of the previously seen places with her. My husband lost the camera towards the end of our stay - he left it on a train. So I will provide web links to some of the more interesting places that I visited. And yes, upon questioning I found out that except for one, all my Japanese friends would like to see a woman emperor occupy the Chrysanthemum throne.
The Japanese are devotedly traditional but not overly religious. Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines dot the landscape. My Japanese friends laughingly declare that they are Shinto at birth, Buddhist when dying and not much of anything in between. They are tolerant and mildly reverential towards the ancient religions but not fanatical or particularly observant. It is a refreshing change from the suffocating religiosity on display all over the world currently.
I have seen numerous Buddhas in Japan in various moods and poses - even a surprisingly ferocious one (Buddha is the quintessential model of peace and calm) holding up a sword. And astonishingly enough, the Japanese Buddha is always guarded at the temple gate by the twin pair of Hindu gods representing the wind (Vayu) and thunder (Indra). In case of the 1001 Buddhas in Kyoto, a pantheon of thirty three major and minor Hindu gods including the all important Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva and Lakshmi among them, guard the Buddhas from evil forces.
So in a reversal of religious hierarchy, the powerful Hindu gods of India become mere guardians of the central figure of Buddha in Japan. For all their love and adoration for the Buddha, the Japanese are not averse to using his image in a casually humorous and crassly commercial way. On the side of a tourist taxi in Nara, I saw the image of a laughing Buddha and Mickey Mouse holding hands in a most congenial fashion!
Guardian Hindu gods in the front row before the 1001 golden Buddhas (click to enlarge)