Variety

Taking in the serene and speedy delights of Japan

Vinay Kamath | Updated on December 08, 2014

Japanese Maple trees in autumn.   -  Vinay Kamath

The Tokyo Sky Tree, the world’s second tallest manmade structure at 634 metres.   -  Vinay Kamath

The land of staggering natural beauty takes the notion of smart living seriously

November is an invigorating time to be in Japan. It’s autumn, the air is crisp, the weather’s just right. The ubiquitous gingko trees are turning a bright yellow and the Japanese maple tree a splendid orange. In the many parks that dot Japanese cities, the fallen leaves make a virtual carpet of colour. Colourful leaves are to a Japanese autumn what cherry blossoms are to its spring and watching them a national pastime.

At the Kiyomizu Buddhist temple in Kyoto – where not a single nail has been used, we are told – hundreds of Japanese men, and women draped in elegant kimonos, queue for a special evening opening of the temple and also to enjoy the splendour of the autumnal trees. The shrine, located on a hillock overlooks the town and makes for a picturesque sight. The flip side of autumn is that hay fever and allergies are rampant in this season and many Japanese are seen wearing face masks.

Tokyo Sky Tree

Our next stop is the Tokyo Sky Tree, the world’s second tallest manmade structure at 634 metres, dwarfed only by Dubai’s 828 metre Burj Khalifa. The Sky Tree transmits radio waves for digital and other forms of broadcasting. It had to be built after the earlier Tokyo Tower was overshadowed by taller buildings around it. We take a high speed lift, ears popping, up 350 metres in 50 seconds! The night-lit Tokyo skyline at our feet sparkles. Miniature cars crawl in the distance.

The topmost level has a clutch of restaurants and cafes. Step on to a glass floor and you can see the bewitching lights of Tokyo under your feet. It’s scary, even if they tell you it’s heatproof and tempered glass. We take another lift to the highest point, 451 metres; above that is the broadcasting tower. The tower, we are told, is inspired by the traditional Japanese five-storey pagoda which has endured many earthquakes.

A reinforced concrete pillar in the centre of the Sky Tree and the steel tower structures that surround the pillar move separately to absorb up to about 50 per cent of seismic vibrations. The tower uses two illumination patterns using LED lights installed by Panasonic: Iki, or chic, stylish blue and miyabi, an elegant purple. On the day of our visit it’s a pleasing iki.

Riding a bullet

For a taste of life in the fast lane, we hopped on board a Nozomi, the fastest of what is called locally as Shinkansen trains, to Kobe from Tokyo. There are three types of ‘Bullet’ trains, ‘Nozomi’ (Hope), ‘Hikari’ (Light) and ‘Kodama’ (Echo). The difference is in the carriage used, and the number of stops. A distance of 550 km is covered in three hours. While the ears pop occasionally, you’re neither shaken nor stirred at those speeds. You can sip your wine or Sake and work the web as well. The Shatabdi from Chennai to Bengaluru covers 360 km in five hours. On a Bullet train, one can even afford to commute daily from either city!

No marriage on the cards

Our guide, a diminutive Japanese woman, fluent in English, regales us on the trends in Japanese society saying that, fewer young Japanese men and women want to get married and have children. The women tend to be better educated than the men and don’t find the right match.

Over 30 per cent of those under 30 years are single and they mostly stay with their parents as housing is expensive; they are derisively called ‘parasite singles’! At the other end of the spectrum, Japanese society is ageing as well. There are over 30,000 people over 100 years old in Japan, only 20 per cent of them are men!

Next, we visited a smart city at Fujisawa, a sustainable smart city set up by a consortium of companies led by consumer goods giant Panasonic.

Keep it smart

About 40 km from Tokyo, the smart city has provided for everything that can conceivably go into setting up one: solar panels to cut down on power from the grid, water conservation techniques, a shared pool of electric cars, reduction in the carbon footprint, roads that detect human or vehicular movement and light up automatically when dark, a raft of hidden surveillance devices to secure the residents and so on. Around 1,000 homes, 600 of them single homes, have already sprung up and a 100 families have moved in to participate in the brave new experiment. Given the state of our present cities, a smart one would be a tall ask!

And, smart loos

The humble loo in Japan has had a makeover. A lot of research has literally, pardon the pun, gone down the drain. Stepping into one such WC, one found to one’s surprise, the toilet seat opening up automatically, welcoming you to...err, do your job. The toilet seat is warm, and once done, no toilet paper. It’s all hands free: press a button and the toilet becomes a bidet or alternatively sprays warm water. Some of the loos even have a button which makes a flushing sound without actually doing so; in case you want to discreetly warn someone at the door that you’re in the bath.

(The writer was in Japan at the invitation of Panasonic India)

Published on December 05, 2014

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