Truly special Japan

AMRIT DHILLON | Updated on September 08, 2011

Customary grace: Meal times are marked by elegant and courteous service. - Photo: Rajesh Gupta

Traditional-style guest room at the Ekoin temple in Koyasan.

Contrary to popular belief, the land of the rising sun offers great vegetarian options and its people are as hospitable as can be.

The first reaction from friends when I announced I was going to Japan was to ‘watch out'. “It would be hideously expensive. A cup of coffee would mean taking a bank loan.” When I said my son wanted me to do quite a bit of shopping for him, the shrieks grew louder: “check your credit card limit before you go because everything costs the earth.”

And so it went on. ‘They don't speak English, so you will be lost. If you are vegetarian (I am not, but my three companions were), be prepared to starve and come back emaciated. They eat only fish, and that too weird fish like anemone and puffer fish and other strange things that look up at you from the plate with plaintive eyes.”

I need to set the record straight here. I had a memorable holiday in Japan and came back a confirmed Japanophile. We all travel to experience different cultures but the Japanese are seemingly more different than others. Isolated geographically as an island nation, they have developed unique customs and cultural habits.

Quintessentially Japanese

For about 250 years, Japan was completely cut off from the rest of the world owing to their rulers' policies. International trade was banned. Christian missionaries were thrown out. Its culture, therefore, developed without any western influences. No matter how sophisticated a traveller you may be, Japan strikes you afresh with its distinctive culture. It awakens your senses and reminds you why we travel in the first place.

Which other country in the world offers a tea ceremony? Which other country has propounded the aesthetic principle of Wabi Sabi? This is the custom of honouring whatever is imperfect, of recognising the beauty that comes to all things after they have suffered wear and tear — a pot that is cracked, a desk that is worn from use, an old shawl that has seen better days but is wonderfully soft; or skin that is wrinkled.

Where else in the world does a nation pursue refinement and elegance with the passion of the Japanese? This pursuit of beauty pervades their daily life and actions — from the way they present their food to the immense courtesy they show one another in public.

Before I debunk Indian misconceptions about Japan, I need to debunk two Japanese misconceptions about themselves. From childhood, the Japanese are taught that theirs is the only country that has four seasons and that they are a very small nation. Neither is true. Japan is bigger than Germany and Norway, and is the 60th largest country in the world.

Lots to see

For the tourist, that means a wide variety of stunning landscapes — mountains and remote Buddhist temples, ski resorts in the north, beach resorts in the Okinawa islands, the rich cultural heritage of the former imperial capital of Kyoto, the vibrancy of Tokyo's museums and night life, and, of course, the cherry blossom season from March to May which again is a distinctive feature of Japan. Other countries have cherry blossoms too but the Japanese celebrate their arrival by having festivals, altering the interiors of their homes, wearing special clothes and preparing special meals.

I want to shatter the four main misconceptions that Indians have of Japan, so that others can enjoy this country as much as I did.

Vegetarians will starve?

The Japanese do eat more fish per head than any other nation and, yes, some Japanese think that ham is a vegetable. But my vegetarian friends ate well too. The Japanese eat lots of vegetables and prepare them in many delicious ways. There is a wide range of vegetarian dishes not only in restaurants and cafes but even on the street, railway platforms, bus stations, and in every convenience store. The 7/11 stores offer rice balls and vegetarian sushi made with tofu skin.

During a full tempura meal at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo, the chef produced a sumptuous meal using a variety of vegetables served with different condiments and sauces. In Kyoto, we were treated to dishes made with exotic flowers and leaves that grow on the hills nearby.

The egg-eaters had rice omelettes — seasoned rice topped with an omelette. We enjoyed tofu served in myriad ways. There were soups and great steaming hot pots. I am no fan of radish but the chef at the Ryokan Ugenta in Kibune, Kyoto, served me superb, subtly flavoured radish steak with the most amazing texture.

Just one word of caution: carry a phrase book, so that you can tell people you are vegetarian and specify, when ordering soups or noodles, that the stock must not be made with fish stock.

No one speaks English?

It's true that the Japanese need to train more people to handle tourists, but in many hotels and restaurants the staff speak English. There are English signs in most places, certainly on trains, buses, the metro and airports.

Announcements are made in English on trains and buses. Even the tiny cable car that I took to Mount Koyasan had recorded announcements in English. Even if there is a difficulty, the Japanese are incredibly polite and helpful, and will do whatever it takes to help you. By the way, it was delightful to watch a gaggle of girls dissolve into helpless giggling when asked for directions in English!

It is hideously expensive?

Japan might have been expensive some years ago but it isn't any more. I found food and transport cheaper than in the UK and either comparable with prices in Europe or less expensive.

A coffee is about ¥400, that's about Rs 215. While you are on the move, it's possible to get inexpensive and healthy snacks from convenience stores and food counters.

Nor do you have to pay the overheads of a café or restaurant to have tea or coffee. You can buy them from the fabulous vending machines that supply every imaginable beverage, including a collagen drink that's good for the skin.

A 15-minute taxi ride in Tokyo is about Rs 800. A cab in London will cost double that. Accommodation ranges from capsule hotels (about Rs 2,500) to pricier ones that charge about Rs 20, 000 per night.

The Japanese are reserved and aloof?

I had always thought you could not beat Indians for hospitality but, believe me, the Japanese are close. I was swept away by their warmth, sincerity and friendliness at every turn. Their smiles were not plastic or over-practised..

The International House of Japan hotel in Tokyo packed my friend's breakfast because she couldn't arrive at the restaurant in time, without her even asking for it. My hotel was a no-room-service establishment but when I requested for coffee, no one refused me.

Go to Japan to enjoy an intoxicating blend of the old and new, of ancient Buddhist and Shinto customs juxtaposed with every modern convenience that anyone could possibly want. More than anything else, go for the people and their exquisite refinement.

Published on September 08, 2011

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