Monday, December 04, 2006

Japan: A summary

Everything happened in less than a weeks time!
There I was trying to get a GMIX in South Africa in a game reserve. That ofcourse would have been phenomenal if I had secured it, but then, what I managed to get turned out to be no less exciting either!
An internship with Sony Corp.'s PSBG group in Japan.
Reached Japan’s Narita airport in the evening. As fate would have it, my plane landing timed exactly with a minor earthquake 4 to 5 Richter. Talk about shaky starts! Great people start with a bang, I started with a shudder..close enough!
I was very excited about the prospect of working in Japan, but the earthquake (contrary to expectations) triggered a greater sense of excitement and anticipation over the adventure that lay ahead. Adventure in a new country, different from any other I had been to before; with new people, speaking a different tongue, different from any I had seen before.
I was in Tokyo at last..but ahead of me lay the arduous task of reaching my destination, Hotel Princess Garden in Meguro. With two massive pieces of luggage there was no way I could follow the instructions given to me – change two trains to get to Meguro and walk to the Hotel ‘just outside’ the station.
Thankfully for me, and for a reason (taxis being unreasonably expensive), I discovered that Tokyo airports have a luggage delivery system where for $20 to $50 depending on your destination the luggage will reach your apartment the next day. In comparison Taxi would have cost $250 to $400!Thus started my Tokyo experience. My first impressions of Japan were – very clean, highly efficient, diligent, vibrant, colourful, small and neatly packaged – from people to food to houses. Everything I saw and experienced going forward went to strengthen these first impressions.
The hotel room..simple, sparse, efficient, with every amenity needed..including slippers, bathrobe, toothbrush, paste and even disposable razors. The highlight though was the toilet. Yes..the toilet! My first experience of an electronic toilet. The toilet had an electric panel with a heater to heat the seat, a deodorizer and of course button-press-flush....but the highlight though was a water jet/spray to actually wash the user’s 'undersides' (or whatever you want to call it)..The facility has two options - jet and spray - to clean the respective part of your undersides depending on what you used the toilet for. Cant get myself to be more elaborate than this..I apologize.That toilet panel made me realize I had arrived at the gadget capital of the world - Tokyo! My weekend visit to Akihabara, the Electronics mecca, confirmed the same.
Akihabara is this crazy place full of all sorts of gidgets and gadgets (Hmm..these words remind me of our strategy exams last quarter). A gadgetiers paradise, this place filled with shops of all conceivable sizes and layouts each displaying entire walls lined with myriad variety of plug points, hundreds of portable hard-disks, all sorts of digital cameras, DVD players interspersed with Japanese kimono dolls, hundreds of little photo printers, thousands of watches, high-end laptops, MP3s players, flexible floppy keyboards, knockoff PDAs, infrared nightvision it and it was there! To me it was a super sophisticated, few hundred times scaled-up version of Bangalore’s local ‘National Market’. There was this one store called Yodobashi Akiba which is what I call ‘7 floors of electronic ecstacy’. The highlights of this store to me were the massage chairs on the 5th floor. For less than the cost of a Plasma flat screen television these massage chairs are the closest to human-massages (for lack of a better word) I have ever found to date. They immediately went to the top of my purchase list after that first pay check out of school. J

No, I did not spend every day of my 4 weeks in Akihabara’s massage chairs. Though I was highly tempted to do so, the non-electronic world of Japan lured me away. A sharp contrast to the craziness of Akihabara was the tranquility of Kyoto’s shrines. And a sharp contrast to the neon signs and vibrant colors of Tokyo was the natural splendor of the sunrise on Mt. Fuji.

Kyoto, is the ancient capital of Japan. My image of the place was an old-fashioned, traditional, narrow, crowded town. I guess the theme of my trip was ‘surprises’ (pleasant ones) and Kyoto did not fail the theme. Kyoto turned out to be a big, sprawling city, roads wider than those in Tokyo, modern in every aspect, yet with a magical tranquility attributed probably to the lovely shrines. Kyoto boasts of some of the best Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and Zen gardens in the world.
The beautiful Kinkaku-ji, the golden pavilion; the simple yet impressive Nijo Castle; the amazingly tranquil Ryoan-ji temple, famous for its zen garden known to be the quintessence of Zen art, with its simple but profound 4 letter inscription that translated to “I learn only to be contented”; the Ginkakuji, the silver pavilion, with its zen garden and beautiful moss gardens; the colorful and vibrant Gion (where we caught a brief glimpse of a lovely Geisha scurrying through the Yasaka shrine); The Yasaka shrine with its impressive display of lanterns – were a few of the highlights of Kyoto. The tall Kyoto Tower overlooking the urban sprawl and the ultra-modern glass and steel Kyoto Station brought us back to the modernity of the 21st century on our return journey.
The next highlight of my stay in Japan was the Mt. Fuji trek. Towering at 3776 metres above sea level, a perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone, Mt.Fuji is a near mythical national symbol immortalized in countless works of Japanese art. It had been my long time desire to climb Mt. Fuji and I achieved it over the summer. The climb was by far one of the most challenging I have ever been on so far, thanks to the continuously uphill 8 hour climb (shorter for the ‘fit’). The Kawaguchiko trail, the most popular trail to the top, is lined with ‘stations’ where trekkers can break their climb for a few hours of rest over night (half the night) and resume climbing early in the morning around 2am to reach the summit before sunrise, ‘go-raiko’. The climb was close to torturous at points. As I climbed, the clouds blocked my view as I was pretty much walking through clouds. Visibility at times was about 10 to 20 feet in all directions. At one point, all of a sudden the cloud moved (or maybe I moved out of it) and the view it offered was just amazing! Golden light from the setting sun illuminated the endless expanse of snowwhite clouds..the blackish brown bare mountain sloping down into the clouds..patches of bright green standing out on the black volcanic slope..people climbing up silhoutted against the blue sky with the clouds beneath them seemed like they were walking on a bed of clouds. Many times I felt I could take a running leap into the fluffy snowy bed and bounce around happily on it J
The sunrise at the peak was the next highlight of the climb. Hundreds of people milled the peak trying to find cozy spots to protect against the biting cold, waiting for the Sun God to rise from his slumber. When he did come what a glorious entrance he made on his golden chariot drawn by twelve white horses, each one distinctly silhouetted against the golden glow of the morning sky. What a sight!! Well, everything true here, except the horses ;)
It was divine indeed. I bowed to the glory of nature. I felt humbled, felt insignificant, a non-entity in front of the powerful force called nature, called God, called by any name you want, the effect was the same.
From the magnificent Buddha temple in Nara to the volcanic hot springs of Hakone; from the tame deer eating out of your hands in the gardens of Nara to the crazy rush in the subway stations of Tokyo; from the tranquil shrines of Kyoto to the color and frenzy of the teenage haunt Shibuya, Japan is a land of amazing contrasts; a country where modernity wedded to ancient culture, live in perfect harmony, each enriching the other; a perfect amalgamation of the old and the new; a nation that retains the richness of centuries of history while continuing to make tremendous progress as a modern civilization of the 21st century.