Travel Notes


Savouring Urban Peace in Japan

Urban peace may sound like an oxymoronic prospect to many of us who have habits of jostling with the crowds and multi-tasking wherever we are – be it in the office, be it on the metro lines or be it in a cafe. There is always a perpetual presence of noise which characterises our cities and the vicinities of our workplaces. It could be people talking, arguing or shouting when at the edge of their patience levels. It could also be our inner thoughts resonating with high stress and panic levels effected by work pressure and occasional family problems. This is the time we search for escapes. A time out of the city during weekends to a hill station or to a beachside.

The Senso-Ji temple compound.

In Japan, I didn’t feel a necessity to escape though I was not there for any work. There was an absence of that noise that I mentioned before. It was not indicative of any lack of activity or laidback atmosphere. Work progressed with minimum talk and optimum use of dexterity and thought. I was given a prelude to smooth way of doing things in the country just after landing. The lady inside the Money Changer smiled at me through the glass and accepted the dollar notes I placed on a tray and just said, ‘So, 600 US dollars’ after quickly finger-counting and machine-counting the notes. She then pointed to the exchange rates displayed on the electronic board without opening her mouth. By the time I moved my eyes away from the board the Japanese Yen and the receipt were on the tray with the lady ready for a Thank You smile. Also a perfect example of why you don’t need to worry about standing in queues for long in Japan.

Down at the subway in Tokyo the only thing which made noise (or roared) was the train, if you could make exemptions of the informative announcements. The yellow lines ruled here over the waiting commuters who were mostly on their smartphones or immersed in books. Once inside the train, the quiet will take you by surprise, especially if you are used to travelling in overcrowded trains and buses somewhere else in Asia. Two rows of people facing each other, their hands holding smartphones in such manner as to make them look like mobile computers, all engaged in their own worlds. The occasional talk only reveals their lips moving against each other and you hear something spoken only when you sit close to a local. Does an adverse practice in the form of a chatter or a loud laughter produce frowning faces as the guidebooks tell you? I found the Japanese capable of quickly maximising their level of understanding to deal with the situation without creating a hullabaloo. Keizan, my 3 year-old son threw in a bit of tantrums at times and both Lina, my wife and I kept engaging him with video songs and some audible sweet talk. There were a few glances but everyone was back to their own businesses in countable seconds. The peak times brought in a standing crowd, hands holding on to the hanging holders and still meeting the Japanese train etiquettes that you were reminded about before your trip. However, let me tell you, in Japan silence is contagious. You are in the subway or in a restaurant, the pervading silence around you will act as a guru who will restrain you from going against the flow.

From the ‘Crossing Viewpoint’, Magnet 109
Crowds flow, but everyone has enough space.

At the famed Shibuya Crossing (or Shibuya Scramble) I was expecting my first challenge in the country. I was probably getting ready for a mish-mash with the crowd and was even worried about breaking some local rules in the ‘scramble’. When I reached the intersection, where as many as five zebra lines criss-cross within a radius of aroud 100 metres, I paused, then studied the situation. While taking some snaps, I noticed teenagers and tourists moving along the lines, taking selfies, videos, turning back and doing another round of selfies, then walking backwards and probably going live on FB or IG. I noticed no obstructions to any pedestrian and even if there were a few near stumblings, people were fully conscious of the fun-seekers’ intentions. It looked like the zebra lines had space for everyone out there. In those crossing seconds, the lines turned a globe of communities where each citizen and each foreigner had their acre of land. It was a series silent movements. The crossings did not result in chaos and that is why the locals and the tourists like to cross here again and again. You wouldn’t do this in your hometown.

Waking up one early morning in my hotel room in Kyoto, I gazed at the pointy edge of the roof of one of the Buddhist temples in the distance. I sipped my coffee fast, put on my clothes and strode out under a greyish sky. I walked about ten to fifteen minutes, past the Kyoto railway station. Higashi Hoganji Temple was open as early as 6 am and I entered the main hall. I spotted no one except a security officer sitting enclosed in a cubicle, hardly making his monitoring presence felt. The symmetrically hanging lanterns, the golden Buddha idols in the sanctum sanctorum and the embellishments on the ceilings whispered a hundred ideas of peace into the ears. Here I was in a centuries-old worshipping place where equanimity reigns every moment, that too in the midst of a city. A few other tourists followed me. The place now got occupied, yet was free from all the hustle and bustle. Free from noise.

The roof of the main gate to Higashi Hoganji temple with the Kyoto Tower in the background. Tradition and Modernity.

I stepped out of the temple. What is it that perched on the outer wall of the temple next to which buses and automobiles whizz past and where pedestrians walk up and down getting to the metros? A Grey Heron enjoying its rest, hardly affected by the heavy human presence around it. I have trekked a lot inside the mangroves in tropical countries where herons take to their wings and vanish at a single noise made from a mile away. And here is one, posing in front of me, indicating all’s well with the world.

Heron in the city

The onsen was as sacred as a shrine. The bathers in my hotel got into the hot, bubbly jacuzzy gently, without letting the water gurgle much. The steam rose into the air like mist over a secluded mountain. In an adjacent room, some of them bathed in individual showers, sitting on a plastic stool, with a vanity mirror in front of them. Each had his quarter (supplied with soap, shampoo and other toiletries), separated by side walls like in an internet cafe. I was worried if I would be able to bathe like this. Watching them gave me confidence. No one obstructed the other’s bath, no water was splashed or sprinkled out of one’s own ‘bathroom’.

The Nakamise Street during day time. Busy yet enjoyable.