Overcast, grey skies and biting winds herald my arrival into Tokyo’s Narita Airport. Half an hour later, we’re in Tokyo’s historic core, driving past the Imperial Palace — seat of the sixteenth-century Tokugawa shogunate and home to the emperor to this day. A swirling mass of people crosses the road ahead of us, huddled under clear plastic umbrellas. Clearly, a little November rain does nothing to deter the twelve million people who throng the streets of this magnificent city each day.
Kiyoko, our diminutive guide and translator, flashes us a smile, “We cannot walk in the Imperial Palace Garden because of the rain, so I’m taking you to Akihabara, ok?” The heart of Tokyo’s electronics and computer industries and the mecca of Japanese manga merchandising, Akihabara looms raucous and glittering. Flashing neon signs plaster its high-rises from earth to sky. We step into the rain, buy a plastic umbrella and race to the nearest store. The shelves are stacked with miniature collectibles: there are cellphone charms, lucky kitties, Moshi Monsters, Pokémons, kokeshi dolls and smiley Doraemons. Incidentally, the Japanese take their manga and anime very seriously — Doraemon was named the country’s first anime ambassador in 2008. Up one floor, the shelves groan with the latest Gundam giant robot models. A group of teens hover over them, ears plugged with iPod headphones. We visit a gaming arcade, where row upon row of machines keep the regulars riveted. The ambient noise is so loud that I’m forced to shout in order to be heard. “Could you teach me to play?” I bellow to a friendly group of high-schoolers. Half an hour later, I’m 400 yen lighter and Kiyoko points out that I have no hope of winning as I’m not playing against a machine, but in fact, against two live players who are at a console somewhere in Tokyo.
Reeling from the sensory onslaught, I sink gratefully into the padded softness of our bus. Our next stop is the Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s most sacred shrine. Dedicated to Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy), Sensoji’s main buildings were destroyed in World War II and rebuilt after the war. The two-storeyed Hozomon Gate leads to Nakamise-dori, a pedestrianised street lined with shops selling dolls, kimonos and all manner of wagashi — delicate Japanese confectionary. We reach the exquisite main hall, its red sloping roof adorned with paintings of heavenly beings holding lotus flowers. I watch families wash their hands under streams of water flowing from dragonhead spouts, waving smoke over their heads from the ceremonial incense burner. Spying a fortune-telling stand, I pull out a divination stick with numbers etched down its side. Locating the drawer marked with the corresponding number, I pull out a sheet of paper and read: ‘No. 78 the highest, excellent fortune, you will get abundant happiness in the future…..’ My morale thus boosted, I wander through the temple’s Niten-mon Gate and find happiness in a quaint Japanese bakery serving hot chocolate and fresh bread, still warm from the oven.
As we drive past the redbrick Tokyo station, the sky clears. We disembark at the Imperial Palace East Garden, a green lung at the city’s heart. Visitors criss-cross the paved expanse that leads to the famous double-arched bridge, Nijubashi, while beyond, is the castle’s main keep. It’s a great place to people-watch. The palace guard asks me where I’m from. An elderly gentleman rests on a stone seat, cane by his side. He tips his hat at me, and smiles indicating that it’s okay to take his photograph. Two policemen on bicycles wait at a stoplight, their navy blue uniforms striking against the yellow foliage of a row of ginkgo trees. In Tokyo, don’t just visit the sights. Walk the streets. Sit on park benches. Ride the metro.
Miko whisks us away to the Tokyo Skytree. At 634 metres, it is the world’s tallest broadcasting tower. Our visit is frenzied. We’re herded into Japan’s fastest forty-passenger elevator that zooms upwards at an incredible 600 metres per minute. But the views from the deck, of riverboats plying up and down the Sumida river as it snakes through Tokyo’s concrete ocean, are well worth the trouble. Tumbling out into the open, we walk towards the Koomon, a private establishment in Asakusa where we are to participate in a tea ceremony.
The Koomon’s proprietor has been reviving Japan’s living heritage — flower arrangement (ikebana), calligraphy (shodo) and the Way of Tea (chaji) — for over thirty years. Perfected five hundred years ago by Murato Shuko, the tea ceremony incorporated Zen Buddhist elements such as harmony and purity, which aligned strongly with samurai ideals. The Way of Tea was thus born, a chance to ‘share special moments’ with friends. Clasping my ceramic cup, I pour in hot water from the kettle (kama) using the bamboo ladle (hishaku). Opening the tiny tea jar (natsume), I place a few spoonfuls of powdered green tea (matcha) and stir using a fine bamboo whisk (chasen). I imagine Japan under the shogunates — the height of courtly refinement and restraint. Turning the cup clockwise, I sip. It’s very bitter, perhaps an acquired taste. Nevertheless, when we leave, I feel uncharacteristically meditative.
Miko decides it’s time we head for dinner to Odaiba. A small island at the mouth of Tokyo Bay, Odaiba is known for its entertainment, shopping and fine dining. Looking across the bay at the twinkling lights of the ‘Rainbow’ suspension bridge, we eat navratan korma, murgh handi-se, mutton durbari, ma ki dal and mango lassi. For many Indian travellers, visiting Japan has one seemingly insurmountable hurdle — its food. They’ll be pleased to know that Tokyo has literally hundreds of Indian restaurants. For everyone else, this is paradise. Fresh sushi shops abound, from inexpensive places with ‘sushi-trains’ to fine-dining restaurants. We ate a delicious udon (wheat) noodle meal, topped with shrimp tempura and spicy shichimi powder at the Skytree food court, while the best soba (buckwheat) noodles I tasted was at Shinjuku Station. My pick, however, would be the tavern-like, lively izakaya (snack) establishments where I ate yakitori, charcoal-grilled chicken skewers served with heavenly dips and sauces, topped off with Asahi beer.
If you love the theatre, you can’t leave Tokyo without watching a Kabuki performance. Early next morning, we’re winging our way to the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre in Ginza. The 11am matinee, called Futatsu Chocho Kuruwa Nikki (The Diary of Two Butterflies), is four hours long and local patrons have come prepared with bento lunch boxes. Kabuki traces its beginnings to Kyoto in the seventeenth century. Flamboyant characters, stylised speech, elaborate makeup, exquisite kimonos, cables for flying and revolving doors make Kabuki plays a mesmerising spectacle. To my delight, I’m able to hire an earphone translation receiver and follow the action live.
I have one last wish in Tokyo — to pay my respects at the statue of Hachiko, the Akita dog who, in the 1920s, waited at Shibuya station for his dead master to return, every night for nine years. Just outside the Hachiko-guchi exit, I spot him, surrounded by people and cameras. Today, the loyal Hachiko is wearing a smart red sash, one ear up, the other down, sitting solemnly as he must have done in real life. Behind me, cars thunder across Shibuya’s famous six-way zebra crossing, whose traffic lights are all synchronised to turn red simultaneously. The cars halts and a sea of humanity criss-crosses the vast intersection from six different directions at once.
Later that evening, we take the bullet train (Shinkansen) to our next destination, the port city of Yokohama, thirty kilometres south. We visit Yokohama’s wharf, where the scenic Yamashita park stands on land reclaimed using debris from the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Pretty flower gardens line the waterfront promenade, where Yokohama’s beautiful people come out to play. A couple of old men are absorbed with ink and canvas; a lady walks her poodle, mistress and pooch dressed stylishly in matching winter coats; I spy a zero-emissions Cyclopolitain or electric tricycle cab that runs on manpower assisted by an electric motor.
A small fishing village until it opened up for trade in the mid-nineteenth century, Yokohama today is Japan’s second-largest city. We climb on board the Sea Bass for a ferry ride around the harbour. I spy an offshore wind turbine, a police speedboat jets ahead of us and the Japan coastguard out on patrol. We dock near a handsome nineteenth-century red brick warehouse from the Meiji period. This is Minato Mirai 21, an area of redeveloped docks and modern skyscrapers in glass and chrome. We stroll past Wan Wan House (wan translates as woof or bark), a dog-grooming parlour where an unfortunate animal is getting a cut and dry. Nearby is the surprisingly popular CupNoodles Museum, where you can learn all about the inventor of the world’s first instant ramen, Momofuku Ando, and even invent your own ramen flavour in a cup.
On our last morning in Yokohama, we visit the city’s highlight — the lovely Sankeien Garden, created in 1902 by the silk trader, Sankei Hara. This is the final resting place of seventeen historic teahouses and pagodas, brought from as far away as Kyoto and Kamakura. Winding paths lead past ginkgo trees, wisteria trellises and wild blooming chrysanthemums, and I realise that Japan in the fall is a blaze of burnished rust and orange and canary yellow. We pass the Choshukaku building, whose name aptly translates as ‘listen to autumn’. Arched bridges span lily ponds, a rowboat lies moored and ducks glide on mirrored waters. We climb up to a three-storeyed pagoda and in the distance see the unmistakable conical peak of Mt Fuji, framed by the funnels of a thermal power plant. Lunch is in Yokohama’s Chinatown, the largest Chinese settlement in all of Japan, then it’s time to board a flight to our final destination, the island of Okinawa.
The southernmost landmass belonging to Japan, the Okinawa archipelago comprises sixty-five subtropical islands sandwiched between the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. At its southern tip lies tiny Yonaguni, which is so close to Taiwan (barely 125 kilometres) that it catches Taiwanese television broadcasts. The largest island, Okinawa, was a vassal of the Chinese, who named it Liu-chiu (Ryukyu in Japanese) from where the ruling Ryukyu dynasty took its name. Thus, Okinawans are culturally and ethnically more similar to China than they are to mainland Japan.
We touch down in the capital of Naha and meet Hiromi, our guide. A blast of warm, salty air reminds us that we’re in the tropics, far from chilly Tokyo. Ryukyu Mura, an Okinawan theme village, gives us our first taste of Ryukyu culture. We’re just in time for the parade, which is led by actors impersonating the king and queen. There are Eisa dancers, accompanied by Odaiko barrel drums, musicians playing the snakeskin-covered, banjo-like sanshin and an island version of the lion dance — part pantomime, part dance — where a jolly-faced lion trainer pretends to train his rather reluctant pet lion. “Okinawans are known for their longevity,” Hiromi informs us. Here, the average life expectancy for women is eighty-eight, while men live well into their nineties. We drive up Okinawa’s west coast. “The island’s north has beautiful marine reserves, where you might find the habu, our most venomous snake,” Hiromi tells us. Until the early twentieth century, Okinawa did not have snake anti-venom, so in 1910, a professor from Tokyo University helpfully sent across seventeen mongooses to counter the habu problem. What the professor didn’t know was that mongooses hunted by day, whereas the habu hunted by night, so the two never met. Meanwhile, the introduced mongooses have greatly endangered Okinawa’s indigenous flightless bird, the Okinawa rail.
We visit Shurijo Castle, the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429 and, more recently, the headquarters of the Japanese armed forces during World War II. The original fifteenth-century structures were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and have been carefully reconstructed using pictures and other references. Under the castle’s foundations lay a warren of tunnelled war rooms, from where the Japanese High Command planned its ferocious retaliation on American troops. Lasting eighty-two days, the Battle of Okinawa claimed the lives of 13,000 American soldiers and a staggering 2,50,000 Japanese troops and Okinawan civilians.
We stop at Cape Manza, where wooden walkways run along the edges of sheer cliffs, with dramatic views of the ocean. Hiromi hurries us along so that we won’t be late for our next appointment — lunch at the Busena Terrace Beach Resort’s terrace café. We eat an enormous and delectable meal: fresh greens with an Okinawa salt dressing, sticky rice with a pepper chicken curry, steamed Thai-style white fish, pork shabu-shabu (hotpot), prawn tempura, unagi (eel) and fig pound cake.
It’s early evening by the time we reach the coastal Ocean Expo Park, stomachs still full to bursting. We’re here to visit the Churaumi Aquarium, which has a dolphin show, resident whale sharks (that grow up to forty feet) and the world’s first manta ray pups born successfully in captivity.
As my plane charts its final course home, I remember that Okinawans believe happiness lies beyond the horizon. But I’m fairly certain that happiness exists in the jewel-like islands shimmering in the East China Sea.
All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines fly nonstop from Delhi to Tokyo for approx. Rs 48,000. Several other carriers fly to Tokyo from India’s major cities with one stop at Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore, Guangzhou, Beijing, Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
VFS Global processes all applications in New Delhi (vfsglobal.com/japan/india). A single-entry visitor visa costs Rs 470 with an extra service charge of Rs 405.
1 Japanese yen (JPY) = Rs 0.60
Tokyo The city has two subway systems — the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. Maps displaying both subway systems are available at most stations (download it from tokyometro.jp). Taxis are expensive. Get a common one-day ticket for Tokyo Metro & Toei Subway (JPY 1,000).
The high-speed bullet trains (Shinkansen) operated by Japan Railways serve Japan’s Honshu and Kyushu islands, and are the fastest way to get around.
Yokohama It’s well served by metro, bus and taxi. From Tokyo, buy a ticket to Yokohama’s Kannai, Ishikawa-cho or Sakuragi-cho stations. For visiting Minato Mirai and the sights around the harbour front, hire a tricycle cab or Cyclopolitain.
Okinawa Ferries connect many islands in the archipelago. Local buses are few and often slow, so it may be best to hire a car, scooter or bicycle to get around Naha and the rest of Okinawa.
Where to stay
Tokyo You’ll find the usual array of global luxury chains here. We stayed at the Keio Plaza Hotel (from JPY 16,000; keioplaza.co.jp), famous for being the city’s first skyscraper hotel. It is conveniently located near Shinjuku station. For something more traditional, try a ryokan (Japanese inn). Rooms typically sleep 1 to 6 people on futons rolled out on tatami mats; bathing is usually communal, however, rooms with private baths are also available. In Tokyo, try Ryokan Sawanoya (from JPY 9,450; sawanoya.com) or Sakura Ryokan (from JPY 9,000; sakura-ryokan.com).
Yokohama The Pan Pacific Yokohama Bay Hotel Tokyu in the Minato Mirai 21 district (from JPY 22,000; yokohamabay.tokyuhotels.com) offers great views of Yokohama’s harbour. Yokohama Yamashiroya Ryokan is a reasonable and conveniently located ryokan near Yamashita Park with 14 rooms (from JPY 10,500; +81-45-231 1146). The Yokohama Royal Park Hotel occupies the topmost floors of Japan’s tallest building, the Landmark Tower in the heart of Minato Mirai (from JPY 23,000; yrph.com).
Okinawa The Kariyushi Urban Resort Naha (from JPY 25,200; kariyushi.co.jp) is superbly located along the waterfront in Naha. The Busena Terrace Beach Resort on Okinawa’s west coast (from JPY 42,735; terrace.co.jp) offers a range of sailing cruises as well as snorkelling, diving and ‘seabed strolls’. Just 10 minutes from Naha’s main shopping street, the Okinawa Harborview Crowne Plaza has excellent service and the luxury you’d expect from the Crowne Plaza chain (from JPY 10,916; crowneplaza.com).
What to see & do
Tokyo A drive through Tokyo is a quick way to soak up its flavour. We drove past the Renaissance-style Tokyo Station and Tokyo Tower, which is beautifully lit at night. Stroll around the picturesque Imperial Palace East Gardens. Check out Tokyo’s computer gaming and electronics industries in Akihabara’s Electronics District. The Senso-ji temple is arguably Tokyo’s most spectacular temple. The colourful Tori no Ichi (rake festival; mid-Nov) at Otori Shrine allows you to mix with locals who line up to pray for good fortune. Theatre enthusiasts must catch a Kabuki performance at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre in Ginza (kabuki-bito.jp). The world’s tallest freestanding tower, the Tokyo Skytree, soars 634m and offers stunning views (entry fee from JPY 1,000). To participate in an authentic tea ceremony, visit the Koomon. The endearing statue of the loyal Hachiko stands right outside Shibuya station’s exit.
Yokohama The Minato Mirai 21 harbourfront is a great place to spend an evening. Also located here are the Red Brick Warehouse (Aka-Renga area) and the CupNoodles Museum (fee JPY 500; cupnoodles-museum.jp). Stroll down to Yamashita park where the Hikawa Maru ocean liner is anchored (fee JPY 200). A cruise aboard the Sea Bass is the best way to see Yokohama bay (fee JPY 700/580/340). Save time for Sankeien Garden (fee JPY 500).
Okinawa Ryukyu Mura, a traditional Ryuku village, has a great pantomime performance and parade (fee JPY 840). The Ocean Expo Park houses more than 2,000 orchids in its Tropical Dream Centre (fee JPY 670; oki-park.jp), while its Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium has a dolphin show (fee JPY 1,800; oki-churaumi.jp). A visit to Shurijo Castle shines a light on the Ryukyu kingdom’s seat of power (fee JPY 800). World War II buffs can visit the Imperial Navy Underground HQ (JPY 420) and the Peace Memorial Museum at the island’s southern tip (fee JPY 300).
Taxis to and from the Narita airport cost a whopping JPY 25,000, so it's best to take the airport limo bus (JPY 2,700–3,000/60–90 mins; limousinebus.co.jp), which stops at 40 of the city’s main hotels and also provides connections to Haneda airport. Another option is the JR Narita express train (JPY 2,940–3,110/60–90 mins; jreast.co.jp).