Monday, March 24, 2008

Mr. Kurauchi at Shimo-Kitazawa

Mr. Takashi Kurauchi is an international expert on Hydrology. I had known this quiet, thoughtful gentleman during his tenure in India and was eager to meet him in Japan. Luckily, he had just returned from Cambodia a couple of days earlier.

We met at Shinjiku Myands Tower – he looked much the same. While walking with him in the cold drizzle towards the subway, I never thought it would lead to an evening of wonderful new perspectives.

We took the Chuo line from Shinjiku to Shimokitazawa, a suburb that reminded me of the wada's of Pune: Narrow lanes, tiny shops, small theaters and a wide-wide range or eateries. We walked up and down these lanes, crossed the railway line a couple of times and then settled down in a quaint Okinawan eatery called Panariba.

Okinawan cuisine is quite different from the regular Japanese food. It lays greater emphasis on meat (not fish), spices and an amazing variety of 'sea-vegetables'. We started with Goya-chan-pure, a combination of bitter gourd (not at all bitter), tofu, Yamagurage, Umi-budou (sea grapes), along with the first glass of Awamori on-the-rocks. Awamori is a distilled rice-alcohol from Okinawa. At 60+ proof and a hint of sweetness it certainly one of the finest drinks I had ever tasted!

As the drinks settled in, I was introduced to Tofu-you, a specially fermented cube of tofu with a nice peanut-buttery flavor, and then Goya-totsu and Hirayachi (a pancake).

Along the way I learn't more about Mr. Kurauchi and of the Japan he helped build as a "baby boomer". When he moved to Tokyo 35 years ago to study at the famous ToDai (University of Tokyo), it was in Shimo-Kitazawa that he took up a rented room. It was quite a different place then. Everybody in the neighborhood was middle-class; all worked hard to make ends meet. He had supplemented his income by selling kai (shellfish) on the streets. When student protests led to a closure of the university, Mr. Kurauchi had worked as a laborer at the Osaka Expo (1970), helping build the Soviet pavilion there.

Growing up in an era of turmoil and tough discipline had its uses - it instilled a work ethic that became the hallmark of everything Japanese – respect for monodzukuri (manufacturing) skills, manual work and technical savvy. From the simplest things –drawers, hinges and water-taps to the most complex systems like the bullet trains, everything works perfectly - just the way they ought to.

Manufacturing accounts for 93% of Japan’s exports and 22.5% of Japan’s real GDP. But will this ? Mr. Kurauchi is not so sure… the younger generation has a different approach to life. Monodzukuri is not as valued in today's world of instant gratification and financial jugglery. The link between hard work and success has weakened.

After dinner, we went to an amazing place called Masako Jazz Cafe. It was established in 1953 and according to Mr. Kurauchi, it looked much the same during his college days. Cozy wooden interiors, low chairs and tables bathed in a gentle light; flowers, mementos and paintings of Jazz legends on the walls, and an absolutely perfect hi-fi system playing soul - Nina Simone & Piano. We sat around for a while, sipping coffee, lost in the music.

When the songs paused, I opened my eyes to see a small notice stuck on the wall.
It simply said, "Honored guests staying on for more than two hours are requested to order additionally" - after all, business is business!

Mr. Kurauchi saw me off at Shinjiku station after handing me a packet full of gifts. As I walked towards platform No.7 for the Chuo line, I was convinced that this one evening had taught me more about the spirit & substance of Japan than anything ever before...

Friday, March 14, 2008

Osaka: Cracking the Subway System

It is bewildering at first – the numerous exits, the route maps, ticket vending machines, turnstiles and the platforms. But with some help from maps & strangers it’s great way to see the city.

Japan Railways (JR) operates the core “Osaka Loop”, a bisecting Chuo Line, as well as links to other cities in the Kansai area (Kobe, Kyoto, Nara, etc.). Apart from the JR lines, the city has eight private lines crisscrossing the city, a monorail network and some new tram lines.

The private lines seem swankier, more packed with advts., and more expensive than the JR lines. The elevated Monorail lines are perhaps the most expensive option short of hiring cabs.

At any large junction, there are three hurdles for the uninitiated – (a) locating your destination on the map for the exact fare and the color code, (b) finding the right set of ticket vending machines and (c) the right platform.

Thankfully, there are plenty of signage’s and friendly assistance is just a request away - from either co-passengers or from the ubiquitous, smartly uniformed railway personnel. It is easiest for find the railway guys near the turnstiles.

So, if you were to cut across the city to travel from, say, Ibaraki to the Kaiyukan (aquarium), you would first get to the Loop (Osaka-Umeda), travel the Loop to Bentencho; change here to the green Chuo Line for Osakako. Three different networks - but the whole system is so efficient, it would take you less than 30 mts to cover this distance (assuming, of course, that you don’t waste time gaping at maps and searching for the right platforms like I did!).

Some ticket vending machines accept only IC-chip cards (Pasmo / Suica) and none of them take denominations less than Y10 or more than Y1000. Most have touch screens that come alive after the fist coin is dropped in; a few are button operated. Even after using it hundreds of times, I was still surprised by the alacrity with which they grab your notes and cough out loose change, along with the tickets and pre-recorded messages of sincere gratitude.

If you’re in a big hurry and don’t have the time to buy the correct fare, you could just buy the base-fare (Yen 130-160) and at the destination, go to the “Fare Adjustment Machines” located before the exit turnstiles. These networked machines will take your ticket and tell you how much more you need to pay. If you have a higher value ticket, it will return the extra fare.

Osaka metro system may seem complicated but you realize later that it’s a lot simpler than Tokyo where all the lines deliberately avoid the central Imperial Palace & Gardens, resulting in a much more complex system.

I started out with the monorail (aka Skyrail) line from Handai-Byouin-Mae to Kadoma-shi, under the able guidance of Rina Saito. We traveled this private line, changed to the JR line for going to a Healthcare centre in Miyagawa-shi on the outskirts of Osaka. After one such trip, you can be on your own.

At the end of the day’s exploring, there is nothing more reassuring to lost foreigners than the sight of the Japanese themselves peering at a subway maps to get their bearings right!

End Notes:

Escalator Etiquette – People in a hurry like to run up or down escalators. To facilitate this, people of Osaka stand to the left side of escalators and, in Tokyo, everybody stands on the right side. Wonder why...

Yubi-sashi-kakunin - “finger-pointing-confirmation”: Every subway train has at least three uniformed employees on board – two in the driver’s cabin and one in the tail end guard cabin. At regular intervals you see them raise their gloved hand to point their index fingers upwards. At the stations, the guard steps out and does the same thing - drawing an imaginary line along the length of the train.
I was told later that this ritual was a visual confirmation for the benefit of the observation cameras. It tells the control centre, “I’ve noted the signal at this point”, or “The platform is clear for departure”.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


It was a hurried visit – I had rushed from OSIC to Ibaraki, and Osaka to Tsuruhashi, from where I changed from the Loop-line to Kintetsu Line to Nara. It was a lovely ride. The train at first sped past the suburbs until it reached the surrounding hills. From here, as the gradient increased the train slowed down and paused to reveal a Osaka city lighting up for the evening. Across the hills it was a plateau all the way to Nara.

Nara seemed to be everything that Osaka wasn’t. It was a beautiful little town nestling amidst ancient pine forests and cedar groves. There were fewer people here and nobody seemed to be in a tearing hurry. After all, how fast can you go when you're surrounded by a world heritage site?

It felt good to feel the gravel under your feet, in an area that is often described as the fountainhead of Japanese art & architecture.

I walked into what looked like a forest and found myself standing in a large open space dominated by a 50m high, five-storied pagoda. This was Goju-no-to built in 725AD by the Empress Komyoh, and last restored in 1426. This lovely wooden structure housed four Buddha tirads around the central pillar Yakushi (Healing Buddha) eastwards; Shaka (Historical Buddha) facing south; Amida (Buddha of the Western Paradise and Infinite Life) westwards; and Miroku (Buddha of the Future) to the north. The curving, layered roofs, this pagoda looked like a flock of giant birds poised to fly away beyond the sunset in the surrounding hills.

The important structure in the area was not the towering pagoda but the more modest Kofuku-ji shrine revered by the Hosso (“mind only”) sect of Buddhism. One of the shrines here was dedicated to Binzuru, aka Pindola Bharadwaja, one of the 16 disciples of Buddha who had excelled in occult powers.

A flight of steps from Kofuku-ji takes you to a neat little pond. As you walk along the wooden houses that line the streets, you see get a feeling that you’re being watched. You look carefully into the woods and realize that there are deer everywhere! They roam freely in the forest-town, hanging about ancient shrines, vending machines and food stalls. Notice boards warn visitors and children to be careful.

The Nara museum is located within the forest area. Actually there are two buildings – an old European style one and another larger one of “modern” Japanese design. Both seemed puny – even pathetic – compared to the magnificent Todaiji Temple nearby.

Todaiji Temple is said to be largest wooden building in the world. The 15m high bronze Buddha statue inside is believed to have been consecrated by an Indian priest, Bodhisena, in 752 AD. Over the millennium this place has seen umpteen earthquakes, wars, political upheavals , and yet, after each disruption, the temple has been restored time and again.

Nara with its perfectly preserved temples and long geometric walkways, gates held up by massive wooden pillars and giant statues; herds of deer treading softly on the snow; the large paper lanterns; the silence and the cold pine-scented makes you wonder at the effort that has gone into creating all this .

It is also strange feeling for an Indian visiting Nara. To stand on a volcanic island thousands of miles away from home, reading of names of people who came here from India 1246 years ago; people whose thoughts and ideas hold little meaning or inspiration in their own birthplace.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Japan in Winter: Impressions That Linger

It has been a hectic trip to Japan. Nearly two weeks of traveling in Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Kyoto and Tokyo.

Seeing Nihon at the fag end of winter was an interesting experience - clear blue skies interrupted by gloomy days of cold rain, wind and snow; that overwhelming sense of order, neatness and precision; the pleasant surprise at being welcomed with warmth & affection by old friends and colleagues.

Here is a collection of images and impressions that linger -


I woke up at 2:30AM (IST) to see streak of pink in the sky. Flight JL-471 was preparing to land at Narita and the aircraft was gradually moving away from coastline towards the sea, to enter the funnel. Just above the grey clouds scattered below, a little pink, solitary peak came into view - Mt. Fuji. At first it seemed like just another feature against the misty coastline and the dark, endless mass of the Pacific Ocean. But as we got closer and closer, I began to understand why this dormant volcano is so dear to the Japanese.

The difference is clearly in the setting. Mr. Fuji is puny compared to the Himalayan peaks - At 3776m it is less than half the height of K2 or Mt. Everest. But the point is - you may escape notice when you you're a giant among giants but here, when gentle slopes rise from the coastline to form a perfectly conical snow peak dominating an entire island, -you certainly have a sight to behold!


It is bewildering at first – the numerous private lines, confusing exits, the route maps, ticket vending machines, turnstiles and the surge of people on the platforms. But with some help from maps and strangers the subway is a great way to see the city.

More here on the Osaka subway system.


This ancient city of Nara was a huge surprise. In a country dominated by mega cities, concrete, asphalt and glass, it was a astounding to find an oasis of wide spaces, forests, free-roaming deer, cool, pine-scented breeze and silence.

I had never seen an old city so well preserved. Nor had I known about an Indian teacher who was invited here 1256 years ago.

More here on the visit to Nara.


In my mind, Kobe was the city of the 1995 earthquake – an image dominated by toppled flyovers and people huddling in shelters. Now I know that Kobe is actually Sannomiya – a small lesson that cost me Yen 160.

I took a ticket from Ibaraki to Kobe to find a station that blending into large malls. The city centre was actually two stops behind at Sannomiya. It was like stepping into an AutoCAD scenario - the streets were picture perfect - all the way from the station to the piers; the sidewalks had been clad in a beautiful combination of tiles interspersed with sculptures and cherry trees. Even the manhole-covers had been designed so lovingly!


During WW-2 two Japanese cities had been spared of Allied bombing – Nara and Kyoto. Having seen Nara, I had expected Kyoto to be a perfect blend of the ancient and the modern. Not quite – the city just looked like a sprawling district of Tokyo with a few old temples and buildings tucked away amidst the urban sprawl.

It was interesting to see the shrines - Kinkakuji, Horyoji and Ginkakuji; to experience the single-compartment Randen trains on the outskirts of Arashiyama, and to contrast it to the latest N-700 Bullet trains later in the evening; to ride the city buses to Nijo palace to see the magnificent (and symbolic) screen paintings in its inner chambers… but what lingers in my mind in the sight of an old, destitute Japanese woman, sleeping on the streets wrapped in a dirty, discarded blanket.


At Osaka station, I had booked a window seat on the latest N-700 Shinkansen expecting a superlative ride to Tokyo. I was not all disappointed.

At Kyoto station the regular trains are at one level and the bullet trains are serviced from exclusive platforms at a higher level. You cross the turnstiles to see a platform with none of the rush and bustle down below. My train arrived exactly on schedule at 16:55 took in passengers from its small aircraft-like doors and was streaking off the platform at 16:56, accelerating to 100kmph in 36 seconds flat. Soon after exiting the city limits the train was approaching top-speed of 300kmph, and inside the pressurized cabins, you could literally hear a pin drop – not a shudder or shake, just that feeling of being hurtled at high speeds with the scenery rushing past in a blur. Amazing.

What is interesting is that unlike the French TGV, the Shinkansen’s don’t touch top-speeds to occasionally impress the record keepers. Ever since they were launched last year, the N-700s travel at these speeds on a daily basis, ferrying commuters all across Japan, and covering distances of about 500km (same as Mumbai-Ahmedabad) in just about two hours.


Mr. Takashi Kurauchi is an international expert on Hydrology. I had known this quiet, gentle person during his tenure in India and was eager to meet him in Japan. Luckily, he had just returned from Cambodia a couple of days earlier.

While walking with him to the subway in the cold drizzle, I never thought it would lead to an evening of wonderful new perspectives.


Life in Japan seems to revolve around a standard set of phrases for each and every social interaction. Phrases that go beyond the usual polite greetings.

In shops everywhere, there are SoPs for all cash transactions. Whether you are in a tiny shop in Arashiyama (outskirts of Kyoto), a railway kiosk or a swanky departmental store in downtown Shinjiku, Tokyo, the same procedure is followed. The cashier welcomes you with an "Irasshyaimase!" and thanks you for the honor of serving you; you place your coins / notes on a small plastic tray; the cashier picks the notes and announces the denominations and total amount; and while giving you’re the receipt, the cashier again announces the change she is handing back to you. No scope for confusion!

Even machines are 'trained' to thank you for everything - ticket vending machines, PA systems, escalators, doors, zebra-crossings and turnstiles.