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Japan: land of rising sun

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Japan is more than technological advances and urban landscapes. Mummun Ghosh delves into the culture and sociology of this island country

Queued up at Shinjuku station on a Tuesday morning, waiting to board an underground metro to main Tokyo station, you grow apprehensive. The railway platform like the station overhead is as densely packed as Andheri station, albeit with a difference. The niftily dressed throng is poised in queues in front of gates that will open to allow passengers’ access to the metro train once it charges in. But still, there is no gender segregation, no ladies compartments to afford some comfort.

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Perhaps the train will be empty, you think. The metro rushes in, trampling over your expectations, every compartment packed to the gills. You press into the metro anxiously and find just about standing space before the train picks up speed. And then it hits you – the stunning silence of the passengers around you. No complaining, no bickering, no snarls or grunts, no bursts of anger or irritation, no talking, no groping – only quiet spatial adjustments between passengers, both male and female, and dignified acceptance of the situation.

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Kinkakuji

An announcement instructing people to put all mobiles on silent mode and to refrain from talking on mobiles is redundant, for the passengers, almost all Japanese, areas disciplined as humans can get, as I have gathered in my three days in Tokyo. The silence of the local continues into the bullet train that I board for Kyoto. The gentleman seated next to me in the train, opens his laptop and works; a few passengers tap on their mobiles. Exchanges between passengers are strictly in whispers. Consideration for others marks this country, I muse as the train whooshes through the picturesque landscape.

Not a house, a building, a road, a shop, a garage or any other aspect of urban living appears even a tad amiss, in need of any attention. Even the cycles parked outside some houses are arranged in rows and gleaming. Like every car and taxi in this country, sparklingly clean as if just smoothed out of showrooms. Japan has finish, I deduce. And not just objects and creations of human ingenuity, but even the people in their get-up at least, all kitted out in chic, warm clothing, in sync with the south-bent temperature and the chilly winds tearing through the country in this end-year season. A veritable eye-feast!

Kyoto is colder than Tokyo, my guide for the trip, Akash Sen Gupta, a doctorate student of JICA, primes me. And also prettier. Significantly lesser skyscrapers than in Tokyo, more two-storied individual houses, fewer private cars and more people, both young and old, pedalling vigorously along its glistening roads. As the city where the global protocol to reduce greenhouse emissions was framed in December 1997 (currently 192 countries are party to the protocol), Kyoto clearly wears its commitment to counter global warming on its sleeves.

The wind is punitive as we pace off from the station to the famous Inari temple (Inari – god of rice, the staple food of the Japanese), located at the foothills of a mountain, 233 metres above sea level. The hallmark of the shrine is its seemingly endless arcades of vermilion shrine gates that define a 4-km long path up the densely-forested mountain, punctuated by smaller shrines.

The shrine gates come as a colour shock – the first splash of bright, iridescent colouring I have seen in day-time Japan, which seems to eschew loudness even in its appearance – all constructions are painted in pastel shades of brown, grey, white, yellow ochre, and the like, same as the fur-collared jackets sported by the bulk of its female populace. Indeed, Japan by day in winter (at nights it is redeemed by zingy lights), could be depressing but for the glittery sun that generously lends the sparkle to every surface in Tokyo. Kyoto has less of its shine. Incidentally, the chief offering at shrines here is sake, the local drink. The shrines are stark by comparison to Indian temples with their rich sculptural layering, and indicate a lot about its people.

A country in magnificent order: The roads say it all.

A country in magnificent order: The roads say it all.

The next morning, as I am about to set off for Nara, it begins to snow. Snowflakes falling silently, as different from our hard-hitting, copious Mumbai rains, suits Japan with its abiding worship of silence and its people who are basically shy by nature. Not so the deer at the sprawling Nara Park though– they not only gorge on the deer crackers tourists offer them, but tend to cling and trail you stridently for more.

I make the mistake of unpeeling an orange seated on a bench– giving a rest to my tired limbs and soliciting some sunbeams on my heavily wrapped-up body– and I am attacked by a pair of deer for their share of the fruit. I have no option but to let them devour the orange. The cold will not allow us to laze at this park without boundaries, and we shuffle towards our next destination – the Golden Temple in Nara, Kinkakuji.

The temple’s main dome is laden in gold leaf and sparkles in front of a pond – Mirror Pond. Again, I am staggered by the lustre of the shrine as it stands out from its surround, habited by thick, brooding trees of dulled green shades. It is bitingly cold here. And I am happy when we finally duck into Nara station, warm as any other station, hotel, restaurant, or bus in Japan, all heated to maximum comfort.

And the best part is that the heaters work unfailingly, as do the coupon-vending machines, escalators in stations, flushes in all public toilets and all other amenities with minimal failure rate. Indeed that is the beauty of Japan. Everything works here, all the comforts and luxuries beaten out by modern technology, bespeaking excellent maintenance and by implication, a diligent populace.

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Like the Golden Temple shines out of the woods, the Great Buddha looms majestically against the blue sky in the seaside city Kamakura, the political centre of medieval Japan, my next stopover. Of 13.35 metres height, the bronze statue of the Buddha seated in meditation, impresses even more, shorn of the wooden temple that originally housed it by a mammoth tsunami in Kamakura in the late 15th century. When I spot many Japanese bowing reverentially before the Buddha, I understand where the Japanese yen for silence comes from. It seems as if the whole country is immersed in deep prayer.

While walking back from the temple to Hase station, we halt at a midget-sized café, drawn by its offer of Turkish food. The owner, a tall, ruddy-complexioned sprightly elderly man greets us excitedly when he learns we are from India. He introduces himself as Mohammed Rafi, a biologist from Morocco who was a teacher till age 65 and is currently running a café with his wife. “I love old Hindi films and their songs. We would all see Hindi and not Hollywood films in Morocco,” he gushes.

“I remember the movies Mother India, Madhumati, Naya Daur and their songs were so beautiful.” He also projects himself as a rigorous yoga practitioner and claims that has kept him fit and looking more youthful at seventy than his son. The interaction reinforces my view of yoga and music as India’s greatest contributions to the world.

On the last evening in Japan, I duly land in Akihabara, the chief shopping district in Tokyo, which is lit to the hilt, and pick up sundry souvenirs of Japan – fans, Buddha miniatures, Japanese paintings, hand mirrors, keychains, bags and the like with Japanese motifs.

The most famous and colourful gates of Japan: Inari temple in Kyoto

The most famous and colourful gates of Japan: Inari temple in Kyoto

However, there is no souvenir to match my real takeaway and that I consider is the jewel on the crown of Japan – the rigorous discipline of its people who naturally and silently fall into lines to access any facility, their high consideration for others, and respect for silence and cleanliness that has yielded a country in which I have not spotted a speck of garbage or dirt or heard a horn in my eight days of travel.

As our aircraft takes off the next morning from Tokyo, I catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, an active volcano and Japan’s tallest mountain, a scenic marvel that I had visited on my second day in Japan. Invested with religious symbolism, Mount Fuji is regarded by the Japanese people as their spiritual guardian, forever looking after them. I pray that Mount Fuji will continue to protect Japan.

And even as I bow in reverence to Japan, my heart leaps at the thought of India, forever exuberant, colourful, and chaotic, an emphatic celebration of life. Against Japan’s spellbinding simplicity, India’s complexity seems even more attractive.