Dinesh Raheja chases the cherry blossom in Japan and happily loses his heart
Our ANA flight lands at Tokyo’s Narita airport in the early hours of a crisp spring morning. I say arigatou (thank you) to the driver after alighting from the airport bus to downtown Tokyo, and am rewarded with a smile and a bow. Right outside our hotel is a cherry blossom (lovingly called sakura by the Japanese) tree in full extravagant bloom; and it’s a spellbinding sight – the profusion of delicate white flowers juxtaposed against the clear blue sky.
We dump our bags at the hotel in Kayabacho, a good-looking business district with wide sidewalks overlooking a river. A quick wash, and we dash off to catch a metro to the Imperial Palace. There is a nip in the April air – and to think I was reluctant to pack my woollen hoodie!
Tokyo was once a Shogunate called Edo and the Imperial Palace (the residence of Japan’s royal family) sits on the former grounds of Edo Castle. Today, the ruins of the old castle, its watch towers and moat system are the reminders of a glorious era. A long walk brings us to the Nijubashi (Double Bridge) over the turgid moat that guards the entrance to the thickly wooded inner palace grounds. There is a stone bridge in front and an iron bridge in the back. A watch house with typical Japanese architecture of sloped roofs stands guard over the two, making for a picturesque view.
After trudging like a weary soldier over the gravel path to the East Garden, I enter through the Otemon gate. In a restaurant tucked away amongst the trees, I have my first tryst with that Japanese speciality — matcha (green tea) and opt for a matcha flavoured ice cream. Replenished, we explore the beautiful Japanese style Ninomoru gardens and chance upon two placid ponds, brought intermittently to life by dancing long-finned carp. There is a small picture-postcard bridge, a mini waterfall, and loads of green, pink and white sakura that enraptures me.
In the evening, we lace up our walking shoes once again and head for Ginza, the glitzy, hi-fashion hub of Tokyo with imaginatively designed and lit-up buildings housing the biggest brand names in watches and clothes. There’s the famous Seiko clock tower, the Nissan building with its amazing architecture and the cylindrical glass building with Ricoh flashing in neon atop. Night in Tokyo is awash in a sea of neon that makes it almost as bright as day.
Emerging from the Asakusa subway exit on to the road, we are presented with a tableaux of modern Tokyo landmarks like the Skytree (one of the tallest structures in the world) and the Asahi beer towers. Joining the throng of click-happy tourists headed towards Sensō-ji temple, we pass the impressive Kaminarimon gate. While posing under the immense vermilion-red-and-black paper lantern (chōchin), I am reminded that it weighs 670 kilograms. Beyond lies the lively Nakamise-dori, flanked by stalls hawking souvenirs and edibles. It’s rare to spot a kimono in Tokyo, but not so at Sensō-ji temple where Tokyoites turn up in their traditional best.
The day is breezy, the cherry blossoms are in bloom and the mood is euphoric. It grows serene once I say my prayers at the Sensō-ji temple, whose original structure dates back to 645 AD.
In the evening, we visit Shinjuku and I find the vibe edgier then the Tokyo station-Ginza area (or is it just because I am reminded of the Jackie Chan thriller The Shinjuku Incident?). We had read horror stories about the difficulties in navigating the immense Shinjuku station, among the busiest in the world and with 200 exits. But we manage quite well, thank you.
The walking-in-wonderland effect of Chidorigafuchi Park is accentuated by the gently falling rain of cherry blossom petals that cover my shirt and lie strewn on the cobbled path. My experimental streak makes me opt for Black Sesame flavoured ice cream — I love it!
We spot Vyjayanthimala in Tokyo! It’s a poster of the Hindi film doyenne outside an Indian restaurant called Mumbai. How can we resist eating here? After the intoxicating cherry blossom experience and heavy lunch, I find it a bit demanding to push on to the Meiji Jingu Shrine in a totally different quarter of the city. The shrine is a good 25-minute walk through verdant wooded grounds after passing through its massive entry gate (Torii). Near the entrance of The Meiji shrine are stacked colourful, straw-wrapped barrels of sake which have been donated to the shrine by brewers all over Japan.
We have planned a day trip to Hakone in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu national park so I wolf down breakfast and race to board my first Bullet Train (the JR Tokaido Shinkansen). We reach Odawara in a flash.
When we return to the labyrinthine Tokyo station, we get some shopping done at Uniqlo and it mercifully proves not too complicated to find T’s Tantan, a vegan restaurant. I enjoy my Ramen noodles in white sesame sauce, with soybean meat as a side and declare it the best meal I have had in Tokyo.
Included in our original Japan itinerary was a trip to the Tateyama snow corridor. But I drop the plans, pronouncing myself satisfied with Tokyo’s myriad delights itself. The new plan is to devote time to buying gifts but first I soak serenely in the hotel room tub for 90 minutes. Pure zen.
It’s past noon by the time we set off on the Hibiya metro line to Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics epicentre. Frankly, I find the shopping a bit tedious as we run between shops to find a WiFi signal to enable consulting with my costume stylist daughter Nikita Mohanty.
Choices, choices, choices. A staid Tea Ceremony in a tatami-mat room or a visceral visit to the Tsukiji fish market in Central Tokyo? Despite being a vegetarian, I choose the latter for the novelty and whacky quotient of the experience. And boy, am I amply rewarded. We get to see the most exotic and colourful array of sea life on display – shrimps, eels, squids, cods, lobsters and crabs.
We spend the afternoon at the quaint Takeshita Street – it’s pedestrian-only and has a fun young vibe. Takeshita opens up into posh Ometesando. The Dior building has a glass exterior which effectively mirrors the trees lining the street. But the uphill walk wears me down and we proceed to Shibuya’s crazily crowded Scramble crossing. Each time the signal goes green, I have a ball running from one end of the street to the other, perfectly attuned to the sea of intersecting humanity.
It’s time to say good-bye to Tokyo and hello to Kyoto. As I leave the hotel, I notice that the cherry blossom tree has shed its flowers and is bare (yes, the flowering season is that short!). But I console myself with the thought that they will bloom again the next year. There is always a next time.