An 'Out Of This World' Experience In Japan

- with Anurag Sharma

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Three Jizos in Hase-dera shrine
Japan is the 'Buddha' country
Konnichiwa! (ʘ‿ʘ)╯Hello from Japan, one of the most beautiful nations on earth. A beautiful country with beautiful people with beautiful heart. No wonder Sakura (cherry blossom) is Japan's national flower, although unofficially. The blossoming of Sakura is celebrated for centuries in Japan. Every year, the Japanese come out of their homes to welcome the blossoming of Sakura throughout the country. Though there are a few Sakura varieties in Japan, the Japanese cherry (Prunus serrulata) is generally regarded as Sakura. Most of Sakura bloom for just a couple of days in spring. Sakura, in a way, represents the Japanese way of life - whatever short your life is, bring beauty, colors and happiness to the world and make your short-lived existence memorable.

Green Tea KitKat
Just like Sakura, tea is an important symbol of Japanese life. It is everywhere. I never liked green tea until I had a cup in Japan. In fact I brought back Japanese green tea leaves so that I could start my day with green tea. Nestle produces many verities of KitKat only for Japanese market. Green Tea KitKat is one of the most popular chocolate flavor among those.

Green Tea Mochi
Seafood based food is common in Japanese culture since the fish and other creatures have been the key for survival in this tough terrain. Rice is another Japanese favorite. Japanese believe that the short grain and sticky 'Gohan' is the best rice variety in the world. Remember that rice, not fish, is the key ingredient of famous Japanese Sushi. Traditional Japanese sweet mochi is also made by rice. Of course sugar is added along with the flavor of choice. I liked the green tea mochi sprinkled with 24 karat gold particles as shown in the picture.

Indo Ryori at Kamakura Bhavan
When I visited Japan for the first time, people scared me that a vegetarian like me will not find anything to eat there. Even an incorrigible optimist like me had to carry granola bars with me to be on safer side. Contrary to general belief, it is not difficult to find vegetarian food in Japan. Language could be a barrier but almost everyone knows the term vegetarian, commonly pronounced as 'bejitarian'.

Guards protects the shrines
In fact there is a native vegetarian food category, called 'shōjin ryōri' literally meaning 'devotional food' which is derived from the practice of non-violence. A friend told me that shōjin ryōri, not only spares animals, it doesn't really kill any plants. This kind food is generally comprised of soy, tofu, nuts, seeds, fruits or leaves, used without killing a plant. Just like the concept of traditional Indian 'Satvik' food, 'shōjin ryōri' restricts foods like garlic and alcohol too.

For me it was always easy to find an Indian restaurant, and order vegetarian food of my choice. The Japanese term for Indian food is 'Indō ryōri'. Many of the Indian restaurants in Japan are owned by people from Nepal. But we found a good one in Kamakura which was run by a Japanese who lived in South India. It is a tradition in Japan to display three dimensional real looking plastic food outside the restaurant to give you an idea of how your order will look.

Achal Nath is among five wisdom kings
As a nation, Japan has a lot of distinctive attributes, but if I have to describe only one in a sentence, I would say, "If you want to understand the meaning of politeness, visit Japan at least once in your lifetime."

My 2017 trip was my third visit to Japan. Each time I visited Japan, I loved this country more than before. Though this time I was limited to Tokyo metropolitan area, I could explore a lot of areas, especially shrines on foot. 

A street in Asakusa
I was born and brought up in India. I have lived in various regions of India and traveled extensively throughout the country before coming to USA. Arriving in Japan from USA is almost like homecoming. Of course, I don't understand the Japanese language, but that's true about many languages of India too. There were occasions in India while travelling in a bus or train when everyone around me was speaking a language which I did not understand. Japan gives me a similar feeling as if I am in India, and I don't understand the language of that region. In fact it stimulates some memories of my childhood and teenage years when I spent some time in Manipur and Jammu & Kashmir states.

Enma-Dai-Oh is the Yamraj of Japan
Tokyo is a crowded yet orderly city. Roads are narrower compared to US roads, but extremely clean.  People seem happy. Unlike in the USA, they may not greet the strangers, but they will walk extra miles to help you if asked. Just like in India, there are temples and small shrines all over the country. As I was carefully observing the architecture, and the gods, I saw one fierce looking God, almost like Yama, the god of death in Indian tradition. I was curious to know about him and waited for someone who could introduce the god to me. I was lucky to find a native devotee in a few minutes.

Nat Kun, cute little Achal Nath
"This is Enma-Dai-Oh, the god of death, Japanese equivalent of Lord Yama" he explained. He also told me about many other gods from India who now reside in Japan. All of them have a Japanese name also besides the original Sanskrit name. Goddess Saraswati is known in Japan as Benzaiten. She is one of the Shichifukujin (the seven gods of fortune). 

But the cutest of all the gods was baby Achal Nath (or 'Fudo Myo O' in Japanese). He is a dharmapala primarily revered in Vajrayana Buddhism. He is considered as the main among five Wisdom Kings.

Dharma dolls protect from evil eyes
In Japan, the technological advancement walks hand in hand with tradition. They have skillfully maintained the delicate balance between the two. You can see Dharma dolls on railway stations to save the bullet trains (locally called shinkansen) from evil eye. It's not uncommon for a scientist to stop at a shrine for blessings before launch of a major project. 

There are vending machines in almost every corner to serve canned hot coffee along with cold drinks. Tiny coke cans have a cap similar to a 2 liter bottle, so that you can carry the can with you. Once I took a cab in Tsukuba which did not have power windows, but the driver could still unlock and wide open the passenger door without moving from his seat just by pressing a button. Almost all toilets have multi-featured electronic bidet, some even with memory to play music or lighting of your choice. I was surprised to notice that an electronic mall at Akihabara started playing an advertisement in Hindi on my entry. 

Of course there are sad reminders of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. There are cute Jizo Bosatsu statues (Sanskrit: Ksitigarbha Bodhisatva) in many shrines. Jizo is depicted as a cute little child with an intention to protect all beings, especially the children, from sufferings. I heard that the devotees can adopt a specific Jizo statue and take care of it.

For centuries, Jizo has helped grieving parents. Mizuko Kuyo is the ceremony when such parents worship Jizō Bodhisattva as the protector of the child during the journey beyond this world till rebirth. Centuries old practice of mizuko kuyo became more common after World War II, when there were many stillbirths. The jizo statues are dressed in red bibs and caps, sometimes the baby's own bib and cap, and displayed in the temple garden.

Subhas Chandra Bose at Renkoji Temple, Tokyo 
Second world war links Japan to India through Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose, whose remains are kept in Renkoji temple of Tokyo which opens every year on 18th August, the death anniversary of Bose. Bose fled from British India to Japan via Germany. With help from Imperial Japan, he revived the 'Indian National Army' a.k.a 'Azad Hind Fauz' (literally 'Independent India' Army), a resistance guerrilla force consisting of Japanese and Indian soldiers to fight British regime in India. He led a few operations against British Indian army in North Eastern India and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. In 1945, he died in a plane crash in Taiwan. He was brought back to Japan and is resting in Japan since.

Beautiful Tokyo Tower
Japanese love English, and western culture. Western dresses are common there. They celebrate Christmas and Halloween. Although, it's not easy to find people who can speak or understand English well, almost all important signs are written in English also along with Japanese. Though, the translation gets funny at times. There are three traditional scripts for Japanese - Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. In addition to these three, the Roman scripts is used to write English words, and is called 'Romanji'. In temples and shrines, there are signs of Sanskrit written in Bonji, a variant of Siddham script. 
Tokyo is one of the busiest railway stations in the world. Multiple waves of pedestrian traffic cross each other continually. The sound of the footsteps never stops, but you hardly hear human voice. Japanese know the art of voiceless communication. To be honest, they respect your privacy even in a crowded place. A good example was the sign on a bullet train requesting the passengers to be gentle on the keyboard of their digital device to avoid inconvenience to fellow passengers. 

Tokyo Tower at night
It's a busy country. People commute long distances for work. But they are never too busy to help a stranger. Whenever I asked someone for direction, they always escorted me to the destination even if the person had to walk scores of yards for it. This happened almost every time, I asked for help. It is unbelievable that the busiest human beings are so kind to help others. 

Another national character of Japan is honesty. Of course, Japanese appreciate kind words, but they find it insulting to accept any kind of tips. Forget about stealing from somebody's house, in general, Japanese will never keep anything found by them. In a previous journey, I noticed that when someone found a wristwatch on a sidewalk, and tied it to a nearby pole to make it easier to find if someone comes back looking for it.

If you have not been to Japan yet, plan a visit. You may thank me later.
A shop in Tokyo