Then and Now

Malavika>> Is familiarity the bane of modern day society? Twenty-five years ago when we went to Tokyo we recall we had felt like we were visiting an alien planet. What was it about this vast urban sprawl the largest metropolitan area in the world and certainly its most expensive city that beguiled as it attracted?

The incessantly bowing people with their sing-song accents and inscrutable smiles, the food that looked and tasted like no other, the neon lit blazing nights and the cutting edge and sublime aesthetic sensibility of Japan blew us away.

Since then it had remained our secret fantasy, remote and unattainable and we had waited to return to this strange city with its strange people. But alas, this time when we visited it all looked rather familiar.

Which either means that we have travelled too much or (and this is probably correct) in twenty-five years the rest of Asia seems to have caught up with Japan and it does not seem so alien any more. Remember Japan had been Asia’s first Tiger, were the melding of first world development and inscrutable Occidental rites had been unique.

But ever since the economies of Hong Kong, China, Korea, Singapore, Thailand accelerated — Japan appears just another familiar Asian country. And as we said — familiar and accessible.  

People enjoy a picnic on the banks of a pond covered with petals of cherry blossoms at a park in Tokyo. Tokyo is known for its cherry blossoms and the constant hustle and bustle.

Beyond sushi
Food has been Japan’s insidious cultural diplomacy. There are more sushi and sashimi bars in New York than perhaps any other kind of exotic cuisine. But unfortunately the popularity and ubiquity of sushi and sashimi have done Japan more disservice. They have taken attention away from Japan’s far greater traditional cuisine, its delicate approach to meats, vegetable roots and flavours. In 2007 when The Michelin guide released its first Tokyo guide it awarded the city a staggering 191 stars to Tokyo’s restaurants, (more than double of its nearest competitor Paris which inexplicably is still regarded as the epicure’s Paradise.)

Traditional Japanese food is an unending delight. Sea bream, trout, roe, shark kelp, spinach, sweet potato Miso soup, Kobe and Wagyu beef, eggs, custards are cooked in a staggering amount of ways and presented in even more. A Japanese plate is more often than not a work of art in itself. It combines texture, colour, flavour and taste in a subtle configuration of multiplicity. There is more — far more to Japanese cuisine than sushi and sashimi. Just as there is more far more to Indian than butter chicken and makhni daal!

Japanese cuisine is not just about sushi and sashimi. Most often a Japanese plate is more often than not a work of art in itself.

Automated Paradise
Japan’s fascination with automation and high tech, we were glad to see hasn’t abated. This time along with elevators that required a PhD to operate we were acquainted with the fully automated Toto toilet seat. And we have survived to say that it is a diabolical contraption. It lifts itself when you approach, often giving you a fright at night, it comes with buttons and levers that promise shower, bidet, gentle spray and cold/hot drying and of course, it self flushes. Japan’s fascination for gadgetry and gizmos accompanies its passion for hygiene and order. We witnessed even more Japanese with their mouths covered with surgical masks than the last time around.

Changing rooms at stores were treated with the same deference as temples (shoes off, face masked with a gauze while trying on the clothes etc). But what delighted us this time around were the thoughtful umbrella cover machines outside every department store and public utility service. Because this far sighted and doughty people (who rebuilt their city not once but twice!) did not want their spaces despoiled with unsightly droplets of rain from closed umbrellas they had equipped their gateways with umbrella receivers: insert your wet and wanton parasol – a quick twist –and hey presto! A plastic cover for it! Who woulda thunk?!

The Japanese are very fond of their gadgetry. They were the first to launch the Tube Hotel

A unique store
It is yet another instance of globalisation that the first time we were acquainted with Uniqlo Japan’s hugely successful garment stores was in New York. Instantly we embraced the uniquely Japanese phenomena – superb quality huge volumes unheard of choice, cutting edge innovations in material and style and drop dead value for money. But on this trip we had the honour of shopping at the largest Uniqlo store in the world, in Ginza. Eleven floors of it. Row upon row of neatly stacked garments for all shapes sizes, wallets and occasions.

Tokyo is known for its edgy designs with women parading in various trendy outfits

Hands that heal
We pride ourselves on being massage snobs. As aficionados of this great tactile art we have travelled across seas and through storms to seek the best. But to our mind nothing has come close to the massage we once received from a blind septuagenarian in our hotel room in Tokyo, 25 years ago! For quarter of a century we have cherished the memory of how it had made us sleep for an entire day! Now we were going to be back in Tokyo the Mecca of shiatsu. Would we get a massage that could compare with the earlier standard?  Of course this time it is no blind granny but a serious young man called Edo. In the cavernous confines of the Grand Hyatt hotel. A massage that addresses the weary traveller’s entire bugbears: lower back pain, stiff shoulders and neck and nagging sciatica down a leg. Highly competent, thoughtful, deep and healing. Almost as good as the one 25 years ago.

Japan India bhai-bhai?
Of course, we were not the only Indians knocking at Japan’s door this week. Finance Minsiter P Chidambaram was there too, though not buying knitwear or gawking at cherry blossoms. He was on a mission to attract Japanese foreign investment in India. “India can offer Japan as much if not more potential than China,” he is reported to have said. We agree. Only seven hours away, and with its three-hour time difference, Japan has a million things to offer India. Let a million cherry blossoms bloom

Finance Minister P Chidambaram with Japanese PM Shinzo Abe

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