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The orange season
Spring in Japan is famous for cherry blossoms in full bloom but the orange hued-wonder that is the autumn foliage leaves one gaping in awe and shutter happy.
Saste damon pe Seiko ki ghadiyon ke liye hamari dukan mein padharein. . . The chaste Hindi fluting down the busy shopping alley off Shinjuku station road is surreal enough to stop you mid stride. Why on earth would anyone be hawking discounted Seiko watches to passing Indians in this very fashionable quarter of Tokyo?
Actually the mall owner has cottoned on to the average Indian tourist's biggest bait - brand bargains. Travel trade lore has it that the first question most Indians who land in Switzerland ask is: Sasti Rado ki ghadi kahan milegi?
Japan with its widespread reputation as an uber expensive country has been unable to reel in a slice of the great Indian tourist race. It has what it takes to be a great destination - medieval palaces, manicured gardens, blissfully quiet temples and shrines, the bright lights of Tokyo, beach destinations like Okinawa and the rugged hillscape of Hokkaido. But for some reason we have been giving the country the slip.
"Unless Indians are completely assured that they will get the food they like and that they can shop till they drop they will not travel in large groups and en famille as they tend to do, " says a seasoned Indian tour operator. The yearly travel mart is on at Yokohama and the Indian travel trade is here to brainstorm on how to divert the flow of Indian tourists eastwards.
It is autumn and the landscape is afire with dying leaves of all hues. You expected the burnt sienna, the yellow and the browns. But the magentas, the reds, the fuschia? The cherry blossoms of spring might be a delectable sight but November is a great month to visit the country for its fall colours. Maple, gingko, chestnut, Nanakamado shrubs, even grass take on traffic-stopping colours.
The joy of it is that you don't even have to head for quieter countrysides or hill slopes of Kyoto or Osaka to see the blaze. You see it dotting the concrete jungles of Tokyo, defying the officiousness of the grey skyscrapers and rioting against the monotony of the well-behaved Imperial Garden.
The gingko tree's yellow is a favourite with the Japanese. After all it is among the few living things to have survived the A-bomb that shattered the quiet, clear morning of pre autumnal Hiroshima in 1947. Right there next to the hypocenter of the explosion, they remained upright and alive. Lined neatly along the river Ota, they drag your eye away from the preserved skeletal remains of the Atom Dome.
It is a Shinto way of life to admire the beauty and grace of nature. In the months of March and April the delicacy of the cherry blossoms have to be viewed, in autumn, the colours of the autumn leaves (koyo in Japanese). There aren't too many foreign tourists around because fall doesn't come with the hype of the sakura (cherry bloom) season but there is a heavy rush of Japanese travellers at all the autumn leaf-spotting destinations. School children, older folks, young couples flock in large numbers to the pavilions, gardens, temples around Kyoto where the hillsides are dramatic with autumn colours. The 8th century Kiyomizu-dera temple in Kyoto, perched prettily on a hillside, is the most visited destination in the city for koyo viewings. On November nights when the illumination is on to spotlight the autumn colours, the visual drama has to be seen to be believed.
There is a long but very polite queue of Japanese waiting to take the holy waters that spout from three founts representing love, luck and wealth. You take the waters and with the same movements we use with the teertham, sprinkle over yourself and sip. It is an amazing construction that has stood on 139 wooden pillars for centuries now.
The Golden Pavillion (Kinkaku-ji ) in Kyoto is a sprawling zen garden-temple complex built in 15th century and offers up autumn colours on a landscaped tray. You could aim your camera and click in any blind direction and come up with a great vista. It has a great story to it, full of intrigue, angst and an attempted harakiri. It was burnt down in a deliberate fire in 1950 by a novice monk for reasons we will never know. The pavilion was then rebuilt with typical Japanese resilience by 1955.
The seasons never let go of you no matter where you are in Japan. At the Koomon tea house in Tokyo the whole brewing ceremony is like a choreography. After endless bowing, the hostess gets on with the business of making the tea but before that you must ritually admire the decor. The vase holds a minimal arrangement of dried leaves of autumn and there is a seasonal haiku painted on the wall. The pastille you are served before the tea to take off its bitter edge (this tea again, it must be mentioned, is an acquired taste) is shaped like a maple leaf.
Japanese sweets are served before tea to cleanse and prepare the palate. Autumn particularly is the season of confectionary (wagashi), most of which is a superb confluence of western and Japanese, rice powder with chocolate, cream with bean paste, baking with steaming. The Japanese chocolate cake is a very different confection from the western one. The most visible wagashi is the dumpling where the covering is made of rice flour and the stuffing is sweet bean or sesame paste.
At the busy Shibuya station made famous in the climax of Lost in Translation, under a wet, bare tree, stands the statue of Hachiko. He is the Akita dog who died waiting for his master at the station, a professor who had died of cardiac arrest. Most people know him as the dog in the Richard Gere movie of the same name.
He stands proud, with his nose turned up, one ear flopping down, the other cocked up, like a dog who knows things no one else does. He wears a red sash of honour. As people rush into and out of the station, they come and touch the sash in reverence. And stop for a moment in silence. All around him the city rushes about in frenzy, readying for the bitter winter ahead.
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