Monday, May 6, 2024

Gateways to Heaven


Sensoji Temple Tokyo

A recent trip to Japan was an opportunity to peek into the rich past and culture of Japan. An insight into the hundreds of shrines dotted around the country and how it is interwoven with the beliefs could be better understood. There are approximately 100000 Shinto shrines and around 80000 Buddhist shrines in Japan. How are these different from one another? The shrines built to serve the Shinto religious traditions are characterised by a torii gate at the entrance. 

A painting on the roof of Meiji Jingu temple, Tokyo

Temples built to serve the Buddhist religious traditions are characterised by a Sanmon gate at the entrance. Apart from these differences, a few things are to be observed when visiting these shrines or temples. Every shrine has a torii gate that separates the shrine from the secular world. Some practices followed are bowing before the gate, purifying hand and mouth, bowing and clapping twice before the deity and saying the prayer, which are things one would observe at every shrine. Many temples have incense sticks lit and the emitting smoke is said to have healing powers. Remove the shoes and be respectful when entering the sanctum sanctorum.

Five Storey Pagoda at Sensoji Temple

Our sojourn started with the massive Sensoji Temple in Tokyo. A tip for the visitors is to arrive early to avoid crowds and enjoy the peace and serenity offered. This place is popular with locals and tourists and swarms of people can be seen. One can feel the Edo era in the atmosphere around a five-storey pagoda, Kaminarimon, and speciality shops around Nakamise-Dori. 

Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo

As it was Cherry Blossom bloom time the foliage of these verdant trees made a perfect photo shoot opportunity. The main hall of Sensoji is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. The temple was initially built in 628 AD and has been rebuilt over 20 times. The large red lantern at Kaminamoron Gate weighs over 700 kg. As one steps out of the huge gate of Sensoji shrine a short walk through the market selling delicious food and souvenirs the Asakusa shrine is visible. 

Tokyo Sky Tree as seen from Asakusa

This is a gateway to modern Japan where the Tokyo Sky  Tree building looms large on the horizon and a walk along the River Sumeda is another rewarding experience.

The Main Entrance of Meiji Jingu Shrine in Tokyo

Meiji Jingu Shrine in the heart of the green belt of Tokyo at the intersection of Harajuku and Shibuya is a perfect destination where history meets modernity. 
The Caskets of Wine as offering in Meiji Jingu shrine, Tokyo

A calm walk through the wooded area which is man-made with a plantation of over 100000 trees brings to hundreds of caskets of wines that have come as offerings from France. 

The Meiji Jingu Shrine

This shrine is dedicated to Emperor Meiji(1852-1912) and Empress Shoken and was built in 1920. We were fortunate to witness a Shinto ritual while visiting the place. Many people write their wishes on the ema tablet and purchase an amulet or fortune. 

The coupled Camphor trees at Meiji Jingu Shrine, Tokyo

A pair of Camphor trees were planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of Meiji Jingu and have grown under the protection of deities to become huge and vivid. and are considered to be sacred. Well known as 'Meoto Kusu' or husband and wife, the coupled trees have become a symbol of a happy marriage and harmonious life within the family.

At the Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park a stone's throw from the shrine is a delightful place with hundreds of flowers and walkways that add lustre.

Hanazon Jingu shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo

Another famous Shinto shrine in the heart of the Shinjuku district of Tokyo is the Hanazono Jinja or shrine. It is said to guard the residents, businessmen, traders, craftsmen and artisans in the area

Ryoanji Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto, the old capital of Japan, has some of the most alluring shrines. After arriving there by the Bullet train we headed straight for Ryoanji Temple. The garden of this temple is one of the finest examples of 'dry landscaping' using only the rock formations amidst fine pebbles in linear patterns that facilitate meditation. It was built in the year 1450 AD by a warlord Hosokawa Katsumoto. 

Dry landscaped Rock garden at Ryoanji Temple

The temple's name is synonymous with the 'Zen Garden' and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple has a pond garden, a water garden and plenty of cherry blossom trees that add to the beauty.

At The Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto

A short distance from the Ryoanji Temple is the Kinkakuji Temple, a Zen Buddhist temple. The pavilion is three stories high. The top two stories are covered with a pure Gold leaf. 

The Pond at Kinkakuji Temple, Kyoto

The pavilion extends over a pond that reflects the building. The pond contains 10 small islands The beauty of the gardens which surround the pond is to be seen to believe its beauty.

The Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto

There are many small and big shrines in Kyoto and the fitting finale to the day was a visit to the Yasaka shrine, around sunset. Yasaka or the Gion shrine was founded over 1350 years ago and is one of the oldest ones in Kyoto. The shrine's main hall has a huge stage in its front with hundreds of lanterns lit up in the evening. 

The garden festival at Maruyama Park in Yasaka Shrine, Kyoto

The shrine had an ongoing festival in a huge 'cherry blossom' garden, Maruyama Park where hundreds of visitors had descended. It is a must-visit place, especially to see the cherry blossoms.

At Shitennoji Temple in Osaka

Our last destination Osaka has some fine shrines of which Shitennoji and Sumisho Taisha are prominent. Shitennoji temple is a testament to its long-standing Buddhist heritage. This was founded in 593 by Shotoku who is revered for his role in promoting Buddhism in Japan. The temple comprises a five-storey pagoda, a main golden hall, and a tranquil garden.
Sumiyoshi Taisha in Osaka

Sumiyoshi Taisha Shrine is one of the oldest Shinto shrines characterized by straight roofs, having no upward curves at eaves. This shrine is a part of Sumiyoshi Sanjin, three gods important for sea voyages and maritime safety, making it a crucial site to visit by seafarers. It is a peaceful retreat with expansive gardens, ancient trees, and an iconic drum bridge.
Suyomishi Taisha Shrine in Osaka

The list is almost endless and recounting and visiting these heavenly destinations on a single trip was a huge blessing. On any trip to Japan, a visit to some shrines is a must to get a true feel of the culture of this beautiful country. 

PS- All pics are mine

Monday, April 29, 2024

A Slice of Japan


Tokyo SkyTree Building
Japan is a land of multiple hues and one needs extended time to explore this multidimensional nation. On one end of the spectrum are the natural wonders like Mount Fuji, several lakes and seashores, riding in bullet trains and cruises on board boats, climbing skyscrapers like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Osaka Cosmo Tower and Tokyo Skytree, visiting shrines that offer tranquillity and peace and above all exploring the Japanese food which is unique, wholesome and attracts tourists like none other thing. 

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
No matter where you travel in Japan, the best use of cutting-edge technology in every walk of life like multiple-level locking systems in rooms and accommodations, vending machines at every corner, and automated restaurants that dispense food using robots can, sometimes become overwhelming. A few things that make this island nation unique are its pursuit of honesty, very high levels of integrity, friendliness and, above all, a helping attitude notwithstanding the language barrier. I was lucky to find helpful strangers coming to my assistance at railway stations, bus stations, and cafeterias. and road intersections when Google Maps would render itself useless.
Inside the Shinkansen Bullet Train
In this post, I will share my thrilling experiences that pumped adrenaline levels to a new high. A ride on the legendary Bullet Train or Shinkansen when in Japan is a must. In my itinerary, the best opportunity was during a day trip planned from Osaka to Kyoto. The distance between the two places is 75 km and takes from 45 min to one hour depending on the chosen mode of travel. I discovered that it takes just 13 minutes to cover this distance and lo and behold we were at Shin Osaka station. The rush was phenomenal as several trains arrived and departed at this mammoth station. Although vending machines were available, I chose to go to the counter and after about 20 minutes of waiting, I bought the ticket. 

There were Bullet trains at 20-minute intervals and since it was a short journey I did not consider making reservations necessary. After reaching the platform the signage in Japanese and English facilitated in choosing the spot for boarding. It is important as there were five compartments for unreserved seats and knowing beforehand helped. At the designated time the train sailed onto the platform very silently like a dragon just tamed to bring it to a halt. In seconds the barriers on the platform were raised and the gates opened. All the people that had queued up earlier smoothly entered and settled into the seats. A brief announcement was made, and the barriers on the platform came down and the gates closed. The train gathered momentum in no time and soon we were cruising at a speed of almost 350 km/hour without experiencing any jerks. The only indication of the enormous speed was the quick disappearance of the scenic views outside the window.  In a couple of minutes, the train decelerated and gradually halted, at an impressive Kyoto station. The entire experience was like a fantasy for which I had prepared myself. The reality was far beyond my expectations.

Umeda Twin Towers in Osaka
Climbing a skyscraper was next on the agenda. The Tokyo Metropolitan  Government Building offers panoramic views of the city including the man-made forest around Meiji Jingu Shrine. On a clear day, one can even see snow-clad Mt Fuji! A visit to the 190m tall Umeda Twin Tower in Osaka needs to be shared, Osaka Umeda Twin Tower is a landmark near Umeda station in Osaka. The 190m tall structure has three basements and 38 stories with an impressive observatory. As we stepped out of the Umeda station we saw a maze of buildings and due to some construction work, we soon lost track of the route. On requesting an office goer to guide us, the man took us for a 15-minute walk leaving aside what he was pursuing. This action of kindness was the second repeat in less than a few hours where earlier when exploring the port area we visited a similar skyscraper called Cosmos Tower. A young lady who had overheard our conversation at an eating joint came to help us. She took us to an enquiry counter and interpreted it in Japanese for us to find our way to the bus stop. She walked with us for almost 10 minutes till we arrived at the place to take our bus. The two such quick encounters in the kindness of locals have left a lasting impression on how the Japanese deserve full marks on human values as a society.
The escalators connecting the Umeda Twin Towers on 40th storey
There was a huge queue of visitors at the Umeda Twin Towers basement near the escalators. The twin towers are connected with the glass bridges at the uppermost 40-storey. The observatory atop the towers offers splendid panoramic views of the city. It is also known as the ' Floating Garden Observatory'. It is a must-visit place in Osaka.
Sailboat Santa Maria and Tempozan Ferris Wheel in the backdrop

Osaka abounds in a wide variety of experiences.  It includes a 45-minute sailing on the sailboat Santa Maria. The ride becomes memorable with lasting impressions of the skyscrapers, multi-level bridges and expressways that one encounters while sailing.

Inside the Santa Maria sailboat
Yet another experience is riding on a Ferris Wheel which takes one back to childhood except that the Ferris wheel in Osaka is one of the largest ones in the world with a height of 113m and a diameter is 100 m. The Tempozan Ferris Wheel is located next to the Aquarium. The aquarium is one of its kind with a rare collection of aquatic creatures.

The Tempozan Ferris Wheel
The rare experiences in Japan have been chiselled in the memory for a long time to come. No matter how much one sees, the craving for more does not end. At the end of the day, one runs out of steam to go beyond and has to call it quits. Will share more unique offerings of Japan in the next post.

PS- All pics are mine

Monday, April 22, 2024

A Date With Sakura

The Philosopher's Street in Kyoto

Sakura or the Cherry Blossom is the unofficial national flower of Japan. A trip to Japan without seeing the spectacle of cherry blossom bloom would have been a shame. Hence, when the thought of a trip to Japan came, an ideal time to witness the extravaganza took precedence. A detailed itinerary followed.

The Zen Garden at Ryoanji Shrine in Kyoto

More than a dozen varieties bloom in a short window spanning from late March to early April when the bloom can be witnessed in all parts of Japan. I was fortunate to witness the heavenly sight at different locations at the places we visited.

A solo Red Cherry Blossom at Ginza station in Tokyo

Within a few hours of landing in Tokyo, we headed to the Ginza district, an up-market shopping area. As we stepped out on the walkway from the metro station an amazing solo red Cherry blossom next to the station caught our eye. It was a good beginning and more was to follow. A walk from Ginza to Imperial Palace, where the majesty lives, was well rewarded to see scores of cherry blossoms in the adjoining gardens.
Lovely cherry blossom near Tokyo Skytree building

While in Tokyo as we continued our sightseeing adventures we came across the enchanting gardens in some houses and streets laden with colourful cherry blossoms. The banks of River Sumeda close to the towering Tokyo Skytree building looked awesome with several trees of resplendent flowers. The reflection of the trees from the shimmering waters added to the beauty. 

                                                   A View of the Cherry Blossoms at Ueno Park Tokyo

The icing on the cake was the Ueno gardens where hundreds of visitors were partying under the blooming cheery blossom orchards. Despite the rush, the place was spick and span with no litter and people in perfect harmony with nature. Strange as it may sound most Japanese never litter and as a habit collect their refuse back home to dispose of as garbage.

                                        A View of the Cherry Blossoms at Maruyama Park, Kyoto

Some more such experiences of cherry blossoms in other destinations I visited need to be mentioned. Almost every shrine we visited in Japan had blooming cherry blossoms but the Maruyama Park behind the Yasaka shrine in Kyoto swept us off our feet. This is the place to be during the season. The oldest park in Kyoto is at the base of the Higashiyama mountains next to the Yasakajinga shrine. The sun was setting and hundreds of people were parting under the blooming cherry blossom trees, at least a few hundred of them. It appeared that there was a festival-like celebration all around. We wanted to stay here despite having walked more than 20000 steps during the day. Earlier in the evening a walk along the river on Philosopher's Path along the canal was an exclusive experience. The stony path has hundreds of cherry blossoms lined up. The place exploded with colour making this one of the most popular hanami( cherry blossom viewing) spots, The path is two kilometres long begins around Ginkakuji( Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighbourhood of Nanzenji, The path got its name from Nishida Kitaro, one of the Japan's most famous philosophers who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University. This place was a chance discovery little realizing that it was nothing short of a brush with heaven. The gardens of Nijo Castle in the city also boast cherry blossoms but find stiff competition from the Maruyama Park and Philosopher's Path.

Lovely Cherry Blossom at Hanazono Shrine in Shinjuku, Tokyo
Osaka where we spent a couple of days has its fair share of cherry blossom spots at the Osaka Castle, near the Mint and hundreds of trees swaying majestically along the Okawa River and around the shrines. The Sumiyoshi Taisha shrine is a place of perfect tranquillity and zen. It is among the most important Shinto shrines and the scenery around abounds in beauty. The tranquil waters with cherry blossom trees kissing the water's surface are unforgettable treats.
The serene beauty at Sumiyoshj Taisha shrine in Osaka

No matter where you go in Japan at this time of the year, you will find the cherry blossom bloom. For every few places  I mentioned, there are many others that I could not enumerate as every thoroughfare, the monorail line, Japan Rail tracks, small ponds and highways are strewn with unsurpassed beauty. I only wish I could capture this gist in words, a tall order, indeed.

PS - All pics are mine

Monday, April 15, 2024

Konnichiwa Mount Fuji


Mount Fuji

Seldom does it happen you dream the impossible and it comes true. A long cherished dream to visit the perfect 'la la land' came true. The experiences of this lovely country need to be shared with all the personal experiences that have now been added to the treasure trove. The first and the most obvious experience worth sharing is seeing Mt Fuji in all its grandeur.

Early in the morning, we left our Airbnb accommodation to head for the Star City Highway Bus stop located in one of the most happening Shibuya districts of Tokyo. The Kosokubus was to leave at 7AM for which I had booked my seats much in advance. After disembarking the Fukutoshin line train I stepped out in front of one of the biggest road crossings called the ' Scramble Square' where at any time on average 3000 people cross the road simultaneously at a busy hour. I could not locate the bus stop despite having located the Mark Star City Hotel. Soon I realized that the bus stop was on the fifth floor of the terrace of the hotel! Sounds unbelievable, but true.

Lake Kawaguchiko overlooking Mt Fuji

The efficient staff ushered us onto the bus that left the bus stop sharp at 7 AM. The journey of two hours was a breeze as the bus glided on the smooth roads. The jaw-dropping skyscraper scenery soon changed to the scores of cherry blossom trees we encountered on either side of the road every few kilometres.   There were two stops en route to pick up other passengers. Just before our stop, the bus stopped at Fuji Q highland stop where a gargantuan edifice of a roller coaster loomed large. It is a huge amusement park where the activity was visible even at this early hour. At 1020 AM we were at the Kawaguchiko bus stop at the foothill of Mt Fuji.  The crowds were already swelling as people could be seen heading for Lake Kawaguchiko behind which the towering Mt Fuji stands in all its splendor.  It was a surreal moment, to witness this beauty which I had read only in Geography texts. It was an emotional moment to assimilate the beauty and serenity all around. My wife and I picniced by the side of the lake admiring the beauty while sipping Matcha latte! A heavenly experience indeed. 

(Layout of Mt Fuji region- Courtesy

At the Kawaguchiko Bius Stop

As we were to return only by 5.20 PM bus we decided to make the best use of the time by buying a 'Day Pass' for unlimited travel on the Red Blue and Green lines buses that operate during the day to almost the entire length and breadth of Mt Fuji region. There is a galore of museums, flora and fauna, bamboo groves, rare trees, and many hues of cherry blossoms in full bloom to see

There are options like a Ropeway that takes you to the summit, trails to explore the region, and even climbing the peak during the season(July to Sep), besides visiting shrines like Gokuku and many more. There are lovely markets that sell all kinds of food, beverages, and the best of wines. 

An old rail coach at Kawaguchiko station

The time just flew and soon the sky was overcast and it was dark.  There is an old train parked next to the Kawaguchiko station that takes you back in time.  There are several options to come to Mt Fuji including viewing it on the Bullet train, Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka. We boarded our bus which left sharp at 5.20 pm for Shibuya and were greeted by scores of twinkling lights. 

Mount Fuji and the Tokyo harbour as seen from a flight

Little did I realize that I would be blessed twice more to admire the beauty of  Fuji on the return flight from Osaka to Tokyo and soon after from the runway at Haneda airport on the way back to Delhi for a full 20 minutes while the plane gained height from Haneda airport.  I was filled with gratitude to the almighty for bestowing his blessings in the form of the splendid views of the sacred Mt Fuji

PS- All pics are mine

Friday, March 8, 2024

Oh Calcutta!

The " City of Joy' - Kolkatta is always full of pleasant surprises. No matter how many times you have visited this city there is something new waiting to be discovered. Maybe a lifetime is not enough to explore this lovely city. It is said that what happens in Kolkata today happens elsewhere much later and there is enough testimony to prove this. Be it the first capital city, the first tram, or the first metro, Kolkata was always at the forefront. This time around, I decided to experience the iconic food trail of Kolkata which also boasts of several firsts like making Rosgollas, chenna sweets( curdled milk sweets) and several others.

One morning at the crack of dawn we drove down to the Kolkata Stock Exchange near BBD Baug. It was rather early, but a surprise of all the glitzy cars trying to accommodate themselves in the narrow street awaited us. They were all the well-heeled businessmen, young GenZ, and trendy people who had come to have an early morning snack and 'Kullhar chai' in the ram-shackled shops buzzing with activity. After finding a place to sit sipping the hot tea with tiny hot 'samosas' we understood the reason for the mass popularity of this place. There is a repertoire of snacks from Jalebis, Poha, Sandwiches, Dhokla, Chaat plus more. On the weekends and holidays, the crowds are even bigger.

One morning while going around the New Market area, I remembered having read about an old Jewish Bakery called Nahoum's that was in the vicinity. After, a bit of exploring we found a place where several people were buying the stuff which I could never imagine one could get here. Just to name a few, the heart-shaped orange muffins, the truffle cakes, green onion baked cookies an assortment of cakes and pastries besides a variety of breads make one drool. The heavenly melt-in-mouth flavors of this 121 -year-old iconic bakery have delighted thousands of people year after year. It is a must-try place if one has a sweet tooth and love for bakery items

The old part of Kolkata especially around Shyam Bazar has tiny eateries set up two centuries ago. One such place is Haridas Modak. Before we could reach the place we were caught in a traffic jam on the street at an unbelievable 7 AM! The reason was a local market 'haat' that starts around 6 AM and winds up by 8.30AM. This can happen only in Kolkata. Just around the corner of the main junction notice a queue of people who are waiting to be served a traditional Bengali breakfast at a tiny restaurant. The shop is none other than ' Haridas Modak' which has been serving Kachouri, Aloor Tarkari, or Luchi and Cholar Dal with a sweet Jalebi/ Rosgulla/ Kala Jam or locally prepared delicacy for the

last 250 years! Does it not sound incredible. By the way, one can get only one combo Kachouri or Luchi, not both on a particular day. Hardly twenty people can sit at a time while being served piping hot all-day breakfast on a banana leaf. The place has been keeping the tradition of 'Bengali Food Culture' alive, in a rat race for serving fast food with a Western twist. Their food which is loaded with flavors and freshness costs a meagre Rs 12 per Poori/ Kachouri with unlimited Aloor Torkari or Cholar Dal. According to legends the likes of Subhas Chandra Bose and Ramkrishna Bose have eaten here. An adjacent shop prepares a range of Sandesh which you will remember in times to come, once flavored here

The list is endless. The aroma of food and the friendly environment in these eateries transport you to a bygone era where the nice things and simplicity meant much more than the flashiness one sees all around these days. The 'City of Joy' is in fact a city of endless joy to relish the good things of life. So on the next trip to this amazing city do try some of these wonderful places.

PS- All pics are mine

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Flavours of Morocco

No part of the world is bereft of flavors. Regardless of the number of places one travels to, as long as one is willing to try the local food, one will never be disappointed when searching for food. Every place offers food around the type of local produce of the region. A recent trip to Morocco was a lesson to learn to appreciate food which has a lot of history associated with it. The friendly smiles of the vendors and the experiences have gone down memory lane.
A view from the second floor of the eatery

While walking through the old town Jemma al Fna, on the day I landed, I came across a sweets and savories shop. The food on display was so colorful that it was difficult to take eyes off the shelves. We continued admiring the wares of local craftsmen, like lampshades of brass, trinkets, spices, clothes, shoes, bags, and many more. The hunger pangs soon got the better of us when we stopped by a small eatery where there was very little room. The owner was relishing a soup with 'khubz'. He offered us to taste and then promised us a great fresh cooked meal. His wife and one partner guided us to a sit-out on the second floor from where we could get a lovely view of the souk below and the rising spires of mosques in the distance. 

A spread of Moroccan platters

After half an hour of wait, the steaming tomato broth laced with spices and a whiff of Ras al Hanout( a spice par excellence), a dip prepared with Harissa paste, hummus, and khubz arrived. It was followed with Tajine cooked in an earthenware pot decorated with vegetables and Couscous heaped on a huge tray with a date sauce, nuts, bottle gourd, squash, and peppers. It was an amazing meal with flavors that continued to tingle the taste buds for a long time. We paid an equivalent of eight euros for the entire family. a great value for money. The owner also packed a couple of khubz, complimentary, a sweet gesture indeed! 

An amazing array of desserts

A walk a little further brought us to Patisserie des Princes located in the popular Jemma al Fna. On display were assorted cookies, pastries, chebakias,a massive collection of milkshakes, assorted teas, and above all almond croissants! One bite into these almond croissants was like tasting heaven. No wonder the French who had ruled Morocco for many years had left a legacy of their culinary expertise of croissants for many generations to come. This became our go-to place in days to come. Everywhere we went the smiles from the helpful salesgirls and staff reflected the warmth and hospitality of the people of this little country.

An Almond Croissant

Do not forget to try the biscotti at the little dry fruit sellers. The amazing range of pistachio, almond walnut, and date cookies will leave you asking for more. No matter where you go in Marrakech, the new town Guilez, Jardin Majorelle by Yves Saint Laurent, souks in Jemma al Fna, the aroma of cafe shops, the colorful food items with the most enchanting presentation will be omnipresent. It will leave memories to cherish for a long time. The lip-smacking flavors of Morocco are what memories are made of.

PS- All pictures are mine