Land of The Rising Sun
I returned recently from a business trip to Japan. This being my first trip to the Land of the Rising Sun, it had a deep impact on me. I set out with many misconceptions, with the intent of my trip being a successful business project and to fill in as much sight seeing as possible. I came back a changed person - the business part was very satisfying, the sight seeing not as important as I thought it would be.
The whole experience of being in Japan amidst one of the most polite and gentle people changed me in a way that I never expected.
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I fought sleep through the ride to the hotel because I didn't want to miss my first sight of Tokyo. I wonder if it is an Indian trait that a lot of us tend to take in the sights more to tell the others back home how it is than to actually enjoy the sights. The highways of Tokyo looked pretty unimpressive and I was dozing off when a fellow passenger who had traveled with me from the US exclaimed "Look, the Japanese Disney World." I looked dutifully out of the window and suppressing a yawn said "That is very interesting". I think my years in America can be blamed for that - whenever I can't think of anything to say I put on this indescribable look on my face and say - interesting! The rest of the journey I don't remember. My jet lag caught up with me and the last thought I remember was I hope I'm not sleeping with my mouth open. After a while it didn't matter anymore.
Getting off the bus turned out to be very stressful for me. I had to watch out for my baggage to make sure I got all my bags out, I had no clue how much to tip the guy who took my bags out. I did not want to offend him by giving him too little, at the same time I did not want to open my wallet and hand him dollars one by one. I was saved the embarrassment of making a mistake by the bus speeding off before I could make up my mind on how much I should give him. I did realize later that the Japanese don't expect tips - everything is expensive enough to cover tips and more.
The first sight of my hotel room shocked me. I was warned that rooms would be small but this was absolutely claustrophobic. The room was the size of a twin size bed with a little space on the side to squeeze past the bed into a closet. The closet turned out to be a bathroom with a Lilliputian tub. Even I, with my small frame, could not fit into the tub. Thank God, I thought my company sent me and not a regular American - 5 ft 4in was a tight squeeze. Imagine a hefty 6 ft 3 in? I tried to block out the size of the room from my mind, and after a quick shower jumped into bed at 5.30 p.m.
I spent the entire first day wandering around the hotel. Tokyo is probably the safest place for a girl to wander around by herself. Either that or the Japanese were totally disgusted by my looks - I like to think it is the former. The next morning I put on my formal American business attire and waited in the lobby to meet the person who was going to be my contact for the next two weeks. The dress turned out to be a right choice because the dress code in Japan is the same as the dress code in America. I did notice later that Japan had pretty much the same stores as the U.S.
My first day at work turned out to be very exciting. I was given a complete tour of the building I was going to work at for the next two weeks and was introduced to several people whose names I dared not repeat for fear of offending them. I learned pretty quickly to address people by their last name followed by a san. My name became Anusan for the next three weeks - two in Japan and one back in the US where people insisted on adding the respectful suffix to remind me of my time in Japan.
JMy first day at work turned out to be very exciting. I was given a complete tour of the building I was going to work at for the next two weeks and was introduced to several people whose names I dared not repeat for fear of offending them. I learned pretty quickly to address people by their last name followed by a san. My name became Anusan for the next three weeks - two in Japan and one back in the US where people insisted on adding the respectful suffix to remind me of my time in Japan.
After the first day I lost my interpreter and was given another person whose one year stint in the US made him most eligible as my new interpreter. He always had his dictionary with him and I had mine and by the fourth day we were even exchanging jokes by pointing to words in the dictionary. He would wait for me at the station at 8.30 every morning and would greet me with a smile and a Ohayo Gozaimas (Good Morning) but soon I beat him to it by being there a few minutes earlier and greeting him in Japanese before he could say anything. He would always point out a seat for me to sit apologizing profusely if there was no vacant seat. I'm still trying to figure out why he should apologize for the train being full.
The one weekend I had in Japan was spent sightseeing, with my Japanese friends from work acting as my tourist guides. I was absolutely amazed by the fact that after working more than 12 hours every day of the week they took the whole weekend to show me around. I felt guilty that I was responsible for them not spending time at home with their families. Some uncomplaining women must be cursing the gaijin (foreigner) who kept their husbands away from home even over the weekend. Then again I think Japanese women are so used to their husbands being away that this may not have been something new.
I saw the little Japanese gardens, perfect in their beauty, with not a weed to be found and realized that this was part of their culture - perfection. The temples I visited reminded me of the ones back home in India. The peace and quiet in the temples made me think back to the little I had read of Zen. What really surprised me was that there could exist such a peaceful place in the middle of such a busy and crowded city. The visit to the temple inspired me to read more about Japanese temples and it has increased my interest in their culture. I try to recall that deep sense of peace that I felt in the temple that day. In some ways I think it is very natural that people there are so peaceful and gentle - everything in Japan emphasizes these traits.
I also did visit Roppongi, a very popular place for foreigners. It turned out to be the most noisy, lively and unlikely of places I visited in Japan. There were a lot of Indian restaurants there and in honor of my visit we dined at an Indian restaurant - I must say I was taken aback when a fellow desi (Indian) addressed me in Japanese and bowed respectfully after seating me.
As my last day approached I felt a sense of sadness that was totally unexpected. I never develop attachments to places I visit for a short time.
On my first day I was counting the days to my departure, by the third day I stopped keeping track and by the second week whenever I realized there were only a few days left I would count again to see if I could increase the number by a day. On my last day I actually felt close to tears when my interpreter, chaperone and friend gave me several beautiful Japanese gifts wrapped in the most wonderful way possible, and said sincerely - "Anusan, I hope you meet someday, somewhere again me."
It was strange that a person like me who loved to talk to people, hated to be alone for more than a short period of time, enjoyed noise and hated formality would love this land of peace, quiet and politeness so much. Needless to say I am awaiting my next visit and have already started preparing for it by reading anything I see with the word Japan or Zen in it.
Of course I don't foresee a trip in the near future but if it does happen I am ready - ready to visit my friends who keep in touch with me, ready to experience once again the peace I felt in the temple and ready to try out living in a temple to see if I can also experience that intangible, elusive and mysterious joy that people call Zen.
Editor: Romola Butalia   (c) India Travelogue. All rights reserved.