The Goldilocks land
The trains are punctual almost to the second and it's tough to find fault with Japanese precision, says Anirban Mahapatra
The iconic Shinkansen bullet train bound for Tokyo leaves Kyoto station; (Top) A night panorama of the neon-lit Akihabara district of Tokyo where adult entertainment stores rub shoulders with electronic goods showrooms
I had barely walked into my house and dropped my bags on the floor when an old friend suddenly rang in. "Hey I just returned from Japan," I said, and immediately heard her break into peals of laughter. "You must have really loved it, no?" she chuckled. "That entire country is a giant case of OCD. Right up your street!"
I mouthed assorted unmentionables in response. They were met by more giggles on the other end of the line.
Now, this friend and I go back to a time when a curious tic in my head compelled me to check a locked door three times over and have my National Geographic magazines stacked in year-wise-month-wise piles all in a neat row. But on a logical note, I couldn't fault her for likening my once-compulsive behaviour with the everyday perfectionism that was Japan's collective national psyche.
Indeed, the Japanese are obsessive. Not about door locks. But about excellence, perseverance, timeliness, order, beauty, aesthetics and all those things that make modern living a better and happier experience. From the super-efficient Tokyo subway system, where trains arrive and depart by the exact second, to the pinch of salt that goes into every bowl of lunchtime ramen — you name it. If there's a task to be done, the Japanese only know how to do it right.
Paper lanterns light up the Gion Ji Shrine in Kyoto; (above) A choice of sushi served at a sushi bar adjoining the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo, the world's largest seafood market
I had done some reading prior to my journey that gave me a fair idea of how utterly single-minded the Japanese were with the concept of clockwork. Everything was preordained: the thickness of each cut of fish in a fine sashimi platter; the colours and textures of a pretty ikebana bouquet; the width and intensity of each pen stroke in a manga illustration (they even had a manual for suicide, I learnt, that spelled out how one must precisely take one's life if it ever came to it).
But nothing quite prepared me for the real-life manifestation of this collective national quest, which overwhelmed me the moment I rode the express train from Narita International Airport into Tokyo's bustling city centre. For the next seven days, every time I came up for air while pearl-diving in Japan's bottomless sea of culture, tradition and artistic heritage, I sensed an invisible yet all-pervading matrix of pleasant perfection surrounding me.
Here's a sampling platter of Japanese exactitude, in random sequence. I hopped into a Tokyo taxi looking to reach a hotel of my choice, and the cabbie curiously asked me for the telephone number. You heard that right. The GPS service in Japanese taxis is triggered by a landline index — every establishment you possibly want to visit (unless you're headed to a Yakuza-controlled warehouse by the docks) presumably has one. No mistaken street names, no mistaking one block for the other. Most importantly, for a largely non-English speaking population, no Lost in Translation moment. Ten minutes later, I found myself knocking on the right door.
It only got better from here. In the sushi bars lining Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest seafood market in the world, chefs sliced up an assortment of delectable marine creatures and served them in perfect bite-sized modules, in an orchestrated scheme of colours and flavours right from the first course to the last, almost like a theatrical performance. In the traditional izakaya diners in Kyoto, platters of gyoza (Japanese dumplings) were complemented by cups of warm sake, heated to the right degree to match the spicing in the food. The splendid gardens enveloping ancient city temples like enchanted woods were manicured to pretty perfection. Think of a lovely table-top bonsai arrangement and then amplify it a gazillion times over in your mind, and you'll know what I mean.
Walking down broad city avenues lined by glitzy storefronts, I asked many a local for directions from time to time. The younger ones whipped out their smartphones and mapped out my route for me; the older folks offered to actually escort me to my destination. One kind lady even hopped off a train to lead me out of the station and point me in the right direction, before going back to take the next train and go her own way.
There was order everywhere. The superb Tokyo National Museum displayed different collections of artefacts in different buildings, with each wing devoted to a particular period in Japan's history. In the picturesque and ambient district of Asakusa, centred around the holy Senso-Ji Shrine, confectioners peddled scrumptious Japanese candies filled with bean paste, baked to just the right degree. Handcrafted lanterns and kites fronted many a souvenir stall, the colour of calligraphy on rice paper matching the red sun on the Japanese national flag to the exact shade.
In the district of Akihabara, where adult entertainment stores rub-bed shoulders with huge electronics showrooms under a giant canopy of rainbow neons, Japanese everymen casually shopped for merchandise ranging from digital cameras and smartphones to pleasure enhancing toys and X-rated DVDs. And there too, everything was displayed in impeccable sections, each megapixel count or carnal predilection to a dedicated shelf, all neatly catalogued and indexed.
The coup de grace of my excursion, however, came on a memorable ride on board an iconic Shinkansen bullet train. After two days of plodding through Kyoto's many temples, shrines and markets, I hitched a ride on what's reputedly one of the fastest trains in the world. At the end of the 520km trip (all in two-and-a-half hours), just as I was about to step off the train — while it was being readied for the return run — I noticed a maintenance crew trooping through the compartment, swivelling the passenger seats half a circle so their occupants could once again face in the direction of the journey.
Was it thoughtful industrial design that factored in both state-of-the-art ergonomics as well the unquantifiable human joys of travelling? Or was it merely that same unfailing desire to do everything right? The question played on my mind as I tucked into bed later that night. A rhetorical question, though, I might add — the answer really didn't matter. Japan had truly overwhelmed me, and I wasn't complaining.
This would have been a nice country for Goldilocks, I mused. Never too much, never too little. Always right. Always perfect. Always beautiful.
Map by Nilratan Maity
• When to go: Spring is a time for pink and white cherry blossoms. Autumn brings with it a touch of red and vermilion. The weather is excellent in both these seasons
• How to get there: Fly to Narita Airport in Tokyo, and then fly or ride the bullet train out to destinations such as Kyoto, Fuji or Hiroshima
• Where to stay: There are several hotels in every city. Try the ryokan establishments in Kyoto for a touch of traditional Japanese aesthetics and hospitality