Looking for Japan

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Don’t lose any sleep over kimonos and Samurai swords. Japan will leave your head spinning with much more, writes Damini Purkayastha.

I went to Japan looking for a Samurai sword; a special request from a friend. I went to Japan looking for Ninjas; I used to be a mutant turtle fan. I was told to bring back pretty kimonos and cheap gadgets; they were apparently the trademark purchases.

I reached Japan and found myself flummoxed. Tokyo certainly wasn’t Japanese. Sure, the people looked it, and the letters on the wall looked alien enough to be Japanese, but where were the women in kimonos? Why were there so many Starbucks all over the place?

On our hour’s drive into Yokohama, I stared out of the window hoping to see a breathtaking view — I did. Great roads, amazing flyovers, swanky cars and landscapes. Two hours in Yokohama and I began to see the charm in being disoriented by the land. This was a world city. It wasn’t a land about the past, but one that was a close approximation of the future. High-street fashion was worn by teenagers and Louis Vuitton donned by every third person. Burgers and donuts were as popular as sushi, perhaps even more with the youth.

A waterfront warehouse, the Red Brick Warehouse, served delicious cinnamon donuts, right beside stalls of Japanese fast food and pizzerias.

The quirks
Two things strike you about Japan immediately — they have price-picture menus outside the swankiest restaurants and the people are always staring into their phones, and they all have flip phones. These people love their dogs, and you’re never really sure if there will be a bark or a cry from a pram. Little chihuahuas dress in colour co-ordinated jeans complete with tassles. Trained poodles lunch at the table with their masters!

Everything is automated here, including toilet seats. You can have your seat warmed for you at the push of a button.

The sights
In Tokyo, the two places you must visit, even on a business trip, are Harajuku street and the Mori Art Museum. The Harajuku street is the place Gwen Stefani got her ‘look’. It’s where the young and original of Japan parade their bizarre fashions. It is fascinating to soak in what passes for fashion in this land of the future.

The Mori Art Museum is a marvel, located on top of a 53-floor skyscraper that also houses a mall. There was an Annette Messager exhibition on when I visited, and the space devoted to the artist’s work was enormous. But if art is not your scene, keep heading up. The wall of the 53rd floor is made of glass and gives you the best bird’s eye view of Japan that money can buy. And photography is allowed.

In Yokohama, the view is best from the Yokohama Eye, a slow turning giant wheel that is a perennial favourite with young couples and tourists.

The past
I had seen the future for four days, but I was hankering for the past. I still had that Samurai sword to buy. After laughing at me for wanting one, locals pointed me to Asa Kusa, a town with a 12th century Buddhist temple and a street full of touristy shops.

A statue of a Samurai in traditional finery was at the entrance and I saw my first real woman in a kimono. I was finally in Japan!

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