Asia, Journal
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Japan: Awakening of Guilty Pleasures, Warm Encounters, and Spirituality

Is there a place that’s like a second home to you, though you’ve never seen it? When you know you’ll fall in love with its culture, streets, and conversations even before you go there?

Japan is my ‘second home’. I had a connection with this country even before I knew it.

The longing kept getting stronger as I began fawning over sushi and anime. One giving comfort and the other guilty pleasure, not necessarily in that order.

The plan was excellent. Starting with Tokyo, I’d go to Kyoto, Kobe, Hiroshima, Nara, and end with Osaka. But my luck wasn’t!

I came out of Narita Airport coughing and sneezing. I thought I’ll weather this, take meds, and wear a mark. If the worst comes to worst, I’ll visit a doctor and put my broken Japanese to better use.

Now I can proudly say, I went to three clinics in Tokyo and Kyoto with zero repercussions. But that’s the story for another post.

Act one

The calm of Setagaya’s residential community felt unfamiliar to me once I entered Shinjuku station the next day. Needless to say, I got lost in that maze of signs, shops, and platforms.

Evening colors of Shinjuku, Tokyo ©

Shinjuku and Shibuya are personifications of human life. Crowded streets that balance bold, glitter, and future like a common occurrence.

And if you ever want to see all this forced down your throat in a matter of few minutes, head to Kabukicho. You won’t be disappointed.

The next stops of Sensoji Temple in Asakusa and Ueno Park were a welcoming breather. The pace was slower, and I could even stop to take not-so-blurry selfies.

One thing became clear to me during the 3-day stay in Tokyo. There are no trash cans in the streets or metro stations. It was a blatant shock to me that made my backpack a dustbin, against my will.

But it’s also here that I fell in love with Japan’s convenience stores – or combinis. Different types of sushi, yakisoba, nikuman, caramel pudding for a few hundred Yen? Sign me up. And they are everywhere.

I forgot to cook for myself.

Act two

The futuristic overnight bus ride to Kyoto was amazing. Each seat had its own shutter you can pull over your face, you know, to shut out the light like a boss.

Talking toilets became the thing of the past after this.

Kinkaku-Ji Temple, Kyoto ©

Kyoto is where beauty resides. Every street is a revelation, a path into an ancient civilization. The city has too many temples and shrines to see in anyone’s lifetime.

Yet a single one is enough to show you a place to call your own. The Bentendo Hall in Daigoji Temple. The backyard of Kinkaju-Ji (Golden Pavilion) Temple. A water stream in Fushimi Inari Taisha. A rock in Arashiyama. And a bench beside the hidden Meyami Jizo Temple in Gion.

They all became mine as I said goodbye to Kyoto, my spiritual escape.

Act three

Kobe is a beautiful port city, but what made my stay here wonderful was living with Hiraoka family of Ken san, Sato san, and 2yo Itsuki.

My luck was compensating for my poor health. I had a warm home to come back to. We’d cook Japanese and Indian food and talk about random things, including their huge collection of Indian spices.

The warm Hiraoka Family | Kobe ©

Itsuki and I would wash our hands together before and after dinner. He’d show me how his trains sound.

I loved Kobe’s Ikuta Shrine (and beef!). The park behind the shrine is a hangout for the elderly who are too busy drawing portraits with their free-flowing fingers.

I found a nice spot and sat beside an elderly woman. Her drawing was smooth and moved almost like the nearby water stream. I started meditating to the sound her fingers.

Act four

I’d ended up scraping my Hiroshima and Nara visits to rest and recover and headed to Osaka.

I was waiting in an underground metro cafe until my Couchsurfing host came home. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a fashion-conscious crowd in my entire life.

It was a popup fashion show. I, on one side of the glass, and quasi-models, on the other, making way on their ramp.

Shinsaibashi Suji, Osaka ©

Osaka’s Dotonbori and Shinsaibashi Suji were too bright for me. There wasn’t a moment for me to recover, and I didn’t mind. Because I’d found my paradise.

In a small shop, I ate the best damn cheesecake of my life.

Rikuro Ojisan no Mise (Rikuro Uncle’s shop) is a must, must, must stop in Osaka. That cheesecake is a godsend miracle. Having so much fluff and cheese in one dish should be a crime.

After I downed two huge slices of that happiness (and forced myself out of the shop), I was in front of the Hozenji Temple.

Near impossible to miss with the moss-covered deity of Fudomyoo receiving prayers and offerings with water in an alleyway.

Now when you’re in Japan, there’s something you’ve to do no matter what. And that’s getting butt-naked in an onsen or public bathhouse and feeling sensations you never knew existed.

Who cared I was wilting away naked in a public bath at midnight? I didn’t, more like, couldn’t. It was that magical. I was struggling to stay awake after these comforting body massages.

On a good end note, I visited Osaka Castle and Sumiyoshi Taisha, one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Japan, and paid my respects perfectly on the last day of my trip.

. . . .

Japan was my dream come true. A solo trip to a faraway country, where I ate incredible food, met warm people and found my own corner in this world.

And I’d go there again in a heartbeat. This time without coughing my brains out!

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