In March I and my wife went for a vacation to Hong Kong and Japan along 2with another couple. We had been to Hong Kong on a vacation some 20 years back, but this visit turned out to be a new experience. There is a clear influx from the mainland so communication in English is a serious challenge.
For a country spread over the main land and many islands, the public transport system is amazing. Senior citizens are pampered in Hong Kong.I had to pay the equivalent of Rs 15 for a point to point ticket on the Metro for a distance of 30 Kms, though the normal fare was Rs 150. A six-and-a-half kilometer ride on a cable car over the bay into mountains to see the tall sitting Buddha provided a an exceptionally scenic view .. The infrastructure that has been built to transport tourists to such locations is admirable. With such fine example of capitalism at work at its door step, small wonder that China is fast absorbing key ideas of capitalism.
From Hong Kong, we flew to Tokyo to spend a week in Japan. In spite of the difficulty of conversing in English and some difficulty in finding vegetarian food, our group of four Indianshadneverbefore felt so welcome in another country. We had heard that the Japanese are polite people, but their extremely helpful nature has to be experienced to be believed. We had booked three full-day tours: for local sights in Tokyo, a visit to Nikko, and a trip to the Mount Fuji and nearby areas. We were anxious about being correctly spotted in the lobby of a 1000-room hotel for the morning pick up for our first day’s tour. However, the Japanese punctuality and efficiency worked for us. At the appointed time we were picked up from the lobby and transported to a central point from where all the tour buses set off in different directions.
The tour guides spoke fluent English. The 3 or more hours that we spent every day in the bus passed like a breeze. So much information was being shared with us about the Japanese way of life, treatment of women, the economy and many other interesting facets of the society by the guides that the coach rides used to be as enjoyable as the final destinations. Some of the guides appeared to be very learned,always ready to engage in meaningful conversation with tourists. The explanations at each tourist spot were clear and interesting. For the return to our hotels at the end of the day, instructions were detailed with maps for each individual passenger.
People could discuss with the guidetheir disembarkation points to suit their interest as long as no detours were involved. One of the guides even offered to accompany us to the metro station if we were the last to be dropped. In the coach ride, we learnt the art of origami with paper handkerchiefs passed around. We were taught the Japanese words and their pronunciation for numbers from 1 to 20 and were quizzed on what we learnt! The art of entertaining is to be learnt from the Japanese. No wonder the Geisha experience is so unique and famous.
In Tokyo, once when we were lost while locating an ATM with English instructions, an old lady in a wheel chair insisted on showing us the location by coming along with us. At the metro stations, people volunteered help if they saw us struggling with the ticket machine which would have instructions in Japanese. When we got a ticket of a wrong denomination, the lady helping us went to the back office to get us a refund. We were simply awed with the friendly concern and helpful attitude thatthe Japanese people display for foreign visitors.
The sights in themselves were beautiful, particularly in places outside Tokyo. We saw Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and understood the difference between different forms of Buddhism being practiced. We saw many palaces and learnt the past 500 years history of rule by Shogun warriors and God like kings. We enjoyed the cruise in Sumida River in Tokyo and the Ashi Lake surrounded by mountains in the Mt. Fuji area. The world's tallest self-supporting steel Tokyo towerat 333 meters and a new tower at 600 metres were visible from many points in Tokyo. In our Nikko tour we saw the exquisite Toshogu Shrine and the beauty of nature.
When we set out for Mt. Fuji, it was a clear day and we saw Mount Fuji in the distance. We enjoyed the changing landscape, from thick vegetation to lowlands to rolling clouds. We stopped at Mt. Fuji 5th station to admire the world famous peak. Most of the area is considered to be an active volcanic zone since its creation from the eruption of Mount Hakone some 3,000 years ago. Our best experience of the trip was in Hakone near the Mt Fuji area where we relaxed with an onsen hot spring bath right in our hotel, private and yet open to the sky.There were separate sections for men and women. We had learnt that we had to go into the hot spring shallow pool without any clothes. There was hesitation and anxiety, but we somehow mustered the courage. Between us two couples, we ensured that we would go for the onsen at different times. Given that we were in the onsenat 4 times in a two-day stay, this was a little intricate. The very first experience of being in 40 degrees centigrade warm spring water and being able to gaze at the greenery around and the blue sky above was so exhilarating that we talked of nothing else but the experience.
Kyoto the ancient capital of Japan is a compact town. One can walk around the central area and see many temples and shrines. We visited the Todaiji Temple, the largest wooden building in Japan. The temple also houses the largest bronze statue of Buddha at 16.3 meters high. We also visited the Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) covered with 18 carat gold leaf and the adjoining Rock Garden.
As we ended the tour and travelled to Osaka to fly back, the memories that flooded our minds and will remain with us are not so much of the temples and the shrines but the warmth and hospitality of the Japanese people which we experienced numerous times in different public places, hotels and restaurants.
If we ever go back to Japan, it will be for the onsen experience.It taught us that the only way to overcome any fear or anxiety is to plunge headlong into the activityand flow with the tide. It took only a couple of minutes for me to feel normal after disrobing because everyone else in the room was acting normal.
Our only regret about the trip is that we went a couple of weeks too early. The mountainous regions were cold with snow on the ground. Also we missed the splendorof cherry blossoms in full bloom.