As we prepared to journey to Japan, I had been asking myself, why do we want to travel so much?.. Is it to get away from life as we know it? The desire to meet the unfamiliar? To claim bragging rights of having visited a new place? A craving for wonderment found in a new place where the air smells different; languages, sounds and voices a tantalising mix of the familiar and unfamiliar; tastes open you to delights you never knew existed? Even as I wondered why this mattered so much, we geared up to go away – waiting to be delighted by a culture more alien than any we had ever interacted with and just a bit apprehensive about whether this, Atul’s first trip abroad, would live up to all the hype. Eager to really really taste Japanese culture closely, we had decided to give hospitality exchange a try. Research had led me to the global freeloaders site which in turn led me to Juan. With just a request via a message, we had a home to stay in Japan. The idea, that someone could be willing to open up his home to complete strangers who he didn’t know existed till just an email ago, simply out of a love for genuine cultural exchanges and a desire to support traveler’s around the world, was humbling. The perfect start.
Our first meeting with Juan marked what the rest of our time in Kyoto would be like. It is still one of my favourite memories of Japan – while we were still bundled up in the travel gear that we had travelled across the world in, the first thing Juan proposed was that we go eat dinner! And so, within hours of getting off the plane, we found ourselves gorging on Japanese food and getting drunk on copious amounts of hot sake with a generous stranger. What a fantastic way that was, to arrive!
That night, in the thick of bone chilling winter, Juan and Yoshiko insisted we sleep in own warm bedroom while they slept on the floor, on makeshift beds, in an unheated room. They insisted it was since they were more used to the cold than us. Before we knew it, the strangers we were living with had seen us at our most dishevelled, argumentative, clumsy best; fed us, laughed and poked fun and even offered to lent us warm shoes. Long rambling discussions that become debates in wine and sake soaked cold cold nights; walks through the wet winding neighbourhoods in Kyoto; breakfasts of local fruit with fresh cruty bread, butter and honey; nightly Indian cooking sessions as we waxed lyrical over Japanese and Indian food, became the norm. Together for less than a week but it felt we knew each other better than most friends did. In a blink we had become more than friends. But in yet another, it was time to leave.
Before we left, we were to go to this incredible dinner at Uji, a small historic town near Kyoto, organised by Juan’s students who got to practice their English on us. Cooked by a Geisha who came down from Tokyo, trekked into the surrounding hills and foraged for wild vegetables and herbs that she turned into sublime, serious food. Fresh, real, traditional Kyoto fare. From the caramelised fish in soy sauce, the okonomiyaki pancakes, crisp and sweet prawn and vegetable tempura, minuscule shrimp cooked with beans, sweet potatoes, yam, to the various kinds of wild greens; the 25 odd dishes that arrived at the table one after the other were beyond anything I could have hoped for. Hot steaming cups of the ceremoniously prepared hira-zake, were a highlight. Not that there wasn’t more sake than blood in our veins by then anyway.
Despite the glorious, exciting food, the best part was the company. Mostly above 50, curious, chatty and effervescent, this was very different group from what I had imagined ‘students’ to be like. There was a whole lot of talking. Much of it, all at the same time. Enthusiasm firmly undeterred by the entangling of accents, expressions and gestures.. endless chatter collapsed into giggles as the evening moved into a haze of sake, food, sake, more food and more sake.. and then it was actually time to leave.
The beautiful, painstaking marriage of simplicity and perfection we tasted in the geisha’s food was apparent in every thing we saw in Japan. I couldn’t help but wonder how they had managed to figure it all out. Why was the sticky rice so perfectly sticky yet chewy? What led them to discover sake (yep being drunk does make me philosophical)? How did they learn the precision that is a perfect cut of sashimi. The unmatchable symphony that the sushi at the Tsujiku market in Tokyo plays in your mouth…
The perfection that was Unagi.
The fabulously designed Shinkansen
Teriyaki chicken that was soft, succulent, melt in your mouth fantastic.
The stark brilliance of the temples and gardens that were at once ascetic, sensual and deeply spiritual.
More than anything else, how did they create the bowl of fresh, thickly cut udon ladled with the rich, milky soup and beautifully sautéed tender meat; made creamy with the raw egg poured directly into the steaming bowl, that was be so absolutely perfect on a cold winter day in Kyoto.
In each of these cases, a small list of ingredients combined with an eye for detail created experiences that were much larger than the sum of their parts – simple, yet complex and perfect. Like the beautiful earthenware perfect in every line of its form and texture. As Atul once pointed out, even the sewer covers were intricate in their detailed carvings of traditional scenes. And who but the Japanese would think of a button for music that would play the flush sound at will, politely obscuring forever those terribly embarrassing moments when everyone in the next room learnt far too much about your digestion.
A possible answer occurred to me as we walked down Kyoto in the powdering rain on our last evening there. Ambling down the lovely philosophers path on the tiny banks of a stream punctuated with beautiful serene Buddhist temples, we chanced upon a man sitting on a tiny bridge that arched over the stream. Alone, a diminutive figure hunched in the rain, hidden under his umbrella. He was painting what looked like a postcard. Curious, we stepped closer and were struck by the detailed handiwork and the evocative mood of the scene he was painting. Complicated gesticulation and many smiling bows later we realised that it took him more than a whole day of sitting in the rain to create a small postcard. But what was stunning is that he drew the same thing on most days. Over and over again, in painstaking detail. Flipping through his folder of hand-painted beautiful intricate postcards that were replicas of each other, I felt I had stumbled on a priceless key to the Japanese hallmark of perfection and simplicity – the Zen value of mindful repetition. Work becomes a voyage of discovery and each repetition an attempt to go beyond yourself. Perfection is a given. As someone who has a rather low threshold of attention and boredom, thrives on complex cooking challenges and looks at cooking as a series of techniques and recipes to be cracked before moving on, this was revelation.
We soon left Japan to come back home but even as we saw the islands shrink below the soft clouds, I knew this voyage wasn’t one that I was ready to end. Back in Mumbai, months after we have travelled, the journey hasn’t broken off yet. It plays itself over and over as I now see everything with new eyes. Myself, my relationship with work, with food. For the first time, the familiar shloka “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana resonates at a personal level. As days pass by, everyday brings with it a new thought about the value of repetition. And a new approach to work. It took me the journey halfway across the earth to discover something in my own world I never understood before. And now I know why we need to travel. More than to find new places, perhaps the reason we travel, is to find ourselves.