Japan’s fantasy land and spots from the past
By Brinda Suri
27th February 2011 10:04 AM
As the airplane descends I peep out of the window. The landscape is snow white. Snow is what I’ve come to see in Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island. Not in its usual form but with an arty twist. February is time for the popular Sapporo Snow Festival and that is what’s drawn me.
It is Sapporo’s biggest event, annually welcoming more than two million visitors. This year I’m part of the deluge and make my way to Odori Park, the main site of the festival; Tsudome and Susukino being the other venues, the latter known for its crystal ice-sculptures. The park is essentially a strip running through the heart of a busy commercial area and is teeming with Japanese revellers. There are over 250 immense structures, including the Temple of Heaven in Beijing (China’s World Heritage site), Disney characters, Japanese toon creations Hello Kitty and Pokemon, and a lot more like Yuki Saito, the Japanese (baseball) pitcher who has a huge fan-following.
The state machinery gets into focus for the fest and services of the Ground Self-Defence Force are requisitioned to bring in tonnes of pure snow from outer districts. Its professionals also build the life-size structures, the star attractions, on whose periphery are 2x2 mt blocks of snow offered to the public to carve. The snow festival is advertised as a ‘fantasy dreamland’ but sponsor signboards and touristy kitsch had reduced its visual sheen.
As dusk sets in, Odori Park gets illuminated and begins looking like the ‘dreamland’ it’s advertised as. I’ve been on the snow for a few hours by now and escape to more comfy environs for another typical Japanese experience, a sushi restaurant. Sai Kaku is a place locals flock to. It’s cheerful, modestly-priced and buzzing with typical calls of orders placed. Chef Morinaga Narihiro truly turns out to be sensei , a master, who creates dishes according to my food preferences. Sushi places are known for social interaction and my neighbours, Watanabe and Fukuda, give an example of that, happily answering queries in halting English over Japan’s favourite beverage, sake, which flows throughout the meal.
Sapporo is like any other bustling Japanese city, but there’s not too much for those into Japanese history. For that Kyoto is the place to be.
While the modern has rapidly overtaken it, the spots from the past, especially the Zen temples that provide its balance. I ticked-off two: Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Ryoanji, the site of Japan’s most famous rock garden. It’s a small rectangular plot of white pebbles with 15 rocks. The extreme minimalism accentuates its Zen aura.
Talk Kyoto, and stereotypically Memoirs of a Geisha comes to mind. I couldn’t go down the geisha quarters, but opted for another Kyoto experience: the ryokan (inns dressed with tatami mats, sliding doors, and serving traditional cuisine). A heritage property, Ugenta — at Kibune, an uphill hamlet a few miles from the city — was as good as its reviews. Its proprietor Hiroyuki Torii was a picture of poise as he hosted a tea ceremony, explaining its nuances, particularly the element of austere meant to rid the mind of clutter. Later, kaiseki or the conventional multi-course dinner was a sensory feast, a commendable finale to Kyoto savoir-faire.
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