A couple of days before we were to leave for Osaka we happened to go on a day-trip to Yokohama. Yokohama, according to common knowledge, has been one of the important ports of Japan ever since the country opened up to the Westerners in the 19th Century. Today, however, it is not only a major port for the country, it is a very decent town and large enough to be ranked as its second most populous city. We, however, were not there to have a look at the port. We were there to get a lowdown on the Japanese Post Bank. The Post Bank, we found, was a massive organisation located in its huge offices in its own building in Yokohama. It was still a part of the Post Office with its own Director General and it held more deposits than any bank in Japan. Today, however, after Premier Koizumi’s privatization of the Post Office, the Post Bank has become the world’s biggest deposit-holder besides being a full-fledged member of the Japanese Bankers Association. Commencing its business in the 19th Century as a Savings Bank it traversed quite a long distance to offer now numerous banking services and runs ATMs throughout the country. Incidentally, our own Post Office is now in the process of taking baby steps to convert the Post Office Savings Bank into a full-fledged bank.
Soon, we were ready to leave by Shinkansen, as the Bullet Train is known in Japanese, for Osaka. Everyone was naturally excited as it was going to be an experience. We assembled at the Tokyo Station situated close to the business district of Ginza. The sleek white and blue train parked on the platform was a beauty. I went along the cars to have a look at the locomotive that had that typical aerodynamic shape with a pointed nose to cleave the air. Inside the train the ambiance and the fixtures were so different that one never felt that one was travelling in a train. Noise was minimal and it was like what one gets in a jet passenger plane. There was no rocking or jolting; it was more like a smooth glide over rails. One realized the speed only when one looked out of the panoramic windows and saw the telephone posts zipping past at an incredible pace of more than 200 kilometres an hour. It was, however, so smooth that the cup of coffee kept on one’s table in front wouldn’t shake as it does here even in the prestigious Sahatabdi. The trip to Osaka took a little more than three hours. It was a technological marvel at that time; the Chinese high speed trains and their Maglev in Shanghai were all still in the future. However, the French TGV (Train a Grande Vitesse) running between Paris and Lyon had attained speeds of around 300 kmph in 1981. Nonetheless, Shinkansen predates TGV in concept and actualization.
Osaka, being the commercial nerve centre, appeared to be a very crowded, busy and dusty city. It was supposed to be the third largest in the country. Its approximately 8 square kilometre area was heavily bombed during attacks on Japan in 1945. Most of the city was, supposedly, newly built; whatever had remained unaffected continued to improve. It is the capital of Osaka Prefecture and the largest part of a metropolis that comprises Kyoto and Kobe (the place known for its beef). We did not see much of Osaka. It was mostly made of high rises and busy roads packed with all kinds of vehicles. Instead the emphasis seemed to have been to show us a bit of Kyoto and Nara.
As was said earlier, Kyoto is the part of the Osaka Metropolitan area. The city was the capital of Japan for almost a thousand years until the transfer of the Imperial Court to Tokyo in 1869. Before that, a few centuries earlier Kyoto suffered enormous damage during the wars of the samurais. It, however, escaped any damage during the World War II. Because of its being a centre of culture and learning the United States changed its plans and instead dropped the second atom bomb on Nagasaki. Known for centuries as a “city of ten thousand shrines” Kyoto is a much better preserved cities. It still boasts of about 2000 Buddhist and Shinto shrines. We could see only very few of the shrines apart from the “Shoguns’ Palace”. Shoguns were the army commanders in feudal Japan and used to exercise real power. The Palace, in fact, a castle was built in the 17th Century as the Kyoto residence of shoguns of the area. I don’t remember much of my visit to the “Palace” but I do remember the garden that surrounded this huge property, perhaps a typical example of ancient Japanese gardens – later to be declared a World Heritage Site.
The Nara Prefecture borders that of Kyoto. This is also an ancient town, having been the capital of the country though only for a few decades in the 8th Century AD. We saw a few shrines here but what interested me most in the town was the way they had converted alleys between two modern buildings into shopping areas covered at the top. This was my first brush with such a convenient arrangement that allowed shopping in a small area. Later, of course, I came across something similar in Venice. Another peculiarity of the town is that it allows deer to roam free all over as also in the well-cared Nara Deer Park. Legend has it that from the inception of the town deer are considered as heavenly animals and its guardians. No wonder, no one ever harms them.
In those narrow alleys I saw some amazing variety of ceramic ware of numerous designs. Japan is known for its porcelain and here it was almost like a feast. From dinner sets to tea sets and sundry items of daily use and curios, all were there and each piece was of incredible beauty. The aesthetics of each item was just fantastic and one felt like gathering every piece and take off. But that was just not possible – physically or financially. It was so difficult to tear oneself away from the presence of such exquisite creations.