The 42-degree syndrome
Stepping out of a gleaming train at the Tokyo suburb of Oizumi-gakuen in the Nerima prefecture, I follow the orderly throng of salarymen returning from a long day’s work, their black suits and white shirts giving the impression of a bunch of penguins somberly riding the escalator. A hundred feet away from the station, I already straddle two disparate worlds; on my right, buses and cars wend their way towards shopping malls and highways, while on my left, housewives bicycle through narrow streets barely ten feet wide. A little way down these alleys stands the house of my dreams; each day my steps dawdle past the low wall, as I discreetly let my gaze wander through the immaculately manicured Zen garden, each sculpted bush a lovingly tended tale of a quest for perfection never to be achieved. The house itself, spacious by suburban standards, bears more than a touch of traditional Japanese design, and in the darkness seems to be hewn from a single block of stone. Never having dared to breach the strict codes of Japanese social etiquette, where barging in and introducing myself would be an unthinkable gaucherie, I am content to imagine the quiet but elegant genkan or entrance passage just behind the front door. No doubt there would be a series of tatami rooms separated by shoji or rice-paper sliding screens, with members of the family dressed in yukatas padding silently about, with that unique combination of love, respect and almost painful formality that defines a Japanese family unit.
For Japan seems to have achieved the rarest of things, the ability to reconcile and nurture its ancient traditions while racing to the top in technology, business and even lifestyle. Exiting a corporate meeting in a glass-walled skyscraper, I turn the corner to find a quiet park where I can eat my sushi next to a koi pond, watching the golden carp glide through the rushes. Punks with Mohawks, chains and body piercing greet me with a bow on college campuses, “Vikram sensei, kombanwa.” I spend an enthralling hour discussing the Tamil poet-saint Thiruvalluvar with Professor Takahashi at Tokyo University, who has translated the Thirukural into Japanese. Interestingly, many young Japanese are fans of Rajnikant, whose blockbuster Muthu has actually been accurately remade in Japanese!
I am overwhelmed by the obvious respect that they have for India and her culture.
Hundreds of times during my ten-month sojourn in Japan, I hear the words, “India – Veda, Buddha,” in reply to my introductory greeting. A senior master of Tai-Chi and oriental medicine in Tokyo genially tells me, “Whatever we know, we stole from you!” referring to yoga and Ayurveda.
But not all outsiders, or gaijin, have it easy here. There is a long and excruciating courtship that one must play out before being embraced by Japan, and many have opted to return to their own countries rather than make the effort to understand this most complex of cultures. But those who survive the initial months cherish a lifelong fascination that permeates one’s consciousness, just as the two weeks of sakura, the cherry blossoms, remain fresh in one’s memory through the year – possibly Nature’s most inspired and elegant outburst ever.
This process of gradually falling into irreparable love with Japan is often called The 42-degree Syndrome, because of the practice of soaking oneself in a scaldingly hot public bath (ofuro) at the end of the day. It takes the uninitiated a good ten minutes or so to inch oneself into such hot water, that too with a good thirty locals steaming around, chatting casually in the buff, but once in, your bones seem to melt within your flesh, and reaching your lodgings you’re fast asleep before your head hits the pillow. Even better is to be able to do this at an onsen, a natural hot spring, where you could often find a rotenburo or outdoor pool. Imagine soaking in 42-degree water in a secluded rock garden, with autumn leaves falling on your head as you hazily try to register passing thoughts without success. Life can’t get any slower here in the fastest city in the world.