In Japan Cleaning is Meditation

The morning sky is still pale when people begin to gather in central Tokyo’s Komyoji temple. It’s a motley crew of about a dozen, including salarymen, in full suit-and-tie regalia, a fashionista sporting a silver tote and an elderly gentleman in scuffed leather shoes. As the clock strikes 7.30, they shake off jackets, put down…
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Mr Wu

A middle-aged woman in teddy bear-spangled pajamas came hurtling down on a flatbed tricycle. The smell – a mix of sewage and fried rice – coated the tiles of the homes that lined the alleyway. Two men stood at the back entrance to a restaurant slick with fish scales, sizing me up as they smoked.…
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The Indian Who Docked in Osaka

The Indian diaspora in Japan has historically been small, but has encompassed a colourful cast, from revolutionaries to textile traders. The oldest documented Indian resident in Japan, and arguably the most influential, was Bodhisena, a monk from Madurai whose outsized impact on Japanese culture persists even some 1,300 years after he docked on the archipelago’s…
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Japan’s Vending Marvels

Japan may be synonymous with sushi and cherry blossoms, but vending machines could as well contend for the title of national symbol. There is hardly a square metre of the archipelago that is unadorned by these boxy machines. Even the remotest roads on desolate mountain slopes inevitably feature one, often half-buried under snow, but always…
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Elevating the manhole to art

The traditional way to discover Japan is to take in its shrines, gardens and museums. A less conventional method, but one with a growing number of followers, is to keep the eyes trained on the ground, and go manhole-cover spotting. In Japan, the lowly manhole is its own art form, with covers displaying intricate, occasionally…
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Postcard From Tokyo

  Japanese has a bounty of words that recasts the mundane into the luminous. Shinrinyoku, for example, refers to taking a walk in the forest, but translates as “forest bathing”, conjuring up the feel of cleansing light pouring through tall trees on parched skin. Another instance: mon koh refers to lighting incense, but translates as…
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A song for the sakura

Kyoto in full sakura-bloom is a sight to make the most confirmed teetotaller drunk, and I’m partial to a cup of sake at the best of times. There, under the cover of the floral parasol of a cherry blossom, rested a heron, its grey-and-white silhouette easily mistaken for an ink wash painting.
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Notes from Tokyo

There are four different Japanese onomatopoeia to describe rainfall. When the rain falls ‘shito shito’ it is constant and enveloping. When it rains ‘zaa zaa’ it’s a sudden downpour, typhoon-strong. At the very outset of a shower, it rains ‘potsu-potsu’ which describes a few early drops and a darkening sky. At this stage it can also be ‘para para’, a bit random as though someone were spraying occasional moisture on plants out of a watering can.
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A plane ride away from a broader mind

Travel for pleasure or out of curiosity has historically been the preserve of elites in privileged nations. For much of the colonial and post-colonial periods, most Asians who traveled did not belong to this group of tourists. They were "immigrants," fleeing political persecution or economic hardship. Does this matter? Isn't leisure travel a mere luxury,…
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Indonesia’s Rain makers

Babey’s face is gnarled, yet implacable, like an aged banyan tree. He smokes compulsively through a wracking cough, putting down his cigarette only occasionally to wipe the sweat off his brow. When we met, the heat was stifling. The rains were late this year, a fact that weighed on paunchy, 65-year-old Babey’s mind even more…
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