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Day 34: Riding the bullet train AKA the Shinkasen

On a field trip to Kyoto, I got a chance to ride Japan’s famous bullet train, locally known as the Shinkasen. I traveled by the Tokaido Shinkasen, which operates between Tokyo and Osaka. It was very fast, very smooth and an amazing experience. 
The exterior of the Shinkasen
There are different kinds of Shinkasens running on each line. Some stop at more cities than others. The one I took was the express train (the fastest one), called the Nizomi. Here is a video I shot when the train seemed to be at its highest speed (which is over 300 kmph according to wikipedia):

The train was very sleek on the inside. There was lots of leg space. For people on the window seat, there was a ledge on the window which you could lean on if you wanted to sleep. The train wasn’t at all shaky and one could easily walk around without realizing the high speed of the train. Of course, a visit to the toilets (which are probably the fanciest train toilets I’ve come across) is enough to remind you of that. The toilets are located at the rear of each compartment and are shaky as hell.

The inside of the Shinkasen

There are separate cars for passengers who had reserved seats and those who hadn’t reserved seats. Apparently, the train gets pretty full during the Obon festival in August when people visit their families and passengers in the non reserved cars have to remain standing throughout the journey. There are also separate cars for smoking and non smoking passengers.

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Day 14 & 15: A day in the life of a zen monk

An overnight field trip took us to Kamakura, a town of temples about an hour and a half from Tokyo. We stayed at the Engaku-ji temple, which is a Buddhist temple with about 25-30 practicing monks and several daily visitors.

Getas, traditional Japanese slippers worn by
monks at all times. 

After experiencing yet another delay caused by a train accident, we reached Kamakura in the afternoon and were shown our rooms. The first thing we were asked to do is change into geta, traditional Japanese slippers. We were then taken on a tour of the temple complex. The monk who was guiding us told us to walk in two lines with our hands placed on our stomach. The idea was that our arms shouldn’t swing on our side. On the tour, we saw the daily life of a monk. The monks eat, sleep and meditate in one room, which is common to many of them. There is no concept of privacy and everyone does things in the presence of other people. Everything was built the traditional Japanese way in an attempt to preserve tradition. All the rooms had tatami flooring, including our living quarters. The food was cooked using firewood (we were told that was helpful during the 2011 Fukushima disaster when electricity became temporarily unavailable). The temple complex was pretty huge. There was a zen garden, multiple buildings, preserved relics and places of worship. I don’t think we saw all of it.

The visitors quarters, where we meditated and ate. The
boys also slept here. 

After the tour, we went back to the visitor’s quarters (which was to be the place where we spent most of our time) to eat. Their eating rituals are very interesting. The men and women sat in two rows facing each other and wooden tables were placed in front of us. Two monks came and served the food. We were first handed three black bowls of different sizes wrapped in white napkins with chopsticks and a tiny handkerchief. We had to unwrap the napkin and place the chopsticks and three bowls next to each other on the table with minimal noise. Then, the two monks started serving the food. They would extend their hand for the bowl, which is when we were to bring our hands together in gratitude and then hand our bowl to them. They would fill the bowl with food and when we wanted them to stop we had to slide our hands together. For dinner, we had rice, miso soup and pickle. The rice was traditional Japanese sticky rice with seaweed in it. The miso soup had lots of vegetables in it. The pickle included a radish that we were asked not to eat right away. All the food was vegetarian, which is a Buddhist tradition. We started eating after everyone had been served. (It took a while for everyone to be served because each of the three dishes were served one by one, which meant the two monks going down the row of wooden tables thrice.) Just before we started eating we were asked to place a few grains of rice in front of our bowls on the table. These would be collected later and placed on the roof for the birds. The food was delicious and surprisingly filling. The monks came back twice for re-fills and we were repeatedly told to finish every bit of food that we took. We had to eat in silence and hold the bowl in our left hand while we ate with our right.

After we finished we were asked to wipe our bowls with the radish and then eat the radish. A kettle of hot water came around, with which we had to fill one of our bowls. We then cleaned the other two bowls using the hot water. The water would be transferred to the second bowl in which the first bowl would be cleaned. We had to drink this water and whatever remain morsels of food were left. When they meant finish your food, they really meant it. We used the little handkerchief to clean our chopsticks and wipe our bowls dry. We wrapped the bowl back to the form they’d been given to us in and put them on shelves behind us. They were to be used for breakfast the next day.

We were instructed to go take a bath. The women went first and had 25 minutes to use the communal bath. The communal bath is another Japanese tradition, in which you wash yourself with soap and water first, using a hand shower, and then you get into a hot tub of water (which also includes other people) in which you soak to relax. This was my first time using a communal bath and it was weird at first for all of us. But it turned out to be a really fun and relaxing experience.

After the bath we went to do zen meditation.We were told some general guidelines about posture (sitting up straight with crossed legs) and focusing our mind on our breathing (count your breaths). The monk then made a loud song by banging two bricks together (it made us all jump the first time) to mark the start of our meditation. We did 10 minutes at a time. He would end each session by ringing a bell and then banging the bricks together. I think we spent about an hour and a half doing several 10 minute long meditation sessions, but I’m not sure, because another thing about Zen Buddhism is not having too many clocks around. In the middle of meditation, we were served hot tea and a sweet which tasted like chalk with sugar. The last 10 minute session was an outdoor session in which sat on the deck of one of the little cottages of the temple complex. It was next to a zen garden and we could hear the frogs in the water croaking as we meditated.

Instead of water, we drank cold green tea

At 9 pm, it was bed time. We asked for water and were told that drinking water wasn’t safe, so they’d have cold green tea sent to our room. I learnt later that replacing water with green tea is fairly common. The next morning we were woken up at 4 a.m. for chanting. We were handed sheets with Kanji characters on them and taught their english pronunciations. We chanted for a few minutes and then did more meditation. This time, it was easier to focus, and my legs didn’t hurt as much as they had sitting cross legged the previous night. Breakfast was served at 5:30, which included plain rice porridge. To be honest, I couldn’t eat much of it. The eating ritual was the same again and we ate in silence.

The Zen garden by which we meditated at night

After breakfast, we had to do our share of community work by cleaning. Some of us cleaned dishes, some cleaned the living quarters and others swept the courtyard. We were thankful for half an hour of rest after that. We went for a second tour of the temple afterwards. While we were sitting next to the same zen garden by which we had meditated the previous night, my friend explained to me the Chinese origin of zen buddhism and its spread in Japan. A Zen garden is composed of rocks and water. Rocks in chinese culture represent permanance while water represents impermanence. But the two concepts are two sides to the same coin and are not diamterically opposed to each other. A zen garden embraces the complementary nature of the two.

As a part of the tour we watched a short film about the monastery. Several new monks arrive at the monastery every spring. But many of them are turned down because some of the monks who show up just do so to get food and shelter. The temple likes to ensure genuine interest of monks in Zen Buddhism. They also like to see perseverence, which means that monks are expected to not give up if rejected once.

Meeting with the abbot

After the meditation we walked over to meet the abbot of the monastery. The abbot had a constant smile on his face and he looked very peaceful and unworried. His expression reminded me of the Dalai Lama’s when I’d seen him in Dharamsala a few years ago. We had a question-answer session with him. The session deserves a separate blog post. But some of the interesting things that came up were Buddhist belief in following the natural order of things and being mindful of nature, enlightenment and how it’s all about recognizing oneself, hardships of life in the monastery and how it prepares you for other hardships in life. I learnt that monks get to see their families twice a year. They typically spend about three years in training and then leave the monastery to go to their own temples. Another random fact about Buddhism is that Buddhists believe in ghosts and afterlife, and they think that even when a person dies, he or she continues to exist as a ghost.

Spending a day in the monastery taught me so much about Zen Buddhism. Although I wouldn’t choose such a life myself, I can appreciate those who do. Most of all, I admire the ability of these monks to distance themselves from modernization and technology (especially in an advanced country like Japan) and continue to preserve traditional culture. The control they have over their emotions and mind is incredibly powerful and very useful in real world situations. If these monks were to step out of the spiritual world to enter the life of an ordinary human being, they’d without doubt be much better and more successful at it.

Dear Nice Man on the Train

I saw you when you were trying to explain to the other train passenger why you couldn’t exchange seats with her. I don’t know exactly what you said, but I was enchanted by how friendly you seemed. You were smiling all throughout as you spoke to that woman who would do anything to keep her family of eight together in the train. I wish she didn’t try so hard and inconvenience other people. 
Well the woman is beside the point. I actually just meant to appreciate your patience and friendly attitude with her. You are a person who at first glance, I would have immediately characterized as careless, unemployed and of low morals. You had an ear ring and a rough look about you. Your thin frame and dark looks made you seem like one of those men in Delhi who can’t stop staring at every woman in the vicinity. But you aren’t from Delhi, are you? You got on one of other stations of which the name I don’t recall. 
Forgive for my ignorance. I hadn’t heard of four out of six places that the train stopped at. Well that changes things. I’ve been reminded over the past few days that people in smaller towns are much nicer and less selfish than people in cities. And they’re also so much more diverse. A nice looking old man could easily be the troublemaker of the town and a rough looking young man like you could easily be the nicest person in town. In the city, on the other hand, it’s much easier to place people in broad categories and be right about them. I’m not sure why. That might just be me knowing city folks better.
Getting back to the point, your smile changed my first impression of you in a split second. It lit up your face, and your patience in explaining why you couldn’t exchange seats was admirable. I couldn’t hear what you were saying, but you sounded very reasonable. From what little I could hear three rows away, the smoothness and clarity with which you spoke, packing as many words as you could in each second, increased my confidence in my second impression of you. I was sure that you were a nice guy. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know.
Hearing the benefits of smiling and the quotes that have become clichéd with time, I had become accustomed to ignoring them, and overtime, forgetting how much a smile can do. Unconsciously, I had stopped smiling as much as I used to, simply because it was more effort than keeping a straight face all the time. You reminded me that smiling does make a difference, one that matters. A smile can make somebodies day brighter, it can make a hard blow seem softer and it can make bad news better.
You also made me catch myself judging people before I talk to them. Here I am, proudly believing that I don’t judge people until I get to know them. Maybe I don’t set eyes on a person and say to myself “Oh, looks like a bitch”. But on seeing a person like you who turns out to have a personality seemingly different from what I would have expected, I realize that I do judge people simply by expecting them to be a certain way. I certainly won’t look down on you for being that way, but I’ll assume I know you already. When I expected you to be an immoral, unemployed, selfish man, I was judging you based on your looks. Even worse, I categorized you, assuming that all people who look a certain way have similar personalities and backgrounds. You challenged that and reminded me that the human race is diverse in its personalities, habits, behaviors and appearances, none of which are necessarily interconnected.
I am mostly done with my philosophical rambling, but I want to tell you one last thing. I wish I could erase the last time I saw you from my memory. It was a few minutes after I first saw you talking to the woman. You picked up your backpack and went past me towards the back of the train to find your new seat. I don’t know how that woman convinced you, or why you caved. Did you do it because you didn’t want to assert yourself and further argue with her? I know a train seat is something that doesn’t actually mean much, but seeing you give in to her relentless persuasion reminded me that there is some truth to the saying nice guys finish last. The people who are kind and sensitive to other people’s troubles get left behind when there are selfish people to take advantage of them. This is not about the train seat. Your new seat was probably just as comfortable as your original one. This is about nice people like you getting pushed around by people who don’t care if their demands cause inconvenience to others. And if that’s the truth, what’s the point of even trying to be nice when you can get things your way being selfish and pushy? If it wasn’t for my liberal arts education, I would have completely given up on trying being more thoughtful of other people. But seminar discussions, casual debates in the dining hall and college in general have taught me that being nice and assertive aren’t worlds apart. There is a middle ground where you don’t have to selfishly push others around and at the same not be a pushover. It’s unfortunate that few people find that middle ground. Most are on either end of the scale. But people are increasingly self-aware now and I have faith that more people like you will find that middle ground. Until then, keep smiling.
Yours Truly,

A distant admirer 

Do I know you?

Have you seen any of those films where the hero walks upto a very pretty girl and tries to hit on her by saying “Have I seen you before? You look familiar.”

You’ve probably seen it in more films that you’d want to. Over time, it’s become a cliche.
But I realized, that as you meet more and more people you start forgetting the people who you have met briefly or in  a crowd. You cannot remember everyone you have said hello to!
Today I was at an event where I saw someone who seemed strikingly familiar. I couldn’t place in my head where I had met him. But I knew I had. And this wasn’t the first time such a thing was happening. 
Three fourths of my mind in such cases wants to go upto the person and ask if we have met before. The other one fourth fights back and tells me what a horrible idea that is at the risk of sounding like a hero in a movie. I normally end up listening to the other half. 
That’s what happens to most people. It’s sort of like the fear of rejection. If the other person doesn’t recognize you or can’t remember who you are, the joke is pretty much on you. 
Well, next time, I’ll try not to bother. Who knows! I may not end up being the weird stranger and instead, it might just turn out that I know that familiar person after all. 

Soak more and more!

This post is an entry for The Surf Excel Matic #SoakNoMore Contest on Indiblogger! Enjoy 🙂

It was just a month ago, July of 2012. My friends and I graduated from school this year. No one’s college had started. We were in that wonderful stress free stage where no one had anything to do or anything to worry about.
All we had to worry about was how to fill up our long summer days. One of our adventurous ideas was to go ice skating in one of the biggest mall of the country-Ambience Mall in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi. The monsoons still hadn’t arrived and we hoped with all our heart that an ice skating ring would give us some relief from the heat.

The minute we arrived at the skating ring, it started raining. Ofcourse we only found out much later when we got frantic calls from our parents. Our parents worried that the rain was so heavy that we wouldn’t be able to make it home. We ignored it, thinking of it as just another exaggerated concern.
When we came out of the skating ring and into the mall, we suddenly saw why our parents were worrying. The ice skating ring had been on the 6th floor of the mall. The roof was right above us. And it was leaking. The sweeper’s of the mall were running all over the place with buckets and mops to somehow keep people from slipping on the wet floors. (Now if any of you reading this are from another country, I would like to clarify, that although some houses in India may leak, malls normally do not. I am merely trying to emphasize on the harshness of the rain).

Neither of us had the luxury of a car to drop everyone home. And since most of us lived in Delhi , we had to take the metro. There was no other way to get home. Calling a radio cab was not an option. It was 8 pm, which meant people were returning home from work.
Peak time+rains=Chaos on the Delhi roads.

Our two options were to either wait till the rain reduced or to take a chance and run out and look for an auto that would take us to the metro station. That is when we thought, “what the hell! We have nothing to lose. If we can’t take small risks like this at the age of 18, will we ever be able to?” We had been taught all our lives to be cautious. Don’t bunk school. You may get caught. Don’t go out now. It’s too dark and unsafe. Don’t date boys. You’re too young.

Although this really wasn’t that big a deal, it meant a lot to us. Going out there in the rain wasn’t simply a matter of getting wet. To us, it meant denying everything we’d been taught. I don’t blame our parents for teaching us to be cautious. They only did it for our safety. It’s more like living in a city such as Delhi that made us so cautious and scared of little things.

So that is exactly what we did! We ran out of the mall while the entire crowd who was waiting for the rain to die down a bit stared at us, wondering which devil from hell had gotten into us. The rain was amazing. It was the first monsoon shower that Delhi had been anticipating for the past month. To some people it meant better weather, to some others it meant that their crops wouldn’t die and there family would have enough food for the winter. And to us? To us it meant a free spirit. This was the first time since graduating school, that we actually tasted our freedom. We realized that we were new adults in the world, in a free world, where we had the liberty to do whatever we wanted! So the city is a little unsafe! And maybe some people can harm us. But we didn’t see why that should affect what we do.

It was the rain and the soaked clothes and the splashing in the puddles that made us realize that. One monsoon shower was all we needed. And I cannot be more thankful for that.

If that is what one monsoon shower did to us, I say “SOAK MORE AND MORE AND MORE”

Delhi vs India

A couple of days ago, a friend and I went looking for wholesalers. We wanted to get some t-shirts made. The trend of lose t shirts seemed to be in and we wanted some personalized shirts for ourselves ad our friends.
A friend’s friend gave me the reference of a reliable wholesaler in shastri nagar. For those of you who don’t know, shastri nagar is a very under developed part of Delhi. It’s biggest achievement seems to be the presence of the metro station and a police chowki. Unfortunately for me and my best friend Shivani, we did not know this until we got there.

2 worlds in 1 country

After a very tedious journey, we reached a somewhat village like place. Trust me, Im not exagerating. This was a place with half built houses and dark and shady lanes and everything. To be here once was a horror, coming to this place again and again seemed to be an absolute nightmare. The t shirts didn’t seem to be a good enough reason anymore.
That was our first reaction on reaching a place about 30 kms away from our south delhi homes. And here’s why–we live in new delhi, a place with malls and hospitals and schools at each corner. Shastri nagar, although geographically a part of delhi, is practically speaking a part of india. And delhi and india are a complete universe apart.

If one visits delhi, and claims to have visited india, he couldn’t be more wrong.
You see delhi is the place where people go to private schools and hold private sector jobs, go to doctors who charge about 500 RS for a sitting even if its the common cold which is bothering them and go to the malls to eat in multi cuisine restauraunts. India on the other hand is the place where children as well as adults are lucky to get a job at a construction site. People cant even visit a doctor if they’re on the verge of death, either because there is no doctor in the vicinity or because seeking treatment from a doctor would mean going to bed empty stomach for the rest of the year. The best meal that people could dream of having here is one which makes the grumbling noise from their tummy inaudible.

While Delhiites argue about whether westernization is good or bad and politicians play their amusing blame games, a billion people spend days without food and water. While we groan about the hot weather as we switch on our air conditioners, these people hunt for paper fans which are the best they can hope for in their electricity deprived village.

They say that we have potential–but to exploit potential you need to have people potent enough to exploit it. And sadly, we seem to have very little of that. Historians wonder if the invasion of the british was a good or a bad thing. Trust me, had it not been for them, we would still be living in a day of kingdoms and wars.
The british managed to develop delhi, but i wonder who will have to invade the country for india to join the delhi world?

You know winter’s catching on when…

1. You try to fit your entire body into the area in front of the heater, so that it can keep all of it warm.

2. You wear your tennis shoes everywhere you go (they keep your feet toasty warm), including the bath room.

3. You wake up at 11 a.m. and decide to fall back asleep just because it is too cold to get out of bed.

4. The fridge seems useless and you start keeping things inside it in order to keep at normal room temperature.

5. You try to hold the book you are reading in bed with your blanket, because you don’t want your hands out of the blanket.

6. You are unable to move your arms, or any other part of your body, because you are wearing too many layers of clothes.

7.  The Delhi Govt, which almost never does things on time (they still haven’t taken off the Common Wealth Games bus boards) , closes all schools for 20 days even before the 20 days begin.