Between shrines and onsens, there’s a reason Tohoku in Japan has made it to Lonely Planet’s top 10 regions to visit in 2020. Aurelia Fernandes takes on this stunning region to discover just that.
Words AURELIA FERNANDES
“Japan gets really hot in the summer…” my guide Umeko san trails off, looking at me sympathetically as I root about in my backpack in search of another wet wipe. “I am very sorry about the weather.” I smile at her, having lost track of how many times she’s apologised for the weather since we met earlier this morning. I assure her that Mumbai is just as hot and humid, so this weather doesn’t faze me at all. If anything, it makes me feel at home.In all honesty, though, the sweltering August heat is probably the only thing that Tokyo and Mumbai have in common, so, right then, the Japanese capital has my undivided attention. And, sadly, I have barely 12 hours here. While the rest of my itinerary looks immensely promising, I’m bummed out over my measly amount of time in Tokyo. Like most people who’ve been to Japan or find themselves planning a trip, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka (the golden trio) have always taken top spots on my bucket list. Tokyo, to me, is the ultimate metropolitan city, home to all things tech, anime and fashion. Kyoto, on the other hand, is steeped in history and culture, with art running through its veins. And, finally, there’s Osaka, Japan’s gastronomical capital and home to Toyo, the star of the Japan episode of Street Food on Netflix (a show definitely worth checking out if you haven’t yet already).In a country that has these big league players, what does the Tohoku region have to offer? Other than Miyagi and Akita, two cities I am familiar with thanks to their food, the rest of the region is uncharted territory for me.
“We’ve arrived!” Saori san, one of our hosts, announces. As we make our way off the bus, I find myself in Odaiba, an artificial island in Tokyo Bay. Home to the Tokyo Big Sight, a popular convention centre, the rainbow bridge and a replica of Lady Liberty (it’s Japan, why wouldn’t there is a replica of the Statue of Liberty?), Odaiba has the reputation of being a high-tech entertainment hub of sorts. But imitation statues and Mario kart references aside, we are here to see one of Odaiba’s most-loved attractions – teamLabs Borderless.
Opened in 2018 in the MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM, teamLab Borderless is a digital art collective that views itself as a group of digital artists. In this dedicated space in Odaiba, teamLabs Borderless showcases its stunning visual work, creating terrifically complex and interactive digital installations. The envy on the faces of other visitors around us is evident – teamLab Borderless tickets are not easy to come by; it requires booking well in advance if you intend to see this stunning museum and, believe me, you should. Your instagram profile will thank you. After the visual delight that is teamLab Borderless, we make our way to Gonpachi, a restaurant located in AQUA CiTY, a waterfront mall. The first thing that catches my eye when we enter is a wall lined with celebrity photos. After a few minutes of squinting at the photos, I realise exactly where I am – this is the Gonpachi, where the infamous (and pretty epic) fight scene between Uma Thurman and Lucy Lui was shot in Kill Bill. Although that was shot at the Roppongi branch, the brand is still the same. And, if it was good enough for O-Ren Ishii and the Crazy 88s, it sure is good enough for me.
After a relatively peaceful lunch, marked by the absence of assassins, we make our way to the Railway Museum. Having gotten off an eight-hour flight and then jumping straight into my itinerary, I can feel the tiredness kicking in. While I have a special love for museums and a notorious reputation for ending up with museum fatigue, I’m not quite sure what to expect from a “railway museum”. I figure a museum of this sort would only appeal to people who are really into locomotives, but I decide to keep an open mind, even though I can’t vouch for my sleepy eyes.
As we make our way into the museum, I find myself doing a double take – it looks nothing like a museum, let alone one about trains. I expect to see a few dioramas, a couple of train models and a carriage or two at best. What I’m greeted by is full-scale coaches that were once in active service, all pristinely maintained. We walk around admiring these mammoth masterpieces before stepping outside. I noticed a group of excited people, a mix of children and adults, all holding onto flags, peering over the fence in anticipation. “We will now see the Shiki-shima pass by!” Umeko san announces. Are we seriously gathered around to see a train while in a train museum? “It’s the most expensive passenger train in Japan,” Umeko san continues, addressing the confusion clearly visible.on my face. “It goes on a 10-day journey that takes you to different parts of the country; tickets can cost up to 1 million yen!” One million yen for a train ride? For some wild reason, my mind goes to my “first-class” local train pass, sitting in my wallet. “The train passes by every Thursday at 4.40pm. It’s almost a tradition for people to wave at the train and for the passengers to wave back.” As if on cue, we see the sleek train pass us by, with the passengers inside holding a banner against its large glass windows, which says “Thank you”. We wave our flags back at them excitedly, before heading back inside, to the simulation room, to try our hand at driving a train.
Japan has a history of minimum train accidents and I’m not ready to tarnish that, even if it is just a simulation. Sitting in the shinkansen (bullet train) simulator, I don’t do too badly – for someone who has to press a start and stop button.Our simulation session ends with me receiving a certificate of completion and, as far as I’m concerned, “driving a Japanese train” goes onto the list of things I’ve achieved so far – the simulation part makes up the fine print.