Rakchham

The trip to रक्छम was to prepare us for the trip to Chitkul (छित्कुल). The drives here are always tricky, bumpy and difficult, but beauty everywhere you look. It is really tempting to stop… I am glad I overcame the impulse to do so. When we reached the lower edge of the meadow, we walked along the road for a while. The meadows, the rivulets flowing through them were just so inviting.

All thoughts of cold water, wet shoes and clothes were discarded and I walked into the streams, crossing them making my way towards the trees. Praveen was following, no option for him but to try and walk on rocks or pieces of wood so that his shoes don’t get wet. We met up with the others and learnt that he had twisted his ankle… he had to slow down, we decided to do some more climbing and come back in a while.

Another flowering pine, the colour is lighter

It was a beautiful, peaceful walk. We made our way slowly along the stream for a while. Then we stepped away from it climbing to a fair height. There is something to be said for taking things slowly, having no goal in mind. It allows you do to a lot… and not feel the pressure of it. Sometimes, it is good to just plunge your feet in cold water, so what if it is flowing fast, there is always help at hand. As I slow down, I seem to notice a lot more. The stopping when I notice allows me to recover from the effort of climbing, it provides moments when I am not thinking but I know somewhere some gears are whirring, or not maybe.

We took it easy, picked up a lot of lichen which goes into making garam masala… I don’t think we have the right thing, but that is fine. Praveen spotted some resin flowing from a recently cut, maybe hacked is a better word, branch of a कैल tree. We collected it because of its fragrance… it is on a chip of wood, possibly from the same tree and put it in a plastic bag. 

We met at the edge of the meadow, had tea and snacks while enjoying the gurgling water in the stream. It was a simple excursion, but one that will make me smile for a while.

Back at the hotel, we are spending time chilling… it has been a lovely few days so far. I am glad he is enjoying despite not being too well.

I am looking forward to tomorrow. It is a trip to the river bed and then a walk up the valley to the south east. It looks hard, will take it as it goes.

Sangla: aarti and visit to Narayan van

This is a place where contrasts come together. The hills across the river from our room are dense with Devdaar trees. In the middle you see a line of large to small rocks that have come down with the snow or excess water from melts. These areas have taken down the trees with them. Turn 90o and there is a huge landslide that brought down so much water that it widened the valley where the hotel is. Towering above this are barren, sheer rock faces some so vertical that there is no snow there. It is a place where both philosophies, buddhist and hindu, sit together with great comfort. While the former emerged from the latter, there is enough difference between them. 

The sandy portion in the centre left is the area of the landslide

The aarti at the temple was lovely, simple yet powerful. When we reached there at 7 in the morning, the inside of the temple was dark, there was the steady beat of a drum and a bell. This continued through to the end of the aarti. Soon the inside of the temple was lit and you heard a low hum of ओम नमो: नारायण:।। This continued through all the phases of the early morning prayers to all the three gods that live in this temple. As you face them, to the left is the oldest deity in this temple. The centre Narayan was brought here to help the men of the village to survive into old age. Narayan ji has tantric powers and was able to resolve the issues. The one to the right is the newest and will grow to develop the powers of the one to the left over the years. 

As I think about what guruji said yesterday, I find it interesting and intriguing. The deities at the temple act like a court and help people resolve any conflict they may have with another. Sometimes the older and wiser will not use some methods or may not know how to use the newer methods that maybe needed to overcome the problem being faced, whereas a younger person will be able to use new ways of doing things and will not be so reticent. Yet, once the problem is resolved the youth has to learn to become calmer, live in the present and grow to take the place of the older ones, they who pass the light of life on to the youth. This is an eternal process and even gods have to follow it. 

The other thing he said was that as the light passes on we need to free the elders from holding some of the light. We need to take responsibility for the culture and move ahead, making themselves ready to pass this responsibility on when the time comes. Both, not picking up the responsibility when the time is right and not passing it on when you come out the other side of life impedes the progression. I guess, this is written in to the ashrams?

From there we went to the Narayan van. This is a sacred groove for the want of a better description. On the way we saw a lovely old chuli (a small apricot) tree. Here apples are farmed but chuli grows wild. They harvest it to dry and to press for oil. 

We went past a buddhist prayer wheel that is run by a water driven wheel. Here we talked of how religions can co-exist and respect each other. Just outside the temple is a gate which has the wheel of life, anyone who dies goes through the gate to signify the circularity of life. There is so much to think of, sometimes words are not enough. As the guruji said, there are things that can only be felt. 

At the moment, as I recall those moments in the Narayan van, I want to revert to feelings. On the other hand, I would like to capture the thoughts and experiences, hoping that this process will allow me to think deeper about things we saw and talked of. The seeding of the Deodar trees in a small plot adjacent to the van. The thoughts of the pujari that the older trees should not be uprooted fully but left to nurture the new ones. 

There is an oil that is extracted from the roots of the devadaar tree which is very good for skin ailments. Guruji told us that the tree sends all the oils to the roots when it knows it is dying which are dug up because they yield a high concentration of the oil. The balance between harvesting some of the root of the dead tree and leaving some so that they can provide nourishment for the new trees is really important but hard to maintain. It brings me back to the importance of balance in everything we do.

Then we spoke of how trees of a type cluster… he said, ‘like people want to live with others of their kind, so do trees’. Our driver said that he has seen forests where there are more than one type of tree, each type grows in clusters. As we stood in narayan van, I noticed that to the right of us there were only devadaar trees, but to the left, there were three species growing together. And yes, each species were growing in groups of more than one. There is so much to see and notice. A lot of times information comes from different places. This needs to be added to what we see and notice. Then we need to think about it. I am wondering how one builds a habit of contemplation on complex issues such as these. 

It is strange how many opportunities to learn cross our paths. As I write this, I wonder how many opportunities do I miss. Yesterday, standing at the mandir, I realised that real strength lies in being flexible, in being able to absorb and hold a lot of things that may seem contrary and then move to do something. The story about the court that runs every month in the mandir, when the gods come out to hear peoples’ grievances… most times they are able to resolve issues. Sometimes, there are nuances which they find hard to decide on. At that time, they go to Durga, who epitomises shakti, lives at the back of the temple. She is the source of immense flexibility, has the ability to absorb new things, to hold different ideas and thoughts. It is she who shows them the way. If you look at this story from different angles, the name Shakti means power yet Shakti remains unseen in the mandir. Shakti is the flexible one, the one who can bend, the one who can see many different perspectives. This too is a form of power, one that is not visible, one that does not forceful, in fact, it is in its unseen-ness and unfelt-ness that Shakti is a source of strength to the people around.

It was a heady experience, it will take many days to really understand what I have heard over the last three days. I know that learning is not punctual, I am happy to wait. 

In the afternoon I went shopping, with Yatin to help me. The first shop was a bit disappointing, I don’t think the owner thought we were serious. He sent us to his nephew, Mohan, who was another story. His honesty really struck me. He could have passed on cloth that was not woven out of hand spun wool and I would not have known. But he explained in detail the different quality of cloth. I will order some jackets with him, that is for sure, but will also buy some fabric as samples for the fabric periodic table. I think it will be lovely to have the fabric from this area there.

We wanted the bundle of flowers that are added to the Kinnauri topi for festive occasions. I had seen them and thought that they would made good rakhis. Mohan ji took us to a place where we found the strings made from wheat straw but not the ready flowers. He got us one from another shop. Now started a long series of conversations about what we wanted. An hour later, we had agreed what was needed and at what price the ladies would give it to us at. As usual, I forgot some so Yatin is to go back for more. He will also take my hat to which the mother will add whatever design of flower she wants to.

It really enjoyed talking to the ladies at the shop. Soon lots of the family got together, it felt so comfortable and good. I was told that the mother made all of these flowers… I hope she passes on her skills ot the daughters and grand daughters.

Kalpa to Sangla

Another journey which we thought would take a couple of hours took about three. But before that was a lovely walk early in the morning, heading out from our hotel, Kinnar Villa, which is at the extreme western edge of Kalpa to Roghi. We started off in the car, and got off about a kilometer along the road and started walking. The silence was broken by one car and we saw three other people… it was amazing. We drove back, had breakfast, went up to pack and were ready to leave by 9:30.

The journey was quick, his arm was really hurting. We got in grabbed some lunch and he went to rest. I too just chilled and read then left the hotel to go to a temple here. This is an interesting system for doing सेवा in the temples, you become a pujari for a year and are nominated to do so. I think it is quite an honour. This gentleman is the brother of the lady who fed us in Charang. He explained the history of the mandir, the gods in there and how they were related to the gods that reside in Badrinath, which is a few passes across from Chhitkul (छित्कुल a place we have to visit). Much of the history is lost in the fringes of my mind, the only thing I remember is that we do not see the real murti because is made of an amalgam of metals, one of which is Uranium, and has been hidden for this reason. The other story he told was of how the temple burnt down but none of the other building in the compound did so. We decided to meet again for aarti the following day.

Kinnar Kailash showing itself at sunrise
Now out of the clouds

Dinner was simple. We chatted with two Argentinians who were volunteering here. They came to India to learn yog in Rishikesh. Loved the experience, are much taken by the way the philosophy is a part of life. They made their way to Banjara and were volunteering as trek masters for the people who were staying at Banjara and doing activities with them. As we were eating one of the owners of Banjara came in. He spent time talking to them about work and with us about little bits about the area.

From our first meeting with him as we checked in and his story about people carrying the idol from the mandir to Badrinath and back on horseback and now by car, I realised that he is a bit sceptical of the increased access to the place. Mainly, I guess to the commercialisation that follows easier access. 

Kalpa and Charang

We decided that I would go on to Charang and he would stay back as he wasn’t on top form. That turned out to be for the best as the road was really bumpy… that said, it was so beautiful.

We left around 8am and what we thought would be a 2 hour journey became a 3 hour one. Some of it because I want to stop and photograph things, and walk to a flowing stream, some because of the condition of the road, and having to stop to let other traffic pass. We passed through two villages Moorang and Thangi. Little did we know that the lady who fed us was connected to both. 

Besides that the walk into the stream was lovely, the gorge just stunning. Many spots were beautiful, it was hard not to stop… 

A short diversion to a small village called Kunnu was great. The monastery there was tiny but beautiful. No one could say how old it was. The idol of the Buddh was really serene and beautiful, this made me feel it was pretty old. For some unknown reason, when I look at simple yet beautiful images of our gods my mind automatically labels them old, why? 

The prayer wheel there was exceptional. At first when I tried to move it in a clockwise direction, I kept getting it wrong. Then I looked at the mechanism and understood what I needed to do. The wheel is attached to a hemisphere at the bottom with a bent rod. Around the rod is stout rope like thing. You tug at it and it moves. The bent upward section of the rod had to be to the left of you when you tug the string. If you tug too early, the wheel goes anti-clockwise… not so good. On top are three rods of differing sizes that are placed 120o apart. They touch the little tongue of three different sized bells. As the bells ring, they give out three distinct sounds. The whole mechanism is so simple yet so well made, with very little, the people of Himachal were able to build some robust well designed things.

The prayer wheel

After Kunnu we headed to Charang, where we reached late and our host, Sonu, had to leave us to the care of his sisters and his mother. His mother is a great person, as her brother whom we met today said, she is a truly satisfied soul, ever ready to share what she has with anyone. We saw that in action: she gave us ghee and chuli (apricot) oil. The purity of the oil and the test of the ghee from this region is amazing.

Charang with its stupas
Charang from the top of the hill

The two girls did the cooking and serving. The joy with which they fed us was palpable and I think we enjoyed the food much more because of that. The mother said they wanted to feed us Thukpa and momos but Sonu told her we would not enjoy that. 

As we had been walking down to her home, the lady was telling us that the old homes were much warmer than the ones of brick and cement. This we experienced for ourselves. As soon as we entered her home, we felt really warm and cosy. She had the kind of metal, wood burning stove we had seen in Tibet and Ladakh. A discussion on the efficacy of the stoves ensued and we have decided to buy one from Rampur. The local driver with us said that you can have those that have no openings and the top can be used as a tava… I have asked for one of those.

She showed us the old mills for grinding grains. There are different to the one we had seen in Tibet. In this the wheel was at the bottom and the stones on top. The stones had a solid wood shelf like partition where the ground flour collected. The main stream could be diverted to run the mill when needed.

We not very hungry as we had had pakoras and chai at Kunnu but hungry all the same. I did not realise how much food we would be served. Not knowing how to ask for it to be reduced I ate it all and did not really feel full… We ate rice, daal and aloo ki sabzi with nutri nuggets. It was all really good. I saved some of my rice to eat with ghee and cheeni after the meal… that was a great decision as the ghee is really tasty, somewhat sweet.

All along we spoke of different things to do with food… and I learnt that potatoes should be stored in a matka and the mouth sealed with mud. This way no light goes in and they don’t sprout. We learnt that they kept apples for the whole year and dried apricots with seeds in.

The mother came from Thangi and her sister was married in Moorang. The bottle of apricot oil she gave us was from her sister’s place… 

I learnt that you can make paneer out of the left over chchaach. That is interesting… you tie the chchaach like you do paneer. Then pipe out the solids thinly and let to dry. This adds an interesting texture to Thukpa and also a hint of acidity… 

While wanting to sit there and talk, we knew we have a long journey back. Reluctantly, we set off and made pretty good time to Kalpa. The head was full of what we saw, heard and experienced of the hospitality of the people of this land. They don’t have much, they are willing to share what they have.

Forests and trees

There is a lot of discussion around reforestation: the planting of trees, their survival, the impact on climate and carbon sequestration and carbon capture. These parameters are used to judge the success or not of the efforts. For the last few months I have been reading a lot about the plantations carried out in Himachal, surveys to assess survival after five years. These surveys have judged the reforestation drives as unsuccessful. The reasons they quote are many:

low survival rates

species used were not appropriate

areas chosen for planting were not appropriate

maintenance was not carried out.

As it happened, we were travelling in Himachal, starting at Kullu and ending up in Kinnaur. We did not travel extensively, spending a fair amount of time in each of our three stops. This gave us time to talk to people, understand the situation on the ground, also to experience the forests on our own. 

So what did we see:

forests, some with one type of tree, others with a mix, some dense, others with clearings

forest floors with grasses and herbaceous plants

trees covered in lichen, mosses, rocks with algae

orchards, some with only fruit trees, others with peas etc. planted under them

At Sojha, our first stop, we spoke to Rajiv Thakkar. We had just been through the oak forests on our way to the lake. Here oak was the dominant species, as we walked along, other species made their way into the stands. The forest was dense with really tall trees. The line of trees went up the hill from the path we were walking on till the horizon. And down too, so far down that it was hard to see where they ended. To see flashes of red and deep cerise of the rhododendron was magical. 

While we were there, Rajiv and family had walked into a forest closer to the hotel. It was a forest planted by the locals after it had been harvested for wood for railway sleepers in the 1940’s and 1950’s. One of the people who had planted lived close by and talked about it. Rajiv told us the forest was really dense and beautiful. On the previous day we had walked into a forest, Yew (Kharshu) Devdaar and Kael trees, that was adjacent to the hotel. As with the walk to the lake, the trees here were well grown, and happy, some felt as if they had been here for more than a 100 years. The forest was dense, covering the entire hillside.

From Sojha we drove to Kalpa. All along the way we saw orchards (trees) and stands of Devadaar, Cheel, Kael, Rai, willow, the odd rhododendron (Braash). Ferns were starting to emerge after the winter, the wild strawberries were everywhere. Along the way, we saw fairly steep, rock faces. Here plants had found a way of taking root. 

This pattern was repeated all across. Moreover, as we entered the Charang area, we saw trees trying to grow out of rock… at one place, there were stands of trees growing out of a vertical face of rock. They were growing at every conceivable angel to the rock looking fairly dead. When I asked the driver of our car, he asked me to look carefully to see that new leaves were sprouting… 

We saw were broad-leafed deciduous trees too, like poplars, chinar, birch (bhojpatra). And wild apricot and peach (the locals use the twigs of this to clean their teeth, it is so bitter).

This got me thinking, here are some questions that have been on my mind:

Is five years a suitable time to call a reforestation drive a success or a failure?

If there is a 50% or even lower survival of planted saplings, is that not fine. The saplings that have survived have the stronger genes. Over the next 50 years, surely, these will give rise to a forest?

I started to think that planting on these steep slopes is hard, how would you maintain the saplings? We see that trees have a way of taking root, where a small opportunity presents itself. Practically speaking, would it not make sense to leave the hardiest of the saplings to make it on their own? Once established, to create their own forest.

Choosing species that are native to the place is a great idea. I wonder if the species planted in the area were planted there or were they endemic to the place. Nobody was able to give me a suitable answer to this question. 

From people of the area, and stories that other visitors had heard, I got many different views:

Devadaar were all planted by the British

These hills had only broad-leaved deciduous trees

All the firs and pines were brought into this area.

These were but a few of the things we heard. I am struggling to correlate this to the huge two Devadaar trees we saw in Sangla… the girth was so large and  the height more so… surely that one tree would be more than 300 years old and the second even older. There were other really large trees, including in the oak forest at Jalori… 

If the firs and pines were brought into this area, they have naturalised to it. We saw plenty of healthy Kael seedlings and saplings under Kael trees, waiting to grow into trees. Seeing the density of trees, I feel other species were doing the same thing.

If these species were brought in, who chose them and why?

If these species have naturalised, as have the domesticated ones, apples, cherries, then maybe others we introduce (after careful thought) may do so too.

There are many questions which I hope I will find answers to. It leaves me with the thought that maybe as humans we think we can make a difference and we can. We try our best, in hindsight, our actions can seem both good and bad. Can think about success and failure too early stop us from doing work that has as much chance of succeeding as failing?

Is it best to start of by planting a few trees and then follow the re-wilding path and let nature find its own solutions?

Sojha to Kalpa

Kalpa to Sangla

Another journey which we thought would take a couple of hours took about three. But before that was a lovely walk early in the morning, heading out from our hotel, Kinnar Villa, which is at the extreme western edge of Kalpa to Roghi. We started off in the car, and got off about a kilometer along the road and started walking. The silence was broken by one car and we saw three other people… it was amazing. We drove back, had breakfast, went up to pack and were ready to leave by 9:30.

Kinnar Kailash poking its head out of the clouds
Finally we see it fully
All the peaks visible from our balcony

The journey was quick, his arm was really hurting. We got in grabbed some lunch and he went to rest. I too just chilled and read then left the hotel to go to a temple here. This is an interesting system for doing सेवा in the temples, you become a pujari for a year and are nominated to do so. I think it is quite an honour. This gentleman is the brother of the lady who fed us in Charang. He explained the history of the mandir, the gods in there and how they were related to the gods that reside in Badrinath, which is a few passes across from Chhitkul (छित्कुल a place we have to visit). Much of the history is lost in the fringes of my mind, the only thing I remember is that we do not see the real murti because is made of an amalgam of metals, one of which is Uranium, and has been hidden for this reason. The other story he told was of how the temple burnt down but none of the other building in the compound did so. We decided to meet again for aarti the following day.

Dinner was simple. We chatted with two Argentinians who were volunteering here. They came to India to learn yog in Rishikesh. Loved the experience, are much taken by the way the philosophy is a part of life. They made their way to Banjara and were volunteering as trek masters for the people who were staying at Banjara and doing activities with them. As we were eating one of the owners of Banjara came in. He spent time talking to them about work and with us about little bits about the area.

From our first meeting with him as we checked in and his story about people carrying the idol from the mandir to Badrinath and back on horseback and now by car, I realised that he is a bit sceptical of the increased access to the place. Mainly, I guess to the commercialisation that follows easier access. 

Himachal: Sojha to Kalpa

It is strange, we plan for a trip and then something happens, the trip seems jinxed. This seemed to be the case with Himachal. We planned to go there in 2020, Covid intervened. At the time, the plan was to do the area east of Kullu. 

This year started with planning for Arunachal as one of Harsh’s friends was posted in the area. It turned out that we had not understood weather patterns there, that it would be the start of the monsoons, that was a non-starter. We returned to the idea of going to Himachal as most of the trip had been planned. This time we thought we would take more time (three weeks had been planned for Arunachal) and do an arc across the state starting in Chamba.

Guess what, we would not leave when we had thought, the trip was back to 10 days and to the area east of Kullu.

We are now in Sojha, a small village that is 30 minutes away from Jalori pass (जालोडी धार). We got there on the afternoon of the 4th, spent time settling down. Then went for a walk in the forest close to the hotel. Even though I had spent many summers in Mussoorie, I saw flowers on pine trees for the first time. There were three of us there, each wondering what it was, flowers was one thing that we did not think off… Looking at the photos and talking to our guide we realised that these were flowers and would turn into cones eventually. May of which, from the previous years were on the forest floor, we picked to carry back to Udaipur.

There were Rhododendron flowers laying on the ground, a beautiful set of colours, all the way from the deep pink of the flower to the darker shades of its drier forms.

The ferns were beginning to come up, Rajiv told us that they made a pickle from the newly emerging fronds. It took me back to New Zealand, where they stir fry them. 

The next day we started off for Jalori pass, where we would take a walk to the lake about 5 1/2 kms away. It was a tiring and long walk but really beautiful. We started walking through forests of the Himalayan oak (खरशु), progressed on to those that had some yews (रखाल) and then some Pahadi jamun and Rhododendrons (ब्राश). It was interesting to see that as we started climbing we saw forests of only one species, the only thing growing with it were some grasses and wild strawberries. As we went higher the diversity of plant life increased.

I had seen large forests of the Devadaar (Himalayan Cedar) on our way to Jalori pass. Here little else grows but huge Devadaar trees. And some of them, like some of the kharshu trees on our walk, must be very old. Their girth even from a distance seems huge.

Our walk, much longer than we anticipated and full of both uphill and downhill sections. we managed to get to the lake. Just before getting there, we saw two men sticking caps of plastic bottle to the top of a table, they were going to pour resin on it so that they remained there. It seemed a real good use of bottle caps and their table would last much longer too. The lake was interesting, the guide says that the water comes from a spring, but there is no outlet for the water…  He told me a story of how two birds live near the lake and every morning come and clear all the leaves that fall or get blown into it. 

The temple to the devi of the lake is about 50 m away, but the real स्थल for the devi is a large stone which sits touching the water. People praying start with a matka of ghee with a hole at the bottom and walk down from the temple, then do a परिक्रमा of the lake. When they come to the rock, they drench it with the remaining ghee. It is an interesting way of worship. You can smell the ghee as you come close to the rock. Strangely, it smells rather nice and rancid like it did in Kedarnath.

Our return, after a lovely bowl of Maggi, was on horse back for most of the way. We had to get off for about a kilometer and a half where the track was really tricky for horses, specially with mounts as well fed as us. To top it all,

Ramesh, the fellow managing my horse (there was no way I was sitting on a horse without somebody leading it) chatted a lot… it was fun understanding life from his perspective. He is a farmer and grows apples, potatoes, some wheat, some vegetables. Most of it he sells to the middle men… but he does not mind that he is paid less than the middle men are, he is happy to get what he gets. 

Our guide, Yudhishter, was really helpful too… he ran down into a khadd (downhill into the valley) to get some Rhododendrons… this sounds simple, only the khadds in this area are really steep and you have little idea of the distance to where you want to go until you are a fair way there.

We got back to a hot cup of tea, and a hot bath. The dinner was good, the chef had kindly made a local dish called siddu (सिड्डू). This is made like a gujja but with leavened dough. It can be savoury or sweet. He had made both. This is eaten with a chatni of walnuts and coriander and is yummy. Well sated we were ready to call it a day.

6th ended up being one long drive. I have no idea how, what we plan as not so long drives end up being so long. Some part of it is that I tend to stop to look at plants, the other that when we are there, the drivers tend to drive slower. This was made pretty clear as we neared out destination, Kalpa. Just on the outskirts of Recon Peo we stopped to refuel. Our car left after it’s tank was full, the other two were to follow. Before we reached our hotel, they were already there.

The drive was beautiful, the highlight for me were the three really old Rhododendron trees that I saw on the road side. They must have been really really old. Their trunk was at least 600mm in diameter… that for a rhododendron is massive, at least in all I have seen, admittedly I have not seen many. But to see them thriving on the side of a really busy road, showed how tough and resilient they were. A walk across a small stream on a plank was good fun and seeing some ferns that look like tree ferns (they were not tree ferns) was good too.

The lunch on the way was really nice. It was another Himachaly meal… We had steamed udad daal chakki in gravy made of palak (spinach), methi (fenugreek leaves) and dahi (yoghurt). It had all the garam masalas, but akha and had a lovely flavour. The dahi here is very thick and smooth so if we make it we will have to hang it for a while to let it thicken. This was accompanied by rajma cooked with potatoes and rice. We loved it so much that we asked the chef to come up with some other great Himachally food for us on our return leg… He has promised us that.

We got to Kalpa fairly tired, yet all that we see around us makes me want to go on and on.

Cities, towns, villages

It is interesting to go past smaller Japanese towns and cities on the train. It seems as if they developed in an ad hoc manner, similar to India of today. And, while the buildings and built environment in the larger cities is being enhanced with greater greenery, these smaller places seem happy to remain as they are…

A garden in Sado
The dry leaves of a tree against a home in Sado, while well manicured trees stand by its side.
From the train on the way to Ise Shima

If I look back at the places we have visited, some areas seem to need care. While others are fairly well looked after. Some homes have beautiful gardens, with a structure and properly managed trees, yet you see others where there is a lot of potential. As is they were started with a lot of hope and somewhere the desire to maintain it withered.

From the train on the way to Ise Shima

It feels as though Japan has decided how it wants to grow and re-making cities and towns that grew fast during the 1980s and 1990s is not a priority. I am not sure if I am correct in my assumption, but it feels like that. If this is it, it is good… everything does not have to be picture perfect, you have to let somethings be and improve what is really important to your citizens… It makes me think of my foolishness when I grumble about a not so well designed building that comes up in Udaipur… it does not matter. What matters is what kind of people we are. Are we helpful, kind and considerate. 

Gardens in Sado

Japan has really maintained and grown a culture of being helpful and considerate. A young waitress will crouch and approach a table if she is walking in front of a screen. People will stop to let you pass comfortably, when two could have squeezed past. A person will go out of their way to show you the way if they feel you are lost, to the extent of going in the opposite direction to which they were going.

As you move away towards the north, the number of towns and cities with high rise buildings start to come down, we passed a large town it could even be called a city because of the sprawl, with virtually no tall building. High tension lines go through fields, near houses, these are obviously not considered a problem. 

From the train on the way to Ise Shima

In the villages, they use every bit of the land. The farm intensively. In Sado, we saw two sets of people harvesting rice, which incidentally is really sweet, in fields next to one another. It was evident that they were two families. One harvester was used to cut the stalks which travelled up a conveyor at the end of which the hay was separated from the grain. They had people who dealt with the rest. It showed a very effective use of machines for tasks that were effectively done by them. The skilled work was still left to people. 

The rice fields of Sado
A rice plant heaving with the harvest, ready to be cut
The Persimmon groves in the south of Sado

My favourite fields were those we saw while driving around the north coast of Sado… infinity edge rice fields… At least that is how they looked from the road as we were driving.


Returning home

An end of a lovely trip to Japan.

A trip which has seen the highs and lows in service from our service providers. It is a lesson in how not to grow to expect good service all across a region, city or country. Service is people dependant, people can’t make choices that deliver good service even if they want to when weighed down with rules. When companies make rules, they do so to deliver a good level of service. They do so because they fear the people delivering the service will not be able to meet the levels they want to give. They do not realise, that clients are people too. They change their minds depending on the circumstances. If a service has to be effective, reasonable changes should be acceptable and people delivering them should have the ability to deliver to that change.

An example, when we reached Chitose and the driver picked us up, a lady from MK Sapporo spoke to us. I explained what we wanted to do, including telling her that we could not spend 4 hours at the airport waiting for our flight to Tokyo. She understood and said, adjust the hours, spend less time on a couple of days, this will count towards additional hours on the last day. A very sensible solution, acceptable to us. The driver on the first day was of a flexible bent of mind. But not his replacement. We had no end of trouble trying to convince him to adjust times with us. In the end, we did not need to extra time. The typhoon meant we returned a day earlier.

Another strange thing, we had a guide in three places, Hokkaido, Beppu, Hakone. It was surprising to note that the guides knew little about the place, its history and even less about places to eat. On the other hand, the drivers were really well placed for both things. Specially our driver in Beppu, Fujishima san. The surprising part is that the guides have accreditation from a central government body, I wonder about the basis of the accreditation. Mayumi san was the best guide, though she too knew little.

Places to eat, for me the best were the small family run places we ate at in Kunisaki, Beppu and Takachiho (Miyazaki). All of them were small places, seating at the maximum 20 people and run by families. We would have done well to find places like this in the other places. And, I should have kept the names of them too. Other than these places, the best stay was at ANA Intercontinental. How wrong could I be. I was so sceptical about this place, mainly because it was an Intercon… Never judge! There is a reason why everyone says that. The food was great in Urashima too… 

Signing off now…