It felt good waking up late (okay later than usual, not late). We went down for our last ‘early’ breakfast and all of a sudden it seemed as though there were so many small things that needed to be done before we checked out. I went down to exchange some cash from the currency exchange machine (I still can’t understand why these aren’t more widespread in the world) and finally managed to send one out of four postcards I’d originally planned to send to friends in Korea. Then of course there was the last minute packing of all things banal that are considered dangerous by the airport, like hairbrushes and deodorants and bottles of cologne. Personally not carrying perfume is more dangerous than carrying it… it is possible to terrorise people with bad body odour. And last but not least was the hunt for a gift for our せんせいs who’d been absolutely amazing the whole trip. I set off on a walk to see if I could find any store that was open that had what we were looking for.
It was interesting to be out on a weekday morning, watching as everyone around me headed to work in their plain white shirts and sober trousers and skirts of blue, grey or black. I found it amazing that in a country filled with so much natural beauty (over 70% of Japan is forested), people chose to wear such demure colours. It’s not always been so and the kimono and yukata are a testament to that, so why now? Imagine how much more alive the city could be if only the people could break away from the corporate trappings of 50s and 60s sober office attire.
I walked past a grey torii that leads up to a shrine, sandwiched between the high rises yet fitting in so perfectly with the landscape. I stumbled upon a chair museum, if you would believe such a thing exists, and though curiosity would have me go in, being pressed for time, I went on ahead in search of a gift. There seemed to be a shop that might just have something nice but since it opened late, I headed back to the hotel with ma’s favourite sparkling apple Minute Maid and convinced ma to come back with me. We got back when the store opened, but unfortunately there was nothing there to be found except kawaii stationery that would distract the most serious of students.
Our last resort, which was actually our first resort, was the antique store in Tokyu Plaza but since it had always been closed whenever we came and left, we’d never had a chance to go in. Today, we were confident that we’d finally be able to explore the place and have enough time to browse and be picky and choosy because which store opens later than 10am right? Wrong – we found our way to the store only to find out that it opens at 11am – which is when we were scheduled to leave. So much for that plan. Ma was very surprised – not at the fact that the store opened late, which is something one can explain away, but at the fact that it still closed early. When exactly does someone shop here?
With that unsolved mystery, we boarded the bus. We were scheduled to visit some gardens first before heading to the Japanese Muslim Association, but there were some stragglers, as is expected on the last day, and in the end we decided we’d be better off going straight to the JMA, especially since the day was threatening to be toasty with glaring sunshine.
We reached the centre shortly and it turned out to be a small and humble building with the men’s prayer room on the top most floor, the ladies prayer room and library on the 2nd floor and a nice place to gather for meals and lectures on the ground floor. Our attempts to take a picture in front of the building were hilariously thwarted by oncoming traffic but we succeeded at length and were finally led inside to the prayer hall where we met the president of the JMA. We learnt that the centre is run by Japanese reverts and aims to educate people about Islam by providing resources such as the Quran, tafseer and hadith all translated into Japanese for accessibility so people have a place to turn to to get quality information and none of that nonsensical propaganda being spewed by irresponsible media.
As we sat in the prayer hall, we were welcomed by Mr. Amin, president of the JMA and graduate of Al Azhar. He spoke to us in Arabic and thankfully, despite by lack of speaking ability, I was able to understand everything he said. Listening to him speak, I was surprised on a number of occasions. Good surprises included learning how the foundation of the centre had been supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the opening of which had been attended by delegates from around the Muslim world. It was also good to learn that this centre represented a significant upgrade from their one room apartment that used to be the base of their work previously. Another thing we learnt, surprising for most, but something I had already discovered some several months ago, was that they broadcast their prayers live on Facebook, in particular the Friday prayer and the sermon, which meant countless Japanese Muslims around the world are now able to listen to a sermon in their own language.
I was surprised and also disappointed to learn that there are only about 10,000 Japanese Muslims in a population of over 100 million. What was reassuring though, was the knowledge that in a country where few practice any form of organised religion, courses about Islam have started to be offered at a university level, garnering much interest and inspiring many conversions. While we sat there, we were also introduced to Mr. Khalid, former president of the JMA, another Japanese graduate from Egypt who shared his story of how he reverted. It’s amazing to listen to the stories of how people reverted, each of them attracted by something different that spoke to their hearts.
We had to adjourn for Friday prayers and we went downstairs to do wudhu and waited patiently for the sermon to start. The sermon was delivered in Japanese and while my limited Japanese meant I could only get the gist of what was being said, it was enough to understand that they were discussing the dangers of pride.
After prayers, we headed downstairs for lunch with the rest of the congregation which was then followed by an open Q&A session, and we did have a lot of questions. Some of the things we were most curious about were how Japan, despite its close proximity to Indonesia and Malaysia, had such a low population of Muslims and what was being done to reach out to the youth. Another important question we had was on what was being done to support reverts in the community. They were deep questions with answers that left us reassured at the optimism expressed by both the president and former president of the JMA. Our lunch of butter chicken with a solid orange dye that stained our fingers, salad, naan and the seasonal sweet cherries followed by cheesecake had dragged on and when our guide came in to check on us we knew it was time to say goodbye.
We left the centre with two lovely ladies, both Japanese reverts who would accompany us for the rest of the day as we went to the Edo Museum, Tokyo Skytree and finally, to the airport. On our way to the Edo Museum, we passed the Ryogoku Kokugikan, where sumo matches take place and I’m tempted to add this to my list of things to see if I ever get a chance to come back to Japan.
We stood at the foot of my favourite escalator leading up to the museum, in two lines, and I got handed the same entrance ticket that I was handed 2 years ago- the lady in blue with the long hair before we were allowed to go up. The last time we’d come here, I had been too tired to take in much and the size of the museum had been amplified in my memory by the exhaustion. This time, I was determined to take it slow and take the first exit out to the seats by the museum shops if required. Thankfully though, we didn’t need to and this time we were able to get through the whole museum, which no longer seemed as big as I had remembered it.
We walked past huge scale models of so many different places and I wished at that moment that I could change my profession to model builder and do something at the same time fun, fulfilling and maddeningly frustrating. As we walked through displays of Edo period Japan, we came across a statue of Iyeyasu (he seems to have followed us all the way here) and also came across, quite fittingly, a description of Tanabata – on Tanabata! As we strolled around, we ran into せんせい’s friend, who had been our lunch buddy at our favourite Indian restaurant. She had brought us all sweets as a parting gift, and remembering that ma and I couldn’t have eggs, brought us special snacks with no egg. We were moved by the thoughtfulness of her gesture and wished we had more time to spend in Japan so we could get to know her better.
We had enough time to appreciate the original Mac of the 90s, pose for pictures on penny farthings and in cycle rickshaws, to print out newspaper articles from the day we were born, to visit the restroom and browse all the museum shops. We were spoilt for time. At the museum shop I was lucky enough to find a book describing furoshiki techniques, which would help with the bag we’d bought earlier during the trip at Nakamise. After much browsing around, we were finally ready to head to Tokyo Skytree.
Having missed going up Namsan Tower when we were in Korea, we were determined to go up Skytree this time but by the time we got there, we decided we had other more important things to do – like find something dad had asked for, or an alternative should fate thwart our plans and also to find a gift for the せんせいs. And so it was that we walked away from Skytree. While Z went to help our guide with something and to get our final commemorative coins for the trip, ma and I went on to get the gifts. I retraced the familiar path back to the shop where we had picked up a gift for ma two years ago, only to find that nothing had changed over the years. The shop was exactly as it was, even the deceptive mirror display which makes everything larger than it actually is (so deceptive in fact that ma was convinced we were buying the wrong size of Edo Kiriko glass, until we moved it off the mirror). With dad’s gift picked out, we watched the care with which the glass was carefully cleaned and packed. They guided me through the tax-free procedure and the lady there, noticing it was my birthday, wished me and even let us pick out origami stars for fun.
That done, we now had time to pick out a gift for the せんせいs and as luck would have it, we found just what we were looking for, in the same store. We managed to convey to them, through a mix of Japanese and English and much body language exactly how we wanted them packed and when we told them it was a gift, they helped us picked out the wrapping and stickers and in a few minutes all the things we’d come here to do were done.
Z was still missing, so we decided to roam around a bit more, which is when we discovered the most intricately carved crystal sake cups, which we fell in love with at first sight. The price tag, was not quite as lovable, but it didn’t stop us from admiring the handiwork for a long time. While we were there, the saleslady brought to our attention the fact that the craftsmen from the company that makes all the things we’d bought, were actually in store and demoing their work. Unfortunately for us, the craftsman had just packed away his tools so we didn’t get to see him at work, but did get to take a picture with him instead.
With that, we left ma to rest her legs indoors while Z and I walked out to get some shots of the Skytree. The sun had only just begun to set, leaving behind a burning red sky in the distance. Soon the tower would be lit up, as it had been on our first visit. Z also got his hands on a brand new flavour of Calpis at the base of the tower, declared it to be terrible, but didn’t hesitate in offering it to ma to cross-check if it really was all that bad. It was. With that quick verification, we were ready for dinner at Amara.
Dinner was more papad and steaming naan with sweet butter chicken, and ma declared she wouldn’t have butter chicken for months once we got back. I was just glad for the protein before the long flight and sad at the fact that we’d forgotten once again to share a dish to avoid all the wastage.
It was as we sat there, wondering how time had flown and discussing how we’d all be back to work come Sunday, that the singing began. せんせい had come out with a cake, accompanied by her friend’s daughter all dressed up, singing happy birthday… to me. In the time Z had been away, he’d planned everything under the guise of helping our guide with something, when really our guide had been helping him plan out the elaborate surprise complete with cakes and prerequisite halal checks. It was a completely unexpected surprise because ma had given me a birthday card already in the morning and I thought we’d naturally be celebrating once we got back home. I was moved to tears, which is not something that happens often, and definitely never happens in public. Despite all the grief he’d given me, despite not having bought a suitcase this time around, he’d more than made up for it with the surprise. He’d also got our tour buddies to sign a card for me, which I got filled with all their wishes. And in typical Z style, I got my one funny card – a singing sheep. ^^ I even got gifts, not just from Z, but also from one of our tour buddies who knew how much I love models and even from our guide who’d been with us from the JMA. I got to celebrate my birthday with amazing people on Tanabata in Japan. What more could I have asked for?
We polished of all the yummy goodness of the cake and it was finally time to head to the airport. As we got together for what would be our final headcount, オサマさん declared I had the best brother, and for the most part, he’s not wrong. We climbed on to the bus and the mic was passed around for our final Q&As and last minute messages to each other before we pulled up at the airport. Checking in proved to be a hassle with new rules regarding hand luggage, in which a purse no matter how tiny it is counts as hand luggage, so all the ladies with us with a trolley bag and a purse were forced to stuff their purses in their bags before being allowed to check in. Thankfully, we had not just our せんせいs but also our guide and the ladies from the JMA to help us out and after much redistribution of luggage it was time to say goodbye.
Both せんせいs would be staying back in Japan for a few more weeks, our guide would go back to his job with a new group from a new place on another day, and the ladies from the JMA would go back to life as usual. And us… well we would all go back to the familiar daily grind come Sunday, with only Whatsapp left to connect us during the week, shared memories of our trip together and a promise to get together for a reunion once we all got back.
It was an entertaining wait in the lounge as we were amused throughly by our in house MC and I was tempted to go out and buy her one of those portable battery operated mikes that you see children holding so she could entertain us with her newly acquired guide skills on the plane which would probably go something like this
“On your left is a patch of clouds. On your right is a never ending sky of blue. Who knows exactly where we are, but the important question is why aren’t you married yet?”
We boarded the plane, and almost immediately and unexpectedly fell asleep for the next 4 hours. The rest of the time was spent watching anime after anime (Z continued his Harry Potter marathon that had started on the flight here) and when the plane touched down we were all ready for a breakfast of karak chai and Oman Chips paratha.
It’s good to be home.
Missed Day 9 Part 3 in Nikko?