Japan day one
04.10.2013 - 04.10.2013
Tokyo, city of contrasts
Tea house, Hamarikyu
Here, ancient meets modern. A tranquil garden with a traditional teahouse provides a haven among towering skyscrapers. Girls in kimono tour ancient shrines while others don cute or kitsch cosplay outfits to shop in the trendiest boutiques. Shops sell exquisite crafts and the very latest in electronic gadgets. And there are people everywhere ...
Tokyo is an enormous city, a true metropolis, and its scale can be daunting. Where to go, what to see in a limited time, and how best to get around?
The solution, I think, is to slow down (hard when all around you are rushing), choose a few areas to focus on, and not beat yourself up about everything else that you have no time to see. And make sure you build in downtime – a pause to sit, look around you and take in the sounds, scents and sensations of this at times overwhelming experience of a city.
We started and ended our Japanese holiday here. For the first few days we were in Asakusa – relatively quiet, almost suburban in places, with the beautiful Senso-ji Temple at its heart. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. Although much of it had to be rebuilt following the World War Two air raids, it exudes history and, despite the crowds, a strong sense of the enduring faith that provides a stable background amid the frenzy of modern Japan.
London to Tokyo
We flew to Tokyo with British Airways on a direct flight from London Heathrow to Narita. The flight took 11.5 hours. That's a long while to be shut up in a tin box!
I'm useless at sleeping on planes and inevitably the time dragged, but the in-flight service was fine and the food served (dinner soon after boarding, breakfast before landing) also fine, if unremarkable.
The biggest challenge with this journey is the crossing of time zones. Tokyo is nine hours ahead of GMT, although ‘just’ eight hours ahead of London's British Summer Time when we travelled in early October. The timing of our flight meant that we landed a couple of hours after we would normally have gone to bed, to find Tokyo wide awake and ready to start a new day.
Luckily we found Narita Airport easy to navigate. The queues at immigration weren't too bad, our luggage arrived promptly, and we were soon through customs and searching for the counter where we were to pick up our pre-ordered wifi hub, before heading into the city. The holiday had begun!
Subway platform at Narita
Warning sign on the subway platform
To get to Asakusa we took the Kasei Line. We had already been supplied with preloaded Manaca cards, and with directions on the route to take. We followed the orange signs to platform 3 where we had about a 20 minute wait for the next through train to Asakusa. It arrived bang on time!
The journey took about 55 minutes. The first part was through an agricultural landscape (mainly paddy fields) before we entered the Tokyo suburbs. We had views of the Skytree on the left at one point.
View from the train into the city
At Asakusa we decided that rather than make the 10 minute walk (with suitcases) to our hotel we would change to the orange Ginza line and travel one stop to Tarawamachi station which was quite a bit nearer - although the extra stairs involved in the change of train may have been no better than the walk as it turned out. But we made it OK and found the train to have been an efficient way to reach the hotel, given its location.
Unfortunately for weary travellers however, the hotel (one of the Toyoko Inn chain) had a check-in time of 16.00 so when we arrived late morning we could do little more than leave our bags and head out again to start sight-seeing. Looking for coffee to help us stay awake after our long overnight flight we came across a small cheerfully decorated cafe not far from the hotel, the Café Sunset.
The first sight that greeted us on entering was a model train set (in fact there are two here) and the second sight was the smiling owner with a helpful English coffee menu in his hand. I was warm from the journey so had an iced caffe latte, and Chris had a cappuccino. The drinks were nice and strong and were served with a small biscuit - just what we needed to revive us.
A little refreshed we felt able to get out and see some sights, starting with the nearby Senso-ji Temple. This is the city’s oldest temple and our visit here was a great introduction to Japan. We had a fascinating couple of hours of wandering here and in the vicinity, despite the inevitable tiredness that comes with an eleven hour overnight flight plus eight hours’ worth of jet-lag!
Senso-ji was founded in the 7th century and is dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. According to legend, the temple was founded after two fishermen pulled a golden statue of Kannon from the Sumida River right by this spot. The sacred statue is apparently still housed in the temple, carefully preserved inside three boxes, but never displayed.
The approach to the temple is an experience itself. You enter through the huge Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate. Unfortunately for us, this was under renovation when we visited and largely obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, so I didn’t get a good look or a chance to take photos of it. The gate was originally built in 942 in a different location south of Asakusa in Komagata and was moved here during the Kamakura period (1192-1333). It has been destroyed numerous times, most recently by fire in 1865. It was only 95 years later that it was finally reconstructed by Konosuke Matsushita, founder of Panasonic (who are now sponsoring the renovation work, I noticed).
The gate is guarded on each side by fierce statues of the guardian gods Raijin (the god of thunder) and Fujin (the god of wind), and has a massive red lantern hanging above the entrance. The gods are there to guard the temple and people would pray to them to protect it against natural disasters such as typhoons, floods and fire. Over time however people came to pray for their own needs too – a bountiful harvest, good health and for peace in the world.
From here you proceed along a street lined with shops, Nakamise Dori. Nakamise means ‘inside shops’ and I assume the street takes its name from the fact that the stalls are inside the temple grounds. There have been vendors selling their wares here since the late 17th century, and many of the stalls have been owned by the same family for generations. But just because you’re inside a temple’s precincts, don’t expect the items on sale to have any religious significance. This is consumerism living side by side with worship in a way that everyone seems comfortable with here, perhaps because religious practice seems so integrated with daily life.
So the stalls sell a range of items that just shout ‘you're in Japan’! Super-cute dolls, lucky cats, fans of all descriptions, hair ornaments, cheap polyester kimonos, parasols, chopsticks ... Nothing is very expensive and some of it looks as cheap as it costs, but there are also plenty of eminently purchasable souvenirs and, on our very first day in the country, I had to resist the temptation to buy!
Stalls on Nakamise Dori
There are also some stalls selling edible treats at very reasonable prices. We snacked on some soy bean jam buns (one with pork which was good, one with sweet potato which was less so, being a little too sweet for my taste) which cost just 170¥ each, bought from some very friendly ladies.
The soy bean jam bun stall
From here we arrived at another gate, Hozomon, the Treasury Gate. This also has its ferocious guardian gods and red lantern, and on its far (northern) side, a pair of huge straw sandals (O-Waraji) which should be taken as belonging to one of these gods, showing their great size. A sign on the gate explains:
‘This pair of huge straw sandals called O-Waraji had been made by 800 citizens of Murayama City in a month and devoted to Senso-ji. O-Waraji is made of straw and 2500 kilograms in weight, 4.5 metres high. They are the charm against evils because they are symbolic of the power of Ni-Ou. Wishing for being goodwalkers, many people will touch this O-Waraji.’
Hozomon, and one of the giant sandals
At the top of the gate are storerooms, complete with modern disaster-prevention equipment, to hold Senso-ji's treasures and Buddhist objects.
Hozomon, like Kaminarimon, is thought to date from 942, and also like Kaminarimon has been destroyed many times by fire and rebuilt. The current design reflects its 1649 incarnation which had stood for 250 years until being burned down again in the Tokyo air raids of World War Two. This version is an exact copy of that, and very impressive.
As you pass through Hozomon you will see the Five Storied Pagoda to your left. This, like other buildings in the complex, dates originally from 942 but has been many times destroyed by fire and rebuilt. Most recently, fires from the World War Two Tokyo air raids raised it to the ground, and it was rebuilt through donations made by faithful Buddhists from all over the country. In 1973, the pagoda was further restored to include additional facilities such as a room for mortuary tablets. Relics of the Buddha are kept on the top floor.
Burning incense at Senso-Ji
In the area in front of the main shrine you’ll see a large incense burner. This is where worshippers ‘wash’ themselves in the smoke to ward off or help cure illness. Either side of this are the fortune telling drawers. For 100¥ you can shake one of the wooden boxes until a bamboo stick slides out of the hole. The stick will have a Japanese number on it, which corresponds to one of the numbers on the set of drawers. You then take the fortune, written in both English and Japanese, from the drawer of that number. I had read that the English translations were pretty obtuse so we didn’t try our fortune. In any case, if you don't like the fortune you get, you can conveniently cancel it out it by tying it to one of the wires provided for this purpose nearby!
Fortune telling at Senso-Ji
Beyond the fortune telling are some stalls selling prayer cards and amulets. And then you arrive at the shrine itself, Kannondo Hall. This too is a 1950s reconstruction of an older building lost in the March 1945 Tokyo air raids. Though it mirrors the original style, the current building features a solid reinforced concrete structure with titanium roof tiles – the Japanese are rightly taking no more chances.
According to legend, the hall was originally built in 628 to house the statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, fished out of the nearby Sumida River by two brothers. At the heart of the inner shrine or naijin is the gokuden which houses this statue, or so the believers say – it is never ever seen and cynics might question its existence. It also houses a duplicate statue and this is seen on occasion – once a year to be accurate, on December 13 when it is taken out for public viewing. Either side of the gokuden are the Buddhist protector deities Bonten and Taishakuten. You can’t enter this inner shrine but you can approach to view it through a grille, taking off your shoes to do so. I couldn’t see any signs prohibiting photography so I took one, respectful, picture.
Main shrine, Senso-Ji
You can easily spend quite some time wandering around the grounds of Senso-ji, as we did, as there is so much to see here. To the north east of the main shrine is another, known as the Asakusa Jinja or Sanja Sama (Shrine of the Three Guardians). Unlike Senso-ji, which is a Buddhist temple, this one is Shinto and their proximity to each other mirrors the way in which these two religions coexist peacefully in Japan and often interact. In this case, the Shinto shrine serves as protection for the Buddhist temple.
Asakusa Jinja, Senso-ji
It was built in 1649 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, the third Tokugawa shogun, to commemorate the two fishermen who found the statue of Kannon in the Sumida River, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, and to their village chief, Hajino Nakatomo. According to the story of the discovery, it was the latter who realised the importance of the statue and who built the first temple on this site to house it. The three men seen as the founders of Senso-ji and indeed of Asakusa are themselves now worshipped here. The shrine is built in the architectural style known as Gongen-zukuri, which we were to see two weeks later in Nikko at the Toshogu Shrine. This is one of the few original structures in the complex, having survived the numerous fires and the air raids of World War Two.
Near here is the Nitenmon gate, named for the two Buddhist deities (known as ten) that flank it. Like the Jinja Shrine, this gate is an original structure. It dates from 1618 although the deities are a more recent replacement for two that were desecrated in the late 19th century when Buddhism and Shintoism did not live so harmoniously together. The present statues were taken from the grave of Tokugwa Ietsuna, the fourth Edo shogun at Ueno Park. For some reason I seem to have omitted to take any photos of this gate – possibly because it started raining as we reached this point in our explorations.
In the grounds of Senso-Ji
Meanwhile to the west of the main temple is a lovely garden area with some smaller shrines, statues of the Buddha, attractive planting and a stream with some large carp. There are a number of quiet corners and great photo opportunities. We spent some time relaxing on a bench here, still fighting sleepiness and jet-lag.
In the grounds of Senso-Ji
After leaving Senso-ji we explored some of the surrounding streets, soaking up the atmosphere.
We came across a tranquil tucked-away shrine devoted to the deity Otanuki-sama, the Chingodo Temple. Tanuki means raccoon-dog and the deity is thought to protect people and their homes from disasters such as fire and theft and is also, according to a sign I saw here, a god of ‘the art of public entertainment’.
Also here is a statue of Mizuko Jizo, the Buddhist monk guardian of aborted and prematurely dead children. Mizuko Jizō is often depicted as a staff-wielding monk with children in his arms or, as here, under his robe. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.
Mizuko Jizo statues, Chingodo shrine
The children at the Chingodo shrine
Water fountain at Chingodo
By now it was late enough to check into our hotel, the Toyoko Inn, and we were weary enough to need a rest, so we headed back there to relax for a while before dinner. We got a friendly welcome, some soft drinks and toiletries as ‘gifts’ (including a gel that claimed to be able turn my ‘ugly body’ into one fit to be seen at celeb parties - yes, really!) and even the offer of a sterilised nightgown! Our 10th floor room was on the small side (as is common in Japan), but had no view other than of the wall of the next-door building. It was dominated by a large, comfortable bed, and we had everything else we needed for our stay too, including a bathroom with shower, washbasin and fancy Japanese toilet (heated seat, spray washes etc). There was a mini-bar, TV, hair dryer, kettle for tea-making and even slippers.
As we were so tired we didn't want to venture far from our hotel that evening, so found a small restaurant on Kokusai Dori a block or so north of Tarawamachi Station. We had no idea what the name was as the sign was in Japanese only, but they did have an English menu and various set dinner options, which made choosing easier. Service was friendly, and although, as the only non-Japanese in there, we caused a small stir on entering, we felt comfortable and welcomed dining here. There is both western-style and traditional seating; the latter was all taken by a group of what I took to be local businessmen, and we were offered a choice of the one free table or eating at the counter, and chose the former.
We both had tempura meals which came with miso soup, rice, sauce for dipping the tempura, pickles and a small salad. We liked the tempura and the dipping sauce but I found the miso soup saltier than I am used to (and I like salt!) and Chris didn't take to it much at all. This was our first meal in Japan so hard to judge at the time, but looking back later in the trip we both agreed it was probably the least good meal we had. A shame, but possibly our tiredness had contributed to that impression, and at least it was good value and convenient for our hotel, so we could tumble gratefully into bed soon afterwards!