Kōhaku are the most popular variety of ornamental carps in Japan, instantly recognizable because of their bright red markings on a white body. As I stood over the pond, this one must have seen me, and surfaced to look for a feed. The slanting light on the surface of the pond caught it even before its body emerged. I thought I should cut away the distracting colour and just show you the play of light.
Azaleas are really something to celebrate, so the idea of a Shinto shrine in the middle of Tokyo which has an Azalea festival, the Tsutsuji matsuri, at the end of every April is fascinating. We got there two days after it ended, and caught the tail of the season. I’d spent two years planning a stay in Sikkim this April to watch the rhododendron bloom. It was a bit of a disappointment that I had to cancel that plan in order to visit Japan. But now I was seeing rhododendron flowers in any case: azaleas belong to the genus rhododendron.
Our first view of the Nezu shrine’s azalea garden (below) told us how narrowly we’d missed the peak season. A Japanese couple our age sensed our disappointment and led us to a poster with a calendar of the temples around Tokyo with dates when the azaleas were likely to bloom. An hour’s ride by the metro would take us to a place where they would bloom now. We thanked them and said we would take a walk around the shrine first.
Temple festivals are large and colourful affairs, and if we’d arrived the previous week we would certainly have heard music and seen quite a bustle. Now just a couple of stalls remained. The Family examined the one with lots of home ware, and called me over to examine the kitchen knives. I was hovering around the shop selling dango. I love these glutinous balls made from rice flour, especially the smoky taste of mitarashi dango which are rolled in a mixture of soy sauce and molasses. A stick cost 500 yen, five times more than what I’d paid for a stick in Nikko the previous morning. That’s Tokyo for you!
The Nezu shrine is not on top of any tourist’s list. It certainly wasn’t on ours, but we were glad we came. It wasn’t very crowded, and most of the people who we saw were local. A family was busy taking photos of their younger son: the mother dressing the child as a samurai while the older brother played with some of the props and the father fussed with his camera.
When a place is used largely by the locals you see enigmatic sights. What was I to make of two trolleys full of toddlers being pushed along the path next to the shrine? Was this an outing from a day care? If it wasn’t the Saturday at the beginning of Golden Week, I would have embraced this idea. But on this long holiday, is that what it was?
The Nezu shrine was not at the top of our list. It is said to have been founded in Sendagi, one train station to the north of its present location, and rebuilt by Ota Donkan in the 15th century CE. The fifth Tokugawa shogun moved it to its present location in 1705. His successor, Tokugawa Ienobu, chose it as his guardian shrine. Later, the Meiji emperor worshipped here. Since it remained untouched in the 1923 Kanto earthquake and the fire-bombing of Tokyo in 1945, it is now one of the oldest shrines in the city. Still, we would have dropped it from our itinerary if we hadn’t read about the Tsutsuji matsuri, the Azalea festival which takes place there in the last week of March. So the first thing we did on our first morning in Tokyo was to go there. The azalea festival was petering out; the flowers had begun to wilt; but we were happy to see Nezu Jinja.
You know when you have arrived at the shrine because of the torii with lanterns which leads off the approach lane into the grounds. If you can read kanji, then carved characters on the stone monolith next to the shrine will tell you where you are. The path curves around a tall tree and leads you across a bridge over a carp pond to the big two-storied gate, the romon. The photo in the gallery shows the main hall, the hondo, as seen through the romon. We didn’t enter the hondo. It is said to be a smaller copy of Nikko Toshogu, and we’d been there the previous day. Instead we walked out by the Karamon gate at one side which pierces the latticed wall called the sukibei.
From here a path led uphill. On one side, we could visit the secondary Otomi Inari shrine. Inari is the name of fox god in the Shinto belief system, and he is associated with rice. He could be the most popular kami, god, in Japan, with over 30,000 Inari shrines across the country. Buddhism also adopted these shrines, which can be identified by the vermilion torii which lead to them. In the most interesting shrines, these torii become a tunnel, which I imagine is some kind of a foxhole.
We could have turned into the gate which led to the azalea garden, but The Family said “They are mostly gone. Let’s see what’s on the other side. So we took the fork lined with vermilion torii forming a long and winding tunnel. We walked through it, took a couple of selfies, and emerged on the other side, where two statues of guardian foxes flank the path. Next to the path was a white shrine with red laquered woodwork. Clearly this must have been the Inari shrine. The path continued beyond.
Beyond this we entered a shaded area under trees. A first space was called the Enzuka, and is said to contain the placenta of Tokugawa Ienobu. I was surprised to see reliefs of gods with multiple arms. They did not seem to correspond to any of the Buddhist or Hindu gods that I knew. I guess multi-armed images may represent anyone who is considered powerful. Perhaps this relates to the shogun, but it will be nice to find out for sure. Beyond this is was a space guarded by many statues of foxes.
This is the space called Bungo no ishii, the Stone of the Literary Masters. I was surprised to find that one of the Japanese books I’d read, I am a Cat, is connected to this place through its writer Natsume Soseki, one of the Literary Masters who were inspired by this place. Amusingly, he has been turned into an anime character who wears a bowler hat, and sometimes takes on the shape of a cat. I looked at the light filtering through Japanese maples here. “I could find inspiration here”, I told The Family.
On our way to Nezu jinja in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo, we walked through a side road with a few interesting shops. Most of the houses were one or two-storeyed, and there was even an old-fashioned two-storeyed wood-framed house. “How nice”, I thought to myself, “such an old-fashioned lane.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Last week I looked at an article written in 1992 by A.W. Sadler. He described this road in 1965 as full of mom-and-pop stores “with the shop (fish, meat, vegetables, rice crackers, stationery, magazines) in front and family quarters in back. You could stop in at nine at night, and find the family gathered around the supper table or the television set, always ready to enter the shop and welcome the late patron.”
But about his visit in 1990 he wrote “only two of the wooden frame houses are now left standing. The destroyer this time is not war, nor earthquake, but prosperity. … The young no longer move out to start a new home elsewhere; real estate is too tight in Tokyo. And so the old house is torn down and a new one built in its place.” Inevitably, the process has moved on in the next thirty years. I saw only one old wooden frame house, that in the photo above. Even the other houses are more modern than Sadler’s description from thirty years ago.
The 1990-era Tokyo that he writes about was my first glimpse of Japan. “The national dress is effectively gone. … At festival time we did see a few yukata, but young women were, for the most part, dressed in shorts, jeans, and trousers.” Again times have moved on, and huge changes have accumulated. Sadler wrote then “During the autumn festival, twenty-five years ago, girls stood on the sidelines as the mikoshi went by, and giggled at the somewhat underclad young men. Now they seem more grown up, more involved, less giggly.” Although Japanese women still speak publicly in a high-pitched voice, this patronizing description would now be looked at as critically here as it would be anywhere else in the world.
On the boulevard Sadler talked of sidewalks as new in 1990 where a pedestrian no longer has to watch for cars, but only for bicycles. Those bicycles are no longer visible now. We strolled down the sidewalk looking for our bus-stop. The houses here were higher, four to six storied, and most people seemed to live in apartments. Much of the street level was given over to shops of various kinds.
Right across the boulevard from the bus stop was a very popular food stall. A long queue had formed outside it. We were to see this many times in Tokyo: along a road one food store of a kind would be really famous, while the others waited for walk-ins. When we tried the unfashionable ones, they were still quite good. “Reminds me of famous versus not-so-famous sweet shops in Kolkata”, I told The Family once. It was time for our elevenses; should we cross and investigate? Before we could decide, our bus was at the stop and, like automatons, we boarded.
Great Cormorant, Bird of the Week XIII
Great cormorants (Phalacrorax carbo) can be found in every continent except South America and Antarctica. So I was not surprised to see one in the middle of Tokyo, in the birding hotspot of Shinobazu pond. There were several flying over the pond, but only one settled in full view in the middle of the pond. I examined it through my monster zoom, hoping that it was the Japanese cormorant, which I haven’t seen. But it was my auld acquantance, P. carbo. Interestingly, this is near the easternmost limit of the bird. It doesn’t cross large stretches of open water, so it isn’t found in the west coast of North America. Strangely, the route across the Bering strait is not taken, although it has hopped from northern Europe to Iceland, Greenland, and the east coast of North America, establishing breeding colonies in each of these places.
While I used the monster, The Family was trying to use her phone to get shots of the bird. It worked fairly well; she got an action shot of it flapping its wings dry. I’ve often wondered why a water bird like this has wettable wings. It seems that others have too. I found a paper which describes the paradox neatly: “Great cormorants should be constrained by water temperature. Surprisingly, it has the widest breeding distribution of all diving birds, and does not require more food.” The reason, as the paper finds, is that each feather has an outer part which wets instantly, and a core which remains waterproof. The air trapped in the core keeps the bird warm. The wettable outer part reduces its buoyancy, allowing it to sink faster when it dives.
There aren’t many places on WordPress where bird watchers can share posts. If you post any photos of birds this week (starting today and up to next Monday), it would be great if you could leave a link in the comments, or a pingback, for others to follow. There is no compulsion to post a recent photo, but it would help others to know when and where you saw the bird. You might consider using the tag “Bird of the Week” in case people search for old posts using it. I hope you’ve had the time to look at what others have added this week and in the previous weeks.
Town, sky, river
Some days are perfect for walks. For a week I’d been afraid that our single day in Nikko would be washed out by thunderstorms. But in the last two days the prediction had changed. When the day broke, I looked out at a cloud flecked sky, sunny and with a nip in the air. It was going to be a long day on foot, and it was the perfect weather for that. By the time the thunderstorm hit in the late afternoon, we planned to be on the train to Tokyo.
We were planning to take a bus to the Toshogu shrine, and then walk back in the afternoon through the town. But the wonderful weather changed our minds. We got off at the bus stop to the shrine, and then walked back along the Daiya river to the 17th century Shinkyo (sacred bridge). Thirty years after I’d first seen it, the bridge has been strengthened and you can buy a ticket to walk across it. We didn’t bother to do that. Standing on the bank of the river I look a photo of the tall grass next to us, the rushing stream, and the beautiful spring growth on the trees across from us.
The village of Nikko grew up next to an area considered sacred in the old Shinto belief, especially Mt. Nantai. Some day we will go back to visit the 8th century Futarasan jinja and hike its god, the mountain. The Toshogu shrine was built with some thought in this spot in the 17th century, thereby associating the godhood of Tokugawa Iyeasu with the other gods of the region. Standing by the rushing stream, in the narrow valley between hills, it was not hard to understand why the whole area must have seemed sacred to the people who live here.
So much of the mood of a scene depends on the light which you see it by. I pointed my phone to one side and caught the sunny sky, with the bright growth of spring. When I turned to take a view on the other side, clouds had slid across the sun, and a dark atmosphere had fallen across the same hills. After looking at the Shinkyo, we walked back up the slope to the Toshogu shrine. The sky remained wonderful throughout the morning.
A bit of mid-morning dango, and grilled fish on a skewer kept us going through the long walk inside the shrine. When we emerged, the storm clouds were peeping over the surrounding mountains. We walked to the neighbouring Rinno-ji, and the play of sunlight and clouds gave us a wonderful view of the main hall. The weather eventually broke with a crack of thunder and instant downpour, immediately after we’d boarded the train on our way out of Nikko. The sky and the gods of the mountain had been good to us.
Eating on Bullet Trains
Japan’s Shinkansen, the Bullet Trains, remain iconic although there are many different superfast trains around the world now. The first Shinkansen ran two weeks before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Since then, running times have been shortened substantially by changing the shape of the nose of the locomotive from a bullet cone to the duckbill that you see above. I enjoy train rides in Japan, and prefer them to flights. Getting from Hiroshima to Tokyo by the Nozomi super-express that you see above took us 4 hours. A flight would have taken an hour and a half; not enough of an improvement to really matter.
That wasn’t our first bullet train ride on this trip. We decided to go from Kansai airport to Hiroshima by taking a Shinkansen from Shin-Osaka. That came with the completely superfluous opportunity to buy a little box of Ekiben, a lunch box to take with you on the train. We did not need this, but who can pass up an opportunity to eat a few pieces of Sushi at tea time? The box we chose had two pieces of each kind of Sushi, making it easy to share.
Travelling from Hiroshima to Tokyo we had a much wider choice of ekiben. We took our time choosing. The Family got the mixed spread in the upper panel: pickled ume (plum) and veggies, lotus stem and some mushrooms, a little pork patty, half a boiled egg, seaweed over rice. I looked around and took a more meaty selection. We took out our lunch boxes at about the same time as a family across the aisle, and out of the corner of my eye I saw that they had a much more elaborate meal. Perhaps we should have looked harder, but I was happy enough with this meal.
We have a sweet tooth. So after an hour or so of happiness I reached into my backpack and extracted an omiyage that I’d picked up at the station. Omiyage are gifts that you bring back from travels, so I must have stretched the definition a bit by presenting this packet to The Family and me: freeze dried strawberries infused with white chocolate. Like many Japanese sweets it was more tart than sweet. I don’t know what to call this specialty from Nagano prefecture, so in keeping with the daruma doll motif from the package, let me just call it daruma ichigo.
Japan is a shiny surface that reflects your own image back to your eyes. You have to let your focus slide to see the people below the surface. Just so, the lotus leaves floating on Kyoyochi pond in Kyoto’s Ryoan-ji arrested my eye while we walked around it. But when I looked at my photo, I could see the more interesting sight of the flowering trees around the pond reflected in its waters. Strangely, this was clearer in the monochrome photo than in colour. Just so, when I worked around my difficulty with the language, I could make a fleeting connect with people’s lives. Travelling is more fun when you can do that.
Here is the sun
There is no substitute for being there. If you search the web for information on how people use plants at home in Japan, you will find a ton of pages talking about historical styles, how the rich build their private gardens, and which Japanese plants you can buy for your own home. In truth, most people in Japan have tiny homes, and not much space to build huge gardens. But plants are very much part of their lives. So every little house in a city will have a small space with plants. On a gloomy day, as we walked from the famous Golden Pavilion of Kyoto to the equally famous gardens of the Ryoan-ji, we kept stopping at every second doorstep. In a tiny space, sometimes only the width of a step from the street to the door, every house had a plant or two. One of them was this cascade of yellow flowers which I could not recognize. The narrow focus of my macro lens gives lovely photos, but may not be ideal when you want to identify a plant from its photo. Can it be some kind of an anemone? Is anyone from a temperate region of the world ready with an identification?
As I took the featured photo, The Family found the larger garden whose entirety you see in her photo above. I can recognize asters. But the rest are outside my experience. The pot in the foreground is a whole Japanese garden in itself: at least three plants, arranged tastefully to show colours at different times, but green most of the time. Of the three, one stands tall, one droops and the one with the springtime colour spreads. Such meticulous planning! Each piece can occupy your attention, and that is the purpose of gardens after all.
The blue hour in Asakusa
Fire, earthquake, war and growth have ensured that looking for ancient buildings in Tokyo is a fool’s errand. Still, Senso-ji is worth a visit; it is the temple with the oldest tradition in Tokyo, and already had a thousand year history when Tokugawa Iyeasu designated it the main temple of his clan. Shops which always spring up around temples were organized into rows around the street called Nakamise-dori in the late 19th century CE. In 2012 the Asakusa Culture and Tourist Information Center was built at the other end of this street to a design by Kengo Kuma. By contriving to look like, and function as, several old-style buildings piled on top of each other, this high rise blends into the neighbourhood, in line with the architect’s philosophy.
Thoroughly exhausted after a day of walking, we sat in the observation deck of Kuma’s wonderful high rise and waited for the sun to set. As dusk fell, the area came alive with lights. I took a few photos of shoppers in Nakamise-dori as The Family concentrated on the fascinating spectacle of the Tokyo Skytree on the other side of the Sumida river. We’d waited long enough, and it was time now to walk to the temple and see it close up.
But as I stood at the road waiting to cross I saw something that is hardly ever visible in the tropics: the wonderful blue hour of spring. When the sun is sufficiently far below the horizon, the sunlight scattered through the ozone layer is absorbed to give the lovely colour of the sky that you see in the gallery above. The sun hits the horizon at a slant, and the ozone layer is thicker, away from the tropics, giving a long period at dusk with this beautiful sky.
As the sky grew darker we passed the first gate, the Kaminarimon, with its single giant lantern, walked through the Nakamise-dori, where the shops were closing, past the double-storied second gate, the Hozomon, with its three lanterns and two giant sandals, into the forecourt of the temple, where tourists were busy getting their fortunes told. There was a queue of people still waiting to get to the temple. We walked around, looked at the five storied pagoda of the Asakusa shrine next to the temple, the lovely small garden to one side, in front of which two young men did a wonderful synchronized dance as a girl took their video against the lit-up temple, and the panels on Nakamise-dori which told the story of the founding of the temple. There is a lot to see here, and you need to either keep some time aside for Senso-ji, or come back again and again.