Shibuya and my discovery of Miso

shibuya

Shibuya Crossing has been shown so often in Hollywood films that it is now a modern global icon. I took exit 2 from the Shibuya metro station and came out near the statue of Hachiko, well-known in Japan as the epitome of the faithful the dog. Then I added to the count of people crossing and went into the L’Occitane cafe. It was full of young women recovering from their shopping; I must have been the oldest male there.

All tables overlooking the pedestrian scramble were taken. The maitre d’ was kind enough to find me a table close to the window on the highest floor of the cafe. It was a good table to look out on the plaza from, but not good for photography: I guess that was the intention. I had a lovely view of the giant screen which shows a walking dinosaur in “Lost in Translation”. It was showing zany enough advertisements while I ordered.

I dawdled in the cafe until the light had faded enough to make the man-made lights look better, and then walked down to street level. The place is seething with tourists who, like me, wanted to take a photo which, with luck, would eventually be here. I don’t think I got one, but some of the others may have got lucky. (If you are the young Belgian tourist with a braided beard who was carrying the extra long lens, then I would like to see what you shot with it.)

The luckiest part of my evening came when I wandered into the Shibuya Hikari by accident and found the dining space on the 6th and 7th floors. After strenuous reading of many menus, I finally decided on a place in one far corner of the 6th floor which said it specialized in miso. I’d had miso soups before, but I didn’t know that you could specialize in beans. This was reason enough to sit down. This time I got a place by the window, and managed to over-order. I had two starters: a fresh tofu with pickled black beans, and a chicken with ume and miso. Both were excellent. The cod steak which followed was outstanding, and then I had the rice and miso soup. Now miso soups are usually fairly bland to non-Japanese palates, but this could stand up to my jaded Indian tastes. It was so thick that I discovered the scallops inside only when I held up the bowl. I was really happy to have an excellent meal without sushi, sashimi, tempura or katsu.

I like traditional Japan, but I really love modern Japan. Eating in Japan is a discovery each time!

Historic Tokyo: Meiji Jingu

jingua

The Meiji Emperor, Mutsuhito, ruled from 1867 to 1912. The emperor’s shrine is one of the major sights in Tokyo. I arrived at the Meiji Jingu late in the afternoon. The approach roads were flanked by tall trees which filtered the golden light of the sun and gave the place a gloomy serenity which perfectly evokes the idea of a shrine. I passed one of the tallest gates I’ve seen (photo above). I’m pretty certain that I’ve been here before, but I have to disinter the photos taken before the days of electronic cameras in order to make sure.

These wide but gloomy avenues eventually reach a little fountain with ladles laid out so that you can scoop up water to wash your hands with. I wonder whether the fanatical cleanliness of Japan can be traced to such religious rituals. Notions of ritual cleanliness have gone quite the other way in India, where spiritual purity trumps mere bodily cleanliness. I’m sure some doctoral students are busy investigating these differences for their theses.

ome

After washing your hands you pass through another gate, and then cross into the final courtyard before the shrine. Around a tree in one corner of this large courtyard are hung tablets called ema. You can buy a blank tablet for 500 Yen and write your wishes for the world on it. It hangs here for others to come and inspect. From the fact that some people were searching quite hard, I guess it is a bit of a hobby for some. In Japan Otaku is everywhere.

jingucourt

After this, broad stairs lead you to a point where you can look at the shrine. The chrysanthemum of the emperor (kikunogomon) is on rafters, lanterns, brass inlays on the doors. Beyond a railing which still separates the emperor from common people is the rest of the shrine. I saw people praying here: claps, offers of money and bows, all go into these prayers (the shrine’s web page gives you the right way to pray). I think Shinto makes a distinction between the person and his soul, because the web page of this shrine says that the deities in the shrine are the souls of the emperor and his consort. There’s an echo of ancient Chinese beliefs in all this.

jinguexit

The sun was very low by now, and I gave up on my plan of walking over to the part of Yoyogi park which has cosplayers. Instead I took a side exit which eventually brought me to the Kita-Sando metro station. This route was almost deserted, but the surrounding greenery was extremely beautiful. Beyond all the rituals and the deification of the emperor it is the memory of this lovely man-made forest which has stayed with me for the decades since I first came here.

Historical Tokyo: Senso Ji

In various places I’ve seen the Buddhist temple Senso Ji called Tokyo’s Statue of Liberty or its Eiffel Tower. These comparisons hide more than they reveal. Tokyo gives a visitor so many options that Senso Ji is not on everybody’s map, quite unlike the Eiffel Tower. Nor is the Buddhist goddess Kannon‘s statue in Senso Ji a globally recognized icon like the Statue of Liberty. Senso Ji, however, is a popular destination for families in Tokyo, the mix of locals and tourists around it, and the crowd and bustle, is solidly rooted in East Asia.

kannonfishing

I got off the Metro at the Asakusa station and ambled over to Nakamise Dori, which is the shopping street leading up to the temple. In the one and a half millennia since the founding of the temple, the shopping area has spread a little beyond this ancient road. As you approach the temple along Nakamise Dori, you see a series of paintings on the left which tell the story of the founding of the temple. It starts with fishermen finding the statue of Kannon in their nets. In the photo above I tried to get both the origins of the temple, and the crowds which throng to it today.

kamarimon

Nakamise Dori starts from the Kamarimon, a gate with a single gigantic lantern, and continues to the Hozomon, a gate with three large lanterns (above). These are flanked by two ferocious guardians, now safely behind wire mesh. Inside the second gate is the forecourt of the temple. This is a busy area, containing not only the cauldron with incence and “holy smoke”, but also forecasts of your fortunes at the nominal cost of 100 Yen!

ceiling

Behind this is the equally crowded main hall. The Kannon you can see is a copy of the original statue (the real one is not visible to the public). I chanced to look up and saw lovely murals painted on the ceiling. The photo above is one of the five panels.

groupie

The hall is crowded. Several people were dressed traditionally, women in Kimonos and men in yukatas. I caught a group of schoolgirls thrilled with their get up and taking a group photo. In India if a group of girls as young as them wore saris they would be doing the same. One of the interesting differences between China and Japan is that in China selfies and selfie-sticks are the in thing, but Japan is still full of people taking each others’ photos, or using selfie sticks for group photos.

koi

It was a warm and sunny day, which would have been perfect if it wasn’t so humid. I walked into the garden behind the temple to take an obligatory photo of the carp (koi), but couldn’t bear the weather for too long. In any case, it was getting close to my check-in time.

mochi

So my last stop before I left for the hotel was to eat mitarashi dango: a grilled rice ball with a sweet filling. I chose the sweet pumpkin filling. Whenever I’ve tried this before I’ve had the version with bean paste, but my trip to China helped me to realize that other sweet fillings may also be good. I like it, so I doubled back to take a photo of the shop.

Planning half a Sunday in Tokyo

My trip to Japan involves half a Sunday in Tokyo, day after tomorrow. I’ll spend a night in Suidobashi, very close to Tokyo Dome. I found that it is not just a baseball stadium but also a nice place to hang out. I’ll arrive in Narita in the morning, and will not be able to get my hotel room until 2 in the afternoon. I guess I’ll have to do my Tokyo tourism in two halves: lunch and early afternoon, and then evening and night. So, if I’m too tired to walk around Tokyo for half a day and half a night, I can just hang about near the dome in the evening.

Shibuya and its pedestrian sprawl may be worth looking at even on Sunday. The area is full of cafes and restaurants, so it may be good for lunch. Blogs tell you that Starbucks is a good place to take photos from, but it is closed for renovations now. Perhaps I’ll try out the L’Occitane cafe near the Hachiko exit for a shot of the scramble. If I can’t, then I’ll have to scout around and waste my time. I really don’t want to do that, because I want to get to Harajuku quickly.

Harajuku may be one-stop Tokyo, with both high-culture and otaku subculture living cheek by jowl. I think I have seen the Meiji Jingu shrine on my first visit to Japan, but I should go there to verify. Shibuya and Harajuku are neighbouring metro stations. Yoyogi park is also near the shrine, and on Sundays is full of people in cosplay. This would be a great place for photography usually, but it rains a lot in July and Sunday afternoon may be a washout. Blogs suggest a walk around Takeshita Dori, a teenager’s fashion street. I’m not a shopper, and I know better than trying to shop for a teenager, so I could easily give this a miss.

In the evening I might go to the Asakusa neighbourhood. I imagine that walking up the Nakamise Dori to the Senso Ji may yield great shots in the evening. This is a Buddhist temple, so I expect a lot of smoke and bustle. That’s just the thing to keep you awake if you are mildly sleepy. The temple is open till 5 in the evening, but the grounds are always open. I guess if I reach after 5 I will miss the smoke and bustle, but may get nice photos.

My time in Tokyo is too short to browse in Akihabara, have breakfast near the Tsukiji fish market, sit in Ueno park, spend a long evening in Roppongi, or get in my first visit to Odaiba. Unless I get enough sleep on the flight out of Delhi, I might not even get to do the three things which I have planned.

Kobe

I don’t think I had paid much attention to Kobe before the great Hanshin earthquake of January 1995. Images coming out of this area were so striking (such as this photo of the Hanshin elevated expressway after the quake), and so many people were affected, that Kobe remained in view for several months. The port city seems to have recovered completely, although I’m told that shipping volumes have dropped off since then.

In my mind Kobe is also associated with a personal rediscovery of the now-famous Japanese writer Haruki Murakami. I’d read him very long ago, when he was first being published in translation. Then, around the beginning of the century, The Family bought a collection of short stories by Murakami called "After the Quake", built in and around Kobe after the earthquake. We read through this together, and then read all of Murakami’s books and stories in the subsequent years.

So now, planning a work trip to Kobe seems like planning to meet a blogger whose posts I read every now then: I have a rough idea of what to expect, but I’m sure that there will be much to surprise. Fortunately I chose a hotel close to Sannomiya station, since it was close to work, but then found that it is also the core district, with a lot to do. It happens to be close to the port, and the artificial island in the bay which holds the airport.

The song of minminzemi is a quite popular sound effect that represents “a hot summer day” in Japanese manga. If you draw a sound effect “min min min” in the background of your manga, you don’t have to make your manga character say “Man, I’m boiling.” You don’t even have to draw a cicada! —Semi, cicada

Japan is perhaps the best country in the world for part time tourists. When you are busy at work from 8 in the morning to 8 in the evening and still want to get a feel of local life, Japan obliges by being open around the clock; so when I’m up to it, I’m sure that I’ll get to see Kobe Harborland, the Akashi Kaikyo bridge, the night view from Mount Rokko, the Chinatown, and Kobe’s jazz-bars. There will be time for beef and sushi. I’ll try to take a little time out to go see the Ikuta-Jinja shrine. I would have liked to take a half day off to go see the Himeji castle, but with restoration work on, perhaps this is not the best year to visit. An off-the-beaten-track thing which I hope to do is to go see the K computer, one of the world’s first petaflops computers, and still one of the fastest in the world.

I guess mid-July is a little too early for one of the incredible things about summer in Japan: the sound of cicadas. On the other hand it is not too early for the humid heat of summer, and not too late for the occasional days of torrential rains. It might feel exactly like Mumbai.