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.

Under the Yamanote line

Ameyoko became famous as a post-war black market after WWII during the occupation. Seventy five years later, it has morphed into a place where locals and tourists go for bargains during the day, and food at night. As we walked from Ueno park to the metro station we saw a lively road leading off under the Yamanote line overpass. Across the world colourful districts under railway or road bridges can become exciting places, so we went down this rabbit hole.

Already, in the early afternoon, the atmosphere had begun to turn boisterous. Some of the shops were still open. I could see shops selling DVDs and CDs (old technologies do not seem to die in Japan) and sex toys. The famous sweet shops which give the locality its name were beginning to shut down (no quarter given for Children’s Day, which was two days away) and it was definitely too late for the fresh food stores. We’d missed our chance to haggle about prices using our translation app, and we’d had lunch too late to sit down at one of the food stalls.

It was a good time to walk around and take photos. At three in the afternoon, the light was still too bright to yield atmospheric and moody photos. So after being busy with my phone, I had to spend some time with the editor to bring you these photos of Ameya Yokocho in the witching hour. If the day had not tired us out, we would have made our way here earlier to look at some of the shops. That’s a bit of Japan left for the future.

Eastern Spotbilled duck: Bird of the Week XII

That couldn’t possibly be an Indian spot-billed duck, could it? We were in the middle of Tokyo, after all. No, it was the Eastern spot-billed duck (Anas zonorhynchus) which does not have the orange splash at the top of the bill, near its nostril. Shinobazu pond inside Tokyo’s Ueno Park, where we saw it, is in the middle of the range of this species. To the west their range overlaps their Indian cousins’ along the foothills of the Himalayas, and in the north their range has been expanding well into Asian Russia, possibly as a result of global warming. The result is that it has begun to hybridize with the mallard in Russia. Interestingly, males of the spotbill are more likely to mate with female mallard than the other way around. A closer look at this phenomenon reveals that female ducks are fairly true to their breeding sites, while males range widely. This asymmetric dispersion results in the males having more out-breeding opportunity, if you can call it that, and produces the asymmetric hybridization that is observed. But such hybridization shows that speciation amongst dabbling ducks (the genus Anas) is fairly recent and could be ongoing. Who knows, perhaps the bird watchers of a hotter world could have new dabbling ducks to see!

An invitation

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.

The art of gardening

Akira Kurosawa’s three earliest movies are almost impossible to find. As a result, my closest approach to them came two weeks ago, when I visited the gardens of Denjirō Okōchi, his lead actor on all three. The Ōkōchi Sansō was laid out in the 1930s on the slopes of Mt Ogura in the Arashiyama mountains, but incorporates many of the aesthetic values that developed in the construction of Japanese gardens since Tachibana Toshitsuna wrote the world’s first treatise on the art of gardens, the Sakuteiki, at about the same time that Murasaki Shikibu wrote what is possibly the world’s first novel.

We arrived in Kyoto early in the afternoon. While checking the weather forecast as our shinkansen from Tokyo ate the kilometers, we realized that the afternoon could well be the only day on which we would see a blue sky over Kyoto. It was our best opportunity to walk through Arashiyama. So when we arrived at 4 PM, we were among the last people that day to buy tickets to enter the garden. The ticket entitles you to a cup of matcha and a sweet at the end of your walk. The tea house would be shut by the time we finished our walk, so we were firmly escorted to the tea before our walk. I wish we had reached a half hour earlier, so that we could have enjoyed the tea in the correct relaxed frame of mind, after our walk through the garden.

With our habits of always seeking our own path, changing plans spontaneously, and seeking out the novel, we have to work at reminding ourselves that formal Japanese gardens do not work like that. They are planned to lead you to specific views, where you can stop and be as informal and spontaneous as you want: dash off a piece of poetry for Whatsapp, do a Bollywood dance for Tiktok, or post photos of the view on Instagram. We stepped through the middle gate, the Chūmon. In Japanese culture passing through a gate takes you from one realm to another. So, I collected my thoughts and prepared my mind to follow the prepared path.

In the short break we took for tea, clouds had swept in from the south, and they would not lift until the day we had to leave Kyoto. Our first stop was Daijōkaku, the main house, which is said to merge the exceedingly formal shoin style of architecture with the contrasting sukiya style. I am too much of an architectural novice to tell the difference purely from the exterior, but my guess would be that the front room is in the shoin style. The Chūmon, the Daijōkaku, the Jibutsudō (the temple in the featured photo), and the Tekisuian (the teahouse) are treasured national cultural properties.

After Daijōkaku, high hedges constrained our views, and we should have walked quickly on to the next viewpoint. We were stopped in our tracks by the calls of several birds. I recorded them, and later could only identify the Japanese bush warbler (Horornis diphone), known as uguisu locally, and also called the Japanese nightingale. We walked on to the first viewpoint over Kyoto from the garden (click on the first photo in the gallery below). We studied the plaque which showed the main peaks visible from here, and localed Mt. Jizo. We wouldn’t have time to visit it, I told The Family, as she walked on to the Jibutsudō. My photo of the Meiji era temple which was transported here, leaves out two important aspects of the main view: one is the expanse of gravel in front of it, and the second is the little stream that winds past on one side.

After admiring this view the path doubled back to lead us to the moss garden. Somewhere there the nightingale was still singing. As we climbed past the tea house, Tekisuian, we stopped to see the view of the Hozu river gorge and the distant temple of Sankaku Senkoji. There was a road down to a view point. But before we could turn into it a lady appeared behind us to tell us that the garden would close in five minutes and we needed to make our way to the gate. On our way out we briefly stopped to see the view of the city from the moonlight pavilion (second photo in the clickable gallery above).

The garden has been laid out to show off each of the seasons. We passed through it late in spring: after the flowering of the cherries and azaleas. A few azalea flowers were still wilting on the bushes. I hope we will be back one autumn to see the garden again. If we do, we will take care to come earlier in the day, so that we can spend more time here. Gardens are works of art which need to be seen again and again, in different seasons. Japan has perfected gardens which remain unchanged for centuries although the individual plants are replaced. One cannot fail to remember also the unbroken lines of gardeners who make sure that the garden stays true to the vision of the artists who first laid it out.

A formal Japanese dinner

The food is one of the things I look forward to, whenever I visit Japan. On my first visits I enjoyed the way that things did not taste as I thought they would. But as my familiarity grew, I found more delight in different things: the appearance, the subtle mixture of tastes, the sequence in which the dishes should appear. This time around one of my experiences was a formal dinner: a ten course meal. Various apps are now good enough that you need less help from your companions to decipher the menu, even if it is calligraphic. But I did not really have to worry much about reading it, because once the choice is made, you could just submit to the flow of the evening. One of the wait-staff was knowledgeable about the provenance of the food, and was ready at hand if you wanted to ask. If you want to figure out what we had, you could try to translate the menu. The featured photo is of our second course.

There are two very pleasant aspects of dinners in Japan. The first is that there is only one reservation in the evening. Once you have taken a table you can arrive at any time, and stay until the place shuts. It is a pleasant change from the two seatings for dinner in Mumbai, with someone hovering over your shoulder trying to make sure that you leave at the right time. The second aspect is the little pretense about payments: this never happens at the table, but only after you’ve left it. These bits of theatre may be mannered, but it leads to a pleasant evening where the conversation becomes the point, with food magically appearing at intervals. I tried to take photos of the courses as they appeared: first the sashimi, then the pickled fish, the katsu, a fresh sorbet, the meat. But that was only halfway through the meal, and after that I was too engrossed in the company and the conversation to remember to take photos any longer.

Saturday splashout

Busukawaii could perhaps be a good description of this group of sculptures in a small pond in the garden of the Tenryu-ji temple in Arashiyama. The statues are charming but a little ugly, that’s why busukawaii. But their appearance is not the only reason why they collect a lot of small change. In Japan frogs are supposed to be lucky animals, so it is believed that a small donation may bring you luck. I saw many tourists making such offerings, and I wondered why those who does not share the same belief system would participate in a ritual like this. Two reasons come to mind: perhaps those inclined to belief in the supernatural like to hedge their bets and use multiple systems (except when they are induced to go to war against another belief), or perhaps following rituals make you think you fit in.

Blood iris

Spring and summer are good times for iris in Japan. The variety you see in this photo is the Blood iris (Iris sanguinea). I saw this early bloomer standing at the edge of a pond in Hiroshima’s Shukkeien garden. It is one of the irises called Japanese Iris, and can be found in the colder parts of East Asia: Japan, Korea, Mongolia, bits of China, and Russia. I spent a while trying to figure out whether it was a Siberian iris or the Blood iris, and came to the identification that I’m going by. But it seems that the distinction is not recognized by botanists any longer. DNA evidence suggests that Japanese iris are Siberian!

Modernism in Hiroshima

After the end of the war, the writing of its new constitution, and the re-establishment of a Japanese civil government, the city of Hiroshima decided to build a memorial to the atomic bombing of the city. The competition for the design was won by the architect Kenzō Tange. A beautiful element of this design was to align the axis of the cenotaph memorial to the dead with the remnant of the Genbaku dome. That is the remnant of a dome built in 1915 to the design of the Czech architect Jan Letzel. The cenotaph brings to my mind torii, the doors which lead to spiritual spaces in Japan. So I was delighted to find that Tange attributes the hyperbolic paraboloid shape of the structure to some of the earliest Japanese religious structures.

In the photo above you see the long axis of the Peace Museum. This is aligned to the same axis along which the view in the featured photo was taken. Tange later won the Pritzker Prize for his design of the St. Mary’s Church in Tokyo. But this modernist museum is my own favourite. Perhaps that is because it reminds me of the building in which I have been fortunate enough to spend most of my working life. In a certain sense modernism is not foreign to Japan; its traditional architecture uses the clean lines and repeating elements of modernist architecture. But more importantly, by using pillars as load-bearing elements in a building, modernist architecture can open up the walls and melt the separation between inside and outside of the building. This approach parallels the sliding panels of some traditional Japanese structures.

Opening up the walls of a building, or making it of glass, makes sense only when the outside has the kind of light and appearance which you want to bring into your living. The open park-like setting of the Peace Memorial and the Peace Boulevard that connects it to the rest of the city is exactly the kind of view that you might want modernist structures to open into. It brings to mind Japanese gardens with their viewing pavilions and tea houses. When we walked through it, the space was green. Azaleas were blooming everywhere, and among the green leaves of momiji I could spot a couple of lovely Japanese red maple trees. The curtains of paper cranes draped on various shrines inside the park express a sentiment which echoes Einstein’s reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima: “The time has come now, when man must give up war.”

Wordless in Ginza

The oldest surviving building in Ginza, the Hattori clocktower, now with a Seiko store, faces the Matsukoshi department store across Ginza square.

But the area is full of extremely modern buildings by some of the world’s top architects.

Clamorous Reed Warbler: bird of the week XI

A lifer! The brown bird chirped intermittently as it flitted through the base of reeds. Our boatman poled the skiff as quickly as he could to keep up. It was a clamorous reed warbler, recognizable by the white supercilium and round-head, a bird with the wonderful binomial Acrocephalus stentoreus. Looking at the distribution of this bird, also known as the Great Indian reed warbler, I’m puzzled. It is reported from a lot of disconnected patches across the world: as far west as the banks of the Nile, in the north Kazhak plains, southwards around the Java Sea, and eastwards in the Philippines. The thickest sightings are in India and the Philippines. Why is it so patchily distributed? Does that mean that the wetlands where it lives are drying up?

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.