Tsutsuji matsuri

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?

Nezu shrine

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.