Trying to pack it in

A satisfying end to a day in Tokyo: grilled cod with miso dressing, pureed radish and grilled chilis.
A satisfying end to a day in Tokyo: grilled cod with miso dressing, pureed radish and grilled chilis.

You can make plans, but if you can’t foresee all eventualities then they never quite work out. So its best to treat the plans as suggestions to build upon. My half day in Tokyo did not exactly work out the way I had planned it.

Before we left Delhi, the captain of our flight announced that the route would veer south to avoid typhoon Chan-Hom. Normally we would have flown north of Mount Everest, over Xi’an, Busan and on to Tokyo. But we actually flew over Mandalay, Guangzhou, and Miyazaki to approach Narita from almost due south. Even so, and although we flew at a height of 12 kilometers on a Boeing Dreamliner, the journey was not smooth. We rattled and shook all the way. The night’s flight prepared me about the news from China which I read the next day. We landed in Tokyo at about 9:30 in the morning, a little more than an hour later than I’d expected.

By the time I reached Tokyo station, it was nearly noon. Since my hotel room would not be available till two, I had decided to leave my luggage in the station and see something before checking in. I gained a little time by buying a preloaded Suica card, a smart card which you can use on the Tokyo metro station, instead of spending time buying tickets repeatedly. But then I lost a little time getting lost inside the Tokyo station while searching for available lockers to keep my luggage in.

It was a sunny morning, but hot and muggy. I decided to visit the Senso-Ji first. The place looks good in bright light. It was crowded and fun as a Buddhist temple in East Asia always is. It didn’t take long; in two and a half hours I checked into the hotel. All I’d known about it was that it was near Tokyo University and a the baseball stadium called Tokyo Dome. I discovered that on Sunday that the Tokyo Dome City is a permanent fair with rides of various kinds. Fortunately the place shuts at some time, so my sleep was not be punctuated by shrieks of kids on a roller coaster. After a shower I took the train to the Meiji Jingu. This was peaceful and serene, a big change from Senso-Ji.

The sun was setting as I lost my way in the park, skipped people watching in Yoyogi Park, and went on to Shibuya. Coming out of this large station by exit 2, one can almost miss the statue of Hachiko because of the rings of tourists around it. I walked into a cafe for a wonderful slice of chocolate cake and a large cup of black French coffee. Then I stood around the pedestrian scramble gawking. Among the things which I learnt from watching the big video screen in Shibuya is that the Japanese make end-of-the-world science fiction movies which could give the Avengers a run for their money.

Not exactly what I had planned, but not way off either.

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.