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.

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.