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.

Old-fashioned Tokyo?

On our way to Nezu jinja in the Bunkyo ward of Tokyo, we walked through a side road with a few interesting shops. Most of the houses were one or two-storeyed, and there was even an old-fashioned two-storeyed wood-framed house. “How nice”, I thought to myself, “such an old-fashioned lane.” I couldn’t have been more wrong. Last week I looked at an article written in 1992 by A.W. Sadler. He described this road in 1965 as full of mom-and-pop stores “with the shop (fish, meat, vegetables, rice crackers, stationery, magazines) in front and family quarters in back. You could stop in at nine at night, and find the family gathered around the supper table or the television set, always ready to enter the shop and welcome the late patron.”

But about his visit in 1990 he wrote “only two of the wooden frame houses are now left standing. The destroyer this time is not war, nor earthquake, but prosperity. … The young no longer move out to start a new home elsewhere; real estate is too tight in Tokyo. And so the old house is torn down and a new one built in its place.” Inevitably, the process has moved on in the next thirty years. I saw only one old wooden frame house, that in the photo above. Even the other houses are more modern than Sadler’s description from thirty years ago.

The 1990-era Tokyo that he writes about was my first glimpse of Japan. “The national dress is effectively gone. … At festival time we did see a few yukata, but young women were, for the most part, dressed in shorts, jeans, and trousers.” Again times have moved on, and huge changes have accumulated. Sadler wrote then “During the autumn festival, twenty-five years ago, girls stood on the sidelines as the mikoshi went by, and giggled at the somewhat underclad young men. Now they seem more grown up, more involved, less giggly.” Although Japanese women still speak publicly in a high-pitched voice, this patronizing description would now be looked at as critically here as it would be anywhere else in the world.

On the boulevard Sadler talked of sidewalks as new in 1990 where a pedestrian no longer has to watch for cars, but only for bicycles. Those bicycles are no longer visible now. We strolled down the sidewalk looking for our bus-stop. The houses here were higher, four to six storied, and most people seemed to live in apartments. Much of the street level was given over to shops of various kinds.

Right across the boulevard from the bus stop was a very popular food stall. A long queue had formed outside it. We were to see this many times in Tokyo: along a road one food store of a kind would be really famous, while the others waited for walk-ins. When we tried the unfashionable ones, they were still quite good. “Reminds me of famous versus not-so-famous sweet shops in Kolkata”, I told The Family once. It was time for our elevenses; should we cross and investigate? Before we could decide, our bus was at the stop and, like automatons, we boarded.

Great Cormorant, Bird of the Week XIII

Great cormorants (Phalacrorax carbo) can be found in every continent except South America and Antarctica. So I was not surprised to see one in the middle of Tokyo, in the birding hotspot of Shinobazu pond. There were several flying over the pond, but only one settled in full view in the middle of the pond. I examined it through my monster zoom, hoping that it was the Japanese cormorant, which I haven’t seen. But it was my auld acquantance, P. carbo. Interestingly, this is near the easternmost limit of the bird. It doesn’t cross large stretches of open water, so it isn’t found in the west coast of North America. Strangely, the route across the Bering strait is not taken, although it has hopped from northern Europe to Iceland, Greenland, and the east coast of North America, establishing breeding colonies in each of these places.

While I used the monster, The Family was trying to use her phone to get shots of the bird. It worked fairly well; she got an action shot of it flapping its wings dry. I’ve often wondered why a water bird like this has wettable wings. It seems that others have too. I found a paper which describes the paradox neatly: “Great cormorants should be constrained by water temperature. Surprisingly, it has the widest breeding distribution of all diving birds, and does not require more food.” The reason, as the paper finds, is that each feather has an outer part which wets instantly, and a core which remains waterproof. The air trapped in the core keeps the bird warm. The wettable outer part reduces its buoyancy, allowing it to sink faster when it dives.

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 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.

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.

Around the world in 30 days (1)

I dug up another old album and found that it had photos from a thirty year old trip I’d made around the world, traveling east from Geneva. Scanning old photos with a phone app is now easy. What is hard is to restore some of the faded colour from the prints. I’m not sure that I succeeded, but I learnt, and remembered as I tried out my restoration experiments. Thirty years ago, the web was still an experimental curiosity. Much more information was available then on the French Minitel. I spent quite a while on it trying to find tickets as cheap as possible.

My first destination was Japan, and one of the new transpolar flights would have been reasonably priced even if I changed in Hamburg or Helsinki. But in those days I would then have had to spend time on getting another visa. Instead I took an airline which gave me a stop in Mumbai. There was a little hiccup in computing whether I would lose a day or gain one when I crossed the date line going east; this was crucial for a quick change of planes in LA. I took no photos of the thick sheaf of tickets which I eventually purchased, and had to carry with me for a month. This was my first trip to Japan, and I was amazed by how the crowds of Mumbai and the efficiency of Switzerland fused in the working of the train which took me from Narita to Tokyo.

I spent that first day walking through a bit of Tokyo. The Imperial Palace (Kokyo) was very close to the station. This was first built in the late 19th century after the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji emperor became the head of an outward looking country. Part of this complex was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt immediately after. I gaped at the moats and remnants of fortifications (the much older gate Shimizumon above, and a defensive tower near the moat before that), before walking in to the public park called Kitanomaru (featured photo).

From there it was easy to find the shrine of the Meiji emperor (the Meiji Jingu shrine). After walking to Roppongi and spending a bit of relaxed time around the Tokyo Tower in the evening, I had just enough energy left to recover my bags from the station and get to a hotel for the night. In the early 90s Japan was slightly different in feel. Everyone had black hair, signage in English was not common, and only a trickle of tourists could be seen. But the Japanese were as open to foreign influences as they are now. I watched a Japanese street artist do a Flamenco dance on an upper stage of the Tower. For all their delight in the imperfections of life, wabi sabi (侘寂) as an artistic style, I noticed that a Japanese performer is always concerned with perfection.

I had covered about a fourth of the distance around the globe, and by the stamps in my old passport, this was the 5th day of the trip.

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.