Tokyo: Senso-ji and Yanaka

I have got myself a diary at last, and now I can start a journal for this Japan trip in the proper form – with ink on paper.

Today was our first full day in Tokyo. It started early – we are both showered and dressed by 6:30am; not hard to do considering we’re now four hours behind New Zealand. We walked to nearby Nihombashi station and easily found the platform to catch a train to Asakusa station. In a nearby lane a small cafe supplied a simple breakfast of toast, egg, salad and coffee, and a chance to start practising my ‘please’ and ‘thankyous’.

A short walk from the station a huge red gate (Kaminarimon or ‘Thunder Gate’) marked the entrance to a street of stalls leading up to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and most visited Buddhist temple. It was still early and places were just opening up, but we both started taking photographs, flipping between colour and B&W (well, a filtered high contrast B&W effect we both like) on our cameras. It’s such a wonderful change to be with someone interested in photography, and Carol has recently taken to it brilliantly.

Unfortunately the pagoda next to the temple was covered in scaffolding, but the temple itself was impressive, as were the many opportunities to mix superstition with profit-making – for example, drawing a numbered stick from a box and finding the corresponding fortune in a drawer – for just 100 yen. I had to do it twice to get the ‘best’ fortune, but don’t worry, bad ones are nullified by tying them onto the wire provided. People waved incense smoke from a cauldron over themselves, and washed their hands and rinsed their mouths from a small fountain provided for the purpose. Funny how most religions have some kind of washing and purifying ritual – it appears us normal human beings are too stinky, in a spiritual sense, to engage with our gods unwashed. Inside the temple itself there was a place to throw money, and more stalls that sold charms and trinkets.

Being an atheist sure saves you money!

We wandered around the grounds, checking out other small shrines, statues and monuments, then explored some of the nearby streets. Everything exploded with detail, texture, and the ever-present Japanese kanji characters. It was such a pleasure to see things that are different.

A short train trip took us to Ueno, where we headed for the Tokyo National Museum. On the way we stopped in Ueno Park and got drinks from a vending machine – Carol lucky-dipped and got a strange herbal drink. We found a temple on a lily pad-chocked pond (Benten-do). A wide pedestrian thoroughfare led eventually to the museum – which, unfortunately, was closed for some reason. So after we had coffee and cake at a Starbucks in the park (one of the staff praised my few words of Japanese), we started on a long walk through the Yanaka neighbourhood, a fascinating warren of inner-city modern terraces crammed next to old shrines. We roughly followed a path recommended by Lonely Planet (and passed other couples doing the same). The area was a bit like the back streets of Newtown in Sydney, with a huge and atmospheric cemetery haunted by stray cats, ropes of power lines like badly-maintained ship’s rigging overhead, and art galleries, shops and many intimate, old shrines.

In a lovely little shopping street called Yanaka Ginza, a pre-supermarket vintage shopping street, I bought a couple of skewers of chicken (yakatori) as we wandered along.

It was mid-afternoon by now and we were getting a bit footsore and hungry, so we headed back to the hotel and, after an unsuccessful attempt to find a place to eat near the hotel, grabbed some sandwiches from a supermarket and went back to the room for a rest.

While we were out, we’d found a 7-11 ATM and had cashed up. The subway system has been pretty easy to get the hang of, and people sit quietly and politely on the trains and don’t talk on their mobile phones. We could learn a lot from the Japanese in this regard!

After a while we headed out again to the very busy Tokyo station area, Marunouchi. It’s a rabbit warren of subway passages, and it took us a while to make it out to the other side and find a Maruzen stationery store, where I bought this journal. Then we found a place to east in a subway area called ‘Kitchen Street’. It was slightly frustrating for me to have to pass delicious-looking sushi until we found a place that served noodles with vegetables for Carol – and when we sat down, we realised it was Chinese food! Oh well, we’ll have proper Japanese food soon, and luckily Carol is not averse to picking meat out of her dishes and doesn’t mind the ubiquitous dashi, the fish broth used in a lot of Japanese food. It’s a bit of a challenge though, as meat and seafood are such a staple of Japanese dishes.

Back towards the hotel, we detoured to look at a department store whose station-level floor was full of incredibly beautiful confectionary, gorgeously packaged. Hallowen has apparently become a big there here recently, and there are many displays of orange pumpkins and … well, that seems to be the main thing the Japanese have picked up on concerning Halloween, orange pumpkins. With maybe the occasional cartoony ghost and witch’s hat.

My feet in my new sneakers were beginning to hurt, and we were both pretty exhausted. We’ve definitely packed a lot into our first day.

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