My Travel Map

My Travel Map

19 July 2013

Tokyo, Japan: 1. Peace

It's stated simply:
I don't know much of Japan,
but I hope to learn.

We'll start at the center, the Imperial Palace.
My first trip to Tokyo; my first trip to Japan.  What was I expecting?  Well, all of my Japanese colleagues and friends are incredibly nice and very, sometimes even overly, polite.  I knew Japan has a very healthy population, with an interesting mix of technology-fever yet reverence for simple beauty and nature.  What did I find?  Those things are true, ingrained in the culture in so many different ways, but there was so much more (as there always is).  I loved Japan, and I loved Tokyo.  It is incredible to be in (by most metrics) the largest, most densely populated city in the world and have no worries at all about... well, anything.  I don't know how they've done it, but it is pretty simple to actually find peace amongst the chaos of this enormous city, and I hope this post (one of two on Tokyo) does that fact some justice.
Now, the Imperial Palace.  To be honest, the only thing you'll see here is actually just the Imperial Plaza, the large, mostly empty area outside of the Imperial Palace complex.  The reason for that is the Imperial family of Japan still lives in the Imperial Palace.  Go figure.  That's something I had no idea about until I was reading my Rough Guide on the plane.  To get inside, you need to set up an "official tour" via pre-arrangements with the Palace administration (or, of course, by invite by one of the royal family... I wasn't getting that one, nor will I anytime soon I'm sure).   Up until World War II (WWII), the Emperor was truly believed to be a descendent of the gods.  Now, the Japanese know the family to be mere mortals like the rest of us.  Hmph... royalty. Anyway, this picture was taken at pretty much the only photogenic spot along the massive walls separating the Palace from the Plaza: Nijubashi.  The bridges aren't that old, only 19th century.  The tower however, dates back to the 17th century, and is one of the original structures of the complex.  Most of the other original buildings were destroyed in WWII bombings; obviously, this bridge and tower survived.

Japanese art is a beautiful and complex thing, even when it is starkly simple, and I truly love the attention to detail.  These lamps were probably mostly inspired by European design... at least to my (entirely untrained, mind you!) eye, they don't look very Japanese.  They are still quite lovely though, and definitely detailed.

Another view of the tower.  It doesn't look to bad for 500 years old, eh?  It's a shame to think of all the other buildings destroyed during the war... let alone the human suffering and loss of life.  War is an atrocity.  The beautiful thing about nature though, is that things grow back... the Palace appears to boast some beautifully manicured gardens and trees (despite the general lack of such in the Plaza), and the Palace buildings have been constructed anew.

I've seen Imperial or Royal Guards in many countries now.  I always wonder what they think about during the long, boring hours just standing there... they probably wish something would happen sometimes... just to bring a little excitement.  I'm always more interested by the architecture anyway.  For instance, check out the rocks in that wall on the right... doesn't look to me like there is any mortar in there!  That's impressive.  The swans were a nice touch too.

Juxtaposition... old and new, natural and manmade.  Facing the Imperial Palace and Plaza are these enormous buildings in the Marunouchi district, home to Tokyo Station and very near the posh Ginza district of Tokyo.  This truly is the center of Tokyo.  The trees in the foreground are likely the government's (or the Royal Family's?) attempt to block the winds that can sweep across the massive Plaza.

The old moat and Yurakucho and Hibiya buildings.  There are a lot of very tall buildings in Tokyo.  The funny thing is,  unlike most other big cities, they aren't all concentrated in one "downtown" and maybe even an "uptown" area... they are in (very large) groups scattered throughout the city.  Tokyo is an immensely dense city.  This is something I'll come back to again and again in these posts.  Intelligently, they have built up... well, they've built out too.  They've built up and out... a lot.  Did I mention that Tokyo is the largest city in the world?

There are somewhere around 36 MILLION people in the Tokyo metro area... insane, but then you still find places like this.  The Tsukiji Hongan-ji Buddhist temple is located just a short walk away from the chaotic and bustling Tsukiji Fish Market (see the second Tokyo post for details on that).  This building is beautiful, and enormous, which is why I opted for this picture, with the natural framing, since none of the others could get the whole thing in and really, the true setting doesn't serve it justice.  Still, here is this enormous building for peaceful worship in the midst of this super-dense, fast-paced city.

An eye for Fuji
Aboard the train from Tokyo;
Power lies within.

The revered Mount Fuji, respectfully referred to as "Fuji san" ("san" is a title of honor for people), this 3776 m (12,389 ft) dormant volcano is one of Japan's icons, just as much within the country as abroad.  On the train ride out to Nikko, I was keeping an eye out for the famous summit since it was such a beautiful, clear day.  When I spotted it, I was amazed by its size and near-perfect symmetry.  Shortly after, an older woman sitting behind me excitedly shouted out "Fuji-san, Fuji-san!" to announce to her friends that they could see it.  The volcano was teasing us from afar, only appearing for brief glimpses through the persistent city skyline.  Japanese obsession for Fuji stems from the deeply ingrained respect for nature that is fundamental to their culture and dominant religions.  Again a study in contrasts, as it is difficult to imagine such a respect considering the city itself, the water and air pollution that comes with it and, possibly most of all, its enormous fish market (see next post)... 

As I hinted above though, Tokyo never ceases to amaze.  Back in the center of the hustle and bustle, near the teeny-bopper hotspot of Harajuku is this enormous city park.  This is one of the Shinto gates entering into the Meiji-jingu shrine grounds; it is made from 1500 year old cypress trees from Taiwan.  Combined with the Yoyogi-koen park, it looks and feels like you're in the middle of a forest, and you basically are.  This park was spectacular, with a lush forest and old shrine right in the middle of the city, which you can't see or hear from within the central parts of the park.    It offers a beautiful and peaceful escape for people wanting to get away from the chaos and crowds of the city.  


I was very lucky to be there when I was; I ended up unawarely catching the Shichi-go-san-no-hi day.  On this day in November, children of ages 7, 5, and 3 dress in traditional kimonos and visit the shrine.  many of their parents were wearing kimonos too; it was quite impressive to see the intricate and delicately assembled outfits.

On the walk towards the shrine, one passes this wall of sake barrels.  The barrels are within an outer straw wrapping and then covered in the decorated and informative outer labels.  This was a very interesting feature in the park, with many people (myself included) stopping to examine all the details on the different barrels.  You'll see barrels like this around town too, during deliveries and outside of restaurants and bars.

Each barrel was different, and many were beautifully decorated.  In particular, I liked the one with Mount Fuji, cherry blossoms, and the rising sun on it.

Kids will be kids, no matter where you are in the world, I enjoyed watching many of them goofing around in their "Sunday best" kimonos.

At the inner Meiji-jingu shrine.  Meiji-jingu is a Shinto shrine.  Shinto is the traditional spiritual belief system in Japan.  It translates to the way of the spirit.  The Shinto creation myth describes the formation of the Japanese home islands, in which drippings from a godly sword/spear used to stir the ocean formed the main island, Honshu, where they fell.  The gods then lived on Honshu and produced the other islands over time.  Respect for nature and tradition and honor for ancestors and life and death are cornerstones of Shinto and are deeply ingrained in modern Japanese society.

The inner shrine was bustling with activity.  There was a pretty even mix of actual worshippers and tourists taking it all in.

I also lucked out and was able to observe a wedding ceremony that was being performed in the inner shrine.

This was a neat feature at the shrine.  Apparently, worshippers (or anyone else) can write your prayers or worries on one of these wood tabs and hang it on this railing around one of the big old trees in the inner shrine.

There was a bonsai display on the walk into the inner shrine.  Growing and maintaining these delicately manicured, miniature trees or shrubs is a popular hobby in Japan.  It combines both artistic form and respect for nature.

The Harajuku station alongside the park.  Tokyo's Metro is a huge and complex system, and I'll cover more details in the next post as it is not quite so peaceful.  However, here you can see how big the Meiji-jingu park is (and the stretch disappearing into the distance is only half the length as it also stretches back behind me from this point of view)!

Another recommended stop in Tokyo is the Nezu Museum.  This is a collection of oriental treasures housed in a wonderfully architected building.  Photos aren't allowed inside, so I can't show any of the more interesting pieces inside (including artwork, statues, sculptures, and entire rooms on tea arts for the Japanese tea ceremony and calligraphy).

In my opinion though, the highlight of the Nezu Museum is not what lies within, but without.  Behind the museum there is an immaculately sculpted garden with several tea houses scattered throughout.  Since I was there in November, the leaves were turning on many of the trees too, so it made it even more beautiful.

There are statues and shrines throughout the Nezu Museum garden too; it made for a very pleasant and enjoyable stroll.  This is just another example of a place for quiet and relaxation within the enormous city.

North of the center lies another pleasant neighborhood in the Yanesen area.  Yanesen is what the area is referred to, but it is really a combination of the three official neighborhood names of which it is made up: Yanaka, Nezu, and Sendagi.  I went there looking for the old-fashioned districts, with winding lanes and alleys and old wooden houses.  I didn't quite find what I was looking for, but I still enjoyed wandering around the primarily residential area.

In Yanesen, I stumbled into the Nezu-jinja shrine.  Again, I loved the light on the yellow, autumn leaves.

Back into the hustle and bustle, and the last stop on this post, is Asakusa. This was northeast of the center and walking distance from my hostel.  Asakusa makes a good transition from this post to the next since it combines a few parts peace with a few parts chaos.  Asakusa is an entire neighborhood based around a temple, and it has a lot to offer visitors.

On the approach to the temple is a long market area packed with stalls.  This makes for a great place to buy some souvenirs or, if you go early in the morning before it opens, it is a great place to stroll through unhindered and enjoy the paintings on the market stall doors.

The market in full swing... it gets busy.

At the end of the market as you approach the entrance to the Senso-ji temple.  The rows of white lanterns with calligraphy are above food stalls serving fast bites like deep fried octopus balls (delicious!) and other goodies.  In the temple, I was able to watch some people practicing Shinto, which was most interesting.  One practice I found quite intriguing was the inhaling of incense smoke coming from at a huge bronze burning bowl; the smoke is thought to be the "breath of the gods" and have curing powers.    The big donations box into which coins are tossed (making a very distinct noise) and the clapping of peoples hands in prayer made for a very atmospheric soundtrack too.

What I found was that the highlight of Asakusa, besides the temple, is to get to the back streets around the temple... on offer there are plenty of shops and craft stores and little cafes and restaurants.  It was a great area, very laid back and pleasant.  I found myself back here three times, and I particularly liked it in the morning and the evening.

A relatively calm street scene near Asakusa.  I loved the samurai painted on the building on the right.

Another shot of the food stalls, lanterns, and the five-storey pagoda.  The original ceramic roof tiles on the pagoda and the temple buildings have all been replaced with titanium versions, which help mitigate the damage during earthquakes.

I'll reiterate: being there in the fall was just spectacular.  The Japanese love the changing of the seasons... they celebrate the colors of the fall and the blossoms of the spring.  Throughout my trip, I found myself joining in with the small groups of people gathering around particularly colorful trees to take pictures and just enjoy the contrast of the yellows and reds against the blue sky and dark bark.

The koi pond at Asakusa.  The temple area also boasted a nice, small but (of course) well manicured and designed garden with this great fish pond.

It is always a little weird seeing swastikas on Asian temples, but it makes sense when you realize that the symbol originated in Eastern religions AND it stands for "to be good".  It's unfortunate and highly ironic that Hitler and the Nazi's employed their hackenkreuz ("bent cross") for the symbol of their party when a swastika represents something so good.  In Tokyo, just like when I'm in Germany, I was pretty regularly reminded of the atrocities of World War II, and I found it nearly impossible to comprehend that, like the Germans, the Japanese were such strong aggressors during that very recent period of history.

Asakusa is (relatively) close to the Tokyo Skytree, seen here (back right) and below.  This tower rises 634 m above the city and is quickly becoming one of Tokyo's many icons.  The tower has already become a major tourist draw since it offers the city's highest public observation platform (450 m) as well as an aquarium and planetarium at its base.  The Skytree is currently the tallest tower in the world and the world's second tallest structure, after the truest of skyscrapers, the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates (828 m).

So, this post has focused on what I found to be the peaceful sides of Tokyo... next up, in full contrast: chaos.

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