Asking some of the other residents here what kinds of things I should do yielded several great suggestions, the most frequent of which was Asakusa. I fell down on my research a little, because I was under the impression that the Buddhist Temple was really the main thing there, so when someone asked me if I was headed there to do shopping I was a little confused. I was planning to do some shopping, but over at the nearby landmark tower, the Tokyo Sky Tree since it was also on my list and was just one stop up the tracks from Asakusa. Hence, two hits in one day.
It takes about 90 minutes to get into Tokyo from where I live. It’s a little funny because that’s about the same time it took for me to get into Beijing when I was in Hebei, but for some reason the trek coming in from small town/rural areas to the big city was much more reasonable than my current commute which is all city as Yokohama and Tokyo pretty much blend directly into one another. The train system in the Tokyo area is fairly impressive, however. There are dozens of lines running all over and you can generally get anywhere if you can navigate the spiderweb of tracks and mind-boggling complexity of the transfer stations (more than one of which rank among the most crowded in the world).
The trip to Asakusa took the Den-en-toshi line to Shibuya where it becomes the Honzomon line and runs all the way to the Sky Tree. From there it got a little tricky, because I had to take the Tobu-Skytree line backwards one stop then turn around for two stops to get to the Asakusa stop. Easy, right? I took the local instead of the Express because there are usually more open seats on the local and I really don’t want to stand on the train for 90min. When I got off the train, I followed the signs to the Shrine and found myself in a huge shopping tunnel.
The Shopping Street
It turns out that the reason my friend asked if I was going to Asakusa to shop is that it is the Silk Market of Tokyo. Unlike Beijing’s Silk Market, the Tokyo Bazaar is not contained in a single tall building, but spread out on narrow street after narrow street. Each stand is selling some variant of the same tourist attractions: kimonos, festival lanterns, woodcuts, fans, jewelry and handbags. The food stands are selling all the famous Japanese street/fair foods, sweets and ice cream. Inside the first gate of the temple compound is Nakamise Shopping Street or Kaminarimon, but the shopping extends well beyond the gates outside too.
It’s more than a little insane, but I can see why people who are only in Japan a short time would spend a day there shopping, since you can find a souvenir or gift for everyone on your list there. Me personally, I’m not into a lot of the mass produced tourist souvenirs, but I have the luxury of time to find more meaningful mementos. Plus, I checked the price tag on a couple items and had to work to get my eyes back in my head. The prices were nuts. And unlike the Silk Market where haggling is expected, it’s really not accepted here.
What’s more, it created a strange sense of incongruity walking through streets dedicated to materialism while on my way to the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo.
The Senso-ji Temple was built in 645 and is dedicated to Kannon (Guanyin in China or Avalokiteśvara before he left India and had a sex change) the Bodhisattva (sometimes translated as “Goddess” although not in the Western sense) of Mercy. The first gate is actually amid the shopping area and merely delineates those copycat shops from the “true” Nakamise area.
Off to one side stands the pagoda, creating a stunning backdrop to nearly everything, and off in another direction is the looming spire of the Tokyo Sky Tree, reminding us of the fact that this temple now rests in the heart of one of the largest metropolitan areas on earth.
As we emerge from the shopping street another huge red gate looms over the crowd. I took a moment to explore the grounds around the gate before entering. There were several smaller statues and shrines tucked in around the main roadway. Like so many tourist spots in Japan, taking only a step or two off the main path grants you near instant seclusion. Among the many side statues that I could not identify were two larger statues of Kannon and Seishi (mercy and wisdom respectively).
Passing through the next gate, we walk beneath a giant red and black “lantern”. When I passed beneath it, I looked up and saw the bottom of the lantern was a wooden carved dragon with red painted highlights. Stalls selling tourist kitsch give way to stalls selling prayer scrolls, medallions, and beads for the supplicants of Kannon.
A huge incense burner squats in the middle of the road. People queued up to have a place nearby to contribute their own bundle of incense and wave the fragrant smoke over their heads for cleansing and blessing. Some did this with great reverence, and others (especially younger people) with a sort of good natured humor.
There is also a chozuya, or water purification area. It’s usually seen at Shinto Shrines, but because of the tremendous overlap in Japan between the religions, it’s common to see them at Buddhist temples here. This one was quite different from the others I have seen in Japan, consisting of a statue of (what appeared to be) a historical figure. The dragon headed fountains/ faucets are pretty common, but these were quite detailed and beautiful.
The crowd huddled closer and closer together as we mounted the steps into the main temple. Another giant hanging lantern adorned the entrance. I could hear the clanking of coins long before I saw the donation box at the entrance. No fee is required to enter, yet most of the people who passed by tossed some coins into the huge box. There were bars across the top that the coins bounced around before dropping causing the constant sound of tinkling metal.
The interior of the main temple was huge and dimly lit. The ceiling was painted in beautiful murals of Kannon and there were beautiful decorations on the walls. The main altar was behind protective glass because it was a delicate lacework of gold and precious jewels. There was another less giant donation box as well as places to light votive candles or attach prayer scrolls. There were hundreds of people waiting to enter, so I didn’t linger too long at the front. I managed to find a side area to really scope out the room from one side. Lavish does not begin to express.
The Temple Grounds
As I left the temple to one side, I emerged above ground level and got a great view of two more statues below: a large seated Buddah figure and a bronze pagoda. Then, coming down from the main hall, I entered a garden that was simply stuffed full of tiny shrines. Each one looked like a small house on stilts, complete with miniature steps and doors to let the kami in and out. This style of shrine is unique to Japan, representing a blend of the native Shinto practices and imported Buddhism. I often saw small shrines in China, but none with this style of architecture.
The shrine gardens also included a small waterfall that lead into a koi pond, complete with moon bridges. It was quiet and peaceful in the midst of the bustling tourist crowds. When I emerged from the garden, it was stunningly obvious that I was leaving the temple grounds, so I prepared to turn around and go back in when I spotted a veritable forest of red flags. I suppose it could have been another of the many shops advertising for something, but my curiosity won and I headed over to investigate.
It turned out to be a shrine to Jizo, who is a Bodhisattva that helps to lessen the suffering of people in hell (e.g. speed up their next rebirth out of hell). In a very practical way, the tourist sign advised that keeping some of the powder of the Jizo image in your purse could save you a great deal of money as divine favor. I love watching the evolotion of religious figures across cultures, and the Japanese are very practical about their religion, often less concerned about the next life than what a charm or prayer can bring them in this one. (test passing charms are very popular among students!)
The temple grounds continued, full of side temples that were nearly abandoned creating a real contrast from the pressing crowds of the Nakamise and Main Hall. I walked into another empty shrine area, this one dedicated to Sukunahikonao-mikoto (yeah, the Japanese kami all have really loooong names). The sign informed me that he is a protector of women, and honored by women bringing used sewing needles and sticking them into tofu as an offering.
Another side garden held statues to famous historical figures including famous Haiku poets, a philanthropic orphan, and a tanka poet. And yet one more contained at temple to Benzai-ten (goddess of fortune) and the Senso-ji bell, which historically was one of the main bells that marked the time for the citizens of Edo (old Tokyo). The other bell was at Ueno, and resulted in a famous Haiku by poet Matsuo Basho: “Sounding through clouds of flowers — it is the bell of Ueno or Asakusa?”
By this time, I had circled three quarters of the way around the main hall, and found yet another gate marking the separation of temple grounds from the secular world. When I paused to buy some takoyaki and stare a map of the grounds to see where I was, I realized that I hadn’t seen the Shinto Shrine that was listed on Google Maps as being right next to the Temple.
The Shinto Shrine: Sanja-sama
On the fourth side, hiding behind a copse of trees and nearly blotted out by one of the side gates was a plain wooden torii of pale sunbleached wood rather than the bright laquered red. The shrine is nicknamed Sanji-sama for the three diefied spirits it is dedicated to. Inside the Shrine grounds was a small garden complete with greenhouse and scarecrow, the wooden posts for hanging prayers from, a small shop selling charms, a washing area, the shrine itself, and … a monkey show.
To be honest, I have no idea why there is a monkey show, but I found it on the “official” website, so clearly it’s a part of the Shrine’s attractions and not just some random street performer. My best guess is that it’s an older art form preserved for an old-timey authentic feeling, much like the traditional dances that are performed.
I wandered around for a bit, washed my hands in the cleansing fountain, offered a prayer at the shrine and decided to buy a small charm. The monks(?) manning the shrine’s charm station didn’t speak English, so I ended up helping some other tourists navigate the process of adding a prayer to the pillars placed there for that purpose. Then, after reading over the translation page (cause, my Japanese isn’t that good) I selected a small white fox charm that was listed as granting wishes. It’s really adorable, sewn from a white brocade with gold thread whiskers and happy black eyes. There is also a small golden bell and medallion with the name of the Shrine: Hikan Inari.
After some post travel translation and research, I discovered that the Hikan Inari Shrine is apparently right behind the Senji-sama shrine… and is covered in fox guardian spirits, which makes more sense as to why their charms were foxes, but less sense as to how the heck I missed a shrine covered in cute kitsune statues! I seriously thought I explored every inch of that place, I found statues and shrines tucked into side corners and entirely ignored by the other tourists/pilgrims, and yet I missed this.
Tokyo Skytree & Studio Ghibli
By this time I’d spent several hours on my feet wandering around the nooks and crannies of Asakusa and (thinking I’d seen everything) was ready to head to my next destination: The Sky Tree. I wended my way back through the obstacle course of shopping and hopped back on the train for a much more straightforward single stop ride to the second tallest structure in the world (next to the Burj Khalifa which I visited in Dubai last year).
The Skytree falls short of the Burj Khalifa by nearly 200m, but it’s still impressive. Plus there is a huge shopping district at the base of the Skytree with many handmade Japanese goods and local specialties (like the TV character store), as well as my own shopping target: Donguri Kyowakoku, a store entirely dedicated to the films of Hayao Miyazaki (and since I couldn’t get tickets to the Miyazake museum, the next best thing to walking inside the classic animations).
When I arrived at the Skytree, I got instantly lost in the mass of stores that the train stations dump travelers into. I was pretty overwhelmed and significantly more impressed by these shops than I had been at Asakusa, so pro-tip, take the train one stop over and do your souvenier shopping here if you are doing a day trip in this part of Tokyo.
I found my way to the base of the Skytree, which is actually four floors up, and also found the line for tickets to ascend the tower. It can be tricky to get tickets in advance without paying a travel agent 400% or being fluent in Japanese, and I had also read that the trip up the tower wasn’t all that great unless you went on a very clear day. As you can probably tell from my other photos, the day I went was quite cloudy and I learned a little lesson from the Burj Khalifa that standing in huge long lines to ride up an elevator is lame. The line for tickets was estimated at 30-45 minutes, it was cloudy and it was crowded. So, I opted to forgo the skyward trip in favor of more ground exploring.
I found the Skytree beer garden, which had a pretty resplendent set menu, a bar (of course) and even some special seats that were built to allow the couples seated within them to recline in comfort and view the tower looming above them. Oh, and also enjoy a bottle of champagne. All around the outdoor patio were places that vented a cooling mist onto visitors to help combat the summer heat, and some that attracted scores of little kids who played in the wet fog blasting out of giant fans.
After too many photos, I set off to try to find my target shop and ended up having to ask directions because the sheer volume of stores in the area made it impossible for the map directories to do anything other than list things by category. This is just one of the many reasons why I really like to know at least a little of the language in my country of choice. Even if I sound like a toddler, I can still get my point across and roughly understand the answers.
When I rounded the correct corner there was no doubt in my mind. The window of the shop was dominated by a giant Totoro under an even larger tree. Tourists paused to take their pictures in front of the favorite neighbor before entering the shop. I had first discovered this chain on a totally practical shopping trip to Lalaport in Yokohama, and subsequently recieved a flood of requests for Ghibli-shwag from my friends in Seattle. When I read that there was one at the Skytree, I was sure it had to be larger and more impressive and hence decided to do my shopping there instead of returning to Lalaport.
I was not disappointed. This shop was easily twice the size of the one at Lalaport, and although it had fewer statues on offer, those were generally too expensive and too heavy for me to be interested in bringing back. Instead, I had a massive selection of bounty to choose from including plushies, stationary, towels, dishes, keychains, hair bobbles, jewelry and prop/character replicas. Totoro featured the most heavily, followed by Kiki’s cat Jiji, but there was something from nearly ever film Miyazaki ever made.
One part of the store was dedicated to books and dvds, dominated by a giant catbus head and arms over the bookshelves and separated from the rest of the store by a large tree, inside of which slept Totoro with a little Mei on his belly. When onlookers pushed a button, the scene lit up and Totoro began to snore gently, his tummy going up and down with his breath. Stupidly adorable.
It took me a good long while to find the perfect match for everyone on my list and it was dark by the time I left the shop. This meant that the Skytree was dressed in it’s nighttime lights and I was able to get some more cool photos. I took my time wandering back toward the train station. I was on the opposite side of the whole district so I had to walk back through everything anyway.
I checked out a few more interesting shops on the way including the TV Character Store which was filled with all the famous animated characters that are aired on Japanese TV. The Skytree’s primary purpose is television broadcasting, so the stations have a strong association with the landmark. Aside from the dozens of iconic characters regular merchandise, there were special Skytree souvenirs that depicted the characters visiting or interacting with the tower.
When I walked through a section of food shops there were Skytree shaped treats everywhere. Bottles of soda or wine shaped like it, chocolates molded to look like it, loaves of bread braided and decorated to mimic the texture and shape, and even some fresh waffles on a stick. Seriously, the only other place I’ve seen so many different things on single theme is Disney Land, where you can buy Mickey shaped everything.
Part of the reason for this is the gift giving culture of Japan. Souvenirs aren’t purchased by the Japanese for themselves, but as omiyage which is the name for souvenir gifts. Any time a Japanese person takes a trip, they must bring back small gifts from wherever they went to the friends, family or even co-workers that they left behind. So each place has shops selling very local goods distinctive to the region or attraction for this purpose.
Continuing the endless walk of shops, I passed one making one of my favorite Japanese snacks – onigiri. These are the triangular rice “balls” often containing a nugget of fish or vegetables in the middle for flavor. My personal favorite is the salmon roe, and nothing beats freshly made, so I picked one up and headed outside to find a seat to enjoy my treat.
Just as I walked outside, I caught a small fountain light show. One of the ground fountains was playing away with some matching music with flashing colored lights adorning the jets of water. Small children danced and splashed in the hot night air, enjoying the freedom of the cool water and fun. In addition, the Skytree had joined in the show and put on a new multicolored light show that lasted only a few minutes longer than the fountain itself.
Feeling full and satisfied, it was far enough past the evening rush that I felt like it was safe to get on the train. Luckily since I got on at the end of one line and rode it all the way to the end of a second, I got a seat the whole way, and was hardly ever too crowded.
Quite often I notice Japanese people asleep on the long commutes, which is not a skill I have mastered yet. Maybe if I lived here longer or took the same routes often enough for them to feel familiar I could, but in the mean time, I occupy myself with people watching.
Wrap it Up
All in all, it was a long day, more than 10 hours away from home, 3 of it on the train and the rest spent 95% on my feet. I’m grateful to be in Japan and to have the opportunity to see these amazing things (heck even the everyday things), but wow next time I’m coming here in spring or fall and getting better shoe inserts for all the walking!
Japan is a magnificent country. It’s tiny islands are immensely dense in population, yet they are still socially conscious enough to keep things clean and whole, and to appreciate the value of efficient public transportation and public entertainment like parks, shrines, museums and gardens even in the very heart of the biggest cities. They work hard, and yet still find time to enjoy these pleasures with their friends and family. I’m sad that I have to leave so soon and know I will make an effort to return here again. Between times, I will try to carry some of their lessons with me wherever else my travels take me.
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