Monday, April 30, 2007

Leaving Japan: Benny and the Jet

Six months can go by in a hurry. Here I sit in Narita Airport, waiting for the flight that will return us to the U. S., to New Jersey, to family and friends. We are all looking forward to being back home, but at the same time, we have enjoyed living in Tokyo so much that we are sad to leave.

Through the window of the lounge I can see the enormous jet that will take us back. Soon we will be miles up in the air, looking down on Alaska, riding reclining chairs at hundreds of miles an hour, rushing back home.

Soon after that we will be answering the question "What was Japan like? Did you have a good time?" Anyone who has read this blog will have some insights on that already. But how can we answer this question? What can we possibly say to describe the events covering so much time, in a place that started out as foreign to us, but over time became "our" neighborhood?

There's nothing I can write that will suffice. Japan and the States are very different places, and this blog has featured many of those differences. But perhaps more memorable to me are the instances of unexpected commonality. Culture shock and language barriers notwithstanding, we are more alike than we usually recognize. I offer the following anecdote as a farewell tribute.

Cindy and I were in a cab one evening, returning from La Jolla Mexican restaurant in Hiroo. As we headed up the hill past a darkened Arisugawa Park, we left the traffic noise behind, and I began to hear music. The driver, an elderly Japanese man, had a CD in his player. The tune was faint, so as not to disturb his passengers, but soon we were sure of what we were hearing. We smiled at the recognition.

I couldn't resist asking the cabbie about it, in my heavily accented Japanese--"Kore wa Benny Goodman desu ka?" ("Is that Benny Goodman?")

"Hai!" came the reply, and then, in heavily accented English, "Moon-right Selenei-do."

It was a charmed moment, as we realized we had something in common. "Ah, so desu. Ii desu ne" I told him (That's's great, isn't it?)."

"So desu ne" he agreed with a smile, and reached forward to turn up the volume.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Edifice of the Week: Senso-ji Temple

Senso-ji is located in Asakusa, a neighborhood in Taito-ku, in the northeastern part of Tokyo. The oldest and most popular temple in Tokyo, Senso-ji swarms with visitors. Unlike the Meiji-Jingu Shrine (see "Edifice of the Week: Meiji-Jingu Shrine"), which was a Shinto religious site, this is a Buddhist holy place (though there is an adjoining Shinto shrine). In Japan, shrines are Shinto: temples are Buddhist (or LDS).
It is said that this temple began when in the year 628 AD, two fishermen working in the nearby Sumida river netted a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist god of mercy. They tried returning it to the river, but it kept reappearing among their things. So they took it to their master, who made his house into a temple in honor of Kannon, featuring the stubborn relic. In time, Senso-ji, a proper temple was built.

Senso-ji owes its popularity to the historical popularity of Asakusa. In a long-ago civic improvement effort, when Edo (Tokyo) became the center of Japanese government, the shogunate banished the local brothels to a rural area north of the city. Asakusa was about halfway to that rural spot, and became the place to stop for food and lodging on the way to or from. Later, when Kabuki theater was also cast out of Edo, it made its home here, making Asakusa the entertainment center of the city. Asakusa retained this title for centuries (even after Kabuki was re-allowed in Edo), and lost it only in the wake of WWII.

Throughout all this time, Senso-ji was widely used. Damaged from time to time by earthquakes and other natural disasters, it was given a major overhaul in 1649, after which time it looked much as it does today. During World War II, it burned down (along with the rest of Asakusa). But not many years afterward, it was rebuilt according to the previous design.

The outer gate to the temple is called the "Kaminarimon" (Thunder Gate) in the picture above. The gate was constructed elsewhere, but moved here probably in the late 1300s, when the statues (below) of Fujin, the wind god and Raijin, the thunder god were placed within it.

People have been making religious pilgrimages to Senso-ji for about fourteen hundred years. In older times, pilgrims needed lodging, food, supplies, and so forth at the end of their trek. To meet that need, vendors lined the route to the temple with stalls and shops. This tradition is kept alive today along the Nakamise Dori, the street leading from the Kaminarimon to the temple.

Here you can buy just about anything Japanese. If you're hungry, there are all kinds of food stalls. You can even get cherry-blossom flavored ice-cream cones at this time of year (my choice on a recent visit, though the "fully mature melon" flavor intrigued me). Souvenirs run the gamut from traditional hand fans (300-yen) to modern five-foot gundam action figures (300,000-yen).

Once you've made it through the shops, you end up at an even bigger gate, Hozomon (Treasure House Gate). It is currently being refurbished, and is all wrapped up.

After coming through Hozomon, you are in the religious heart of the temple complex. On your right is a place you can buy fortunes. You pay your money, and are given a cylindrical container full of sticks. The cylinder has one small hole in one of the ends; through it you shake out a random stick. The stick has a number on it directing you to one of a bank of small drawers, from which you remove a slip of paper containg your fortune.

There are a number of types of blessings, including "big luck," "medium luck," "small luck," "small bad luck," "big bad luck," "future luck," and so on. "Future luck" is actually the most desirable; "big luck" can imply that you are about to reach your peak of luck in life, leaving the long-term future looking pretty bleak. If you get a good fortune, you take it with you; if you get a bad one, you can tie it to a rack near the drawers, and it will not be able to follow you.
After the fortunes place is a window where you can buy incense. You use a lighting stand to ignite it (don't be alarmed by the symbol on the stick; in Japan, a backwards swastika is the symbol for "temple"). You take your stick to the big incense burner in the middle of the courtyard, and stick it upright in the sand. Standing next to the burner, you use your hands to waft the scent over you, breathing it in.

After the incense, you can go to the fountain for ritual washing. This is done in the same way as described earlier at the Meiji Shrine. Following this, you can climb the steps into the temple, make an offering, and say a prayer. You can also linger to look at the beautiful artwork, or look down over the temple courtyard.
There is so much more to see here than I can cover in a blogpost. A nearby five-story pagoda towers beautifully above traditional gardens.
At Senso-ji, what has been blends with what is and what will be. On the steps of a wedding hall, in the shadow of the temple, the future shines from the faces of Japan's newest married couple.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Akai Shingo, Midori-iro Shingo

What are these girls up to? Oldsters, cast your mind back.

I came across this group in Shinjuku Kyoen, while I was there taking pictures of the cherry blossoms. Have you figured it out yet?

Some things transcend culture; one of the most delightful of these is the inherent playfulness of the young. These girls are playing a game we used to call "red light, green light." Is it odd that a scene played out by strangers in a foreign land should make me nostalgiac for my childhood?

Sunday, April 8, 2007


Have you heard the Japanese song "Sakura," that invites "Come and see the cherry bloom"? I remember learning it in elementary school.

With Spring, sakura (cherry-blossom time) comes to Tokyo. In the U. S., it makes us happy to see cherry blossoms. But here, it is a major cultural event. Folks head the parks--such as Shinjuku Kyoen below--to admire and picnic beneath venerable, enormous cherry trees.
After dark, when the big parks are closed, cherry trees in the neighborhood--in small parks, playgrounds, plazas, and so forth--are lit up in celebration. Groups of friends find places underneath to eat, drink sake, and sing into the wee hours.

This early-blossoming tree is framed by the "Big Gate" and Nanzen-ji Temple in Kyoto.

A recent instance brought home to me just how important these trees are in Japan. As I have written before, we are living over our heads in Tokyo, and we know it. But I managed to impress some neighbors--unintentionally, upon my word--when in all the sakura discussion I happened to mention that we have a cherry tree in our yard back home in New Jersey. They seemed amazed beyond comprehension. I suspect some of them have only been able to reconcile this information by telling themselves I must be mistaken, that it must be some other type of tree. A person may own a Maserati, but a cherry tree?. . .Get real!

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Vehicle of the Week: Scooter for a Rainy Day

I saw this in Kyoto on a rainy day--the kind of day that made this bike's owner happy for the custom coverage over his head. Wish I could have gotten closer for a shot from a different angle. But from my vantage point, it looked definitely cool, as well as practical. And note the dual rear wheels for stability. Definitely good enough to make Vehicle of the Week!

Sign of the Week: Cow Tipping

It's supposed to be nothing more than a hoax. It has even been de-bunked by the Mythbusters. But I can assure you it is not. In fact, I have been Cow Tipping here in Yoyogi on multiple occasions--and I have no regrets. Knowing there might be some skeptics among you, I offer this week's Sign of the Week as evidence.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Cruising Down the Hozu (on a Monday Afternoon)

On a recent trip to Kyoto, Cindy, C. J., my parents (visiting from the U. S.) and I had the chance to get out of the city and take a boat ride down the Hozu River.

We started out from Sagano station on the quaintly-named "Romantic Train," which follows the course of the river east through a beautifully forested canyon to the town of Kameoka. On board, everyone was excited and happy, taking pictures and enjoying the view. The only people who take this train are sight-seers; there's a faster line to Kameoka if you just need to get there. But the Romantic Train winds along with the river, crossing it now and then, and sliding through tunnels in the riverside cliffs. This picture was taken from the train. The boat is just like the one we would soon be taking back through the canyon.

From the train station in Kameoka, we took a bus to the boat landing. We spent some time in a waiting area (complete with gift shop--this is Japan) until the loudspeaker announced our party, telling us it was time to board: "Amerika-no Tomu-san" ("Mr. Tom, the American").

Here, in a plain on the other side of the mountains from Kyoto, the river flows along placidly. As we started our trip down the river, we passed through open fields first. The banks got gradually higher, and soon we were passing through bamboo woods.

We were the only Westerners in the boat, but not the only "gaijin" (foreigners). The friendly couple sitting behind us were from Taiwan, in the company of a Japanese friend. The rest were Japanese. A very nice fellow sitting in front of C. J. had his family along. He turned out to be a Yale-educated physician. He and the Taiwanese couple took pains to help interpret for us when the boat's crew had something to tell the group.

The boat was crewed by three men, who rotated positions a few times during the two-hour tour. One was at the tiller in the stern, one rowed the boat's single oar, and one served as poleman. It was interesting to see how the poleman operated. He would stand at the very tip of the bow, plant his bamboo pole ahead of the boat on a river bottom. Then, as the boat reached the spot, he would push off downstream. To take full advantage of the leverage the pole provided, he would run five or six steps down the sloping bow, pushing the the boat forward with his feet.

As we entered the canyon, we had a chance to see the Romantic Train chugging along, bringing more boaters up to Kameoke

The canyon had plenty of waterfowl. Getting a picture of the ducks and cormorants from a moving platform was beyond my photographic capabilities, but I was able to capture this Great Blue Heron, which obligingly and characteristically stood still for me

As the canyon narrowed the river, it grew a bit wilder. While we saw nothing more than class II rapids, it made for a fun ride. And the role of poleman turned from propelling the craft to fending off rocks.

As the sides of the canyon grew higher, the forest changed to Sugi. This beautiful tree has been know to the West as "Japanese Cedar," but it is not a cedar. The more accurate "Japanese Cypress" is now being used more widely. Sugi is a type of cypress, but differs greatly from the cypress we're familiar with in the States.

As we wound our way, we would sometimes find ourselves in the shadows. It was cool, quiet, and beautiful!

Eventually, the canyon opened up again. The sugi gave way to hardwoods. We saw some early cherry blossoms here and there.

The river grew broader than ever, and calm. The crew began to work hard to keep us moving along. I was beginning to worry for them--they had to be exhausted--when a canopy-covered, motor-powered boat came alongside of us. It was a floating food stand! They tied up to our boat, and we bought refreshments. Their boat's engine moved us along quickly, so our crew got a breather. This seemed like a real win-win to me--we got food, they got rest, and the vendors made some money. I had some "taco" (octopus) grilled right there on the boat. In this picture, the cook has my order in his hand. Cindy had rice balls on a stick. C. J. had a Mitsuya Cider.

It wasn't long after that we came into Arashiyama, our destination. Lots of families were out boating here, as in this picture.

What a great time this was. If you're ever to Kyoto, I recommend it. Sometimes doing the touristy thing turns out just right!