“Tokyo offers a lot of spectacle and confusion. This is just a facade. Behind the neon glare lies a steady rhythmic and miraculous everyday world that can be yours if you want it to be.” Tokyo Totem
We walked Tokyo for a week in an attempt to make it “ours”. The weather was good, around 11 degrees celsius and we had blue skies; perfect weather for exploring. It snowed on the morning we departed for home. It felt like a final gift from the metropolis and Japan.
As always, trying to peer through the cracks into yesteryear is one of the delights of travel. Old Edo is gone but one can still get a sense of it in some parts of the city. I learnt, From Edo to Tokyo: Traveling through Time with a 200-Year-Old Map, that there were “three hundred clans of Edo” (samurai families) with residences in the city and all the attendant shrines and gardens that supported their cultural needs during the 265 years of the Edo Era. These spaces tend to be where the modern gardens and parks have been developed in the period from the Meiji Restoration when the old samurai order were politically displaced.
We learnt about the traditional names of two areas of the city – Yamanote and Shitamachi – while endeavouring to get a sense of the geography the place and discovered how integrally linked concepts of culture and class were with these “high” and “low” areas of the city.
Yamanote refers to the affluent, upper-class areas of Tokyo west of the Imperial Palace. While citizens once considered it as consisting of Hongo, Koishikawa, Ushigome, Yotsuya, Akasaka, Aoyama and Azabu in the Bunkyō, Shinjuku, and Minato wards, its size has grown to include the Nakano, Suginamiand Meguro wards. Shitamachi is the traditional name for the area of Tokyo including today the Adachi, Arakawa, Chiyoda (in part), Chūō, Edogawa, Kōtō, Sumida, and Taitō wards, the physically low part of the city along and east of the Sumida River. SOURCE
Shrines and gardens are integral to travelling in Japan. Harajuku is cool and one must go to Shibuya and Shinjuku to have experienced Tokyo but the less visited, more untouched parts of the city are truly wonderful spaces. I would recommend walking for as long as you can around Shimokitazawa and Yanaka to get a sense of the Tokyo that existed prior to neon skyscrapers and outside seeming like inside (a mall).
Yanaka, in particular, is where I would live if a resident of Tokyo. We walked around for a whole day exploring nooks and crannies, including shrines of all sizes, a genuinely wonderful market street and fascinating cemetery. My daughters were very curious about this grave:
Deborah Moore is an enthusiast for school exchanges and is very knowledgeable about Japan. She has been an invaluable source of information for this trip and often provided a translation service for us live while we were travelling. Deb soon had a link that explained why this woman had been executed (in fact the last person beheaded in Japan). The girls were suitably impressed.
I even managed a superb coffee for only 240 yen while wandering Yanaka. This may seem trite but locals bought their coffee beans from this cafe and it was a no nonsense, excellent place to sit and watch the street. It was one of the few decent coffees I had in Japan. It is particularly memorable spot as my ‘earthquake app’ buzzed incredibly loudly while I was in the cafe. I didn’t even know what the noise was until I saw the alert on my iPhone. My stomach dropped, you know that feeling of deep fear, as my family were off somewhere wandering while I drank coffee and read. On closer inspection the sizeable shake was very far North of Sapporo. Later that evening we did feel tremors while in our apartment but that is pretty normal for Tokyo.
The view from the front door of our apartment in Asakusa was spectacular and while taking some long exposure shots a helpful meteor zoomed by. We stayed in this popular suburb of Tokyo three years ago and explored in thoroughly but decided to base ourselves here again as it a beautiful and convenient part of the city. Tokyo was razed multiple times last century, by fire, earthquake and flood. The most recent destruction was the bombing raid that occurred in World War II which resulted in more casualties than any other, including Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden. Asakusa, Shimokitazawa and Yanaka seem to have escaped the worst of that fiery hell.
Ueno Park is filled with fountains, ponds, memorials and museums. We found Mr Saigo Takamori again. It has a community of homeless people who live in the park too which is rare to see in Japan (although evident in Osaka). Tokyo National Museum is just superb and enjoyed the statues on display immensely.
Jimbocho is a treasure. Located near the University of Tokyo, this area is a place where bibliophiles can spend countless hours, days, wandering the antiquarian bookstores. Reputedly there are 170 in close proximity but the one that captured my imagination was Kitazawa which opened in 1902. There were countless unusual books and rarities to discover. I have spent my life in bookstores and libraries and came across many, many books I had never had an inkling existed.
The owner helped me by writing a message in Japanese for other bookstores so they would understand what I was seeking. We got chatting about the challenges for antiquarian booksellers, especially since the rise of the internet. Here strategy was to open a new section for children. The decor was made parent friendly and kids can sit around and read, play with the stuffed toys. The other agenda was to support the next generation to find printed literature. Check out the slideshow, which includes a photo of customers in the early 20th century, when the store first opened.
Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan
We are not really sports fans. The occasional day at the Sydney Cricket Ground watching the first day of a test match is about the only big sports event we really attend so going to the Grand Sumo Tournament at Ryogoku Kokugikan for the day was quite an outing. Last time we were in Tokyo we missed the annual tournament but for this trip pre-booked tickets online before arriving in Japan.
Our “Box A” space was pretty tiny for four people (about 160cm x 160cm I’d guess) but the view was excellent. On arrival I was surprised by the dohyō (土俵)* which looks positively ancient rather than some modern wrestling surface. Hanging above is a shinto shrine-like structure. The rikishi (sumo wrestlers) come in all sizes and shapes, some tipping the scales at 250 kg. When they are propelled off the dohyō onto the officials and others ringed close by, there are, as you would imagine, injuries.
The rituals that pertain to purifying the ring and the various traditions were fascinating. To the untrained ear the singing of the announcers or yobidashi sounds similar to the Islamic “call to prayer”. It is very beautiful.
I shot quite a few photos with an extender, to boost my f/2.8 70-200mm lens on a Nikon D800, played around with my fisheye lens and took a few brief videos on my iPhone. What follows is a brief six minute video (click on the first photo for the video) and photos which give you a sense of the event. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience and it must have been very good as Miss 12, who was very dubious about spending the day at the sumo wrestling said, “that was much better than I thought”. Miss 9 enjoyed picking which rikishi would be victorious in the bout and had an impossibly good win ratio.
The Edo-Tokyo Museum is a couple of minutes walk from the stadium. It interested me that both of my daughters really found the exhibits engaging. There were literally hundreds of school children on excursions with sheets to complete who seemed equally engaged. The museum was very interactive and also explored quite modern history, especially the everyday post 1970s. I much preferred the Tokyo National Museum.
We will visit Japan again; not sure when but maybe it will be in the spring although I’d be happy enough with winter again.
Next post – which will be my final one about ‘travelling in Japan’ – will focus on books, bookshops and literature but also what I would like to do next trip. Of course, the ideas mostly came from books but also a tv show I watched.
NB We would return to the Sometaro for a third time as the food, ambience and price are so brilliant.
Featured image: Japan Rail Passes