This is the first of four posts about my recent trip to Japan.
Table of Contents
- Tokyo City
- Harajuku and Takeshita Dori
- Akihabara and Super Potato
- Mori Tower and Sailor Moon
- Saltwater Gardens and Imperial Palace
- The Pokemon Centre
- Meeting Japanese Buddha
I stayed in Shin-Okubo, a suburb which was known as 'little Korea' or Korea town, one stop down from the massive hub Shinjuku; busiest train station in the world. No, really. Being pretty central, I got to stay in a busy area, surrounded by the bustle of Tokyo going about its daily life.
One of the weird habits I have is to find a local cafe near wherever I'm staying and go to it every morning first thing. Maybe it's an attempt to hold onto some semblance of routine while I'm in a totally foreign place; I like to tell myself it's a good way to just soak in the vibe and atmosphere for a while each day. This was the view out the window of the coffee place I picked, complete with cheesy anime latte art:
At first I thought the art in our coffee must be a normal thing in Japan, but I never saw it again outside that one cafe (except for Gundam cafe, a theme cafe).
Below are some more shots both day and night of the area I stayed in, and a photo of us as a group on our first day there. It was taken in Yoyogi park, right next to Harajuku Station.
At the temple in the Yoyogi Park there was a Bonsai display. I don't know why, but I've always found these really cool. You don't see them much in Australia, but in Japan Bonsai is an art form, displayed commonly in palaces and temples.
Harajuku and Takeshita Dori
Harajuku is a pretty funky neighbourhood - Wikipedia describes it as 'A center of Japanese youth culture and fashion" - full of people in interesting outfits, like lolita girls and 'harajuku street styles'.
Takeshita Dori is the main street, seen in the photo below, and it's bloody packed. You can't get through the street faster than a casual amble so we were sure to take in all the interesting little stalls.
The stalls were all touristy things and little gadgets and branded merch. I picked up a sweet set of lightsaber chopsticks. And then never touched a fork again...
Akihabara and Super Potato
Akihabara is also known as 'electric city,' and it showed, with the sheer amount of electronics and enthusiast stores around. The other guys picked up some figurines and Japanese versions of their favourite MTG cards, I didn't buy anything here. We found (thanks to reddit and their Uncharted Tokyo guide) a great store called Super Potato, which sold heaps of retro games. The highlight was the top floor, in which you could buy snacks, drink and smoke while you played some retro arcade games. Josh at the front of the photo is actually playing the original Mario game.
Mori Tower and Sailor Moon
Mori Tower is known for some of the best views in the city. It's one of the only places you can look in any direction, 360 degrees around and see only city as far as the eye can see. Tokyo has 39 million people in it, or roughly 160% the population of Australia. In a single city. There was also a Sailor Moon exhibition going on on the same floor so we made sure to get some photos there as well...
Saltwater Gardens and Imperial Palace
We spent a day doing a clean sweep of the Tsukiji fish markets, Hamarikyu Gardens (a saltwater garden on the bay), and the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. The below photos are from Hamarikyu Gardens. The first is a 300 year old tree; if you look carefully, you can actually see it has supports holding up the long branches from the tree and preventing them from breaking as they cascade down like a waterfall.
Then the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace, which used to be the innermost circles of Edo Castle. The history is a little confusing, so I'll try to lay it for you in a few paragraphs.
The Shoguns were hereditary military dictators that governed Japan between the 12th and 19th centuries, a huge chunk of history. There was also an Imperial Family, but most of the time it was the Shogun that was the real ruler, as he had almost absolute power over territories through military means. The last Shogunate was the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled from 1603 to 1867, and this is the one we are concerned with.
After the collapse of the Ashikaga Shogunate in the late 1560's, Tokugawa Ieyasu helped unite Japan under Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi. At the Siege of Odawara against the Hojo clan, the last resistance against Hideyoshi's rule, Hideyoshi offered Ieyasu the 8 provinces they were about to conquer in exchange for the 5 he currently owned. This included his home province, Mikawa, but nevertheless Ieyasu took the deal and moved all his soldiers and vassals to Kanto (the Eastern region of Japan, shown on the map below). Tokugawa Ieyasu himself occupied Edo Castle, the namesake of Edo, a castle town on the east coast - and the site of current Tokyo.
Despite being a risky deal - he was giving up his loyal home provinces for an area full of the people he had just defeated - it worked out great for Ieyasu. He calmed the rebellious inhabitants, reformed the provinces and eventually took control of Japan after Hideyoshi died, beginning the Edo Period.
Rather than move back down to Kyoto when he became the ruler, Ieyasu stayed in Edo. I don't blame him, I moved apartments every six months as a student and plan to avoid doing it again any time soon; moving is a pain in the ass. Edo Castle was where the Shogun lived from the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (The Edo Period) in 1603, when Ieyasu took over, up until it's end in 1867, which is when the Meiji Period began.
The Meiji Restoration was a chain of events that took control from the Shoguns and gave it back to the Imperial family under Emperor Meiji. There were a bunch of reasons for the Meiji Restoration, first and foremost was the growing globalization happening; the Americans had been showing off their fancy battleships and asking Japan to open trade with them. Japan had for the last 250 years had a policy of the death penalty for foreigners entering, or natives leaving Japan, but now the Japanese were clearly being outstripped technologically and militarily. So began the Meiji Period, Meiji meaning 'enlightened rule,' meant to combine "modern advances" with the traditional, "eastern" values.
Along with the Meiji Restoration came the moving of the Imperial Capital from Kyoto ("capital city") to Edo, and the renaming of Edo ("bay-entrance") to Tokyo ("Eastern capital"). The functional capital was already Edo, there had been an Imperial family this whole time living in Kyoto, the Imperial Capital, but the Shoguns held the real power for all that time. Emperor Meiji lived in Edo Castle upon moving there, until a fire consumed it in 1873 and he moved to the partially constructed Imperial palace in the same grounds. That Imperial Palace, completed in 1888, is somewhere else in the same area, but isn't open to the public. What's left: the foundations of a few towers, some of the original walls, and guardhouses, along with a large lawn where most of the old castle was.
I didn't describe all the above history in the first draft of this post, but my girlfriend asked me "What do you mean by the Imperial Palace, East Gardens and Edo Castle? Are they the same thing?" and I couldn't give her a good answer. Hopefully that little deep dive on the history of Edo Castle means you don't have the same question.
The Pokemon Centre
We couldn't go to Japan without making it to the Pokemon Centre. We made it out through a heavy rainstorm because we absolutely couldn't miss this one. It was full of rows upon rows of Pokemon merch. You can see the walls of Pokemon plushies in the photos below, as well as a few life sized Pokemon statues.
Meeting Japanese Buddha
The people we met were ridiculously friendly, although maybe it wasn't just friendliness that inspired them. We had several groups of Japanese schoolgirls stop us for photos, and a few university students, who then came out to dinner and drinks with us later in the trip. I'm still a bit mystified about this to be honest, I'm sure we weren't the first white people they'd ever seen - maybe it was Josh and his goldilocks. Anyway, that's Osaka and I'm getting ahead of myself.
By far the most memorable encounter we had was with a few women in their late 20's. We were walking down a quiet back street on our way to find dinner (you can see this back street in the cafe photo at the top of the post), when three women - one with a kid in tow - stopped us, talking excitedly in Japanese and English and showing us a newspaper they had. Their English was not great, but we figured out they wanted us to go to dinner with them. Cool, we thought - we don't have any idea what they're saying but they seem enthusiastic and what's the worst that could happen? They're three tiny Japanese women. So after a few shrugs at each other, we agreed to follow them. It took two trains and half an hour to get to the suburb they were taking us for dinner, so by the time we got off the train our stomachs were starting to rumble and we were really hoping this meal was worth it.
It's worth mentioning that 3/5ths of us were mad football fans (the European kind) and it was set in stone that we had to be at a certain bar in Shibuya by ten pm, which was when the Euro cup was airing.
We get off the train and they start asking us if we would like to meet Japanese Buddha. We were a bit confused at this but not opposed to the idea, so we said sure, but we have to be back in the city for the football at 10pm - it was now 8pm - and we were starving so let's have that dinner first. They asked what we would like and we said ramen because of course we said ramen. They found that pretty funny, but told us there was no ramen where we were going. Well.. OK then. After leading us down some darker side streets we were starting to get a bit nervous - we were in a foreign country, with people who spoke very little English, in the side streets of some random outer suburb. Finally we arrived in front of some nondescript brick building. There were a few guys loitering outside smoking, and the place was dim and deathly quiet, so we were a touch on edge.
"OK now you can meet Japanese Buddha!"
Hmm.. that wasn't what was planned. We repeated our request for ramen and rubbed our bellies to show how hungry we were. We didn't want to be rude but at this point we were starting to run the risk of not getting back in time for the football and well, that just wouldn't stand. They got the hint and took us down into some sort of basement cafeteria, and showed us a fridge where we could buy microwave meals.. this was not our picture of a hearty meal, and what's more, we didn't have cash and it was cash only. We told them this and they seemed so crestfallen and apologetic that we couldn't help but feel bad, so when we told them we had to get going, and no we couldn't meet Japanese Buddha, but we could meet them for lunch the next day. We swapped Facebook details, and went on our way back to the city.
We actually had a pretty massive evening after that, just catching the tail end of the game, deciding to try to salvage the night buy going out, and buying many rounds of beer at a place called the Ruby Room. We ended up getting home around 5 am after a fair amount of drinking.
Fast forward to midday the next day. Heads are hurting, but Callum, Kayne and myself manage to pull ourselves out of bed. The other two are still nursing their heads. We meet up, get taken back out to the same building in the same suburb and have a microwave meal for lunch. No idea why they weren't willing to take us to a restaurant - our best guess was that they were highly religious and this was their 'kosher' food. Then, after covering up Callum's tattoos, they give us some prayer beads and take us into the building, which seems to be some blend of apartment building and church.
We head inside and sign some forms. I think I might be legally married to Japanese Buddha or something, they were pretty intense looking documents with lots of angry red Japanese kanji. We were carefully shown how to sit on our knees, and given 9 pages to read out from. Most of the people in the room had little bibles written in Japanese, but we obviously couldn't read Japanese so Yuki, the leader of our new friends, had handwritten the chant/prayer into phonetic English. She showed us how to hold the prayer beads, they were asymmetrical with two 'tails' on one side and three on the other - pictured above. We had to loop them over our middle fingers after crossing once in the middle, with the three tails on the left side. It started at 2 pm and after a short speech by the lady at the front, along with some banging on a gong, the whole room started to chant in unison.
At first I stumbled over the pronunciation, especially of "Namyohourengekyo" - nahn-myo-hoor-ren-geck-yo if you're curious - which I thought at the time was the name of Japanese Buddha but later found out was "a pledge to oneself to never yield to difficulties and to win over one’s suffering" (more). After a few minutes I got good enough at matching sounds to words and just followed along with Yuki's finger as she pointed out where we were up to. I had a little moment of pride halfway through when she stopped pointing out the words to me and I managed to follow along anyway. My mind wandered at first, taking in the chant and wondering what it meant but after not too long I fell into kind of a meditative state and just let the sound run through my body. It was so low and deep and loud, with 40 or so people vocalising, that I could feel the vibrations in the air around me. I was a bit light headed too from almost constant breathing out, which probably helped with the whole meditative state thing. After around twenty minutes more of this, the chant ended, repeating "Nanmyohourengekyo" over and over until the chant died off. Yuki whispered in my ear 'Now you pray for whatever you want,' and we observed a short silence.
The three of us, Kayne, Callum and I were kind of in awe after that - we are by no means religious, so that was probably the most spiritual thing we had ever experienced. To top it all off, Yuki told us to keep the prayer beads she had given us, which was an awesome parting gift. The three of us were very glad we went along with them, despite not knowing what on earth was going on or where they were taking us. That's not an experience I think I'll ever have again.
These are our new friends below:
And they showed us how to write our names in Japanese as well!
Next up, the varied and delicious food of Japan.