Tag Archives: Tokyo

Love, Harry

The Meiji Shrine is just a hop-skip from Takeshita Street, with its cat cafes, kids in costumes, and stores dedicated to specialty socks.

But arriving at the shrine was like sinking into distant time and place.  The shrine—and I don’t know what makes it different from a temple—enshrines the deified spirits (but not the bodies) of the Emperor Meiji and Empress Shōken.

You may have heard of the “Meiji Restoration.”  It (to vastly simplify) was the reassignment of power to the Emperor Meiji from the Shoguns who had run things in Japan for hundreds of years.

During the shogunate there had been Emperors, but they were only figureheads, like today.  When the American Admiral, Matthew Perry, arrived in 1853 to press for a treaty after over 200 years of Japan being closed to foreigners, the Japanese recognized how far behind they were technologically.  The Emperor Meiji led the industrialization of Japan, along with other reforms.

Meiji was the 122nd Emperor.  That sure beats any European throne for continuity.  Naruhito, the 126th Emperor, just ascended to the throne after his father retired—a first in Japanese history.

I stopped at a café near the entrance to have a cappuccino and a red bean croissant and lace on my new walking shoes.  The café wasn’t anything special but I am still thinking about the croissant today, it was so delicious.  For the next month I would look for another one, to no avail.

The shrine is surrounded by 170 acres of woodland and gardens. The trees were so enormous it was difficult to capture them “on film.”  If you can make out the people in the photo below, it will give you a sense of the scale.

I had seen small wooden plaques at the shrine I’d visited the day before, but since my visit coincided with a torrential downpour I hadn’t lingered to inspect them.  Today it was dry.  This is just one of five or six walls of plaques. After observing for a while, I figured out that you buy a plaque at a little kiosk, write a prayer on it, then leave it behind—presumably in hopes that the Emperor’s or Empress’s deity will grant your wish.

Here’s Harry’s wish:

This reminded me of the western wall in Jerusalem, where people write prayers on scraps of paper and leave them tucked inside the cracks.  I did this.  In 1998 I left a prayer for my son to recover from addiction.  He is now in recovery.  So it worked!

Some of the plaques had illustrations of students taking exams or of boars—it being the Year of the Boar.  I bought a couple and tucked them in my bag.  I wasn’t going to leave them behind; they would make great little souvenirs.

I strolled through the gardens.  There was a bonsai exhibit.

And Iris gardens, which were cultivated in fields of standing water.

I caught a glimpse of a monk.

There was a gift shop; I bought a boar banner for 200 yen (less than $2) which I now have hanging in my entryway along with a plaque from a subsequent shrine.

I would travel to Nikko the next day.  I retired early to my hotel room and tried to deal with the mistaken charges on my credit card.  I got caught in a loop where I couldn’t login to my credit card company’s website because it wanted to send me a verification text due to me being in an unfamiliar location.  I couldn’t get texts, right?  And I couldn’t call them.  I tried Skype but my credit for regular calls had expired and when I tried to top it up it was somehow linked to Apple, which said my account was invalid.

Suddenly a slew of texts arrived.  I guess I could receive but not send.  My mother was in the ER, unfortunately a regular occurrence. I am on all her forms as the contact.  I had delegated to my brother while I was away but my niece stepped in and took charge.

My mom was released the next day.  I suppose I should have felt guilty about not being there, but I felt only relief.

Bouncing Around

“How’re the kids?” I asked Keiko.

“They were up til 4am bouncing on the bed,” she replied, her face drooping with exhaustion.  “They’ve got jet lag, but they seem to get wound up, while I’m the opposite.  Charlie was nervous about starting school, too.”

Charlie, my nine-year-old nephew, had started a three-week stint at a local school that day.  His five-year-old brother was going to attend a week of kindergarten.

I expressed sympathy and felt grateful I was staying in a hotel.

“Have a pastry,” I implored her.  “Maybe the sugar will help.”

After much pointing, smiling, and bowing, the pastry-shop ladies had picked out four beautiful items and wrapped them as though I were visiting the Emperor.

“Most popular,” one lady kept repeating as she pointed to a rubbery-looking green blob.

“Okay!” I enthused.

“I have no idea what any of them are,” I told Keiko and Fred.  They read the enclosed descriptions and suggested I try the green blob.  It was rubbery, and filled with red bean paste.  “I love it,” I pronounced, truthfully.  “It’s not too sweet.”

After an hour or so of socializing at the art show, I was off to see the famous Takeshita Street and adjacent Meiji Shrine.

But first, I spotted a pair of 2020 Tokyo Olympics-branded trainers in a shop window and screeched to a halt.  I did need some closed-toed shoes, right, so I wouldn’t spend my entire month in Japan slipping around in the rain?  I sidled into the store, checked the price, did the currency conversion in my head, and dropped the tag like it was coated in acid.  A hundred bucks!

I know, I know.  Most people spend much more than that on shoes.  But I don’t.

I left the store and kept walking.  At the corner, instead of going straight toward the station, I turned right and walked around the block, thinking.  The shoes were Asics, a good brand.  I would wear them for at least three years, probably. So they really would only cost $33 a year, or $2.75 a month!

But I’m not working full-time anymoreI could find a pair of similar trainers at TJ Maxx for $28…but not with the Tokyo Olympics logo on them….not that I care about brands or logos, but I do love the Olympics.

Back in the store, I pointed the shoes out to a saleswoman, and she brought me a pair of socks and slippers.  This was going to be interesting.  Through a series of hand gestures, she guided me to remove my flip flops and put on the socks—without touching the floor—then slide my feet into the slippers.  Then, after she laced up the largest pair of shoes they had in stock, I carefully retracted one foot at a time and—without touching the floor!—slid them into the shoes.

I wondered, what her reaction would be if I accidentally skimmed the floor with my foot?  Would it shock her?  Make her gag? Would she make me go in back and wash my feet with soap and water?  It seemed crucial enough that I was very careful and didn’t blow it.

I bought the shoes, and I’ve worn them almost every day since.

Takeshita Street.  It took me some time to get there because, unbeknownst to me, the station has two names: Harujuku (the popular name) and Meiji Jinju (the official name).

When you think of quirky young Japanese people, Takeshita Street is the place.  There, they cosplay, which—I think—means they dress in character from anime/manga stories. Here’s the impassioned answer I found when I Googled, “What is the difference between anime and manga?”

Anime is animation of a cartoonish show and manga is book of pictures or comics (also graphic novels). They are not the same!     

Since I couldn’t care less about either, Takeshita Street was a meh for me.

I did buy $50 worth of weird socks to give away as souvenirs.

There was a cat café.  The idea of eating in a room full of cats and possibly litter boxes did not appeal.

I am not Takeshita Street’s demographic, but I gave it a go, walking up and down and then out.

Word of the Day: Death

I got up this morning to find that one of three kittens I am fostering for the Humane Society was dead.  It’s not uncommon for foster kittens to die.  The mother cats are stray, barely adults themselves, emaciated and hungry, and/or diseased. It’s a cruel world.

Later today I will attend a funeral where Vince will give the eulogy for his best friend from prison.  I don’t know how he died.  He was only 34.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I began writing it with my son when he was in prison.  As he transitioned from prison and addiction to a healthy, sober life, I was freed to write about fun things like travel.

I still try to contribute to efforts at reforming our US system of mass incarceration.  This week I attended a meeting with the new Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Corrections.

We were there to demand a moratorium on a practice called crimeless revocations.  In Minnesota, out of the 10,000 men and women in prison, 24% are not there for committing a crime.  That’s right; they are in prison because, after serving their sentence and being released, they missed a meeting with their parole agent or—most commonly—they relapsed and used drugs or alcohol.

So we lock them up, where they sit in prison for four to eight months.  They do not receive drug or alcohol treatment or any other services because they are short-termers.  They lose their jobs, their housing, and whatever fragile relationships they have started to rebuild on the outside.

The commissioner agreed that this practice is a waste of time, money, and lives.  But he said he couldn’t stop doing it until he gets buy-in from all his people.  We’ll meet with him again in a month.

Vince wasn’t sent back to prison, but he had all his privileges revoked because he didn’t answer when his parole agent called.  He was doing community service work in a noisy warehouse at the time and didn’t hear his phone ring.  For a month, he was not allowed to leave the house for anything but work.  No AA, no socializing with family or his sober friends.  No gym, no runs. None of the things that were going to keep him on an upward trajectory.  It was his darkest month.

The prison system is designed to punish, not rehabilitate. One of the worst forms of punishment is to mess with people by setting unclear expectations, catching them on some minor infraction, and coming down on them like a sledgehammer.

In Japan, as I’ve described already, I stood to one side and observed as worshipers approached the inner sanctum of a temple or shrine.  In Tokyo, Nikko, Kyoto, Nara, and Koyasan, they bowed, clapped, threw coins into a donation box, and lighted incense or candles.

I’m not a believer, but I felt something, at times.  Perhaps it was because I was mystified by what was taking place.  Maybe I was moved by the sincerity of the worshipers, or the atmosphere.

Especially since my aunt died, and now that Vince’s friend has died, I would like to think there is the possibility of some lingering connection between the living and the dead.

Maybe I should turn the French curio cabinet I inherited from my aunt into a household shrine, complete with photos of ancestors and incense burners.

Day Two in Tokyo.  My sister-in-law’s father, Fred, is retired from a big Japanese company. He has been painting with a group of fellow retirees for years.  If I understood correctly, companies support their retirees to participate in hobbies together.  Fred is also in an essay-writing group.  Today I managed to find the building in which his painting group was holding an exhibition; these are his works.  He’s very talented.

I stopped first to get some pastries because that’s what people do in Japanese novels.

I’ve had eight hairstyles since I last saw Fred and Hiromi five years ago.  But of course I’m white.  He picked me out in the crowded building lobby, hugged me, and said, “Welcome, Anne-san!”

Rain. That is all.

Drenched, I retreated to my hotel to re-charge my phone and myself.

After snarfing down two containers of Cup-O-Noodles, I thought a hot bath would be nice.  The tub was very deep and very short which required me to assume a sort of crouching position which was not very relaxing.  I lay down on the hard-as-slate bed “for a few minutes,” while my phone powered up.  The rain had only increased in intensity and it was hot and humid.  I got up and tried to figure out the free-standing device I assumed was an air conditioner.

After pressing half a dozen buttons, it did generate a low—not palsied—wind.

Maybe I should just take a nap.  No!  I was not going to nap on my first day in Japan.  In a minute I would get up and … and ….

An hour and a half later I woke to the sound of a hard downpour. It was only 2pm.  I donned the flower-print rain poncho I had bought in England two years before and headed out, this time plucking up one of the clear complementary hotel umbrellas, which wouldn’t clash with my poncho.

I walked to Hamarikyu Gardens, only taking one wrong turn in the one-mile route.  The wind kept gusting and pulling my umbrella inside out.  When I pulled it back, water shed down on me as if I had no umbrella.  The poncho did its job, but again, I was slipping around in my flip flops.

As I paid my 300 yen admission fee, the young woman cashier looked at me blankly, which told me she thought I was a fool.  I appeared to be the only customer of the day as I sploshed across a muddy expanse and plunged into a wood.  I passed two other tourists who were clutching at their clothes and hurrying in the opposite direction, to exit the gardens.

I didn’t take any photos because I didn’t want my phone to get wet, but the gardens had a kind of dismal beauty in the rain.

I arrived at the point where one could board a boat for a “cruise” up the Sumida River to Asakusa, a bustling neighborhood with several sites I wanted to visit.

The boat ride was meh, not only because of the rain and decrepit state of the boat, but because the riverfront was all hideous tower blocks and utilitarian bridges.  A woman in front of me stood up and banged her head on the ceiling.  I loved that someone had taped up too-short pieces of foam to try to prevent this.

Off the boat, I splashed a half mile through standing water to the Amuse Museum, which isn’t about amusements but which contains a collection of handcrafts, like clothing made from rice sacks that people creatively made when times were hard.  It was closed for the day.

Onward.  It wasn’t cold but after hours of rain I felt shivery.  A street vendor was selling steaming gooey-soy balls on a stick slathered with a maple-y tasting sauce. I don’t normally care for maple, but these were divine.

All the wet plodding became worthwhile as I entered the precincts of Sensoji Temple.

I huddled under a nearby overhang, ate my soy balls, and watched other people who knew what to do bought fortunes.

What you do is: shake the metal box, let a numbered wooden stick fall out of a hole in the bottom, then open the corresponding drawer to retrieve your fortune.

Here’s my fortune:

Luckily there were Chinese and English translations on the reverse.

Unluckily, the English didn’t help much.  It seemed to boil down to, “You’ll have some good and bad things happen.”

If you really got a bad fortune, you could tie it to this rack.  I’m not sure what happened next.

As it began to get dark, I found the train station to return to my hotel.  Unlickily, it turned out there are two stations with the same name operated by different train companies, and I was at the wrong one.  Luckily, a passerby told me how to get to the right station, “Walk one block, turn down the alley, then go down stairs.”

Getting to Ginza

After carefully studying how to get to the Apple Store and even writing down some notes, I strode out into the rain.  I eschewed the clear plastic umbrellas made available by the hotel and brought my sturdy but garish folding umbrella I’d bought at Wimbledon two years ago.

“Harmony of the group” turned out to encompass many things, including umbrellas.  Ninety-nine percent of the thousands of umbrellas I saw in Japan were clear plastic.  So in case I didn’t already stick out enough, my umbrella helped.  It held up beautifully under sometimes driving rain that killed the clear plastic ones.  Viva Umbrelica Britannia!

However, I had made a big mistake with footwear.  As a Minnesotan plagued by cold weather for so many months of the year, I always jump at the opportunity to wear sandals.  I had checked the weather in Japan—it would be warm enough.  But the rain … it formed puddles everywhere.  My flip flops were soon filled with water and it was like I was wearing a pair of the proverbial banana peels.  I would have to pick my way carefully to avoid standing water and slip-sliding right out of my shoes.

Getting to the Apple Store seemed pretty straightforward.  I just had to take a train to the Ginza and walk northwest from the station about 20 minutes.  Unfortunately, I had a strong sense of which way was northwest, but I was absolutely wrong.  I walked the streets of a rather dodgy-looking area (for Japan) for two hours, in unrelenting rain.  I walked up and down the same blocks; I walked in circles; I consulted street maps, I walked in circles again.

I asked strangers for directions.  Two couldn’t seem to understand what I meant by “Apple Store.”  I showed them the logo on my phone.  They nodded and smiled, then shook their heads.  Another person knew what I meant but insisted there was no Apple Store in Ginza.  The third person knew where it was—but I was unable to execute his directions because he kept mixing up left and right.  “Take a right at the next big intersection … no, I mean left!  My English is so poor,” he apologized.  He must have said left when he meant right, or vice versa.

Whimpering, and back at the station for the 8th time, it occurred to me that I may have made a slight misjudgment in direction. I walked in the opposite direction from the one my gut told me to follow and with the help of only one additional stranger, found the store.

As most Apple Stores are, this one was sleek and modern.  I stood in front of it trying to figure out where the door was.  I almost broke my nose trying to walk in what appeared to be a door.  I walked around the side of the building, no dice.  I walked back to the front and waved my hands around, hoping they would activate some hidden sliding door.

“The store is closed,” said a man’s voice behind me.  “It opens at 10.”

Ah, that was the secret to getting inside.  The store must be open.

He explained that he was a security guard, that there would be a long line of people waiting to get in by 10, and indicated where I should stand to be first.  We chatted a bit and when he pulled out his phone I said, “Ah, not Apple!”  He grinned and held up his phone, “I am loyal Japanese—Sony!”

Ten o’clock.  The doors slid open and employees placed umbrella management equipment just outside.  This consists of umbrella stands and plastic bag holders you can slide your umbrella into before entering.  The bags are terribly wasteful; you generate an un-reusable plastic bag for each store, museum, or restaurant you visit.  But god forbid you should drip water on a floor.

Finally, the moment came.  I entered the store.  Twenty employees stood arrayed throughout, and they broke into vigorous applause.  What the hell?  Was this normal?  I laughed and bowed—a reflex—and they all burst out laughing.

Twenty minutes later I had a new power cord for $18.  Whew!  I was back in business.

Baby Bodhas

The first Japanese temple I visited was a block from my hotel and was called Zojoji.  I didn’t have a sense at the time whether this was a “typical” temple or not.

As I wrote in a previous post, there are thousands of shrines, large and small, everywhere in Japan.  Zojoji, in retrospect, was an “average” sized temple, with a dozen buildings scattered over what seemed to be a couple acres, and Tokyo Tower looming in the background.

I just learned on Wikipedia—after making my annual very modest donation to support them—that Zojoji is the “head temple of the Jodo sect of Japanese Buddhism in the Kanto Region.”  That’s kind of like saying I am “the greatest travel and prison blogger who lives on the east side of St. Paul.”  I would see a lot of descriptors like this in the weeks to come.

But it was still pretty cool, it being my first.

Most of Zojoji’s current buildings are recent reconstructions except for the main entrance gate, the Sangedatsumon, which has survived many fires, earthquakes and wars and dates from 1622.

1622!  Here’s the gate:

As I also wrote previously, I was in Japan in the off season.  This was thanks to school holidays not having yet commenced and to it being the rainy season.  The downside, of course: rain.  The upside: hardly any tourists.

It had just rained and the buildings were closed, so it was just me and a handful of other people in the complex.  Normally I would be snapping away with my phone, but I was phoneless for now.  I had wondered: would I be able to enjoy this atmospheric moment without capturing it?  (I took these photos later, once I’d got a new charger).

I was pleased to note I felt at peace.

I came across these “baby bodhisattvas”—hundreds of foot-tall stone statues of bodhisattvas.  I’ve found various definitions of bodhisattva online.  The most generic is something like: one who is on the path to nirvana and has compassion for all beings.  Kind of an apprentice Buddha.

I felt a physical urge to reach for my phone to take photos, then relaxed when I remembered my dead phone was back in my room.

This was the explanation of the bodhisattvas:

These are “care guardian deities of children.”  They are dedicated for the safety growth of children and grandchildren, as well as for the memorial service for still birth or miscarried children.  To protect and keep warm their heads, “red hat” “red apron” and “windmill”, were dedicated to the guardian deity of children image.  Please refrain from touching.

I felt a pang of sadness, knowing some of these must represent babies that died. I have four friends or relations whose babies died, and it’s got to be one of life’s worst experiences. I “lost” a baby through adoption, so I like to think I have strong empathy for how it would feel.

Just then a powerful gong sounded nearby and reverberated for 20 seconds before sounding again. It made me jump internally then a calm descended over me.

This was happening just the way it was meant to.  If my phone had still been functional, I might have been hunched on my hotel room bed scrolling though social media to learn that my second cousin’s oldest kid had just graduated from college in Nebraska, or how a guy I met in grad school 17 years ago will look when he’s 100, thanks to a hot new “aging” app.

I gave thanks for my phone being dead—at least for now.

Walking toward the sound I found a monk—yes, with a shaved head and long flowing robe—using a long, thick rope to propel an enormous weight forward into a bell the size of a Volkswagon Beetle.

Why he was doing this—was it a call to prayer?  The “closing” bell? Was he ushering in nightfall?  It didn’t matter.

I crossed back over the road and wondered about this little gem tucked in between hideous concrete high-rises.

I stopped at Family Mart, a ubiquitous convenience store, for some cheap eats before crashing for 10 hours—my first of 26 nights in Japan.

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.