Facets of Japan: Tokyo

Japan is ultra-modern, but strangely backward at the same time. It is a country that accepts foreign people, products and ideas, but molds and shapes them to fit traditional values and cultural standards. I get the sense that Japan tolerates foreigners, but remains un-impressed; that if all foreign influence disappeared from Japan, they would hardly notice.

I traveled to Tokyo on a few separate occasions for work and absolutely fell in love with its punctual, precise charm. The photos and write-up that I offer here are a compilation of my own short experiences in Tokyo: discovering Japanese buddhist customs at Asakusa Temple, slowly savoring each course of traditional Kaiseki, redefining my sense of personal space at Shibuya Crossing, cheering with the crowd at the Tokyo Dome, running at the Imperial Palace, purifying myself at the Meiji Shrine, and generally just falling in love with Tokyo.

tokyo's oldest stone bridge at Asakusa temple garden

tokyo's oldest stone bridge at Asakusa temple garden

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Asakusa Temple

If Tokyo has an icon, Asakusa (also called Sensouji) temple is it. This is Tokyo's oldest buddhist temple and this Guide to Sensoji Temple offers a comprehensive history lesson that is well worth the read. Asakusa Temple is in the heart of Tokyo and is packed with tourists. Once you get past the main gates and hall, though, the crowd thins considerably and you can enjoy lovely gardens, waterfalls, shrines, and monuments. It's actually quite peaceful. I spent about four hours exploring the temple grounds and the small market district. While a tourist attraction, the temple is a working monastery, with buddhist monks praying, chanting and bowing in the main hall and local people lighting incense, intently praying, and making offerings.

Asakusa, Tokyo

At any Japanese temple or shinto shrine, you will often see pieces of paper tied to a wire. These are o-mikuji fortunes. Make a small donation and then randomly choose a fortune. Written inside will be either a blessing or a curse related to some aspect of your life (traveling, having a baby, making an investment, etc.). If the fortune is bad, tie the piece of paper to a tree or metal wire with the hope that the bad luck will transfer to that object instead of remaining with you - and then maybe light some incense and pray for better luck! If the fortune is good, put it in your pocket -- and maybe light some incense and say a prayer of thanks!

Asakusa, Tokyo

Another unique aspect of Japanese buddhism that you'll see at temples is the placing of red bibs and small hats on the various shinto deity statues. The reasons vary depending on the deity (fox, monkey, lion-dog, and more human forms). For example, a red bib tied to a monkey statue is intended to ward off evil. Binzuru is one of the most revered deities and you'll notice that these wooden and stone statues are particularly worn down because believers rub the part of the effigy that corresponds to sick parts of their bodies with the hope of healing. They also adorn Binzuru with red bibs and caps to watch over and protect newborn babies.  Before heading to a Japanese buddhist temple, read this page so that you'll have a better appreciation of the deities and customs you'll encounter. I talk more about shinto spirits in the Meiji Shrine area below.

Asakusa, Tokyo

Kaiseki at Gonpachi

Kaiseki is a multi-course dining experience, with seasonal ingredients and artful plating. The courses vary, but typically consist of small portions: an appetizer, sashimi, sushi, a simmered dish, a grilled dish, a steamed dish, soup, and dessert. Kaiseki is designed to be slow and intentional. I enjoyed this Kaiseki meal at Gonpachi Nishi-Azabu in Roppongi district. Gonpachi is known as the "Kill Bill" restaurant because it's interior was the inspiration for the fight scene in Quentin Tarantino's movie Kill Bill. 

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing is likely the busiest street crossing in the world and an ideal spot for people watching. Amidst the chaos, find the statue of the dog. This plaza is dedicated to the memory of the most loyal dog in history, Hachiko.  Hachiko was an Akita. Every day, he waited for his master, Professor Ueno, at Shibuya Station and the two would walk home together. One day in 1925, Professor Ueno suffered a fatal brain hemorrhage and died at work. For more than nine years after Ueno's death, loyal Hachiko waited in vain every day without fail at the station for his master. His faithfulness became legendary and even before Hachiko's own death, the people erected a monument to the dog to serve as a symbol of familial loyalty.

Tokyo Dome

Absolutely no country in the world does baseball better than Japan. If you go to Japan, you MUST go to a baseball game. The energy and excitement are incredible! The cheering, clapping, flag-waving, and singing never stop. It is so fun!! Don't forget to place your bets before heading inside - it appears to be legal, but light research could not confirm. If anyone knows definitively, please comment!

Imperial Palace

I had no idea how popular running is in Japan. In the mornings, at lunchtime, and in the early evening, scores of Japanese head to the city's parks for some exercise and space. A popular running course in Tokyo is around the Imperial Palace, which is about a 3 mile (5 kilometer) circuit. The emperor actually lives here. There are daily tours, but I was more interested in running around the massive complex, with its moat, courtyards and impressive gates. During my morning run, I ended up mingled in with a pack of three Japanese men who were running my pace. We silently ran three loops together, stretched, and then all nodded and said goodbye.  Sometimes, there's no need for conversation. Check out this site for other popular running areas in Tokyo.

Meiji Shrine

Shinto is Japan's faith. It is not a religion or a philosophy; it does not have a scripture or the concept of an after-life. It co-exists and intermingles with Buddhism. Shinto is a belief that humans and spirits (called "kami") walk this world together and that kami care about humans and want us to be happy. Japanese people communicate with kami through rituals that both acknowledge the spirits and express human desires or wishes (with the hope that kami will intervene to help achieve those wishes). The name Shinto comes from Chinese characters for Shen "divine being" and Tao "way" (Way of the Spirits). A Shinto shrine is the dwelling of kami, which could be ancestor spirits, spirits of concepts important to humans -- such as rain, rice, or fertility -- or they could even be the kami of extraordinary historical figures.  Japanese people go to a Shinto shrine to visit kami and, upon entering, perform rituals to cleanse themselves of anything impure (disease, bad luck, pollution, immoral thoughts, etc.) that might separate them from kami.

The Meiji Shrine is an Imperial shrine, built and administered by the government in 1920 to honor Emperor Meiji, the first emperor of the modern era. Emperor Meiji ascended to the throne in 1868, consolidated power away from the shoguns and samurai to create a unified government, and ended Japan's feudal era by creating a civilian army and opening up to western influence. This period of modernization is known as the Meiji Restoration and was characterized by the notion that Japan could "dominate or be dominated" by the West's superior technology. Japan threw itself into learning all it could about western innovations so that it could strengthen itself and prepare effective defense.

You can recognize an Imperial shrine by the family's chrysanthemum crest, which you can see in the three emblems across the top of Meiji Shrine's gates. This site provides an excellent description of the various other types of shrines you will see in Japan. Regardless of the type, a few common features or structures to observe at a Shinto shrine include:

  • Torii, which are the large gates that make the entrance to a shrine and its courtyards.
  • Shrine guards, often in the form of dogs or lions, positioned on either side of the shrine entrance.
  • Water trough (Temizuya), where you are supposed to wash your hands and mouth using the long-handled ladle (Hishaku) as a purification ritual before entering the shrine. 
  • Main hall and offering halls, where visitors pray and make offerings.
  • Wooden plates, called Ema, where visitors write their wishes.
  • Shimenawa, which is a straw rope with zigzag paper strips (seen in the photo above, hanging between two trees), which marks a sacred boundary.
  • Omikuji, which are the paper fortunes tied to wire or trees that portend good or bad luck.

Street Scenes in Tokyo