Mountains and valleys, temples and gardens, Day 2

Day 2 – 1st November, in Tokyo

An excellent city tour today, led by Smiley, who fills every minute of every journey with facts and figures about Japanese history, religion, culture, language and way of life. We start at the Meiji (Shinto) Shrine, dedicated to the first Meiji Emperor. Massive torii gate at the start. Smiley tells us the legend of how such gates came to be erected at Shinto shrines. The Sun Goddess – Amaterasu – had taken offence at something, and was hiding away in a dark cave. Another deity – the Rain God – had taken the form of a cockerel, perched on a gate outside the cave, and crowed. Amaterasu took this as a wake-up call, and came out to shine. So it’s said. Shinto has a variety of spirits – kami – who inhabit specific places. (It’s a different concept from my own feelings about ‘spirit of place’.) There are also the major spirits, of sun, moon, mountains, rivers, rain, trees, crops, etc.

There’s a large line of stacked sake barrels by the road, donated by the sake brewers every year. Also on the road there’s an exhibition of chrysanthemum blooms – this is the season for them after all. The flower heads are massive, but there’s also a group of bonsai chrysanths, and a group trained in the shape of a shield (or it may be a fan). Several families were in the grounds, taking their daughters and sons to the shrine. Girls aged 3, 5 and 7, and boys 5 and 7, are brought here every year on their special day. They’re all beautifully dressed in bright, colourful kimonos, and they look sweet. They raise two fingers to their faces and say “ni” (=2), because “ni gives a nice smile”. After getting permission from her parents we photograph one little girl who doesn’t seem to mind 40 Westerners asking her to pose – she’s lovely. In the background the sound of the shakuhachi flute floats over the park.

rows of stacked barrels
bear messages of cheer
from the sake brewers

We saw the priests preparing for the ceremony, washing hands and faces. They wear creamy white costumes, black hats, and wooden sandals. A wedding procession passes – priests and family. The taiko drums are so loud that we can feel the vibrations – the drums bring good luck. During the ceremony I notice two priests ascend wooden steps to an inner sanctum (the honden) which is hidden from view.

birds mock wedding march
priests lead bride, groom, family –
one crow per marriage

On the way to our next stop we pass the Imperial Palace grounds – very ornate gates, and a house that looks a bit like Buckingham Palace. It’s now used to house visiting heads of state, but after the war it was General McArthur’s GHQ. Smiley tells us the Japanese interpreted this as Go Home Quickly. To Imperial Palace Plaza for a photostop. The lawn is planted up with very attractive long-needled pines (Pinus thunbergii – the Japanese Black Pine), which have a very statuesque habit. The central trunk seems to arise directly out of the ground – no obvious lateral root systems – but this may be the way they’ve been cultivated. Each branch seems to have been deliberately placed or trained exactly where it is, to give the maximum visual effect. This is obviously where the Japanese paintings of pines have their origins – it’s just the way they grow here.

Imperial Park

Black trunks spring like mushroom stalks
from green and weedless lawns.
Each short branch is parasol-tipped
with a bunch of long dark needles.
From his house on the hill
the Emperor’s empty window
looks down on his tidy forest.

Then on to the Asakusa Kannon Buddhist temple – an amazing place (Kannon is the Buddha of Compassion, in Sanskrit Avalokitesvara, in China Guan-yin, in Tibet Chenresig). The temple was founded here because in a nearby lake some fishermen found in their nets no fish, but a stone Buddha-figure. This is now revered, but unseen, within an inner chamber. A bit awkwardly, because I’ve never done this in public before, I perform my devotions in front of the shrine. I bow five times. You always bow an odd number of times, just as you always process clockwise. Outside there’s an incense brazier, where you can ‘bathe’ in the smoke for the good of your health – you waft the smoke over each affected part. Glad to see there don’t appear to be any patients suffering venereal problems. Outside the temple there are rows of stalls selling touristy stuff, but it’s a lot more tasteful than some of the tourist traps I’ve seen back home. We watch a stall where cookies are being baked – they look a bit like waffles. We buy ice cream, in taro (sweet potato) and red bean flavours – good and not too sweet. We pick up a couple of paper wallets, which I think are used on tables to hold chopsticks at place settings. Jane isn’t convinced, but they’re beautiful anyway. The bus moved on to the Ginza district – huge skyrise apartments and the city’s main department stores. When we disembark we walked through an underground food arcade and visited a pearl wholesaler. Back in the arcade we had pork tonkatsu – breaded cutlets served on finely shredded cabbage, with a thick fruity sauce.

Later, on our own, we walked through Hibiya Park. Here we saw the first down-and-outs we’d seen in Japan. They weren’t begging, just sitting about aimlessly. A lot of feral cats live here too, and they seemed interested in some birds I couldn’t see, but which had a very loud call. We visited another chrysanthemum show; this time we noticed some growers were selling plants. We wandered round the park, taking in the packed tennis courts, and came to an area of brown lawn which had been roped off for an art class (I think). There was also a large clock set in the ground. As the light dimmed we walked on to the Imperial Palace grounds, passing more groups of beautiful pines. I noticed one woman stop to admire one particular tree – would we see this at home? I think not. We found the Nijubashi Bridge (we’d seen it from the bus that morning), which was very beautiful in this light. The moat contains huge carp and an assortment of terrapins. We caught the Yamanote Line train back to Shinagawa Station and our hotel. Out for a meal later we came across a traditional noodle-type restaurant, where we dined. Back at the hotel we decided to go to the hotel’s American bar for a dark beer – very expensive but excellent.

wild cats roam the park
stalking noisy birds,
an egret fishes, standing still;
homeless men shelter
under blue plastic sheets
from the coming winter;
crows here have a different call;
the bridge admires itself
in its mirror, moat.

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About sunnydunny

Poet, publisher, gardener
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