The city now known as Tokyo rose to prominence as the capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603, when it was referred to as Edo. Elements of its heritage are still easily viewable today and Rosanna and I were keen to see as many of these as we could. I’ll talk about the more modern attractions in a subsequent post.
After arriving fairly late we set out early the next day, eager not to squander the time we had. Although we’d given ourselves 5 nights in Tokyo that isn’t really that long to see the largest city in the world. A short train ride from our Airbnb took us to Tokyo station which is a 15 minute walk from the imperial palace. However we had not accounted for two things, the incredible heat and humidity of the summer in Japan’s capital and the fact that the imperial palace gardens are closed on Fridays. Luckily we had a packed lunch with us which we could sit and eat fairly swiftly otherwise the combined heat and hanger would have caused some tension. Still, even if the gardens and palace were inaccessible, we saw the walls and a famous bridge. So not a complete wash. After completing our lunch we headed for the air-conditioned refuge of the gaming arcades of Akihabara – not historical in the slightest so that experience will have to wait for the next blog post.
The next day our second attempt at seeing some history was far more successful. We caught an early train to Kamakura about an hour south on the train. Although not technically Tokyo there is no countryside between it and the metropolis so it’s more of a suburb than an independent town. At one stage Kamakura was the political centre of Japan and although power shifted to Edo there are still the spiritual remains of an impressive administrative centre. We got off the train one stop early and then hiked through Genjiyama Park to the “Big Buddha”. Big Buddha is a literal translation of Daibutsu – the name for a very large bronze statue of Buddha, so large you can go inside it and admire the crafting techniques. This would have been lovely except for being inside a large bronze statue which is exposed to full sunlight with minimal interior ventilation is a similar experience to being cooked alive so the various welds and casts were any given a cursory glance. I’m sure they are fantastic.
The walk to the Daibutsu was more pleasurable. The route we took leads you up one side of a heavily wooded hill and then down the other. Dotted throughout the park are shrines, including the stunning fox shrine which we came upon abruptly after taking a slightly unofficial route. Hundreds of small fox statues coated areas of the shrine, it was magical. We also visited a shrine with holy water in it that you had to walk down a tunnel carved into a cliff to reach. It is said that any money washed in this water and subsequently spent will return to you multiple times over. It is jokingly referred to as the ‘money laundering’ shrine.
I read that from the coast near Kamakura there is a lovely view of Mt. Fuji on a clear day. Unfortunately our day was not very clear, but we stared at the haze in the right direction for some time, intent on seeing Fuji after our previous attempt (on the Shinkansen into Tokyo) had also been thwarted by bad weather. After the long hike, I was happy to sit in the light sea breeze and wait for a glimpse of Fuji-San. The presence of a group of incredibly attractive Japanese women in bikinis on the beach below did not hurt either.
Eventually though we admitted defeat and headed home, the small consolation being that the route back started with a 20 minute journey on a monorail before joining the main line back to Tokyo. I’d never ridden on a monorail before and this one was suspended beneath its single track, 10-15 meters in the air which made it extra exciting. And then we saw Fuji. Yes it was through cloud and not completely unobscured but it was still impressive. I had underestimated just how big it is. Thinking back to the beach I may have missed it just because I was looking too low. It hunched on the horizon, grand and imposing and it was immediately obvious why the word for mountain in Japanese “San” is also used as a term of great respect when referring to elders. Amazingly my most memorable train ride so far in Japan does not involve Shinkansen.
While waiting for the monorail I had a chance meeting with a fan of the Beijing Ducks, whose jersey I was wearing. In a nice moment of symmetry he was wearing a t-shirt with “London” written on it and a Union Jack. He was excited that I’d been to Beijing and was representing his favourite team, I was relieved I could remember enough information about the Chinese Basketball Association to bluff my way through a conversation about it!
The day after our trip to Kamakura we wanted to stay a bit closer to home so we headed to the historic area of Asakusa, just a short walk from our Airbnb. The temple there is very impressive, with a giant lantern hanging at the entrance and an avenue of fortune-telling devices. I’m not sure of the proper name for these but they basically involve picking a random stick from a drum (the raffle kind, not the bang-bang kind, or the tobacco kind – why would I be talking about a brand of tobacco?), reading the number on the stick and then opening the corresponding numbered drawer (1-100) and removing a fortune. You shake the drum while thinking of a question, which the fortune is supposed to pertain to. I was expecting some fairly generic, fortune cookie style “the winds of change blow hot and cold” banality but it was very specific. Rosanna’s included the line “do not embark on any new journeys” – we’re already on this one so it doesn’t count! Anyway, if you don’t like your fortune you can just tie it to a lucky fence and that may help it improve for you, like Rosanna did.
Leading away from the temple is a street of historic little shops that form a very picturesque avenue. Unfortunately these are now almost entirely filled with souvenirs and overpriced street food but we found one that sold chopsticks and it was mesmerising. The walls were covered in display cases showing a huge range of large and small chopsticks of all colours. They were all reasonably priced too. It is a shame that we cannot buy many souvenirs on this trip, our bags are bulging as it is, but if I were visiting Tokyo again I would come to this shop and buy a ridiculous number of chopsticks. They really were beautiful – but then small, perfect objects are what the Japanese do best! We ended up buyng a very small waving cat as a consolation.
On our way home we stopped at Kamiya bar, a place famous for a drink called Denki Bran. The bar was charming, full of local salarymen having a good time – we were the only non-japanese in there. The drink was foul. Its name means ‘electric brandy’, brandy being the base spirit, but they then mix in wine, gin, Curacao and some unique botanicals. Although each measure of Denki Bran comes with a glass of ice water it seemed traditional to offer this water to your wife and then wash it down with beer. I am all about immersing (or should that be submerging?) myself in the local culture so I ordered a large Asahi and was glad of it too!
Tokyo National Museum
At the recommendation of two friends we finished our historic exploration with a trip to the National Museum. It was really nice, a great insight in to what the Japanese viewed as art historically and now. Beautiful screen door paintings, kimono’s (no jumbo ones though, poor show) and some great theatrical masks. The only disappointing section were the swords, which were rather plain. I was of the impression that what distinguished Japanese swords is the wavy pattern often seen on the blade and the lengthy hereditary history that they posses – this was confirmed by the information on the entrance to the sword section. However only one blade bore the distinctive wavy pattern and none had any information on who they belonged too (in the english information anyway).
The highlight for me was the archeological section where they told the story of Japan’s ancient history, from the Jomon period (starting in 14,000 BCE) through to the Edo period (1600 AD), using archeological artifacts from their respective time periods. It’s fascinating to me that for the majority of its development Japan was reliant on the rest of Asia, taking writing, faith, styles of governance and agricultural practices from China and Korea. For a long time the fledgling kingdoms of Japan sent envoys to the courts of China and Korea in the hopes of being recognised as a state. I’d always thought of Japan as being a more advanced nation in a lot of ways but this was not always the case.
For full pictures of our trip to Kamakura please see below. The full Tokyo album will be at the end of my second Tokyo post (or you can look at the photos page if you are really keen!).