Tokyo is notorious for its population density and hence its ultra expensive hotel rooms. Our hotel, Oak Hotel, a tiny building on a side alley, was a all-nipponese claustrophobic-ally fun establishment. We had two feet of air on only one side of the bed and glad that we gave up suitcases years ago. The one thing that I would miss from that hotel room or any room in Japan is the water. After Switzerland, this was the cleanest and crispest water I have had the pleasure to wash my armpits in. The only thing better than the tap water was of course the water in the Onsens or hot springs. We woke up while it was still cold and cloudy and I volunteered to walk down Ueno to one of the cafes we had seen the day before. Unfortunately, most establishments don’t open till about 7am, and I ended up in the local version of seven-eleven. The slightly stodgy guy behind the counter was both curious and cordial, and took it upon himself to give me a very nice cup holder in a bag. It is always intensely satisfying to see the all the small things in another culture and imagine how it would be to live there. The local newspapers, their candy, weird looking snacks, etc, the things we take for granted at home can be so different elsewhere. Coffee and two kinds of puffed snacks in hand, I headed back to the hotel to get ready for our early morning temple visit.
The good part about staying in Ueno rather than near Tokyo station, is that Sensoji Temple and the Asakusa neighborhood is one Metro stop away. Sensoji, completed in the first century, is Tokyo’s oldest Shinto temple. Devoted to a local goddess, it is the center of the largest religious festival in Tokyo each Spring. Reaching before 8am, we were delighted by the lack of tourists and enjoyed walking the temple grounds with unobstructed views. Entering the first gate to the temple, we were greeted by a long corridor of small shops selling foods and souvenirs called the Nakimase. All the shops were closed at that hour so we reached the main gate with no distractions. We marveled as we passed through the enormous main gate before the temple called the Thunder Gate; even the lanterns hanging on this gate were bigger than us. Immediately after crossing the gates were several rows of smaller lanterns on wire on both sides that were being disassembled most likely after the conclusion of a recent ceremony. There were several monks wandering the in the area going about their daily prayers and rituals. Once inside the main gate, it is hard to imagine that such a large temple could survive in such prime metro real estate. There are several smaller pagoda-type structures on either side of the main temple. An incense stand stood right the center of the compound. To one side was a cleansing station with wooden water spoons; we would later learn of the elaborate ritual of cleaning oneself before entering the main shrine.
The striking thing about all the temples in Japan that we visited was the strong and somewhat overwhelming incense that is burned in the main shrines. Being Indian, I am used to aromatic incenses that typically burn in our temples, but the incense in Japan is somewhat bordering on intoxicating and overwhelming. Matter of fact, the entire Shinto religion is very reminiscent of Hinduism as it is also based on the existence of many gods that represent different things in our world – the sun, animals, land, money, etc. Though not based on elaborate texts and books like Hinduism, Shinto rituals and ceremonies are very much like the Indian counterparts. Be it the bells in front of the main shrine, incense offerings, washing of one’s limbs, praying with folded hands, every aspect of worship seems to lead to the belief that both religions have common origins somewhere.
The main shrine of Sensoji was both quiet and calming; though we could not tell the exact shape of the goddess, the decorations and adornments were quite elaborate and extensive. Next to the shrine was a fortune telling stand called a Omikuji, basically a small container with bamboo sticks that you shake and pull out. Each stick has a number that you match to a drawer in the stand, which you open to get a sheet with your fortune. There are about hundred or so different drawers so it was fairly predictable. If you get a good fortune, you take the sheet with you, if you get a bad one you leave it behind. Satiated with the temple, we walked back to the Namikase as a few shops were just opening. On the recommendation from a local, we decided to wait till they were all open so that we could try the local sweets. We found a McDonalds in a small side alley and decided to get another coffee. It turns out McD’s in Japan have a large smoking section, as a result we could barely sit inside for more than a few minutes. Unlike the US, the Japanese are still very liberal with smoking and many restaurants that we walked into were also disappointments because of the cloud of smoke near the ceiling – it gave us a true appreciation for US laws that banned indoor smoking. Nonetheless, despite the prevalence of smoking, there were barely any butts on the streets. If anything, the Japanese are more considerate about their surroundings than themselves when it comes to most things in life. Another unique thing we noticed was that barely anybody would eat or drink in public places or while walking. For Americans, it is almost second nature to walk with coffee in hand or eat in public areas; the few times that I walked with coffee in hand, it was always a challenge to find a trash can to dispose of the containers. We returned to the Namikase and enjoyed a few Japanese sweets called Nigyoyaki, which are small cakes filled with sweet soy-based stuffing. I loved the taste, my wife was unimpressed. As a result I ate sweets from vendors everywhere whereas Anu watched me eat everywhere. We spent another half hour strolling the streets and ended up buying a few small souvenirs to take home.
We had a check out time of 10am to keep, so we rushed back to the hotel, grabbed our bags and head to the Ueno station. For a small fee of 8000 yen, we were able to stash our two carry-on bags in large lockers. Much like Europe using lockers or baggage deposits is a wonderful boon to travelers. Lugging around bags in crowded metros should be last thing on anybody’s mind. We took a train to Ginza which is the apparent equivalent of LA’s Beverly Hills, but we had little time of interest in window shopping for overpriced luxuries. Instead, we headed to the Shimbashi Enbujo Kabuki theater which was a short walk from the Ginza station. Kabuki is the Japanese version of opera, except that Kabuki is presentational rather than representational, which means that there is no moral or message to a performance. Just actors in their highly stylized masks and costumes playing out typical household dramas and scenes. Its played my mostly male actors, even the female roles. The audience had exactly two non-Japanese people, us, but we never felt out of place for we were treated with respect and courtesy in every step of the theater. The tickets were not inexpensive, at over $110 per person for the side box seats, its definitely not for everybody. Unlike opera or ballet, in Kabuki, the audience members shout out encouragements to the actors throughout the show. The show itself was both entertaining and overtly dramatic initially, but somewhat slow after the first hour. That’s right, just the first half was over two and half hours. Which meant that we were out of the theater at break time while everyone else was lining up for the restaurant and snack bars.