Travel in Tokyo

Buddha statue at Asakusa Sensoji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo, Japan.

Buddha statue at Asakusa Sensoji Buddhist Temple, Tokyo, Japan.

With all the media focus on the almost incomprehensible tragedy of Japan’s triple-whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear woes, I began to reminisce about my recent travel in Tokyo. The images on the TV screen show worried city dwellers, dressed in fashionable black, hurrying along the city streets, many wearing white masks, presumably to protect from radiation.

The Tokyo I visited was in a far better mood, even though it was winter. Some wore masks, even then, but mainly because it was considered impolite to venture into public with a cold or flu. The Japanese love the outdoors, even the big-city dwellers, and the parks, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples were favorite gathering spots.

My traveling companions and I started the morning very early with a visit to the world-famous Tokyo fish market. This is a major port for intaking the staggering amount of seafood consumed each day by residents of Tokyo and the surrounding areas. There was an unbelievable variety of fish and other marine life. I’m a biologist and I couldn’t come close to naming the species I saw! Sushi grade tuna fresh from the auction, their bodies like huge frozen balloons, were being carved up for shipment to Tokyo’s countless sushi restaurants. At the current per-kilo price, I calculated some of these fish fetched $10,000 to $15,000!

Asakusa Temple entrance

Asakusa Temple entrance

One of the biggest shrine and temple complexes in Japan is Tokyo’s Asakusa Sensoji Buddhist Temple, located in the Asakusa pleasure district of Tokyo. Like much of Tokyo, this area was heavily damaged in the firebombing conducted by the US during WWII, but was rebuilt in the post-war decade, bigger than ever. It has the honor of being the oldest geisha district in Tokyo and still has a number of practicing geishas.

Long lines of shops and food booths line the esplanade leading to the temple. A young apprentice geisha posed alongside her proud mother for a gaggle of paparazzi. A middle-aged man offered a prayer to the temple.

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Attempting to dispel misfortune

At a fortune-telling booth I donated a dollar, drew my yarrow stick, matched the number to a little door and pulled a slip of paper called omikuji with my fortune on it. It was clear I should have donated at least $5: I was told to expect nothing good in my future; I wouldn’t be able to sell my house, my marriage would fail and a host of other maladies would befall me. I looked at my traveling companion, a resident of Tokyo, asked what I should do and he shrugged. Go tie it on the wire rack where scores of other fortune slips fluttered in the breeze. The wind would take my appeal to the Kami, or gods; perhaps they would intervene. (As an aside, a couple of weeks later, while in Kyoto, I braved another such fortune-telling booth. This time the omikuji’s fortune said, “Future: Pretty good!”. While it wasn’t overwhelmingly good news, at least the trend was right!)

Travel in Tokyo is a breeze – the trains speed you along quickly and efficiently nearly everywhere you want to go. Unlike New York, or elsewhere, most are above-ground, so you can see something of the giant city as you travel. In many US regions, people are still haggling over whether to even plan for such efficient infrastructure. We could learn a lot here.

Shinto priest at Yushima Tenman-gū

Shinto priest at Yushima Tenman-gū

At the Yushima Tenman-gū Shinto Shrine devoted to Tenjin, the Kami of Learning, a Shinto priest in traditional robes stood briefly at the entrance to the beautiful, ornate natural wood hall, then disappeared inside. This shrine dates back to the year 458 AD. I photographed a young woman student writing a prayer appeal on an ema, or small wooden tablet, for success in her upcoming exams. Her mother looked on, giggling as I shot closer and closer, trying to get the right angle. Suddenly the girl squeaked and jumped back in surprise, laughing too, unaware she was the object of so much attention.

We’d gotten up early and we’d covered a lot of ground in our morning of travel in Tokyo. Besides, most of us were jet lagged from the previous night’s arrival from the States. So it was time to call it a day, but not before hitting one of Tokyo’s famous noodle shops.

The little wire racks at Asakusa Sensoji Temple are probably now filled with fluttering omikuji carrying prayers to the Kami. I have complete confidence that the Japanese will overcome adversity once again. I only hope they can do it as quickly as possible. Japan has suffered enough.

What’s your experience with travel in Tokyo? Have you been there? Share them in the comment section below.

Tokyo Gallery

–Photos Copyright, Randy Green

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