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I noticed that it’s been so long since I wrote about Japan that I no longer have any Japan posts on my front page, and we can’t have that (I’m not counting the Japaridelphia post). With temperatures well below freezing tonight in Philadelphia, a look back at some nice spring weather in Tokyo is in order. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful spots in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen is one of just a few places I took the time to visit more than once during our 5 month stay.
The gardens which are 58.3 hectares in size, and with a circumference of 3.5 km, blend three distinct styles: French Formal, English Landscape and Japanese traditional. The gardens have more than 20,000 trees, including approximately 1,500 cherry trees which bloom from late March (Shidare or Weeping Cherry), to early April (Somei or Tokyo Cherry), and on to late April (Kanzan Cherry). Other trees found here include the majestic Himalayan cedars, which soar above the rest of the trees in the park, tulip trees, cypresses, and plane trees, which were first planted in Japan in the Imperial Gardens… The gardens are a favourite hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) spot, and large crowds can be found in the park during cherry blossom season… The greenhouse… has a stock of over 1,700 tropical and subtropical plant species on permanent display.
Unfortunately I went too early in the season to see the French and English gardens in their glory, but the rest of the park is spectacular in the early spring. It’s acre upon acre of well manicured, immaculate, perfectionist-fetish Japanese landscaping at its finest. Each time I went I had just a couple of hours for my visit, but the park is huge and you could easily spend a very pleasant, relaxing day exploring it.
It’s one of the few public parks in Tokyo that charges an admission fee (200 yen – about $2). They don’t allow people to use frisbees, balls, etc. and no pets are allowed (most parks are referring to as koen, but this one is a gyoen – an Imperial garden). But you can bring a picnic, there’s a restaurant, two tea houses, and at least one snack bar.
If you’d like to visit, check out the Shinjuku Gyoen official web site (English version). For some reason the site doesn’t come up when you do a Google search, which is unfortunate, because it has by far the best map and access guide. To get there, the easiest route for most tourists will be to take the Yamanote line to Shinjuku station and go out the South exit. This is the world’s busiest train station and the the world’s second largest, but don’t be intimidated – just follow the prominent English signs. Turn downhill when you come out of the station. You won’t see the Gyoen entrance at first, but just a minute after you cross the intersection with Meiji-Dori Ave, you’ll see the Shinjuku Gate entrance ahead of you.
As promised, I’m going to keep blogging about Japan for a while, even though I’m back in the US now. I have a big backlog of things to write about. However, while Maria is still in Japan and I’m at home taking care of the boys and working, my posts for the next few weeks will probably be longer on pictures and shorter on words, as I don’t have a lot of time to write.
Sakura Zaka Koen is a tiny gem of a park, tucked away on a small street a short walk from the mind-bogglingly massive 27 acre, $4 billion Roppongi Hills shopping and entertainment complex (you can see the exact location on this map). It’s a ridiculously small park, but packed with slides. It’s nice that some space was made for it, given that the area is home to some of the most expensive real estate in Tokyo.
The play structures at Japanese parks are typically old, rickety, and dangerous, which makes them a striking contrast to everything else in Japan. So Robot Park is unusual for a Tokyo playground in that everything is new, and it was designed with safety in mind: most of the ground is covered with a giant rubberized mat, and all the slides are contoured plastic. The only thing remotely dangerous is the long roller slide. These kinds of slides are common in Tokyo but rare in the US (the slide is covered with little rolling pins, so you need to be careful with little fingers and long hair).
The robot theme also gives it real charm. We visited for an hour or so with Maria’s friend Shiho and her son Kento. The boys loved it, as it provided a nice break from our strolling through Roppongi.
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You can’t blog from Japan in the Spring and not have a post about cherry blossoms, so here you go. I took the first two pictures in Shimizudani Park last week. It’s across the street from the New Otani hotel, where my mother and step-father stayed while visiting us last week. It’s a small but nice park, a short walk from the Imperial Palace, in Chiyoda-ku. The last picture is from the waterfront in Asakusa. The first nice weekend after the blossoms appear is a traditional time for the Japanese to have a picnic and drink beer under the cherry trees.
Today I finally had some time to finish going through the pictures from my day in Fukagawa and writing captions for them. I wrote about the first half of the day in this post.
After I finished wandering in the beautiful Kiyosumi Teien Gardens, I headed for the Enma-Do Temple. The outside looks like a typical, highly adorned Buddhist temple, but the interior is something else entirely:
Enma is the Japanese Buddhist version of what to begin with was the Hindu god Yama: god of the dead. The Hall of Enma that so impressed the locals in the 17th century has been updated in such a way as to equally impress those of the 21st. …Enma has been refashioned in almost psychedelic minimal, mirrored retro-sci-fi chic. This is true blue-tinted otherworldliness for the Nintendo- and PlayStation-trained believer.
That quote is from the walking tour at the Tokyo Visitor’s Guide site, and I can’t praise it highly enough. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s very easy for a Westerner to get lost when walking in unfamiliar Tokyo neighborhoods, even with a good map, as most of the streets don’t have names. Following the guide’s landmark-based directions, I wended my way past a bicycle parking area, then walked a ways under a freeway overpass, maneuvered through a couple side streets, and found myself at the next stop on the tour, the Fukagawa Fudoson temple. “Fukagawa Fudoson is a temple of an esoteric branch of the Shingon sect of Buddhism” – one of the things that sets this temple apart is that it specializes in road safety. Unlike every other temple I’ve seen in Tokyo, it has a parking lot. It’s there so you can drive in and get your car blessed by one of the monks. I was lucky enough to be there to witness this ritual – see the video on your left. Since I don’t have a car here to get blessed, I settled for buying one of their key chains, which hopefully will have enough residual spiritual power left after I bring it back to the US to keep us safe on the roads in Philly .
From there I wandered into some of the nearby shops, and then went around the corner to the Tomioka Hachiman shrine. If you’re wondering, “temples” here are Buddhist, while “shrines” are Shinto (Buddhism was imported to Japan many centuries ago, while Shinto is a native religion). Apparently there’s some spiritual rivalry going on here, as the shrine is right next to the temple, and they both specialize in road safety rituals. But what the shrine is best known for is its place in the history of sumo:
While sumo is an ancient sport dating from around the 8th century at the latest, it was only in the Edo period that it came together as an integrated national sport. This process began with kanjin-zumo, or tournaments held at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples to raise money for new buildings or building maintenance.
Annual 10-day kanjin-zumo tournaments began to be held at Tomioka Hachimangu shrine in 1684 on the site of the elementary school beside the present shrine. It was at these tournaments that features of modern sumo such as yokozuna dohyo-iri (the ring-entry ceremony), the banzuke (wrestler ranking sheet), and sumo stables became established, thus earning the shrine an important place in the annals of the game.
Although the word “stable” connotes animals in English, sumo training centers are nonetheless referred to as “sumo stables.”
Exiting through the shrine gate, I walked down Eitai-dori, the main shopping street. When I made my first trip to Tokyo in 2000, most of the neighborhoods had a multitude of small, busy stores and alleyway specialty shops. In the popular shopping districts, these are mostly gone now, replaced by mega-stores and malls that are all too familiar to an American. But the small shops still thrive along Eitai-dori, where the chain stores haven’t moved in yet. The majority specialized in a variety of different foods, so I was regretting that convenience store lunch I had.
I found my way to Kiba park, which is the first park I’ve seen so far in Tokyo that features big, open grassy fields. That’s what American parks are normally like, but Japanese parks tend to have either landscaping that’s too nice to run around on, or compacted dirt for kids to play on (where they all get very dirty). So it was nice to see some simple expanses of green, with people having picnics and playing frisbee.
At the far end of the park is the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo. I haven’t been in an art museum in a very long time, due to both lack of interest and lack of time. But I decided to check it out, and I’m glad I did. Perhaps art appreciation is something that comes with age, as I really enjoyed my visit (but to be honest, I was also glad the museum was small enough that you could get through the whole place in less than 2 hours). No picture taking was allowed inside though, so I can’t show you what I saw .
I found myself challenged by, and in strong disagreement with, the premise of the From a World as Large as Life exhibition:
The information-oriented society, which enables the exchange of large volumes of information instantly across vast distances, is forming increasingly sophisticated new networks. While granting us barrier-free access to information and other conveniences, however, high-level information technology is producing profound changes in the character of our perceptions and consciousness. As our perceptions and experiences become encoded for electronic transmission, our personal bonds with others weaken, just as our sense of time and locality, and even our own existence, grows thin. Trends in recent years of seeking inner “healing” or a return to nature or tradition reflect the consciousness of people who feel something is not right in the information-oriented society. Such investigations into alternative lifestyles nevertheless depend on information technology and also become encoded to a degree.
Technology has not weakened my personal bonds with others, it has strengthened them. This blog allows me to share my experiences here in Tokyo with far away friends and family. Skype lets me make calls to friends and family that I otherwise could not afford while here. I suppose technology is bad for interpersonal relations if you spend all your time watching TV, playing video games, or surfing the internet. But the same can be said of spending all your time reading. I have met people and made new friends on the internet: these are communities defined by mutual interests rather than geography. While that is different, I don’t see how it is necessarily bad. And I also participate in my local community, both here and in Philly. As a parent with a child in school, you’d have to work hard to avoid it!
I think most of the frustration many feel with technology has more to do with the pace of modern life rather than the technology itself. The tools made available by technology are nothing more and nothing less: they are tools. I read an article once which pointed out that, given the year-over-year increases in worker productivity provided by technology, that we could all work 2 days a week instead of 5, if we were willing to live at the level of material wealth the US had in the 1950s. It also pointed out that survey data showed Americans were happier in the 50s than they are now, and worked fewer hours on average. Our current situation is not the fault of technology per se. I would instead attribute it to a culture of competitiveness and the natural consequences of a global, market economy. If we want to be less competitive economically and lead less frantic lives, that’s a question we have to ask ourselves as a society. Blaming computers or cell phones misses the point – they are a consequence of the situation, not the cause.
Well, that was quite a tangent. Anyway, it was both a fun and thought-provoking day off. I’d say it was actually the most relaxing and pleasant day I’ve had yet in Tokyo. I’m hoping to come back with Maria and the boys. There are some nice playgrounds along the way – especially the Kiba Shinsui water park, adjacent to the main Kiba park.
Having a good day off calls for good planning, but not too much of it – you also need to leave room for serendipity. March 21st was the first day of Spring, which is a holiday here in Japan, and it was the first really warm, sunny day of the year. Maria had the day off from work, and she was kind enough to take the boys so I could run around on my own for the day. I made a plan to spend the day in Fukagawa – it’s a working class section of Tokyo that you won’t find in Lonely Planet or other tourist guide books (one sure indicator of it being off the beaten tourist path was that I didn’t see any non-Japanese faces all day). However, I did find a superb walking tour at the Tokyo Visitor’s Guide site. The page says to plan on a half day for it, but I decided to give it a full day, so I could take my time and branch off from the planned route if I wanted to.
That approach worked out perfectly, as there were two things I didn’t anticipate: one was that Fukagawa has a number of Buddhist temples with graveyards attached to them (I really like exploring graveyards), and the other was that the first day of Spring is when everyone comes out to clean their family haka, put fresh flowers on them, and burn incense. Japanese are typically cremated when they die. Their names are then inscribed on the family haka, which is a stone monument, and the ashes are placed inside along with the rest of the deceased family members.
I started at the Fukagawa Edo Museum, which provides an authentic re-creation of a roughly 1 block area of Fukagawa as it was during the Edo period (which is after Japan opened to the West for trade but before industrialization). It’s really wonderfully done – you can go inside all the buildings and get a close look at all the fine details of the interiors. There are also some humorous touches, such as a small statue of a peeing dog, and if you look closely, you can find a statue of a cat hiding inside a basket.
From there I headed to Kiyosumi Teien Gardens, but I was intrigued by a temple I saw along the way so I stopped in for a look. The place was bustling with activity and filled with smoke from incense, as folks were out to clean their family haka, bring flowers, and offer prayers. I’m usually fairly conservative with my picture taking, but over the course of the day I ended up filling my digital camera, mostly with pictures of interesting haka at this temple and others (like I said, I have a thing for graveyards).
After getting my fill of the graveyard, I grabbed a conbini (convenience store) lunch, so I could enjoy a picnic for one in the Kiyosumi Teien Gardens. Unlike the US, you can actually get halfway decent food from the convenience stores here. The Garden was quite simply one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. In addition to the amazing landscaping, it was filled with interesting ducks, birds, turtles, and fish. What struck me most though was the boulders. Normally I wouldn’t comment on rocks, but these were specially selected and hauled in from all over Japan when the garden was built, and their shapes and patterns were really fascinating.
While I was in the park a couple old ladies struck up a conversation with me. They didn’t speak any English, and I was pleasantly surprised at how much I could understand and communicate (of course, they were doing their best to speak simply to me). Usually when I’m out Maria is with me, and there’s a natural tendency for her to do the talking and for folks to address her instead of me, since she speaks Japanese, and you can’t tell from looking at her that she’s not from here. So I don’t have these kinds of encounters very often. I was able to tell them I was from America, and they asked if I was sleepy (I guess they thought I just stepped off a plane). I told them that I arrived in January and that I was here with my wife, who was working here until June (but I broke that information down into 3 simple Japanese sentences, as that’s where I’m at with my grammar). After that things broke down, as I couldn’t understand their next set of questions. So we said goodbye to each other, but I was happy to have made it that far.
So that’s the story up through lunchtime. I’ll write about the second half of the day – when I witnessed a car being blessed by a monk – in my next post.Continue to Part 2
We’ve made two trips to Kichijoji in the past week. It’s about a 40 minute journey on the trains, but it’s worth it, as it’s a great place to spend time with the boys. Yesterday Kai had a short day at school, and the first plum blossoms of the year greeted us at Kichijoji’s Inokashira Park (they look similar to cherry blossoms, but plum trees bloom even earlier). There were about a dozen photographers there, with their high-powered cameras to capture the moment.
We came to the same spot last week, and the boys loved playing near the park’s lake. Given all the time we’ve spent in a completely urban environment, they were thrilled to be surrounded by water, trees, and birds. Eidan literally spent an hour just throwing leaves and rocks in the water, and Kai spent the same amount of time building bridging with sticks, and harassing a turtle that was trying to bask peacefully in the sun. They did the same exact thing in our visit yesterday (but the turtle wasn’t there this time).
Near the far end of the park is the Ghibli Museum, which is a favorite spot for kids (Ghibli movies are to Japan what Disney movies are to the US, although the museum is much more modest than a Disney Land). Normally you have to buy tickets in advance, but it wasn’t crowded on this winter weekday, so I was able to get in with the boys. Unfortunately they don’t allow taking pictures in any of the museum’s indoor areas, but I have some good exterior photos (see below) and this website has good pictures of the inside.
The park also has a modest zoo. It’s inexpensive and most of the animal cages are easily viewed from a toddler’s height, making it nice for little ones. Kai particularly enjoyed the playground, as it wasn’t old and rundown like most playgrounds in Tokyo (the decrepitness and dirtiness of many Tokyo playgrounds stand in jarring contrast to the overall modernity and cleanliness of the city).
Kichijoji station has to be the best smelling train station I’ve ever been in. It’s packed with cake, cookie, and dessert shops – you can’t get out of the station without your mouth watering.
The park is on the south side of the station. On the north side is Sun Road, which is a roughly two block area filled with small shops. It’s not as gargantuan as Tokyo’s more famous shopping areas, but I really liked it. Most of the shops were specialty stores (one was nothing but socks and stockings, another focused on bento sets for kids’ school lunches, etc.), so browsing was fun.
Just off of sun road is a I-Setan department store, which has a toy store on the 5th floor that’s unusual for Tokyo, in that there are several play areas for the kids (that’s common in US toy stores, but much harder to find here), so Eidan particularly enjoyed visiting there.
Both times we’ve gone to Kichijoji I’ve intended to visit Kichijoji 0123, which is a play hall designed specifically for the 3 and under crowd. But both times we’ve been having so much fun in the other places nearby that we’ve never made it there. Maybe next time.