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Tue 20 Sep 2011 by mskala Tags used:

I am starting this draft sitting on a bench in the Kyu-Shiba Gardens, near the Hamamatsuchou train station, Tokyo. This is my last full day in Japan - I leave tomorrow morning - and I have no really specific plans for the day, though in the evening I'll be meeting up with some friends who are Westerners living here (one Canadian, one British). This will probably be my last update posted before I leave. It's been quite a trip.

Lots of photo galleries:

Last update ended as I was nearing Tokyo on the shinkansen, Saturday afternoon. My hotel in Tokyo for this leg of the trip is near Kanda Station, which I'd been warned is a somewhat rough neighbourhood. It turns out what that means is that as soon as I stepped out of the train station, someone purporting to be a Buddhist monk attempted to shake me down for a donation. But I found the hotel without further incident and settled in.

One of the fun games my Japanese friends and I play sometimes is the "I understood what you said perfectly, but I can't believe that that is really what you intended to say" game. I played this, for instance, with Miho-sensei a couple years ago when I tried to use 「犬は、宿題を食べました。」 ("the dog ate my homework") for "use the word 食べる in a sentence." Apparently that excuse isn't part of the Japanese cultural background. Another good one was "Yes, I recognize some of the characters in this anime-figurine store; for instance, Ika Musume." I got to play the game again with Yuya-sensei when we talked about the pickles at the curry place.

Thing is, when I was at CoCoIchi Curry in Nara, I saw what I thought were little jars of pickled lotus root slices on the tables, and I later asked him what the purpose of those was - are they like a topping to put on the curry, or just something to eat before or after the meal, or what? He got the same look on his face that Miho-sensei got when she contemplated the dog eating the homework.

We managed to establish the following, in roughly this order:

  • There is a type of large round flower with many petals that grows in ponds and is associated with Buddhism, and the name for this flower in English is "lotus."
  • The root of the lotus flower is edible, and people cut it into round slices which have a characteristic pattern of naturally-occurring holes in them. These slices can, for instance, be breaded and fried and served on a stick, and that was an item on the menu of the "things on a stick" restaurant we went to.
  • Pickled lotus root is also a food that exists.
  • It would be quite surprising if the fast-food curry restaurant served pickled lotus root, and a more plausible curry condiment would be pickled pieces of a certain vegetable called 「長葱」, which is sort of like an onion, but not the same thing as the usual kind of onion.
  • But those wouldn't have holes.
  • 長葱 means "shallot."

So, Saturday night I went to the local branch of the same fast-food curry restaurant and collected a sample, which you can see in the photo gallery. I now think, after some further consultation by email, that what is in the jars is a mixture of mostly pickled slices of daikon (which is a sort of large mild-tasting radish) but also some bits of in fact pickled lotus root. I still don't know how I'm supposed to eat it, but since I've probably reached my curry quota for this trip, I doubt that I will go back and investigate further.

Sunday morning I went to Asakusa and visited a Buddhist temple called Sensou Ji, usually thought of as the main Buddhist temple in Tokyo. It was crowded with visitors and had a festival atmosphere even though there was, as far as I know, no particular occasion in effect. There is a long broad roadway leading up to the temple and lined with tourist-trap souvenir shops. Big fancy gateways at the start and end of this road feature huge paper lanterns. The temple itself was a lot like other large touristy Buddhist temples, but it also had a large food-vendors area I hadn't seen elsewhere.

To one side of the main temple building was Asakusa Jinja, a Shinto shrine for the three men who built the temple. I was also interested in a very small shrine called Kume no Heinai Dou, which was basically just a little construction that looked sort of like a stone lantern, with a bunch of banners around it. Kume no Heinai is another of these characters who may be partially legendary, but the story is that he was an accomplished samurai who got religion as a Buddhist monk, and spent the rest of his life trying to atone for all the people he'd killed. He attracted some followers, and directed them to, when he died, make a statue of him and bury it where a lot of people would walk over it, as a further gesture of his humility and atonement. So they did that, but then after a while people dug up the statue and enshrined it for Shinto worship, and now those looking for romance visit the shrine because of a pun between an earlier name of this shrine and the word for "love letter." I wonder what Kume no Heinai thinks of all that.

Sensou Ji was the only place I saw the shake-the-box method of omikuji divination in action. Before I came to Japan I thought, based on my reading and anime viewing, that that was standard, but most of the places I've visited, including Asakusa Jinja next door to Sensou Ji, seem to use the "take one at random from the bin" system. But what they did at Sensou Ji was they had a long octagonal box with a little hole at one end, and you'd shake it until a stick came out of the hole. The end of the stick would be marked with a number, and you'd find the little drawer marked with the number, and take one of the sheets of paper therein. In the really traditional form, this process would be mediated by shrine-maidens taking your money and helping you find the right drawer, but at Sensou Ji (bearing in mind that as a Buddhist temple it wouldn't have shrine-maidens anyway) you had to do it all by yourself, following the instructions posted on signs. It was very popular, and they had at least three little buildings set up for it, each with five or six of the octagonal boxes, and two or three people waiting their turns to shake each box.

Some interesting things I noticed were that the instructional signs included prissy admonitions about not getting arrogant if you got a good fortune, and they called it 「みくじ」 (mikuji) on the signs, not 「おみくじ」 (omikuji) like everybody else calls it. The お (o) is for nouns of Japanese etymology that are being honoured either because of their own nature or because they belong to the person being addressed. (Nouns of Chinese etymology get ご go for this purpose instead; either way I think it's what ends up turning into the word "honourable" all over the place in old, stereotypical translations of Japanese or caricatures of English spoken by Japanese people.) I don't know why the difference; but inasmuch as I think omikuji isn't really a Buddhist thing at all, I suspect there may have been some kind of religious concept in play of the temple not wanting to endorse divination too strongly, despite being willing to take people's 100円 a pop for doing it.

I got a similar vibe from the dour priests behind the counter at the Sensou Ji charm shop: okay, we'll sell you these things because they're harmless, we can use the money for worthy purposes, we know that you expect it at all religious sites, and you don't know the difference between us and those pagans at the shrine next door anyway, but we don't have to approve of it. On reflection, I think I'll stick with the charm I got from the shrine-lad at Keta Taisha.

Also, although the Sensou Ji omikuji themselves were written bilingually English-Japanese, and so were the posters telling you how to do it, the numbers on the sticks and on the little drawers were written only in kanji numerals (mine, for instance, was #74: 「七十四」). So if you couldn't read those, you'd need very good visual memory to do the ritual, bilingual instructions or not. I've found this kind of thing to be common: there'll be some attempt made to accommodate people who don't know Japanese, but not necessarily enough for it to really work. Sensou Ji "mikuji" #74 was a curse - the only one I've gotten to date - so I tied it onto the rack instead of taking it with me.

Sensou Ji took a lot less time than I had budgeted, and I realized they probably wouldn't let me back into my room at the hotel so early, so I had to make an on-the-spot decision on where to go next. I decided to wander South of Kanda and visit the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. I don't have a whole lot to say about those, but I took a lot of pictures, which you can see in the gallery.

As dinner time drew near on Sunday, I wasn't sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. I ended up going to take a photo of the headquarters of the Ajinomoto Corporation, the world's foremost manufacturer of monosodium glutamate, mostly as an excuse to get out and see another part of the city. That meant taking the subway and learning how to do so. Afterward I wandered around some more, looking for a place I felt like eating, and I ended up choosing a restaurant of the kind where you buy a ticket from a machine at the door for the food you want, and present it to the staff.

I had a beef bowl. Now, beef bowls are apparently the Japanese equivalent of doughnuts, in that there is an idea that police officers spend a lot of their time on duty sitting around eating beef bowls instead of working, and I always thought that was just one of those amusing stories people tell. But sure enough, the only other customer in the restaurant during the time I was there was a cop eating a beef bowl. Actually, I think he was technically a security guard, and I think what he was eating may have been something else rather than exactly a beef bowl. I still felt amused, though. And it gave me some hope that maybe police commissioners' granddaughters really are "like that." (That was a Lucky Star reference. It's just as well for you if you don't understand it.)

On Monday morning I visited Akihabara, the Electrical Town. This is a place that was once a market for electronic components. Gradually it changed to be mostly about consumer electronic products, and in recent years it has changed again to become a centre of anime, manga, and similar fan culture. It's also rife with meido cafes, where you can drink coffee and be simpered at by women in frilly maid uniforms. Competition among these places is fierce, so employees go out in their uniforms to hand out flyers and attempt to drum up business. I didn't see any knock-down drag-out pigtail-pulling stocking-shredding bodice-ripping fights between maids from rival cafes - I think they actually have some kind of official allocation of flyer-handing-out turf to prevent that - but of course it would have been cool and I'm totally going to use it in my fiction writing.

I didn't take photos of the maids, nor most of the other cosplayers I saw. It is not done to take photos of them without permission, and if you ask permission, they may try to demand a fee for it, or aggressively attempt to sell you other services. There were also a lot of other things I didn't photograph. But I've posted some commentaries along with the photos I did take, in the gallery, so you can go look and read them.

At noon I met with an academic colleague who works for Hitachi. I had noticed, shortly before my trip, that one of my papers had been cited in a paper written by this group, so I emailed them saying, "hey, I'm going to be in Tokyo, want to visit?" and the end result was that this fellow was kind enough to come out and have ramen with me and show me a few of the sights.

We went to Aoshima Ramen, which is a tiny hole in the wall type of place with apparently a reputation for the best ramen in town, and we waited in line about a half hour to use the ticket machine and then wait again for a place at the bar to turn in our tickets for bowls of soy-sauce ramen. It was pretty good, I guess, but I'm not sure good enough to justify that much of a big deal as compared to the many other ramen shops that exist in Tokyo. I think sometimes, these kinds of things become famous for being famous as much as for their intrinsic merits.

Then we went up the Tokyo Tower, which involved an unplanned visit to another Buddhist temple that turned out to be on the shortest path to the tower. I think it was called Zojo Ji. Not a temple I know much about, but it had some interesting-looking rows of little statues with pinwheels. I always get a bit of a thrill when I see Japanese people getting lost in Japanese cities - my companion had some sort of GPS in his cell phone and it didn't do him much good - because it suggests that I'm not doing so badly when I, too, get lost. It appears that if you have to walk somewhere in Tokyo what you just have to do is you leave extra time and wander in what you think is the right direction until you probably get there, and that's just the way it is.

In the evening I met again with Yae-sensei, one of my former teachers from the TIJ language school in Toronto. Our earlier date hadn't been much fun because I was ill from the effects of the plane ride and time change. We took the subway to a shrine where she'd heard there was a shrine festival (matsuri) in progress - which would be nice because I'd been in a position to just miss such events both in Nara and Osaka - but unfortunately, the festival had concluded earlier in the day and the place was deserted. We at least got to see the locked-up portable shrine they'd carried through the streets, so as she said, at least we had proof the festival had occurred. I'm not sure exactly which shrine this was or where it was. Things were a bit confusing - I was just following Yae and even she had to ask for directions at the subway station.

Then we went for hot-pot, which was a big production that ended up taking several hours between waiting for a table, the actual food preparation process, eating it, and so on. Yae and I after some discussion arrived at the understanding that we both liked spicy food, and we settled on a spice level of seven out of ten, so when the waitress showed up to take our order (which in itself required waiting a bit, because the place was busy) they had a discussion of this matter in Japanese, then they both giggled, then the waitress looked me up and down carefully and said something, then they both giggled again. I had the feeling I was being tested - okay, let's see what your white boy can handle! I was hoping there would be a prize for passing the test, but no such luck. When that course of the meal arrived it was, in fact, spicy enough to challenge both me and my companion, and though we spent a couple hours working on it, we were not in the end able to finish it.

We had a sort of program of drinks that was served for two persons in the form of two mugs two-thirds full of diluted shouchuu (Edifying Fellows take note: this is the Japanese equivalent of the famous Korean Date-Rape Substance), and one bottle each of light beer and dark beer. As it was explained to me, we were to top up our mugs with the light beer, mix it by vigorous thrusting with swizzle sticks, drink that about halfway down, and top it up again, then switch to topping it up with the dark beer when the light beer ran out, so that by the end of the evening what we were drinking was a mixture of all three substances.

Also: chicken sashimi. As Yae said, that's not something they can serve you in Canada.

That was Monday. Tuesday - today - I figured I had had about as much Japanese city life as I could handle for a while, and I spent the whole day sitting quietly in gardens. I took the train to Hamamatsuchou, down near the waterfront, and visited first the Kyu-Shiba gardens and then the Hama gardens. Most of this entry was actually written while sitting in one or the other of those, and I took enough photos to probably bore you.

In the evening, I met two friends of mine who are Westerners living in Japan - Dave from Saskatchewan, whom I hadn't seen in (we worked it out) almost a decade, and Jon from the UK, who I actually had never met in person before at all, even though we've known each other over the Net for about 15 years. I was supposed to meet Dave in the lobby of the Cerulean Tower, and that would have gone perfectly except for the fact that the Cerulean Tower has two lobbies (one for the office-building part and one for the hotel part) and we had different understandings of which one was the meeting place. As far as I can tell, no part of the Cerulean Tower is actually cerulean.

Dave and I had nabe, and that was great, and then Jon joined us when he got off work, and we adjourned to a British pub with obscenely overpriced beer (but at least they had beer other than the Asahi Super Dry I've been drinking for the past two weeks, which tastes like Budweiser because like Budweiser it is made from rice), and that was a good way to end my visit to this country. Now it's a quarter to midnight, I'm drunk, and I have to go back to Canada tomorrow.

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