Tokyo Weeks 7 & 8: Typhoons, Temples and Tourist Attractions

Baby won’t sleep without nursing or being walked in the wrap unless we sing the itsy-bitsy spider to him. With the rain pouring down outside, he listens as his daddy sings in a sweet register and his little eyes will flutter closed as his mommy dreams of the sun coming out again. Tomorrow is a promise of sunshine at 69 degrees, and I fear that these weeks of rain have conditioned our little one to not only require the tune but also the pitter patter percussive accompaniment of the rain. Still, we’re lucky he enjoys sleeping in his wrap, since as soon as the sun is out I plan on putting some more miles and making the most of our last month exploring Tokyo.

I sincerely hope November is beautiful as promised. Typhoon season is usually finished by October but as I write, the season’s 22nd typhoon is skulking along the coast and battering Tokyo, though this one is not as vengeful and windy as Lan—yet. Saola may still make herself heard tonight. The gusts that came along with Lan blew about outside such that this little 1950s construction seemed to flex and twist (reassuringly, as we were told by our architect former-neighbor, since in an Earthquake this would be a desirable quality). If baby is up all night as Saola howls outside, I suppose we’ll have to continue singing our reassuring little song into the night. (Edit: As of Midnight, no more rain!! Hooray!)

On that note, if after tomorrow we’ll indeed bid the typhoon season goodbye, here’s some scenes from Tokyo over the last two weeks, on the occasions that we were able to make more significant excursions. Overcast Tokyo is actually a bit atmospheric, I think. I especially loved navigating by the Skytree when we got lost headed to Senso-ji, which you can see in some of these photos. 20171024_13571520171018_11562320171024_14261120171024_14283820171024_14270220171024_13420520171024_13492520171024_13501920171024_145446

Most people set out with an itinerary and hit a few spots, cross off a few must-sees and all in time to have dinner at a reasonable time. This requires directness and a plan, a route mapped out and a brisk pace. I, on the other hand, find that the most direct route is rarely the most interesting. So I wander, veer actually, sometimes away from where we are going. And if we never get there, well, my husband has learned that the point was never really to get anywhere at all.

Indeed, sometimes we don’t get where we’re going but we see something more interesting anyway. On a (yet another doomed) trip to the imperial palace, we ended up sandwiched between the Imperial gardens and the Akasaka imperial property and found a lovely shrine instead.

This shrine, Hie Shrine in Chiyoda/Asakasa, is not an “ancient” shrine (though it is old) and its not a tourist spot, either. It’s a clean, modern and thoroughly well-kept temple complex in the middle of urban Tokyo that serves the broader community. Red torii gates traditionally indicate a Shinto shrine, and walking through them is to pass from the profane to the sacred. Whether Buddhist or Shinto, most temple complexes have temple guardians, and the color vermilion is frequent theme in both types. At Hie Shrine, however, family is the important theme and coming of age ceremonies (Shichi-go-san) are often performed at Shinto temples such at this one. The monkey guardians (Sanno gongen) here bring blessings to such families. The female monkey is of particular significance to mommies and is often portrayed with her baby, either holding her or sometimes even shown nursing!

Hie shrines are symbolically and ceremonially Shinto, though most Japanese folks tend to draw on both traditions and would have a hard time answering the question “Are you a Buddhist or are you a practitioner of Shinto?” In fact, prior to a forcible (and ultimately ineffective) separation of Shinto from Buddhism by the Meiji government (Kami and Buddhas Separation Order 神仏判然令 Shinbutsu Hanzenrei), many Shinto shrines had Buddhist temples attached to them and in some cases, Shinto ceremonies include scripture from Buddhist texts. Perhaps more surprising, Shinto shrines are modeled on Buddhist architecture and prior to Buddhism, shrines weren’t really even a thing. Instead, like many animistic religions, sacred spaces were simply marked by temporary structures or smaller structures, a simple torii or even huts.

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan, even kami were though to be subject to karma and it was widely thought that karmic services were necessary for the spirit world, too. Hence, Buddhist temples sprung up next to sacred sites (Shinto shrines, as it were) and these temple complexes represented the interwovenness of Japanese spirituality until they were destroyed in the 19th century. Some academics who study Buddhism in other parts of Asia even refer somewhat disparagingly to Japanese Buddhism as “funerary Buddhism” (one of my college professors, a passionately pro-Tibet atheist academic was among them).

Ushijima shrine was another one we stumbled upon, this time while making our way toward Senso-Ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. After wandering once more in the wrong direction, we had stopped off at Sumida park to nurse baby, who was beginning to get quite testy about being stuck in the wrap for so long. This park, as a sign told us, was one of the emperor’s favorite cherry-blossom spots, though at this time of year it is rather unimpressive. However, while making our way out we spotted the torii of Ushijima, whose kanji we were puzzling over. Cow….island?


We weren’t standing there long before a kindly older gentleman explained to us in English that we had arrived at the gate of Cow Island temple. He insisted that long ago, the very place we were standing was an island with many cows, a fact whose actual historical truth I have yet to ascertain. In any case, built in 680, it turns out that Ushijima is Tokyo’s second-oldest permanent religious sites.

Senso-ji, built in 628AD, claims the title of oldest temple in Tokyo. Like many famous religious sites in Japan, things are kept up so well that “old” and “authentic” do not go together. Many temples are modern, clean and yes, new. Even things that are “old” are continuously and often meticulously cared for, restoration being faithful to original form.

What a contrast! Tourists and practitioners, Japanese and international in each category, flooded the plaza. The fragrance of incense and the altar choked with throngs of people made for a heady atmosphere, indeed. So different from the quiet peace of Ushijima shrine! And still, so different from major tourist spots in other ‘Asian’ destinations, which can frequently be intoxicating and energetic but often unpleasantly so. This was organized chaos.




Finally, we come to the end of this post, but not before I share one more temple. This one, let it be unnamed. I have not researched it in hindsight, like I did with some other temples we stumbled upon in Shinjuku. This one I’ll just let it be. My one remark is that the figure pictured is called O-Jizo-sama. This is the Bodhisattva who is thought to come to the aid of the souls of the unborn, called mizu-ko or water children in Japan. Like the monkey guardians, he is often dressed in a red bib, cape and hat. His face is softened to be almost child-like. Though I am catholic, at least symbolically he has a special place in my heart. I had stumbled upon his statues in a forest in Kyoto as a young college student and latertly research him as part of a college course on Buddhism. I found the idea of him comforting when I experienced my own miscarriage and whenever I find him here in Tokyo, I always take a moment to think of that little water child of mine and reflect upon how blessed I am to have my little guy. 20171018_11563620171018_11511120171018_115322



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See also: Our Trip to Mount Fuji


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