When you think about Japan, the first city that often comes to mind is Tokyo, its capital. With almost 9 million inhabitants, is by far the largest city in the country. And if you include the Greater Tokyo region, the population is estimated to be over 13 million. But even at 9 million, the number of residents in Tokyo is greater than the combined population of the next three largest cities Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. So when I (Merge) got an opportunity to visit there for a day in late October 2023, I jumped at it.
I had to catch a bus to and from Yokohama (the port city where the MS Westerdam was docked) which meant travel of about 90 minutes each way. I’d have only about 4-5 hours to actually explore the city, so I knew that I’d have to be very efficient with time. I decided that I would visit the Sensoji Asakusa Kannon temple and also Edo Castle, residence of Japan’s royal family. I really wanted to visit the bustling Ginza district but I would have to settle for views from the bus.
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, is one of the most famous temples in the city. This Buddhist temple is Tokyo’s oldest, with origins dating back to 645 AD. It is dedicated to Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, and is said to be the most widely visited religious site in the world with over 30 million visitors annually. Adjacent to the temple is a five-story pagoda, the Asakusa Shinto shrine. Dominating the entrance to the temple is the Kaminarimon or “Thunder Gate”. This imposing Buddhist structure features a massive paper lantern dramatically painted in vivid red-and-black tones to suggest thunderclouds and lightning.
Within the temple itself, there are o-mikuji stalls. For a donation of 100 yen, you can consult the oracle and get divine answers to your questions. You shake out a number-labeled stick from metal containers and then read the corresponding answers on a sheet of paper that you pull out from the equivalently-numbered drawer. There are a hundred drawers in total. Since the answers are also translated to English, I had to give it a try.
I drew a No. 74, and to my dismay, I discovered that it was Bad Fortune. Here is some of what was written:
You should know that there may be some bad people like a snake or tiger that hurt you. The Chinese letter two tails for one bull means to loose everything. When the people get pleasure, there happened to be some interference by others, which is obstacle for peace union of the people. The upper and the lower do not meet so well, means a family being out of joint
However, I then learned that you can rid yourself of the bad fortune by tying the piece of paper to a rack placed there for that specific purpose. Whew! Given that I’m an optimist at heart, I decided to try again. I made a second donation and this time my number gave me another sheet of paper that …. was also Bad Fortune. Yikes! After tying it to the rack, I decided that it was time to walk away before the universe gave me a third Bad Fortune!
Beyond the Thunder Gate is a bustling street called Nakamise-dori, with a host of small shops selling souvenirs ranging from fans, ukiyo-e (woodblock prints), kimono and other robes, Buddhist scrolls, traditional sweets, to Godzilla toys, t-shirts and mobile phone straps. While the merchandise may have changed over the years, I was told by a guide that these shops themselves are part of a living tradition of selling to pilgrims who walked to Sensoji.
Next stop was the Imperial Palace, or more specifically Edo castle. But on the way there, we drove past another neighbourhood, Kappabashi, also known as Kitchen Town. Kitchen Town is so called because since the early 1900s, it has been home to many shops specializing in kitchen supplies. It is easily recognizable because of a giant statue of a mustached chef on top of a building, that you can see from blocks away. This statue is known as the Niimi Jumbo Cook, and is the iconic face of the Niimi brand of kitchen tools and supplies. It stands 36 feet (11 m) atop their five-storey building. Established in 1907, the company is one of the oldest based in Kappabashi. Today, there are apparently over 170 such shops in the area, dealing in every kind of kitchenware from traditional dishes to chef uniforms, and vending machines to the world-famous food samples of Japan.
The Imperial Palace is the main residence of the Emperor of Japan. However, only the East Gardens are usually open to the public. On January 2 (for the New Year) and on February 23 (the Emperor’s birthday), the public is allowed to enter further into the grounds. We parked on the east side of the Kokyo Gaien, and strolled through the gardens until we got to the Seimon Ishibashi bridge, which leads to the main gate of the Imperial Palace. Along the way, we stopped to look at the solid bronze statue of Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1336), who is remembered for his commitment to the samurai code of conduct (also called bushido). Ultimately, Kusunoki sacrificed his life to demonstrate his loyalty to the emperor!
As the bus began the journey back to Yokohama, it drove through the Ginza district of Tokyo. This neighbourhood is a buzzing area, known for its fancy shopping and vibrant city life. The streets are lined with high-end international brand stores, department stores, upscale cafes, glass and metal buildings, and lots of neon. On the ride, I also caught views of the Tokyo Skytree, a broadcasting and observation tower that soars over Tokyo. The tower is the primary television and radio broadcast site for the Kantō region. At 634m, it is the tallest tower in the world, and the third tallest structure in the world after the Merdeka 118 (679 m) in Kuala Lumpur and the Burj Khalifa (830m) in Dubai.
A few hours in Tokyo are simply not enough. But I managed to pack a good amount in during my short time there! The rest will have to wait until I return again.