So, I’ve dedicated much of this blog to describing how Tokyo looks, but have neglected to mention how it sounds. Part of that is due to the surprising lack of sound, which is easy to take for granted. While it’s construction season here, the workers take care to create as little noise as possible. Instead of honking horns and screeching train whistles, there are the quick chimes of bike bells, and trains glide to a halt as the speakers play little jingles that are unique to each station. Even the garbage trucks have music that sounds more appropriate for an ice cream truck. Some sounds are delightfully charming, like the music box version of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that plays from a nearby building at 5 o’clock, while other sounds, such as comical voice recordings in the grocery store that promote various foods to customers, take a little getting used to.
This week, much of my days at Technos were filled with the muffled sounds of students taking their first oral exams of the school year. That, combined with the fact that the visiting students for Technos International Week will be arriving soon, means that things are a bit more hectic in the SkillUp Room. International Week, in which foreign students participate in a two-week cultural exchange, is largely student-led, so more and more students are coming in to practice holding conversations with foreigners and to review their presentations on various aspects of Japanese culture.
The theme of this year’s International Week is “roots,” namely, the roots of Japanese culture. So in that spirit, let me take you through two of the most famous, historical temples in Tokyo and their surrounding areas, in order to better understand how centuries-old places and customs have persisted into the 21st century.
Part 1: Shibuya and the Meji SHrine
Remember Harajuku and Takeshita-dori from last week? Well, right across from Harajuku Station and all the over-the-top wackiness that comes with it, there lies Meji Shrine, a Shinto shrine built in honor of Emperor Meji and Empress Shōken, who were revered as deities according to religious customs at the time. While many Japanese people are not actively religious, most still participate in the practices of Shintoism, Japan’s traditional religion. Shintoism is built around the worship of kami, which can be translated as gods or divine energy that is present throughout the natural world. These kami can be worshipped at small, private shrines at home or at larger shrines such as the Meji Shrine.
Shinto shrines are easily identifiable by torii gates, which separate the sacred shrine grounds from the surrounding area. When entering, people are expected to bow and walk by the left or right pillars, for the middle path is reserved for the kami.
Meji Shrine has a series of outer gardens and courtyards, marked by more gates, that encompass the shrine itself. Once here, there are several things to do. As I talked about in my first blog about the Kanda Festival, the biggest thing is to pray to the gods by making an offering before the shrine. First, however, people are expected to purify themselves at a nearby fountain, using ladles to ritually wash their hands and mouths.
In addition to praying at the shrine directly, people can also write their intentions on onegaigoto (lit. “things wished for”), include a small monetary offering, and place it in an offertory box. Another option is to write them on ema (lit. “picture-horses”), which are displayed on racks near the front of the shrine. Though most people give monetary offerings, it is possible to offer up food to the kami as well. At Meji Shrine, for instance, there is a display of sake barrels, which sake brewers offer up each year.
People can also purchase omamori amulets for good luck and protection for a wide range of occasions, from good exam scores to safe childbirths. As I was walking away from the shrine, I saw a group of high school students holding omamori, as well as a young woman in kimono who was carrying a newborn baby to be blessed. I think it’s important to remember that as tourist-y as these big shrines can be, with dozens of tour guides leading flocks of camera-wielding foreigners, they’re a part of day-to-day life for many Japanese people. Religious or otherwise, I think the ability to momentarily depart from modern-day Tokyo and surround yourself with nature and quiet prayers of people from all over the world is a spiritual experience all on its own.
Commercial Break: Kawaii Monster Cafe
Though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the secluded peacefulness of Meji Shrine and Yoyogi Park surrounding it, the shrine is actually located in Shibuya, one of the most popular areas of Tokyo. From the famous Tokyo crosswalk (“the Scramble”) you see in pictures to the trendy mega-shopping mall Shibuya 109, the crowdedness can be both exhilarating and overwhelming depending on your preference.
However, my favorite place during my afternoon exploration of Shibuya was the Kawaii Monster Cafe near Harajuku. Everything about it is an outrageous explosion of colors, lights, and techno music that combine to create an almost sinisterly cute carnival atmosphere. Its menu is just as bizarre, with experimental flavors and very liberal usage of food dye. I can definitely see it being a sensory overload for some people, and I was prepared for it to not live up to the online hype, but I had an absolute blast being there, especially when the “monster” staff started performing on a giant revolving birthday cake in the center of the room.
Part 2: Asakusa
The next day, I journeyed to Asakusa, home to the breath-taking Senso-ji Temple. Easily recognizable by the iconic red lantern hanging from Kikimorin Gate, Senso-ji is Japan’s oldest Buddhist temple. While the basic process of passing through the gates, ritually purifying oneself, and offering prayers to the gods are the same as Shinto shrines like Meji Shrine, Shinto shrines can be recognized by their distinctively-shaped torii gates, while Buddist temples will often feature incense burners, statues of the Buddha, and other icons within the temple itself.
Still, just as with Meji Shrine, Senso-ji a major site of historical and religious significance, drawing thousands of Japanese and foreign visitors daily. Asakusa as a whole struck me as surprisingly foreigner-friendly. From the moment I got off the train, there were people who handed me an English map of Asakusa and helped guide me towards the exit for Senso-ji Temple.
More than any other part of Japan I’ve visited thus far, Asakusa is devoted to preserving Japanese history and culture, and it’s readily apparent from the moment you exit the station. Along the streets, there are young men in traditional dress offering rickshaw rides, in which two drivers pull a small hooded carriage, around Asakusa’s major landmarks. There are also many kimono rental stores for people to wear around Asakusa, as well as traditional-style restaurants that also cater to foreigners.
For people who aren’t sure where to start in Asakusa, there’s a very helpful cultural center right outside the train station, which offers maps and guidebooks, as well as cafes, charging stations, and an observation deck with a view of Tokyo Skytree. When I went there, I was lucky enough to come on a day when they were offering a free nihon buyo dance lesson for visitors, and I immediately signed up.
After a quick explanation of the class, everyone was quickly dressed in yukata, a summertime version of kimono, and given maiogi fans. As was explained to us, nihon buyo relies heavily on imagination, and the fan is a vital prop in this. I felt like a kid at a magic show as our instructor unveiled the clever meanings behind different fan movements. Flutter the fan vertically? Rain droplets. Slower and more horizontally? Falling cherry blossom petals. The fan can also be used to act out opening a door, pouring sake, rowing a boat, and many other actions to tell the story of a particular dance. We learned a simple sakura dance intended for 8-year-old girls (much to the amusement of some of the adult men in the class), similar to a dance that I performed last semester as part of IWU’s Japanese club. During the dance, I kept fumbling with how to properly open and close my maiogi, but it was still lots of fun to try and then watch some professional dancers.
After that, I spent some time exploring Nakamise-dori, the main street leading to Senso-ji Temple, which is packed with stalls selling omiyage (souvenirs) and street food. I think my two favorite foods I tried there were suama, a squishy jello-like candy, and some fish-shaped taiyaki bread filled with sweet bean paste.
After paying my respects at the temple, some afternoon rain cut my trip a little short, which is a shame because I think Asakusa has been one of my favorite places in Tokyo so far. I know that some people try to avoid it because the tourists makes the historic atmosphere feel disingenuous, though. Can you really be immersed in ancient Japanese culture when there are selfie-stick brandishing visitors and a McDonalds just around the corner? Well, I think that tourism is just a way that culture persists in the 21st century, and I think it’s great that Japan wants to welcome other people by sharing some of that culture. Sure, some of it can get lost in the tacky postcards and keychains, but Asakusa’s tourism also gives people the chance to marvel at these majestic buildings and reflect on the religious devotion that compelled people to erect them.
I was raised Catholic, and while non-believers can peek inside churches and cathedrals, they are typically barred from the sacraments and other important ceremonies. The fact that anyone, regardless of faith, can fully participate in prayer at these shrines and temples, and come away feeling some degree of awe and wonder, is pretty unique. Walking through those towering gates and gaping at the elaborate architecture made me feel smaller than I ever have in my life, and I was surprised by how humbling the experience was. In an age of people feeling divided, these places of worship still welcome everyone, so I think it’s only fitting that their cities do, too.