Some 30 million visitors a year come to see Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, which has been a religious site for more than 1,000 years.
And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” – John 2:13-16
Growing up Catholic, I heard the story of Jesus furiously expelling the money-changers and merchants from the temple at least a few times a year in church gospels.
The message was clear: Houses of worship are supposedly to be solemn and hushed places where people can speak to God in peace.
Sensō-ji temple is quite the opposite.
Sensō-ji is not only Japan’s oldest temple, it’s one of the most-visited spiritual sites in the world, with an estimated 30 million annual visitors.
It’s also one of Tokyo’s most-accessible shrines, just a short walk from a subway stop in Asakusa. All that foot traffic makes it irresistible for local merchants, who sell everything from traditional lanterns to t-shirts, stuffed animals, shoes, bags and hats.
On the day I visited a steady rain hadn’t put a dent in the mixed crowd of locals and tourists.
A giant lantern hangs beneath the temple gate, which was rebuilt in 1960 after a fire destroyed its predecessor. While most of the structures at Sensō-ji are reproductions, the area has been a religious site for more than 1,000 years.
I turn to look. This is the first bit of English I’ve heard all evening, and sure enough it’s directed at me, the blue-eyed, red-brown-haired, bearded ‘Merican who couldn’t blend into the crowd if I had a human-size Cuisinart.
“Come check it out,” says the speaker, a sharply-dressed guy in his 30s, gesturing toward a drinking establishment just off one of Shinjuku’s busiest streets. “I’ve got the girl of your dreams inside. You like Japanese women?”
“We’re good,” my brother says.
The salesman ignores him, singing his pitch like an R&B ballad.
“You like Japanese women, man? I know you do. We got Japanese women waiting to meet American guys.”
My trust in my brother is absolute, this bar dude is acting sketchy as hell, and I’m not that much of an idiot, so I take my bro’s cue and follow him toward the intersection.
“What was that all about?”
The guy who approached us was an extortionist, my brother explained. They’ll invite you into the club, let you order a few drinks but neglect to tell you the drinks are 10,000 yen each, or about $90 USD. If you refuse to pay they’ll call Tokyo police, who will take the word of a local business owner over the word of a tourist in what they see as a legitimate dispute.
“Or they’ll spike your drink,” my brother said, “take all your cash and run your credit cards to the limit.”
Japan’s not the kind of place where you worry about pickpockets or getting jumped by local thugs, but it’s a mistake to assume crime doesn’t exist here.
Tokyo may be one of the world’s safest cities, a place where you can leave your door unlocked or leave your bike unattended while confident no one will steal it, yet tourists are universal easy prey.
While walking through Shinjuku’s busy streets I was reminded of an interview with the great novelist David Mitchell, who spent several years in Japan teaching English before returning to the UK.
Moving through Tokyo as a westerner unable to decipher Japanese writing, Mitchell noted, is like being cocooned in your own personal anti-advertising buffer. All that hiragana and katakana written in neon might as well be mood lighting — it’s there, but if you can’t understand it, it can’t invade your headspace.
Mitchell said he found that obliviousness calming and conducive to keeping to his own thoughts on writing. Being there in person and experiencing it for myself, I could appreciate his point.
Another famous feature of Shinjuku is the giant Godzilla head, which looks like the King of Monsters is looming just behind a pair of buildings overlooking the neighborhood’s central crossing.
The ancient blends with the modern at Zōjōji Temple, which is surrounded by skyscrapers in the heart of Tokyo.
Near the heart of the city, under the shadow of Tokyo Tower, is Zōjō-ji Temple.
The shrine is the most important location in a 1,000-year-old sect of Buddhism as well as the burial grounds of the last shoguns. But what’s most striking about the complex is how it contrasts the old and the new — the sangedatsumon (“gate”) to Zōjō-ji, pictured above, is the oldest surviving wooden structure in Tokyo, leading to an island of tranquility amid skyscrapers, subway lines, neon signs and thousands of shops.
A quiet Tokyo burb is home to Gōtokuji Temple, the famous cat shrine and birthplace of maneki neko, aka the beckoning cat.
Look at all the buddies!
No trip to Japan would be complete for me without a visit to Gōtokuji Temple, home of the famous cat shrine.
Legend has it that a feudal lord and a few of his samurai were road-weary and looking for a spot to rest when they saw a cat by the road, beckoning them with a waving paw.
The lord and his men followed the cat, who led them to a humble temple. The group reached the shelter of the temple just in time to avoid a thunderstorm and resultant downpour.
Thankful that he was dry and warm — and inspired by the temple monk’s sermon — the feudal lord vowed to become the temple’s benefactor, providing the funds for the extensive grounds that exist at Gōtokuji Temple today.
Because it was the cat who led the lord to the shelter of the temple, the “beckoning cat” — maneki neko — became associated with good luck across Japan. Today maneki neko can be seen in shops, restaurants and homes throughout the country.
Even by the immaculate standards of Japanese temple complexes, Gōtokuji Temple is remarkably well-manicured.
Situated in the “suburbs” of Setagaya, Gōtokuji is also more quiet and peaceful than some of the other temples that are wedged between skyscrapers and commercial plazas.
Staff at Gōtokuji Temple paint calligraphy with the temple’s symbols and stamp them.
Like other shrines throughout Japan, the temple has its own calligraphic symbols and stamps.
See Tokyo from the sixth-tallest building in the city, Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills.
Tonight we visited the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, a skyscraper with great views of the surrounding city.
The building is less than a five-minute walk from my brother’s apartment, and at 54 stories and 781 feet it’s the sixth-tallest building in Tokyo.
Mori Tower has a 54th floor “Sky Deck” which was closed this evening due to the weather, so the observation deck on the 52nd floor was our only choice.
It doesn’t really matter — the view is spectacular and the observation deck features a 360-degree view of the city through floor-to ceiling windows. It’s even got signs pointing out the neighborhoods you’re looking at from each angle, and a section where you can pull up a chair, have a cup of tea and look over the city.
Even from this height Tokyo extends to the horizon in every direction save for the waterfront near Haneda, an endless sprawl of shops, homes, office buildings, izakayas, plazas and parks.
All photos by Big Buddy using a Canon T3. Click on the photos for higher-resolution versions. Trust me, it’s worth it. 🙂
King Buddy issues a royal decree forbidding lesser animals, like monkeys and humans, from upstaging him on his own blog.
Dear Big Buddy,
This letter is to serve as notice that I, Little Buddy, forbid you from befowling my blog with images of any other animals, including humans and snow monkeys. (With the exception of turkey, of course.)
The blog is called Buddy: An Awesome and Handsome Cat for a reason. Readers come here to see me! We don’t want to confuse them with photographs of ugly beasts who fling their poop at each other.
Buddy the Handsome, First of His Name, Protector of the Apartmental Realm, Sole Sovereign of the Fields of Turkey, Prime Despiser of Vacuum the Infernal Menace
Dear Little Buddy,
No problem, little guy. I won’t befowl your blog with photos of lesser beasts like humans and monkeys. I’ll befoul it! Muahahaha!
Walk through a crystalline forest of color-changing LEDs or shoot neon sparks through your fingertips in this unique interactive art installation.
If you’re planning on visiting Tokyo, the Digital Art Lab in Odaiba should definitely have a place on your itinerary.
Featuring displays that react to guests’ movements and touch, the interior feels like an endless labyrinth with living art installations that are constantly morphing and traveling between rooms.
In one hallway a stylized lion composed of illuminated flowers walked alongside me, matching me stride for stride. When I stopped, the lion did too. As I raised my camera to snap a photo, the lion turned to regard me and looked straight at me.
Other rooms feature walls and floors that respond to touch, and even a tea house where floral light patterns seem to grow from your tea cup. Move the cup and the flower disperses in the digital wind, while a new one blooms in your cup’s new location.
One of my favorite areas was a room comprised of nothing but tens of thousands of LED light strips pulsing to the beat of an epic orchestral track. One moment you’re surrounded by crystalline lights sparkling like stars, the next you’re bathed in digital rain like something out of the Matrix films.
Another room uses angled floors and walls to enhance the effects of a spectacular 3D light show. I had to steady myself as the view lurched out to what looked like a galactic view with stars flying past. The effect was so realistic, I experienced a sense of vertigo.
There’s a mushroom forest, a kids area with illuminated slides and trampolines, and lots of out-of-the-way, hard to find rooms that reward exploration with spectacular displays.