Asakusa: The Market Temple

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.

Advertisements

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.

CC273C9C-1A9B-40C7-A3B6-2860C8961DE0
“Christ casts out the money-changers” by Danish painter Carl Heinrich Bloch.

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.

7786CCAF-ED20-4F0C-8C70-916B7B70390A
Sellers hawk overpriced gifts for tourists en route to Sensō-ji temple.

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.

4BBDE128-3159-45A6-B78C-30EA1EAC333C
The temple grounds are a popular spot for tourists and locals alike.

 

39A813FA-D5DA-4722-9342-FD015A7CB55F
A shopping mall featuring eateries, gift shops and a sword smith.

Shinjuku: Godzilla, Government, Shopping and Sex Clubs

“Hey man!”

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.”

Shinjuku at night
Shinjuku at night.

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.”

Shinjuku at night
In Shinjuku even the side streets are illuminated.

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.

3E60ADF2-9C9C-4C3C-A6FA-6742AA4C7866

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.

B3EA5968-2654-4E72-A13D-20DA6323DD0C
Memory Lane, also known as Piss Alley, is lined with tiny restaurants.
Shinjuku
A cook preps skewers of meat in one of Shinjuku’s narrow-alley barbecue spots on Memory Lane, which are only big enough to accommodate a few patrons at a time.
Shinjuku
Another alley leading out of Memory Lane, a narrow alley lined with tiny eateries specializing in yakitori (barbecue skewers).
Shinjuku: Memory Lane
Memory Lane is narrow, smoky and heavy with the smell of grilled meat.

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.

Shinjuku’s Godzilla
Godzilla himself peeks out from behind a pair of buildings overlooking Shinjuku. Photo credit: Tokyo Creative

 

Shiba: Zōjō-ji Temple and the Last Shoguns

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.

Zōjō-ji Temple: Detail of temple gate
The gate leading to Zōjō-ji Temple was built in 1622, making it the oldest wooden building in Tokyo proper.
Zōjō-ji Temple
Tokyo Tower looms over Zōjō-ji Temple itself, the main structure on the shrine grounds.
Zōjō-ji Temple close-up
The open door on the right side beneath the portico leads to the sanctuary, called the daiden (“great hall”) in Japanese.
Zōjō-ji Temple: Detail
A view from the portico shows an adjacent temple structure as well as skyscrapers in the background.
Zōjō-ji Temple and Tokyo Tower
Zōjō-ji Temple itself, left, flanks a smaller shrine structure with Tokyo Tower in the background.
Zōjō-ji Temple and pagoda
A pagoda with the portico of Zōjō-ji Temple in the foreground.
Zōjō-ji Temple and pagoda
A close-up of the detail and symmetry of the pagoda.
Zōjō-ji Temple: Shōgun Mausoleum
The entrance to the Shōgun mausoleum and graveyard. Six members of the Takegawa Shōgunate, the last feudal rulers in the country’s history, are buried here.
Zōjō-ji Temple
Statues of Jizō Bosatsu, a Buddhist figure designated as the guardian of children, line a quiet path behind the temple.
Temple sanctuary
Gilded ornaments surround a central statue in the daiden. Visitors can light incense and sit in quiet contemplation in the great hall.
Crow near Jizō Bosatsu statues
A crow sits on a stone wall separating the Shōgun burial ground from the path lined with Jizō Bosatsu statues.

 

 

Setagaya: The Magnificent Cat Shrine

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.

Gōtokuji Temple in Setagaya, Tokyo
Thousands of maneki-neko (“beckoning cat”) statues are placed at Gōtokuji Temple.

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.
Gōtokuji Temple
The Gōtokuji Temple grounds are well-manicured even by Japanese standards.
Gōtokuji Temple
According to a local docent — a kindly elderly man toting a photo album of the shrine — the temple structure above is inhabited by a brown-coated cat, who calls the second floor home.

 

Cat Shrine Temple
The shrine grounds include several temples and other structures.
Gōtokuji Temple
Staff at Gōtokuji Temple paint calligraphy with the temple’s symbols and stamp them.
Japanese calligraphy
Like other shrines throughout Japan, the temple has its own calligraphic symbols and stamps.
Gōtokuji Temple
That’s a lot of cats!
Gōtokuji Temple
Visitors leave statues of the beckoning cat as they pray for personal success or prosperity in business.

 

Roppongi Hills: Tokyo From Above

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.

 

E51578DF-085A-4192-A631-0A0C4E97F74B
The neon blue floors of the foreground building are hotel suites with one hell of a view of the city.

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. 🙂

82CD8DB6-3D4A-48C7-BCAB-9FFA1A1AAA27
A view from Mori Tower’s observation deck. Shibuya is the bright spot to the right.
Tokyo at Night
From Roppongi, Tokyo looks like an endless sprawl disappearing into the horizon.
Tokyo at Night
A view of Tokyo Tower, left, and surrounding buildings.

A Royal Edict From King Buddy

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.

Signed,

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!

– Big Buddy

Snow Monkey at Mt. Takao
Who is this Buddy the Cat you speak of?
Macaque baby
“What’s a Buddy?”
Snow monkeys at Mt. Takao
“I have my own Buddy, thank you very much.”
58E57291-FA6B-4451-AB0E-30879F8943FF
“Look at what a cute baby I am! I’ll bet Buddy was never this cute!”
AEBC32E7-D010-4C05-B7E6-E84CD5E690FB
“What? He’s on another continent?! What’s he gonna do, bite you? lol.”
B26CAB6A-9ADF-4AA7-A943-7F8DFCC15176
“I heard cats groom themselves, the selfish jerks.”
Japanese macaque mom and baby
“A who? No thanks, I already have an annoying little life form to take care of.”
King Buddy the Cat
“Let all the realm know what Buddy has decreed!”

 

Odaiba: Digital Art Lab

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.

Digital Art Lab’s crystalline LED room
Thousands of LEDs surround a winding path which opens up into a clearing at Tokyo’s Digital Art Lab.

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.

Tokyo Digital Art Lab
Large rooms like the one pictured here feature dynamic and responsive art displays. Visitors can scatter flowers on the walls by touching them, and divert the flow of waterfalls by standing beneath them.