Dan in Japan: Day 5

New year’s day. After the long walk home from Shibuya last night, I don’t rouse from my slumber until almost midday. I can’t remember the last time I slept in that late; it’s certainly got to be a few years. Happily, I’m not stiff or achey, and I’m feeling well-rested.

The weather is not so good today, though. The sky is overcast and grey and it is spitting lightly. No matter; the new year in Japan is a quiet affair and a lot of places will be closed. My plan today is to go to a shrine, however. I have been reading about the new year in Japan, and learning about hatsumode, or the first visit of the year to a temple. The Japanese observe this ritual by praying and collecting good luck charms for the new year, and I’m keen to see some of this activity.

At first I’m thinking to go to Zozoji again, since it is close to the flat, but after browsing information about the new year over a coffee (Vicki has sent me several links from blogs she follows with suggestions for what to do during the quiet period), I settle on Nezu Shrine, attracted as I am about the line or red torii gates in the gardens which are said to be the largest number of any in all of Tokyo.

I head out at about 1.30 pm, conscious that there are only a few daylight hours left (it gets dark at around 5 pm). I pause for another coffee at a Starbucks so I can be online and connect with some friends having their midnight moments in other time zones, and then I jump onto the subway.

The subway stop is about a 15-minute walk from the shrine. When I emerge the grey skies have disappeared and the afternoon winter sun is shining. I get onto Google Maps and follow the route to the temple. Despite Google suggesting the quickest route, I turn into a road that looks interesting before the turn that Google gives to me. It has the walls to the back of the temple and I follow the road down and around a corner, and then I find a torii gate straddling a long, long line. The map seems to suggest another entrance, so I figure this is a side entrance or back gate and I keep walking past cute little restaurants and shops before hitting a main road. When I check the map again, I realise I have to go back around to the left and take another turn to get to the entrance Google suggested. I’ve overshot again.

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I come to another torii gate on a quiet street. It’s quiet here so I am able to slip into the site quietly. I walk through the trees and then I see the line of torii gates I am looking for. They lead up to a shrine on a hill and there are several people queuing and posing for photos. To the left is the main complex, so I decide to have a peep in there before heading to the gates.

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It is crowded inside, and there is a long line to get to the altar of the shrine. There is noise and commotion as people rattle sticks in boxes and toss coins into troughs. People are writing good luck wishes on bamboo plaques and tying them onto strings and people are tying what look like ribbons onto trees. It’s interesting to wander around and see what’s going on.

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I contemplate writing my own wishes on a bamboo plaque, but I don’t see where to get one. Maybe people bring them with them? In the middle of the complex I find a box with papers inside, which is what people are tying onto the trees. I drop a 100 yen coin into the box and take a random paper. Luckily it is written in English as well as Japanese, so I read and take in my fortune for the year before tying it onto a tree.

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There is a line leading out of the back of the complex, so I head through the gate and come back to first torii gate I saw. The line is still long; I head back inside and then back out to the line of torii gates.

I line up to walk through the gates. I’m looking to get one of those serendipitous shots of a geisha girl wandering through, but there are too many people heading through the gates. They’re actually quite low, and as I stand up from kneeling down to get a shot I bump my head into one of them. Heading down the other way are a couple of girls in geisha costumes; one is clearly the photographer, and the other is the subject. This might be my chance to get that shot.

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I get to the shrine on the hill. Here people are clapping and bowing and ringing a bell. People are queuing to get to the altar again. I stand on the balcony and look down at the water below, and then I spot another geisha girl posing against the wall of the complex. She’s being shot by a couple of photographers with big cameras who are also in traditional dress. I hover and get some candid shots before walking down the next set of torii gates.

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I spend a few more minutes wandering around and then decide to head back to the subway. When I was looking at the map I decided that if I had time I would go to Akihabara. It’s a few stops away but on another line. This is the electronics area of Tokyo, and it’s also where the manga cafes and maid cafes are. It might be an interesting finale to the trip. As I walk back to the subway I see the first geisha girl posing in an alleyway across the street as the sun sets behind her and I try to get a shot but it doesn’t turn out well. Never mind.

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I take a lift down to the subway and find my way to the platform. As I get to the escalator the geisha girls appear and get on just before me. I wander a little further along the platform. They stand a way away. When the train comes they get into the same carriage, and after I sit down they take the seats opposite me. I feel like a bit of a stalker, but then I sat down first.

When I get to Akihabara it is not what I expect at all. It’s just an unexciting (((()))) of concrete buldings and flyovers and train bridges and malls. I wander through but I don’t see the neon or the maid cafes or the manga things that I expected to see. It is dark by now and it’s getting cold. I stop into a huge electronics store just to see what’s going on, but the fluorescent lights and crowds and music are overwhelming and I’m not planning to buy anything away.

I decide that I’m done. I’m not really feeling like just wandering around doing nothing, and I’m leaving Tokyo in the morning so I guess I’m just going to head back to the flat. I get some food to snack on in a bakery and then get back on the train and head back to Azabu-juban. Despite my snack I’m now feeling hungry. I remember reading about a restaurant in the local area that will be open. It’s an Italian restaurant and I decide to get a pepperoni pizza there. I haven’t eaten much today, and as it’s new year’s day I think I deserve something as a treat. I am seated at a horseshoe-shaped bar in the middle of the restaurant that faces the pizza oven. It’s interesting to watch a pizza being made completely from scratch, from the ball of dough to being put into the oven. What surprises me is that the pizza only needs to be in there for about a minute before it is cooked and crispy.

I wander back up the hill to the flat. Although it’s early – around 7.30 pm – tonight I have to pack up and I also have to find accommodation for my trips to Hong Kong and Bali. I grab a can of Asahi from the fridge and I get to work on the next steps of my trip.

I reflect on my time in Tokyo and I realise that I didn’t really scratch the surface of the city. By that I mean that I feel I have walked around and observed things, but I haven’t got under the surface in terms of finding the great places to eat or bars or places to go that friends or people who live in the city could show you, for example. I’m not unhappy about that. I’m glad that I got to visit the city – after all, it’s over 13 years since I first came to Korea and I had never come here, so I needed to correct that wrong. Still, I’m happy with my trip and the things I have done, and I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on seeing anything that I really should have to see. Tomorrow I’m off to Kyoto, and I’m looking forward to getting to know something about the history of Japan through the shrines and temples in the old capital city.

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