Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Tokyo Diary - Part III

DAY 3:
Despite being the strongest in a decade, and claiming extensive damage, Typhoon Wipha appeared a considerate host to us, that ensured to reveal its darker side only when we were safely tucked into our beds, and also withdrew itself the next morning as we prepared to brave the weather for another day of maddening sojourn across the length and breadth of the city. By mid-day, we were basking in a bright warm sun, with no trace of rain and clouds and gloom. 

What better way to begin our third day in Tokyo with the super luck of being spared by a typhoon, than to pay our homage and convey our thanks to the city's oldest and most popular deity - Goddess Kannon (the Buddhist goddess of mercy) - enshrined at the Sensoji temple at Asakusa. Breathing a formidable history that dates back to 628 A.D., the lore goes that two brothers were fishing in the nearby Sumida river, when their net caught a small gold statue of the Boddhisattva Kannon - the buddhist goddess of mercy who has the power to release humans of sufferings. The temple was thus built in her honour, and the statue still remains apparently in the temple, though it is not displayed to the public. Like many other architectures of Japan, this temple also could not evade the impact of WWII, and had been destroyed in one of the air raids, but was again rebuilt with the help of nation-wide donations. 

Asakusa is also the old part of Tokyo, where one would still find the remnants of the Edo period - old wooden houses, geishas in their finery, shops selling traditional knick-knacks, and locals in their traditional attires. 
Traditional means of transport
A short walk from the Asakusa Subway station in the Ginza line (Exit 1), we were greeted by the imposing Kaminarimon Gate, which is protected on both sides by the two gods - Fujin (the God of wind) and Raijin (the God of thunder) and has a giant red lantern hanging at the entrance which has on it written in Kanji "Thunder Gate".

Kaminarimon Gate
Beyond the gate is a shopping street - Nakamise dori - which is a paradise for travelers looking for traditional souvenirs to take back home. The 200 metres walk from the main gate to the temple's second gate - Hozomon gate - has an entire treasure from chopsticks, decorations,  handbags, colourful trinkets, key chains, masks, sandals, yukatas (casual summer kimono), folding fans, ninja suits for kids, to senbei (rice crackers), ningyoyaki (traditional snack cake of flour, eggs and sugar in iron molds), kaminari-okoshi ( again a popular traditional snack made by roasting steamed sweet rice to pop, mixing them with other ingredients such as peanuts, and forming them into a shape with sugar and starch syrup/mizuame), agemanju (battered and deep fried soft cake with red bean paste filling), lots of tea, and ice- creams. Undoubtedly, I went a bit overboard checking out each shop, given my long list of souvenirs to take back home for family and friends. But it also makes for interesting conversations with the shopkeepers, who are extremely warm and friendly and despite the literal crowd that swept each shop at all times, they were still very cordial to answer my queries and strike up a chat on various things - from totems to Japanese hand-made papers to India to what not. 
Shops lining the Nakamise dori

Nakamise Dori

Hozomon Gate

The giant sandals on either side of the gate is for the deity, in case, she feels the urge for a stroll
The inner complex after crossing the Hozomon gate houses a five-story pagoda and the main prayer hall. There's the traditional hand-washing area and the huge smoke bowl to cleanse oneself before approaching the deity. While the main altar is covered by a glass pane, the ceilings of the temple attract attention for their beautiful murals and paintings. There's a waterfall and serene gardens off the main hall, if you are interested in a quick retreat from all the hubbub. 
The sacred smoke bowl  

The hand-wash area

The Main Prayer Hall

The Five-story pagoda
Spending a considerable amount of time at Sensoji, Nakamise dori and the lanes of Asakusa, we decided to walk down to Tokyo's latest sensation in its skyline - the Tokyo Skytree. At 634 metres, this TV broadcasting tower, opened to public in May 2012, is not only the tallest structure in Japan, but also the tallest free-standing tower in the world and only the second tallest structure in the world after Burj Khalifa. While the walk from Asakusa to the Skytree, crossing the bridge over the Sumida river was lovely, and took some good 20 minutes, it wasn't much worthwhile, since the queue at the 4th floor of the Skytree for tickets to the Observation deck at 350 metres seemed unending and would have been almost an hours wait. There's another deck at 450 metres, but tickets for those can only be bought at the Tembo deck at 350 metres. Online tickets for the Skytree can be bought, but they are only in Japanese, so it was hard luck for us. Waiting for an hour would mean sacrificing on other plans, so we decided to satisfy ourselves with the view from Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, and as I mentioned earlier, it did reap benefits. However, the view from the Skytree would have been from one of the highest observatory decks of the world. 
The Skytree defining the Tokyo skyline

The bridge on the Sumida river

The Skytree
From the old-world charm of Asakusa, we headed for the uber chic luxury of the Omotesando street and to check out the Aoyama structures - buildings which have been winners of Japan's Pritzker Prize (the most prestigious award for architecture). The long stretch is a veritable catwalk of style and architecture and is quite interesting - the Omotesando Hills, a shopping complex, which looks like three storeys from the outside, but is actually six storeys inside, or the Prada building with its bubble-surfaced crystal exterior, or the Cartier shop, the Tod's boutique, or even the Dior building - they are indeed a marvel to watch out, and not just for the products on display.
The Prada Building

The Cartier building
The Cartier Building from a different angle

The Tod's 
 As the evening set in and the neon lights jazzed up the streets, we headed for Akihabara, the electronic district of Tokyo. Dazzling bright from the illuminating lights of the endless shops and buildings, this gamer's and geek's mecca is worth a visit for all, when in Tokyo. Here one would find all imaginable and latest technological gadgets that you had been desiring for all this while. Even if you do not end up buying most things, just browsing through them is good enough satisfaction. It was indeed a tough task to keep the gadget-freak A from going berserk. Yodobashi Camera is a huge storehouse of everything that I could think of from computers, phones, watches, cameras, accessories, gaming consoles, music consoles, TVs, to what not. There are endless gaming centres and pachinko parlours all over the place. 

Akihabara is also the centre of Japan's 'otaku' culture. While the word 'otaku' in English would translate to 'obsessive interest', in Japan it chiefly indicates to the anime and manga fan-dom. Anime and manga figurines, video and card games and other collectibles indeed fill the spaces between the electronic retailers. 

And then there are the maid cafes, where teenage girls - waitresses - dress up as anime characters and address men as 'masters' and invite them to the cafes. Photos are strictly prohibited inside. Since maid cafes are chiefly men-only, we had to chuck the plan to check them out. Comic cafes, better known as 'manga kissaten' are also quite ubiquitous in the are. These are type of internet cafes where customers can read comics and watch DVDs in addition to having access to internet. However, there's a sleazy side to Akihabara that would definitely draw attention, despite all the cutesy anime faces all over the place - from billboards to figurines to actual maids. The manga stores often stack up hentai magazines and general porn covers gape at you at many a magazine stands, redundant to mention the very shadiness of the 'maid cafe' concept.

From the old-world lanes of Asakusa to the new age gizmos of Akihabara, and much more in between,  Day 3 of Tokyo  was a wonderful excursion from the Edo of the yesteryears to the Tokyo of now!!


  1. Great posts and photos on Japan. I hope you have also visited Kamakura for it's beautiful shrines and temples. Thanks for visiting my blog and keep your posts coming!

  2. Hi Paulo, thank you for visiting my blog. Unfortunately we couldn't visit Kamakura, but we did Nikko and Mt.Fuji-Hakone. However, we definitely would love to go back to Japan sometime again as there are so many other things to do and see in list that needs to be ticked. :) Enjoying your other posts.

  3. I missed Nikko for it's World Heritage Shogun shrine but visited Hakone in my previous trip. Hope you caught sight of Mt Fuji. He is a very shy guy! Agree with you that we will surely visit Japan again. There are just too many to do lists!

  4. Yes, Nikko was a lovely trip, though I have heard that kamakura is equally beautiful Mt.Fuji was indeed shy and played some hide and seek with us, though we finally managed a glimpse of it as the clouds waned late into the day. However, the Japanese believe that if you donot get to see Fujisan, then you would surely return for another trip to complete it, and it is ensured by Fujisan :). I would have rather preferred that, just to ensure that I return to that country surely :)