Japan day 4: Tokyo history tour

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May 9th 2019
Published: May 13th 2019
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At 9am we were met in the lobby of the hotel by our tour guide for the day Mr Kiyoshi Mori for a sightseeing tour around Tokyo emphasising Japanese history and culture. Mr Mori sat with us for a few moments with a map of Tokyo showing us where we would be going today.

We set off in a taxi for the Hama-Riku Gardens. En route we passed various parks and green family spaces. The population of Japan is 126 million of which about 13 million are within Tokyo and 36 million in its greater metropolitan area. However, the population started to decline in 2011 and this is expected to decline to 107 million by 2040. Unemployment is running at 3% and so workers are difficult to find. As a result the government recently passed a law relaxing its immigration policies. However, economic migrants are not acceptable.

We passed the Tokyo tower, the first communications tower. This was built in 1958 and is 333 meters high. It has been superseded by the new taller tower, the Skytree. This is 634 meters tall. There is a lack of free WiFi particularly in Tokyo, and the government intends to correct this situation before the 2020 Olympics. The taxi - a hybrid as are many of the taxis - dropped us off outside the garden in the middle of some road widening. In fact there is much building going on to ensure that the Olympic village and various stadia are built, and of course the infrastructure is in place.

The Hama-rikyu Garden was originally the family gardens of the Tokugawa shogun. It also functioned as the outer fort for Edo castle. In 1654 the fourth shogun, Ietsuna’s brother, Matsudaira Tsunashige built his detached residence called Kofu Hama-yashiki (Kofu beach mansion) on hawking sites on land which had been reclaimed from the sea. When Tsunashige’s son became the sixth shogun, the mansion became the family residence for the shogun. The garden measures 60 acres or 25 hectares.

Once the Meiji dynasty were restored as emperors, the garden became a Detached Palace for the royal family and the name was changed to Hama-rikyu. Due to the 1923 Kanto earthquake and severe bombing during World War 2 many of the buildings, including the ochaya (tea house) were destroyed. The imperial family gave the gardens to the city of Tokyo in 1945 who carried out extensive renovations and it was opened to the public in 1946.

The Hama-rikyu Garden has the only sea water pond from the Edo era in Tokyo. In order to adjust the water levels, lock gates open and close according to the tides. In the pond are many varieties of salt water fish.

The largest variety of trees, the black pines are immaculately kept and pruned. One pine was planted 300 years ago by the shogun Ienobu. Its branches are spread out low and are held up by 60 stools. Black pines represent strength.

The shogun was fond of duck hunting and we saw the lodge from where the hunt took place. Originally they used hawks. Then they built duck blinds and used a decoy duck with which they lured the ducks to come for food. Then the ducks were snared with nets.

We had tea in the ochaya which has been rebuilt on the lines of the original. The roof is thatched and inside are tatami mats. The ochaya was a place where people went to relax, to chill out and not to discuss politics. The samurai had to leave their weapons at the door. We only left our shoes. The ochaya stood for harmony, respect, tranquility and purity. We were served green tea and sweets made from red bean curd or white bean curd. You hold the cup in your left hand and turn it 45 degrees clockwise twice. This means that you are not drinking from the art work on the cup. You cut a slice of bean curd to get the sweetness in your mouth before sipping the bitter, green tea. The last sip you slurp to show your hostess that you have finished before turning the cup 45 degrees twice in an anti-clockwise direction so that the artwork faces you again.

Once we had finished our tea and cake (or not in my case) we left the ochaya, put on our shoes and made our way to the pier for a riverboat cruise.

We boarded the boat which was to cruise along the river Sumida. We passed under 13 bridges and saw the construction site for the Olympic village. The old fish market moved in October 2018 to make way for car and bus parking space. We also saw the Tokyo Sumo arena which is going to house the boxing. An interesting part of the trip was seeing side branches of the river. On either side were buildings which were connected by bridges. It reminded me of Venice.

We reached the end of our boat ride at Asakusa. Asakusa is old Tokyo. We walked towards the Kaminarimo gate past the monks’s residence and the kindergarten. This gate is the outer of two large gates leading to the Senso-ji shrine. In the middle of the gate hangs a ginormous lantern surrounded by tourists taking photos and selfies. Many tourists were wearing kimonos which Mr Mori told us could be hired. On either side of the gate were two figures, the one on the right with its mouth open and the one on the left with its mouth closed. They represent the sounds of the first and last letters of the Japanese alphabet (Ah and Mm) ie the figures are responsible for protecting everything from A to Z. Further along are a pair of protective lions with their mouths likewise one open and one closed.

We walked down Nakamise shopping street which was full of souvenir shops selling kitsch items and the fortune telling stalls. In the centre was a huge incense burner. It is said that by directing the smoke to any part of the body which hurts, then that body part will be healed.

We passed the five storey pagoda. Each storey of the pagoda represents one of the five elements: earth, water, wind, fire and sky. Our target there was the Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddist shrine. It is dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. According to legend a statue of Kannon was found in the river by two fishermen brothers. The chief of the village recognised the sanctity of the statue and ordered a shrine to be built. The first temple was built in 645 CE.

From there we went to the Nishinomiya Inari, the Shinto shrine which is so simplistic in design by comparison to the Buddist temple. The shrine was decorated with lanterns inscribed with the names of donors. The entrance to the shrine is by way of a simple tori gate. Mr Mori explained that Shinto is not a religion but a belief in the deities of nature. There are as many as 8 million such deities. The people pray for a good rice crop and so the tori gate is decorated with a rope signifying clouds, straw for rain and zigzag paper being lightening. Often there is a statue of a fox. The fox is the protector of rice from the mice that eat the rice.

We walked back through the town via a shop selling thimbles so that I could buy my souvenir for my collection. Much of the town was destroyed by bombing during the war and has been rebuilt in the old style. Sitting on the roofs of some buildings were models of kabuki characters.

We continued walking to the subway and onto the Ginza line. This is the oldest of the 13 subway lines. It was built in 1929 when a businessman returned from a trip to London and had travelled on the London Underground. The newest and deepest line is the E Toei Oedo - literal translation metropolitan Tokyo line. This was completed in 1991 and goes underneath all the other lines.

We got off at Ginza and Mr Mori led us to a sushi bar on the 7th floor of a building. We could never have found this on our own. The place was so clean and as you walked in the staff called out welcome. The meal was served with green tea. We finished eating and returned to the subway to reach our next visit point - the Imperial Palace.

We started at the Imperial Palace main gate. We were only able to see the guard house. The gate consists of various entrances all built at right angles to one another to avoid a surprise attack by the enemy on horses. The new emperor Naruhito was enthroned on 1 May 2019 when his father Akihito abdicated. Akihito had two major operations and didn’t think that he would be able to be fit enough for the 2020 Olympics. This is a new era - the Reiwa era. From the front of the palace we could see the Diet (parliament) buildings.

We then walked to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace. These grounds housed the residence of the Tokugawa shogun who ruled Japan from 1603 - 1867. The huge stones that remain were the gates. These have been blackened by fire. The garden area is 21 hectares and the entire palace area covers 115 hectares. And this is where after six miles of walking my body wore out so I found a seat and let Don and Mr Mori continue.

(Dons writes) : Mr Mori led me up a steep incline to the highest spot where a fortress residence had stood. Besides commanding the proverbial high ground, it provided a nice view into the distance. Aside from the remaining ancient stones, Mr Mori pointed out two more modern sights. Nearby within the East Gardens is a relatively new music pavilion, which does appear anachronistically out of place. In the distance he indicated a green roof, which topped the Budokan concert building where the Beatles performed in July 1966 for their only Japanese concerts.

When we met up again Mr Mori told the story about the Kimono Fire that destroyed the castle. It is a fact that the fire occurred in 1657. The myth is that a young girl asked for a kimono to be made. After a short time she died and the family gave the kimono to the temple. Some time later another young girl saw the kimono and asked for it. The priest gave it to her. She then died. Her family gave the kimono back to the temple. Some time later a third girl saw the kimono and wanted it. The priest gave it to her, but she then died and her family gave it to the temple. The priest realised that this was an accursed kimono and decided to burn it. But a great gust of wind came along , spread the burning kimono cloth and fanned the flames, and so the great fire of Meiriki occurred and lasted three days. The historians say that the fire started because of hurricane winds. It had been a particularly dry year due to drought and because the buildings were built primarily from wood and paper the fire spread quickly and lasted for three days. I know which version I prefer 😊

We then returned in a taxi to the hotel. I immediately went to sleep and then after a shower and change of clothes it was time to find the Chabad restaurant, Chana’s Place. Of course we got lost getting there, that is we took a wrong turn and had to rely on Google Map to get us back on course. The good news is now we know exactly how to walk between the hotel an Chabad. The restaurant was pretty basic but the meal was ok. We returned to the hotel and for kicks I looked at my iPhone health app. I had walked 17,696 steps, 12.7 km and climbed 10 floors. And that was considering we had travelled by boat, train and taxi during our tour day.

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