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Published: April 2nd 2018
Hello my fellow travellers!
After a long flight, with an unfortunately really crappy entertainment system, I landed at Narita International Airport and was greeted by a sign saying welcome to Japan with the rising sun adorning it. I took a deep breath and savoured this moment, a moment that I've been longing for since I was old enough to long for anything. Japan has always held a special place in my heart and I've made several attempts at learning the language but unfortunately so far coming up a bit short in that regard, but I hope that this trip will renew my vigour in that regard, I hope that I'm at least sufficient enough in my language to get around while I'm here.
I believe that the tipping event that finally made me take the leap to go here, travelling further and for a longer period of time than I've ever done before, was when I met Junko and Sato on the train between Prague and Bratislava last year. I've been keeping in touch with Junko ever since then and I will stay with her when I reach Shizuoka in a few days. In total I have a month
here and my main plan for this trip is to visit all the four main islands of Japan.so I'll be moving around quite a lot. I also have, probably, about a hundred or so other small goals for this trip that I will lay out as they come up along the way.
The first order of the day was to activate up one of my two Japan Rail Passes that will carry me through this month, they are a great value when you move around as much as I intend to do. The staff was lovely and it was easy to get my pass activated and then get on the Narita Express into Tokyo, this vast metropolis that is a far way from my own sleepy home town of 8.000 people.
In Tokyo I'll be staying with a guy named Ryosuke and his two dogs, he seems like a cool guy although he warned me that his couch is uncomfortable and that one of his dogs will lick my feet during the night but I'm sure it will be great nonetheless.
My first stop in Tokyo however was not in his region, Sumida, but in Taito where
the two famous districts Ueno and Asakusa is located. I got off the train at Ueno Station, the main station of the area and began by visiting the huge Ueno Park, one of the most famous parks in Japan.
Greeting me as I entered the park was the statue of Saigō Takamori, the man who's called the "Last Samurai" for his last desperate stand at Shiroyama during the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. Saigō Takamori had been a key person in the Meiji Restoration in 1876 when the emperor regained political power from the shogun. After power had shifted the emperor removed many of the privileges of the ruling samurai class which caused a lot of resentment and resulted in several rebellions. The last and most dangerous of these were the Satsuma Rebellion.
What really made Saigō Takamori go down into the annals of history was his final moments. As the rebellion was pushed back the rebels under Saigō Takamori made their final stand in the Battle of Shiroyama where they fought despite being outnumbered 60 to one. When they ran out of ammunition in their weapons the last 40 of them drew their swords and charged the imperial
Saigō Takamori was mortally wounded but refused to die by the bullets of his enemies and instead committed seppuku
, ritual suicide, with the help of his men. This is what inspired the movie The Last Samurai
with Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise where Ken Watanabe's character is based on Saigō Takamori.
Some day I hope to go to Shiroyama myself, it's located in Kagoshima at the southern tip of Japan but I won't go quite so far south on this trip so I figured I''ll mention these events here instead while standing in front of the statue of such a legendary man.
Behind the statue of Saigō Takamori stands the tomb of the Shōgitai
was an army of the Tokugawa Shogunate, who fought against the imperial forces during the Boshin War from 1868 to 1869. The reason that the tomb stands here is because this park was once the site of the Battle of Ueno between the Shōgitai
and the imperial troops on July 4 1868. Back then the entire area used to belong to Kan'ei-ji, an important Tokugawa family temple with six former shoguns buried here.
was posted here to
protect Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the former shogun who had voluntarily stepped down in favour of the emperor to avoid the war that was brooding. Unfortunately both sides were set on fighting so the war broke out anyway. Most of the temple was unfortunately destroyed during the battle and was never rebuilt but there are some parts that still remain. The Shōgitai
lost the battle and the tombstones of the monument was erected in two different phases, the first tombstone was erected shortly after the battle by a priest of Kan'ei-ji and later a second tombstone was erected by a survivor of the battle.
Close to these monuments are one of the few remaining buildings of Kan'ei-ji, the Kiyomizu Kannon-dō built in 1632, a hall which enshrines the Buddhist Bodhisattva Kannon. In front of the hall stands a fascinating circular pine tree which was featured by the famous Ukiyoe artist Hiroshige in his One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
. Next to the hall there is also a temizuya
, an ablution pavilion where you wash your hands before praying. Next to it there was a stand which holds the ema
, the votive tablet upon which you can inscribe your wishes for Kannon.
From the Kiyomizu Kannon-dō I headed down the slope to the Benten-dō and the Daikokuten-dō which are located very picturesquely on an island in the Shinobazu Pond. This was created by Tenkai, the famous priest, as he loved Lake Biwa and wanted to create this site as a reflection of it. While the Benten-dō survived the Battle of Ueno it was instead destroyed during World War II and the current structure is a reconstruction.
Benten-dō enshrines Benzaiten, the only female of the seven lucky gods of Japanese Buddhism. I rung the bell that hang in front of the hall and thanked Benzaiten for bringing me safely to Japan. In front of the hall stands a sculpture of a biwa
, a Japanese lute, which is the instrument used by Benzaiten. There's also a statue of Jizō, the Bodhisattva which protects travellers and children in Japan.
After my visit to the Benten-dō I returned up the slope and walked around the park, enjoying the beautiful cherry blossoms. They still weren't in full bloom as the season has just started and there was still a slight chill in the air.
just a short bit I came upon several red torii
, the gates associated with the Shintoist kami
, the god/goddess of rice, fertility, sake and much more. I followed the torii
until I came to the beautiful small shrine Hanazono Inari Jinja
which is located right next to another small shrine, Gojōten Jinja
, they sit picturesquely located next to each other, surrounded by blossoming sakura
Next I came upon the gripping statue, Toki Wasureji no Tō
, it mean's time's forgotten tower and stands in memory of those who lost their lives in the Tokyo air raids in World War II. Not far from there, just opposite Kiyomizu Kannon-dō
stands another monument, Wanihakase no Ishibumi
, a monument dedicated the Wani the Scholar who came over from the Korean Peninsula and who is thought to have been instrumental in bringing the Chinese system of writing to Japan. There is also a pagoda, Amami Sōjō Mōhatsutō
, standing in memory of Tenkai which also houses a lock of his hair, this monument is often called Hair Pagoda because of that. Tenkai came to prominence during the early days of the Tokugawa Bakufu
and was in charge of Kan'ei-ji
and a spiritual protector of Edo-jō
, the castle of the shōgun
and he served three different Tokugawa shōgun
until he passed away at an age of 108.
The final things I decided to check out in Ueno Kōen
before leaving was also two of the most important sights here, the Ueno Tōshō-gū
and Kyū Kan'ei-ji Gojūnotō
. Ueno Tōshō-gū
is a shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, built in 1627. There are many Tōshō-gū
shrines around Japan dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa Bakufu
, the most famous of which is the Nikkō Tōshō-gū
where he is buried. Next to Ueno Tōshō-gū
burns a flame that is lit with a fire caused by both the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that had been found and keep alive, first out of resentment but later it turned into a flame of hope for a future without atomic bombs, it was lit here on the 45th anniversary of the bombings. Kyū Kaneiji Gojūnotō
is the original five story pagoda from the old temple Kan'ei-ji
that still remains to this day, a beautiful old structure that is a very treasured property of Japan. With that, as well as a quick peak at the equestrian statue of Prince Komatsu
no Miya Akihito, I decided that it would suffice for Ueno Kōen
even though it's certainly possible to spend more time there, but I had more sites I wanted to visit.
From Ueno Kōen
I made my way over to Kinryūzan Sensō-ji
, commonly known as either Sensō-ji
or Asakusa Kannon
after Kannon Bosatsu
, the Bodhisattva of compassion, whom the temple is dedicated to. It's the oldest temple in Tokyo, completed in 628 and the entrance to it goes through the truly magnificent Kaminarimon
, the thunder gate. As amazed as I was with it, I must admit that the experience was marred by the sheer volume of people here. There was also a lot of people here wearing traditional kimono, this is usually not Japanese people though but rather Chinese tourists renting the wear on an hourly basis, still it does make for a colourful addition to the scene. The crowds make it almost impossible to really follow etiquette or to explore the site at pace which is a shame as it deserves genuine attention rather than a checklist approach.
The road from Kaminarimon
to the temple is known as Nakamisedōri
and is lined with shops under allowance from
the temple since the early 18th century. This road ends in the, in my opinion, even more breathtaking Hōzōmon
. Unfortunately the crowds of tourists in there made taking decent photos a matter of testing my patience as tourists, in general, are unfortunately not as courteous as the Japanese in stopping or walking around you to allow for good photos but rather just stampedes straight through in an endless stream.
As the sun was setting I decided to head over to meet up with Ryosuke at our appointed time so I made my way over to his train station and then called him from a payphone located at the station as we had agreed beforehand and he came down and met me there and showed me back to his apartment where I dropped of my bag before we headed. Our destination was a sentō
, a public bathhouse, named Tsubaki. They had a promotion that day so if we posed with some signs and did a hashtag we got a complimentary set of soap with a picture of Masaharu Fukuyama, a popular Japanese idol and television star, on it.
was heavenly after a long travel and an eventful
first day of walking around, my worries just washed away and I really wish that I had access to this in Sweden, our bathhouses are pretty much just for swimming, we have nothing that even remotely compares to this kind of experience.
After we were clean and relaxed we went at took an evening meal at a nice local restaurant with really friendly owners that we chatted with while eating. We tried several small dished, Ryosuke just kept ordering and I kept eating while drinking some beer and had a grand time of it, it was very affordable as well as the costs of food and drinks here are surprisingly low compared to Sweden, though in fairness I guess most places are. After that place we went to the next one, an izakaya
named Kadoya with some really delicious food and drinks. It was the same procedure as with the first place, Ryosuke kept ordering and I kept eating and drinking and we had a great time, not long after the couple sitting at the table next to us joined and they introduced me to nigorizake
a different form of sake with a cloudy white look to it and
which was very sweet and good. When they learned I enjoyed it they immediately ordered a second big bottle of it, it all made for a really pleasant evening.
Once we were sufficiently filled with food and drinks we returned to Ryosuke's apartment and took his dogs for an evening walk before we went to bed, it was a long and very eventful day and a perfect first day in Japan. This country is so steeped in history that it feels like I can't take two steps without stumbling over an interesting story of ages long past. I fear that before I leave Japan a month from now my senses will have melted from the overload of information that I need to process here, however, that would be worthwhile sacrifice for coming here.
Tomorrow I will explore the Chiyoda area of Tokyo where Kōkyo
, the imperial palace, is located as well as several important shrines, it's the very heart of Tokyo and I'm looking forward to it a lot!
Until tomorrow I wish you all peace and happy travels!
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