Tokyo Primer

March 31st 2018
Published: April 4th 2018
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“Is there any city in the world today more intriguing than Tokyo? Other capitals may be more beautiful, more cultured, more sane—better, without question, at serving their function as preserves of art and history. But Tokyo is no museum. It is a laboratory.” That’s about right.

And this too: “Independent travelers the latitude to explore - and take risks in - a completely alien universe, a luxury that few other exotic destinations in the world can offer.”

Ha! These words begin to capture something I am having trouble making sense of from our experience in Tokyo. These next couple posts will no doubt hint at my flummoxment, and may leave you wondering what I’m trying to say. And that in itself may be the message.

The book Gateway to Japan by June Kinoshita came highly recommended as a resource to put Japan in context and help dig into its richness as we travel through it. I’m using Kinoshita often as my interpeter, adviser, and educator - and I’m quoting her in this post and will again.

A bit of general background. Japan is ancient. Its prehistoric era started somewhere around 100,000 BCE. And it has a long history with China - at first, as an ‘earnest and agile student but moving on by the tenth century, developing its own distinct and sophisticated culture’. Its written language is based on Chinese; in fact, we met a young lawyer who works for AirBnB in Beijing (who oddly is also an amazing photographer, with many pics with Getty) who explained because of the similar characters, he can read Japanese enough to get by but the spoken language word has nothing in common.

Reading up on a summary of the historic periods through emperors, samurai, shogunates, and on through complex cultural and religious evolutions would make you think a treasure trove of historical sites and temples would be everywhere. Then why does Tokyo of today seem so devoid of history? Tokyo has had more than its share of disasters, back to the shogunate age when there were more than 90 fires, on through to the devastating Kanto Earthquake in 1923 and the Allied fire bombing in 1945, each of which killed over 100,000 people and took unknown numbers of historic buildings and treasures with them.

One of our first stops is to the Imperial Palace, the primary residence of today’s Emporer of Japan and its gardens. The history is about the site and less about the buildings. The current palace was originally built in 1888, then destroyed in WWII when a US bomber pilot says the Emporer’s Palace was a target of a special mission in 1945 and was hit with 2000 lb bombs - after which it was rebuilt again in the same style.

We ask guards where the Palace is and how might we approach. Gently but firmly, we are pointed away and sign-language told the public is allowed in but one or two days a year. Our dear friend Doc MacDonald was a Halifax Herald reporter on an official Prime Ministerial visit to Japan years ago - he was invited to the Palace (oh my) and experienced the grandeur of it all. An official delegation, we’re not. Our eyes didn’t so much as light on a roof tile from afar.

All this to say, the big historical draw on these grounds is the site of the original Edo Castle (pronounced ed-oh, an early name for Tokyo) which was the seat of the ruling shogan in the 1600s. We climb up a ramp to a gentle hilltop, held back by stone walls and atop find what the original foundation stones the castle, with a surprisingly small footprint. This simple site is one of Tokyo’s remaining historic treasures. No reason to pause up there really, even for pictures.

The grounds are the stunner. This large park-like setting in the middle of the city is surrounded by moats and massive stone walls. Pretty walking bridges return you to the hubbub of traffic and a few choices in subway stops.

The other 3-star historical site is the Senso-ji temple, in our Asakusa neighbourhood. Legend says an image of Kannon was found in a nearby river in 628 CE, necessitating the construction of a temple to honour the almost-magical relic. After yet another fire somewhere else, the authorities moved the pleasure quarter near to the temple - hawkers, performers and some women of ill repute took up residence. Today a gate with a large lantern welcomes visitors to a long alley of vendors of all sorts of wares - some kitsch, some quite special - that ends in front of the temple, where incense is burning in a large cauldron of sand. Like the Imperial Palace area, the buildings in this temple compound are rather recent replacements for originals (or for older replacements) that had been destroyed by various catastrophes. The temple is a well-loved replica.

We have arrived in Japan during a most special time of the year, the Sakura or cherry blossom festival. Cherry trees pop up everywhere here, much like you’d find maples in forests or on front lawns in Canada. One of our first outings is to find Ueno Park, where a concentration of 1200 cherry trees are in bloom. The blossom timing is considered a science - meteorologists examine the signs and wonders a year beforehand and start estimating the start, peak and end of the blossoms in each major area of the country, and refining the data as the months pass. People like me troll their information to see how things might align with their visit. We lucked in.

The park is smack full of people. A local tradition is to bring one of those big blue plastic tarps, along with a picnic, games and the extended family to settle in under the trees for the day. We are here on Easter Weekend and the place is hopping (pun intended) with families, food trucks, young people in kimonos and festive dress. And meanwhile, those cherry blossoms over us all were sending petals into the air like bubbles, and kids chasing them wherever the wind took them.

So, to summarize Tokyo Part 1: Anti-climatic historicals...splendid naturals.

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