Monday, February 29, 2016

Big in Japan 8

We returned to Tokyo for the last few days of our holiday, and determined to see as much as possible. On our first afternoon, we walked up to the Rappongi Hills complex, a huge high-end shopping mall with restaurants, cinemas and a convention centre. It wasn't much different from those you will see anywhere, though we were very impressed by the bookshop, which had quite a lot of English language material, and some intriguing Japanese items too, including a specialist book brush, which we bought for the home collection.  Who'd have thought that the Japanese equivalent of GQ would be called after a German romantic poet and philosopher? It is, though:

As a sharp-eyed former colleague pointed out, the cover star here is none other than footballer Hidetoshi Nakata, who once improbably spent a season playing for Bolton Wanderers.  The complex has, of course, an extensive garden area, and we went there to escape the hustle and bustle of some sort of product launch that was going on in the main building. The contrast of the greenery of the gardens and the glass and steel of the complex was startling.

As we walked around town, other odd conjunctions could be seen. Even in the most fashionable part of Tokyo, you might still see very modest, traditional places cheek-by-jowl with huge statement buildings designed to show off corporate power.

Our hotel, in the south western part of downtown Tokyo, was a few minutes' walk from the Hiro-O subway station, which gave us access to the quick and efficient transport system. The following day,  we wanted to see the some more of the capital, so we bought a cheap day ticket and headed out early, making our first stop at the Hama-Rikyu gardens in Shiodome, a peaceful green enclave in the midst of the corporate towers. The garden dates from the seventeenth century, when it was built as a retreat for the shogun and his family. There's an island teahouse, and lots of flora and fauna. It's a very pleasant way to start the day, but our main purpose in visiting was because it's the starting point for the Sumida River trip.

Hama-Rikyu teahouse


The river trip takes you north to Asakusa, passing under many bridges, and giving a flavour of the city from an unusual standpoint. The landmark building at Asakusa is the Asahi brewery building, designed by Philippe Starck, which dominates the view when you arrive at the jetty. It's meant, apparently to look like a beer glass, to complement the beer mug-shaped building to the left, and the peculiar golden top is supposed to be the froth. For reasons that will be obvious, the locals refer to it as the "poo building" and the topping as "the golden turd."
Asahi building
One of the attractions for us in this part of the world was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo's oldest, founded in 645, and dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy. Unlike other temples we had visited, this was not a peaceful backwater, but a bustling and very crowded area, approached through the Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) and then via a long bazaar-like market, the Nakamise, packed with stalls selling souvenirs, traditional crafts, and food. We didn't fancy Octopus Ball, so hurried on to the temple itself.
Local delicacy...

Some smoke rising from the incense burner
It wasn't a very spiritual experience, but it was quite a sight to see so many people crowding the temple precincts. One unusual sight was the crowd around the big incense burner in front of the temple. People waft the smoke over them to protect against illness. We sampled the atmosphere for a while and then moved on, taking some time to look at the hundreds of stalls in the covered arcades of the Nakamise.

Our next stop was Ueno Park, originally yet another temple complex, but now home to several of the city's galleries and museums. Perhaps the most notable for us was the Le Corbusier-designed National Museum of Western Art, outside which stand a series of sculptures by Rodin, including a version of The Thinker, and his massive, and massively impressive, Gate of Hell.

Rodin's Gate of Hell
We fancied somewhere quiet after this, so we hopped on a local train to visit the Yanaka district. This area survived the earthquake of 1923, and was not bombed during the war, so retains an old-fashioned feel. The Japanese call this area shitamachi, meaning literally "low city." There's a big cemetery there, complete with a lovely temple containing a large bronze seventeenth-century Buddha. We strolled around the cemetery, made friends with a cat, and encountered the Buddha.

Tenno-ji temple

Yanaka's shopping streets diverted us for a while, and we finally gave in to the temptation to buy a souvenir in one of the many shops selling pottery.
In Yanaka

We felt that we had seen a lot this day, so we headed off to the subway for the trip back to our hotel, where some delicious tempura vegetables were in the offing.

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