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Here, we begin by my arrival in Japan, but if you want to go directly to the Senso-ji, click here!

ARRIVAL TO THE COUNTRY OF THE RISING SUN

It is just after a flight of about 9 hours long from Helsinki that I arrive rather “fresh and ready” at Narita Airport in Tokyo. This is the first time a flight which covers such a distance seems so short to me… In fact, I do not remember having being bored for a moment and have even been surprised when the cabin crew told us the imminent landing at Narita. So, I’m thinking about going back to New Zealand soon: 21 hours of flight (12h + 9h) should thus no be too long for me now, aha!

Flights, with Finnair from Switzerland and with Japan Airlines (JAL) from Finland went very well and I can not recommend their service enough: the seats were comfortable, the leg room and luggage space and more than large and the food very good, even if that remains airline meals. I guess one must go to business class to see a real difference. I forget to mention the excellent service and friendliness of cabin crew, particularly with JAL. Do not hesitate to consider a flight with one or more stops if the price of a direct flight is not in your budget!

TOWARDS THE CITY CENTER!

I arrive at around 10am in Narita Airport and the weather is very nice outside: I am therefore looking forward to arriving in the city center to begin my trip! However, I first have to leave the airport, but everything is indicated in English for us tourists, so no worries about that. People visiting Japan for the first time are not yet aware that they are in a megalopolis of 30 million inhabitants, but no worries, they will realize it soon enough!

Shortly after arriving, I can see again (do not forget that this is my second trip to Japan) that famous Japanese practicality, the “procedural” side of daily life in Japanese society: for example, if you are on an escalator in Tokyo, you’ll always see the Japanese standing on the left to let the right way free. I will write about this later on in other articles, but I know a lot of countries (all?) which could take example on Japan. But watch out: in Osaka, we stand on the right on escalators! And Kyoto, it’s how you feel it… No, it’s true! The former capital city hosts so many tourists and Japanese from the countryside that there are no real rules.

Also know that Japanese are very visual: everything is explained not only textually but also shown as pictures. I will also write about this in other articles, but just have a look at the campaign “Do not do it here please! / Do it again please!” from the Tokyo Metro (and its pictures emphasizing respectful behavior), it’s worth a glance!

tokyo-metro

The first thing to do is to go through the immigration office. Nothing special here: they check your landing pass, take your fingerprints and stamp your passport as long as everything is in order. After that, I get my bag, one of the first arriving on the conveyor belt. I then pass quickly by the customs office where after a few questions, they let me continue my journey without checking much the contents of my bag. In short, I’m done with entry procedures, here I am in the arrivals hall: Welcome to Japan!

It is now time to get my Japan Rail Pass and I can do that here at the airport or in any large train station. So I head to the train departure platforms on the lower level. I remember the location of the JR office (again thanks to my previous trip), so I found it easily and directly swap my voucher for the precious pass! And as I am in a JR office, I took the opportunity to also buy a Suica card (also purchasable in all train and underground stations). Have a look here to know more about the Suica Card. I am now fully equipped to reach the city center! Well almost, I’m still missing the train ticket to get out of the airport. Since I have to go to Ueno, the easiest way is to go via the Keisei line which make the journey in just over 40 minutes for approximately ¥ 2,200 (reduction included). Initially, I was interested in buying the “N’EX TOKYO Round Trip Ticket” but it changed in March 2015; it currently costs ¥ 4,000 for a round trip Tokyo-Narita with a validity of 14 days which it not worth it because I stay one month there, but it is a very good offer for those who remain two weeks in Japan, with arrival and departure from Narita airport of course! One can also find cheaper, but the trip is therefore a bit longer. It mostly depends if you are in a hurry or not! So I buy a ticket for the Keisei line with my Suica card, then head to the platform.

The train arrives after only 3 minutes of waiting, perfect timing! I sit comfortably in my seat in an almost empty car and quietly enjoy the scenery. All is so calm, clean and comfortable: we are in Japan! I see some cherry blossom, one of the main reasons for my visit in April and I can’t wait to have a closer look. I also write a few lines in my travel diary before finally arriving at Ueno Station. This station is located on many rail lines including the famous Yamanote circle line, one of the busiest in Tokyo because it serves the main areas of the city (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Marunouchi, Ueno, Ikebukuro and Akihabara). I walk in the station for a moment, mostly to do some spotting as this will be my daily starting point as I dwell in Tokyo.

As it is now 11am and I can not register at the hostel before 4pm, I choose to put my big backpack in a locker just outside the entrance to the Hibiya subway line (perfect to recover it on the way back towards the hostel) and to go directly for a tour in Asakusa. Indeed, the weather is fine, but I do not know how long it will last, so let’s enjoy it right now! The use of lockers is very simple: you select the one in which you previously placed your bag, you pass your Suica card on the reader (or you insert a ¥ 500 coin) and voila!

My bag being now securely stored, I head to the entrance of the Ginza line, one of many subway lines in Tokyo.

Ah, the subway in Tokyo! Let me open a small parenthesis.

Many foreigners see the transport network of Tokyo as a jungle-like maze. Quite the contrary! If you already took the subway in any other city in the world, you should not get lost in Tokyo. Furthermore, the train and metro network of the Japanese capital city has a lot of advantages: punctuality, cleanliness, safety, complete and accurate information, toilets generally clean and free WiFi, thanks to hotspots more and more numerous.

And for all of this to work, travelers must comply with a number of rules of conduct: one must respect signs on the ground and barriers, wait in line without cutting queues (again according to the signs on the ground), don’t get inside a train as long as people get out, calm must be respected, backpacks must be placed on the ground or on the height grids, don’t eat in cars, pay attention to the reserved seats (for disabled, pregnant women, etc.) and avoid,  if necessary, front/back cars which are reserved for women at certain times of the day. Yes, you read correctly! Rush hour in a capital city of about 30 million people = people are literally compressed in the cars = crowding problems = harassment, touching and attacks of all kinds on the female gender eventually led to the establishment of this service during specific hours. Note that this service is also accessible to children, elderly and disabled.

Anyway, I could go on talking  about the Tokyo subway or other Japanese transport systems for hours, but this is not really the purpose of the article and others do it much better than me. .. Ask Google! Parenthesis closed.

So I take the first subway of the Ginza line that passes and arrive out after a few minutes at the terminus of the line, Asakusa. At each station, yellow signs tell you where you will arrive via such ans such exits, quite practical when you consider that every street corner or nearly full of places to visit! So I’m heading out by the closest exit from the Senso-ji and get my camera ready. Tired of this introduction (rather long, I admit)? Good, ’cause we’re done, let’s start the visit!

SENSÔ-JI, ASAKUSA’S TEMPLE

Equipped with my little ‘homemade planning”, I head initially to the information center of Asakusa. Opened in 2012 and adding diversity to the streets of Asakusa with its interesting architecture, the eight-storey building offers a tourist information counter in several languages, free wifi, a café and an observation deck that offers beautiful views around. And that’s the reason why I’m here!

Given the queue in front of the elevator, I chose to walk the stairs up. Pfff, eight floors! But the view once at the top is a well deserved reward! One can see on one side the Tokyo Skytree tower (next visit on my list), the headquarters of the Japanese beer Asahi and its famous golden “flame” (I will write about it in a future article) and the Sumida River.

But what interests me is the view north of the viewing platform: Sensō-ji Temple and Nakamise-dōri street. Gorgeous ! As you can see, there are quite a lot of people, but it is like that all day long without really getting empty. And we are on a weekday shortly before noon! Imagine what it would be during the weekend or a  national holiday! Well, I’ll get there before it is completely congested, if this is not already the case…

Sensō-ji is a temple particularly enjoyed by the Japanese and dedicated to the Buddhist goddess Kannon. She, a bodhisattva (being who has reached the state of enlightenment but has chosen to delay its Buddha status) is very popular in Japan because she embodies compassion and mercy. This explains the number of Japanese visiting the temple at any time of the day! The temple itself is impressive because it is erected in the center of a Buddhist complex enclosure which includes whole streets of Asakusa. I let you read this short story, just the time for me to get outside the main entrance.

Legend says that in May 17, 628, during the reign of Empress Suiko (593-628), two brothers, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, were fishing on the Sumida River and found in their nets a statue of the goddess Kannon. This discovery reached the ears of the mayor of the village, Hajino Nakamoto, who came to the brothers and made a passionate sermon to Buddha, the goddess being a bodhisattva. The Hinokuma brothers were deeply impressed and subsequently converted themselves to Buddhism. The statue of the goddess was placed in a makeshift temple, and the three men then vowed their lives to preach the Buddhist path. The Sensō-ji Temple, completed in the year 645, prospered, like the Asakusa area in which it was established. In 1649, to honored the three men and raise them to the rank of deities, the Asakusa Shrine, also known as Sanja-sama (三社様, “Shrine of the Three Gods”), was built on the orders of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu.

All right, I’m facing now the first element of the sanctuary, Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), an impressive gate inside which is suspended the biggest red paper lantern of Japan and a true symbol of Asakusa area!

The stream of tourists taking the pose is also impressive, and it is impossible to make a picture during the day with no one in front of the gate. Therefore, I don’t stay there for too long… Especially because at this place, you become the “prey” of dozen of rickshaw pullers who want to take you on a tour of the neighborhood! Well, they’re obviously only interested in couples and single people don’t seem to interest them too much, but why not make it your first activity in the neighborhood if you are two, just to enjoy an original way to discover the area? Watch out, because the tour is not very cheap (up ¥ 9,000 for a half hour!).

Time to get through the gate! Hopefully you are ready to get your first walkabout, but remember to raise your head when passing under the red lantern! You can admire a beautiful wooden sculpture of a dragon! However, nothing prevents you to take the discrete entries bypassing the portal by the left or right. Before reaching the temple itself, you have to cross a 250m long shopping arcade perpetually crowded during the day, Nakamise-dōri, which combines souvenir stands selling everything and food stalls offering various culinary specialties. Hopefully, you don’t mind being squished, as this is what awaits you!

Let’s not forget to talk about Shin-Nakamise or “New Nakamise”, perpendicular to the Nakamise-dōri street. This is a long, covered shopping arcade lined with numerous shops and restaurants. No doubt you will spend some time there to purchase your souvenirs! Allow at least half-a-day, maybe a full day to these streets (and the neighborhood in general), and you will find everything you can imagine! I insist: everything! Okay, prices are probably more expensive than elsewhere (as expected from a tourist spot), but the choice is simply huge!

I make my way along the alley, walking between uniformed students, tourists from all over the world and of course Japanese. I also passes by many food stalls and greedy as I am, I buy some specialties here and there. My favorites are undoubtedly the Ningyo-yaki, delicious cupcakes in various shapes filled with red bean paste (Anko). You can not miss the stand that sells them; let yourself be guided by the delicious smell of fresh cakes!

The street is also famous for its Kibidango, skewer of rice dumplings covered with soybean powder, its Agemanju, very soft fried cakes also filled with anko or its Osenbei, crispy rice crackers. Yummy!

I also admire for a moment some beautiful cherry blossoms, which make me feel happy to have chosen the month of April to get here: this is really the best time (with fall and its maple trees) to visit Japan. Such a great beauty being represented in each petal that flies in the wind! At the end of this alley, a second monumental gate is revealed, Hōzōmon (Treasure-House Gate). The whole is clearly imposing, with two Nio statues (Japanese guardian deities, I will get back to them later on) on the front, two disproportionate pilgrim sandals to the rear and three lanterns in the center.

The sandals made of straw, 4.5m high, 1.5m wide and weighing 400 kg each are called “o-waraji”. They were woven in 1998 by 800 residents of Murayama, are meant to be a protective charm against evil spirits and are deemed to bring good luck to whom touches them.

The main lantern (in the center, called chōchin) dates from 2003 and bears the name of the city of Kobunachō to thank its residents for their donations of five million ¥ to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the Edo era. On each side of the red lantern are two tōrō made of copper, high of 2m75 and weighing about a ton each.

The spots of interest to see around are not only the shopping street and the main temple that I’m about to visit, but also the five-storied pagoda which is visible on the left of the temple. It’s the second tallest pagoda in Japan after the one of Tōji temple, south of Kyoto. It was built in 942 near the Kannon-dō. Ravaged by fire, it was rebuilt in 1648 by Tokugawa Iemitsu.

Declared a national treasure by the Japanese government in 1911, it was destroyed again in 1945 by American bombing like the majority of the temple. The mobilization and faithful donations across the country have enabled its reconstruction at the end of the war. The present pagoda dates from 1973 and has retained its original style. It is rare that one can visit the interior, even much less common to climb the floors of a pagoda and this one is unfortunately no exception to the rule. It will be only a view of the outside, but so pretty!

The second gate passed, it is again a moment of wonderment: at the top of a few stairs stands the main building of the temple, on a crowd background covered with fumaroles of incense. I am pleased to see the temple with my own eyes, as during our visit in 2010, it was being renovated under a large scaffolder, so it was impossible to get an idea of the exterior aspect of the building. So now I can say it: it is simply gorgeous!

On each side of the square facing the temple are small shops run by the temple priests who sell different beads and other lucky charms. There are also Omikuji (the “Sacred Lottery”), but I will get back to it in a few lines.

Shortly before entering the Kannon-dō is a large incense roaster. It is customary to wrap yourself with this smoke as it is supposed to have therapeutic and purifying virtues, and it’s fun to watch people (mostly seniors) rushing around the small structure. I do not even need to get close of it, as smoke is literally everywhere. Besides, I can not imagine one person who can stay a long time in the fumaroles, as they are strong and burn the eyes! Afterwards, I told myself it was my eyes that the smoke was trying to heal! Or not, who knows…

First, one purifies its body and mind…

Before sending prayers to Buddhist deities, it is also customary to make some purifying ablutions. This is applicable whatever you visit a Shinto or Buddhist sanctuary. What changes is the way to pray (I will get back to that below), but the cleansing ritual is the same. Thus at the right of the incense roaster is a fountain topped by a statue. The procedure is as follows: first take the dipper in your right hand, then draws some water with it and pour it on your left hand. Then pass the dipper in your left hand and watch your right hand the same way. Then returns again the dipper in your right hand and pour some water into the palm of the left hand. Take a sip of water to rinse the mouth, wash again your left hand and the dipper, and replace it downwards over the basin.

Complicated? No, just a matter of habit. Beware, however: for obvious hygienic reasons, do not drink directly with the dipper, spits water out of the basin (a space is provided for this purpose at the foot of it) and do not swallow the water!

… And only then, one pray!

Let’s make a distinction between Shintoism and Buddhism, the two major religions in Japan. The Shinto shrines are easily recognizable by their entrance, marked by a torii, high wooden gate (rarely made of stone) covered with a vermilion red color. In the majority of sanctuaries, the sanctity of the place is also manifested by a shimenawa, big braided rope that is placed around the trees. Buddhist temples are the ones characterized by a “mon”, a much imposing entrance that torii, guarded on each side by Niō statues.

Shinto torii mark the separation between the world of humans and the world of the gods. Therefore, visitors must bow when crossing it. In a Shinto shrine, prayer follows a precise pattern. At first, place a coin in the trunk (a bass drum at the entrance of the “honden”, the main building) and rang a bell. Bow twice, then claps twice to signal your presence to the local deity. After the moment of silence, bow again one last time.

The approach is similar in a Buddhist temple, except that there is no claps. Well, I hope not having written some nonsense despite the fact that I’ve read these lines several times. If it is wrong, please let me know!

Once “clean” physically and especially spiritually, it is time to send a prayer to the goddess within the Kannon-dō. The interior is divided into two spaces, naijin (inner shrine) and Gejin (outer shrine). In the center is the first one is the gokuden, the altar that houses the sacred statue of Kannon Bodhisattva and its replica sculpted by Ennin the 9th century. Both are hidden from public view, but you can admire the replica if you visit the Sensō-ji on December 13.

Surrounding the gokuden are two protective deities; Bonten and Taishakuten. At the back of the Naijin are two statues of irritated Buddhist deities, Fudo Myo-o on the left and Aizen Myo-o on the right, both helping the Bodhisattva Kannon in spreading his teachings. I imitate other people for the pray and quickly leaves the place, as a dense crowd quickly forms around me.

Both inside and outside the temple can be found the famous Omikuji (the “sacred Lottery”). This is a sacred paper which is recovered by drawing of lot. Let me explain: first you insert a coin in the space provided (typically ¥ 100), then take the metal box and shake it until a numbered stick comes out. Then open the drawer which matches the number, take an Omikuji, close the drawer and put the stick back in the metal box. Easy, right?

You can now read the prediction written on the Omikuji, available in Japanese and very often in English too (overleaf or written smaller, adjacent to the Japanese version). Several types of predictions exist:

Some are good and must be carried out “at home” and others are bad and must be folded and attached to the places provided for this purpose within or around the temple to cancel the effect. For my part, I have drawn a “half-fortune”, which is not so bad! Only one line is important for me: “You start a journey with no harm.” Perfect, I take the paper and it will follow me throughout my journey in Japan!

Delighted by this quite positive prediction, I leave the temple and reach a nearby small haven of tranquility: the Japanese garden. This is an adequate step to escape the crowd and get lost in the contemplation of the artificial koi pond, which I obviously do! I walk among statues and small monuments and enjoy the peace and quietness while taking some pictures of this beautiful place, with a few cherry blossoms of course! This is definitely one of my favorite spot within the capital city. Everything is simply beautiful!

Ah, one more information: If you’re there during the third weekend in May, know that you can see the Sanja Matsuri festival, one of the three great Shinto festivals in Tokyo, considered one of the wildest and largest. It is now time to leave the beautiful garden, because I’m getting quite hungry…

And to avoid eating only delicious fried and filled desserts, each one more appetizing than the other, I go back to Shin-Nakamise and reach a small stall of takoyaki, one of the many dishes of the Japanese cuisine and a specialty of Osaka. It consist of dumplings cooked in mold (similar to the pancake batter, but salty) containing pieces of octopus, seasoned and covered with mayonnaise and onions. It goes without saying that I order a full portion topped with puffed rice! Delicious and very very hot! And the least we can say is that it’s quite nutritious! But not enough to stop me from ordering a dessert… Which I already spotted a few meters away!

And I’m not alone! A dozen people waiting like me the opportunity to taste another Japanese specialty: taiyaki (not to be confused with the takoyaki mentioned above!). This is a Japanese fish-shaped cake, filled most of the time with anko (a sweet red bean paste), but some are filled with pastry cream, chocolate or other sweet and delicious variations. This time it will be red bean paste, my favorite! It should also be said that you will find anko in 85% of Japanese desserts, but no worries: it’s delicious!

During my stay, I’ve returned several times there to taste all different variants. My opinion? They’re all simply delicious, a must-do if you’re are around! There is even a small bench on which you can sit and enjoy your Taiyaki while admiring how they’re produced through a window.

Oh, be careful if you take something away in order to eat it in the streets: some stands want you to eat what you have bought next to their place, probably not to do some free advertisement (well, a little bit then!), but because it is not polite to eat while walking and especially to avoid hitting someone every 3 seconds because you’re eating your dish with the eyes.

Anyway, it’s with a full stomach that I head towards Sumida, the neighboring district where the Skytree tower is waiting for me! However, this will be a future article, but as I am a nice person, here’s two small bonus: a night tour in pictures!

 

Sensô-ji by night

As you probably realized by looking at the pictures above, the temple is crowded everyday by hordes of tourists and people coming to pray. While it is essential to visit the area during the day, I can not recommend enough to return after dark, as I did a few days after my arrival. Indeed, around 10pm, I discovered a very different place, completely transformed!

Few people go to Asakusa temple at night, and there the place is almost deserted, the ambient calm contrasting with the bustle of the day. Moreover, the temple, the pagoda and the surroundings are enhanced by many lights for your eyes to admire, so do not hesitate! For your information, the illumination of the temple ends around 11pm, but it leaves you plenty of time to stroll around and enjoy the peace of the place.

The least we can say is that the place seems very empty now! Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) can be admired (and photographed) without trouble. Once passed, it is Nakamise-dōri, the market street to appear deserted, abandoned. How calm this place is right now, it is just amazing!

I walk slowly, while visiting the parallel streets, lit by neon lights and many other lamps. Some nice smells escape from the few restaurants still open, but as I have already eaten, I continue my way towards the temple!

Here I am again in front of Hōzōmon, “Gate of the Treasure Room”. What a view! I repeat myself, but this lighting gives the whole scenery another aspect, as each corner of the building stands out from the night in the background. The red lantern and its two tōrō are still there, swaying slightly in the wind. I go to watch them more closely and I do the same for the famous Niō guardians, which I promised to tell you about a little earlier in the article.

The Niō are two guardian deities of Buddhist temples installed on each side of the main entrance “mon”. They usually wear a dress or an armor and show a threatening attitude, because they are primarily forces able to drive away evil spirits. Here is a small presentation from right to left, the way of reading in Japan:

The statue on the right is called Naraen Kongō. He illustrates the expressed power and has an open mouth to pronounce the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced “a”. The statue on the left is called Misshaku Kongō. He symbolizes the latent power and has a closed mouth to represent the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, which is pronounced “um”. These two letters (a-un in Japanese) together symbolize the birth and death of all things.

The least that we can say is that these guardians have some nice abs!

What do I see now on the left of the main gate? A pagoda under a great lighting, beautiful! It is said that this building is an art object in Japanese culture and is primarily intended to be admired. I believe that there is no sentence more relevant right now. Moreover, the different sources of light and the half moon standing proudly on the arrow of the pagoda still accentuates the mystical aspect of the building! I also approach the statue at the top of the fountain, the “Nine-Dragon Jade Warrior” as I named him. Yes, I know, I think that this kind of place inspires me!

Finally, I face the main building of the complex. Without any crowd or fumaroles of incense, the place has regained its serenity. One might think that this vermilion red color tends to irritate or excite people in general, but in any case it does not work on me: I stay for some long minutes to meditate right there, recording in my memory each square meter that surrounds me, each piece of wood, each tile … Look at the myriad of details each element is rigged with! It is finally only when all the lights go slowly out, one after the other, that I walk away from the temple, with a totally calm and serene mind.