Sensō-ji (Asakusa)

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

金龍山浅草寺

Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa for the neighborhood it dominates (and whose kanji it shares), is Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple as well as one of the most popular temples to visit at the New Year’s holiday. The temple was founded in 645 to house a statue of bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) which legend has it was discovered in nearby Sumida River by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, in 628. The temple and its various structures have been destroyed several times by fire and most recently by Allied bombing during World War II, and the current structures mostly date from the 1960s.

Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate

Visitors flock to see the impressive Kaminarimon gate — 11.7m tall and originally erected by the military commander Taira no Kinmasa in 941, and moved to its current location in 1635 — with its statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder, as well as the 4m tall paper lantern hanging in the center of the gate bearing the characters 雷門 (Kaminarimon).

Kaminarimon -- entrance to Sensoji
Kaminarimon — entrance to Sensoji

Kaminarimon paper lantern
Kaminarimon paper lantern

The reverse side of the gate features status of the god Tenryū and the goddess Kinryū, carved by master sculptor Hirakushi Denchū when he was 106 years old.

Tenryū, by Hirakushi DenchūKinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū
Tenryū and Kinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū

Shopping for Japanese kitsch in Nakamise-dōri

Nakamise-dōri, stretching 250m from the Kaminarimon to the inner Hōzōmon (Treasure House Gate), is home to about 90 shops offering lacquerware, painted fans, yukata and kimono (in various degrees of authenticity) and assorted Japanese bric-à-brac and kitsch such as Godzilla toys and maneki-neko figurines. The crowds are often at their thickest here, and it’s not unusual to encounter foreigners in rented kimono.

Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri

Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri

Maneki-neko "beckoning cat" figurines
Maneki-neko “beckoning cat” figurines

New Year's shop decoration
New Year’s shop decoration

Uchiwa -- Japanese fans
Uchiwa — Japanese fans

Happy Year of the Boar!
Happy Year of the Boar!

Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building
Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building

Tengu, fox and other masks
Tengu, fox and other masks

Visitors often dress in kimono
Visitors often dress in kimono

Hōzōmon, the Treasure House Gate

Hōzōmon, the inner gate at 22.7m tall, was first built by Taira no Kinmasa in 942. It houses two enormous Nio deities and a pair of giant sandals. Because the gate in its current incarnation is built of fire-resistant materials, the second story is used to house the temple’s treasures, including a sutra that is designated a National Treasure.

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background
Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

To one side of Hōzōmon stands a five-story pagoda, and to the other are statues of two bodhisattva, including Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), the enshrined deity of Sensō-ji.

Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara
Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara

Approach to Hōzōmon
Approach to Hōzōmon

Detail of Hōzōmon
Detail of Hōzōmon

Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon
Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon

Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

After Hōzōmon we come at last to Sensō-ji itself, a high-peaked structure dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon.

Sensō-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple
Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji
Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji

Priests inside the temple chant as clouds of incense rise among fabulous gilt decorations. Outside, visitors line up the steps to the portico to toss in their five-yen coins and offer their prayers. The large inner foyer, topped by faded and peeling murals, offers ample opportunities to purchase o-mikuji.

Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon
Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon

Daihizan Bujouji

Niomon Gate of Bujouji

大悲山峰定寺

Bujouji
Bujouji (sourced from Google Images)

Bujouji is a platform-style temple suspended from a cliff, similar to the larger and more famous Kiyomizudera in nearby Kyoto. The temple was founded by Kankou Seinen in 1154 by order of Emperor Toba.

Construction of the platform is interlocking wooden posts and beams, without the use of nails. The platform’s thick posts rest atop the stones of the cliff. They are not sunk into a foundation but are held in place only by the weight of the structure.

Entry to the temple is via the Niomon Gate, constructed in 1350. Visitors must then climb 410 steps up the side of the mountain to reach the temple and enjoy the vista of cedar and pine trees. Photography is prohibited: visitors are required to leave all cameras, phones and other electronic devices with the attendant at the entrance before ascending to the temple.

Niomon Gate of Bujouji
Niomon Gate of Bujouji

The temple is home to many important cultural artifacts, including wooden Buddha statues dating from the foundation of the temple in 1154. These are on display only three days out of the year: May 3, Sept. 17, Nov. 3.

Daihizan Bujouji「大悲山峰定寺」

Three-trunked cedar tree 花脊の三本杉

Hanase no 3-bon sugi
Hanase no 3-bon sugi

A 15-minute walk from the temple entrance is the ancient three-trunked cedar tree, estimated to be 1,200 years old. The Eastern Trunk is the tallest cedar in Japan at 62.3m. The Northwestern Trunk is 60.7m, and the Western Trunk 57.2m.

The circumference of the tree trunks where they join at the base is 1.36m.

Hanase no 3-bon sugi「花脊の三本杉」

Tsurugajo — Aizu Wakamatsu Castle

Tsurugajo

鶴ヶ城

Aizu Wakamatsu Castle was originally constructed in 1384 by Ashina Naomori and called Kurokawa Castle. It remained in the Ashina family until the late 16th Century, when it was first seized by Date Masamune and then surrendered to Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Tsurugajo
Tsurugajo

The castle remained a stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate in the Tohoku region until the Battle of Aizu during the Boshin war in 1868. During the month-long siege, the castle was damaged beyond repair and was razed.

The current castle tenshu is a replica of the castle as it was in 1868, a concrete structure built in 1965. It houses a museum with many artifacts and documents related to the Boshin war.

Tsurugajo「鶴ヶ城」

The restored Rinkaku tea room on the castle grounds is an Important Cultural Property.

Rinkaku

Oyakuen

Ochayagoten tea house viewed across Shinji no Ike

御薬園

Oyakuen was founded in the 14th Century and soon, with the encouragement of Ashina Morihisa, the local lord, became a medicinal herb garden for the community. The current landscape, meant to show nature in miniature, was designed by Meguro Jotei during the Edo period.

Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage
Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage

The garden surrounds a pond, Shinji no Ike, in the shape of the character 心 kokoro (heart), in the center of which sits the Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage. A larger tea house, Ochayagoten, adorns the near end of the pond and it was here that visiting nobles were formerly entertained.

Ochayagoten
Ochayagoten

Oyakuen was left in ruins after the Boshin war of 1868-9, but was restored to the point that it was named a nationally renowned garden in 1932.

Oyakuen「御薬園」

Aizu Bukeyashiki

Aizu Bukeyashiki

会津武家屋敷

Aizu Bukeyashiki is a reconstruction of the 38 rooms of the residence of Tanomo Saigo, the last Edo-period samurai of Aizu. Included at the site are the bailiff’s office, an Important Cultural Asset, and the Reinan an Rinkaku tea house that originally stood on the grounds of Tsurugajo castle.

Garden on Bukeyashiki grounds
Garden on Bukeyashiki grounds

Among the scenes depicted is the collective suicide of the women of the household during the attack of the imperial forces during the Boshin war, in order that they would not be a burden to their fighting husbands, fathers and relatives.

Aizu Bukeyashiki
Reinan an Rinkaku

Sazaedo

Façade of Sazaedo

会津さざえ堂

Aizu Sazaedo is a three-story wooden pagoda constructed in 1796 to house 33 statues of Kannon and featuring double-spiral internal wooden ramps which wind around from the entrance to the top of the 16.5m structure and back down again. Visitors who reach the top, cross the taiko bridge inside and return down the opposite ramp are said to have completed the Saigoku Kannon Pilgrimage to 33 Buddhist temples.

Sazaedo
Sazaedo

The signature double-spiral ramp structure about a central core gives the structure its name (“Sazae” is a horned turban sea snail) and causes many to wonder if the design was influenced by Leonardo da Vinci’s Château de Chambord in France, but there is no evidence this is the case.

Sazaedo, an Important Cultural Property, can be found on the flank of Iimoriyama, famed burial ground of the Byakkotai.

Aizu Sazaedo

Iimoriyama

Memorial at Iimoriyama

飯盛山

Beautiful memorial, ugly history

Iimoriyama is a cemetery and memorial for the Byakkotai soldiers who committed ritual suicide at this spot overlooking Aizu during the Boshin civil war. These 20 soldiers, all 16-17 years old and sons of samurai, had regrouped at Iimoriyama after becoming separated from the main body of their troop. Seeing flames and columns of smoke engulfing Aizu during the siege of Tsurugajo castle, the boys believed that the castle itself had been torched and that all was lost. (In fact, the castle held out another month before Matsudaira Katamori surrendered to the imperial forces.)

Cemetery of the Byakkotai
Cemetery of the Byakkotai

While the imperial government initially ordered that the bodies of the young men remain exposed where they fell, locals secretly retrieved and buried their remains. Later, the government relented, and the remains were reinterred where they had fallen. In later years, the young warriors came to be upheld as an example of Japanese spirit for their sacrifice for their lord’s honor.

Pompeii column from Benito Mussolini
Pompeii column from Benito Mussolini

While the hilltop memorial is now a peaceful place for contemplation, some will take away a different impression than others from visiting the site. This is exemplified by the message “May Peace Prevail on Earth” present to one side of the cemetery, just a few paces from the Roman column surmounted by a statue of an eagle. This latter is a gift from Benito Mussolini, who found the tale of the Byakkotai’s sacrifice to be an inspiration for fascism. It is also uncertain what message is intended by the manga-fied representation of children as soldiers (as seen at the Iimoriyama website) and the vendors at the site hawking toy katana, apart from one of sanitizing this message of “Japanese spirit” for a new generation.

Jazz Tempura

Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP

I woke up yesterday prepared to bike to work, seeing as it was pretty much the only sunny day of the week and we’re expecting a typhoon on the weekend. But then Nana reminded me we had a reservation for a tempura restaurant in the evening.

We got to the restaurant in plenty of time, despite my having missed an express train at the first transfer. While it was just a few steps from Roppongi crossing, it was a small, old building, a bit run-down, and we were the only guests. The waiter showed us our seats at the counter and invited us to leave our bags in the washitsu「和室」, a sign they weren’t expecting many guests.

We ordered draft beer and the waiter brought us three different starters (one is the custom). We had some time to wait before our first tempura dish, enough time to look around and notice the master and the waiter and other chefs were all well past retirement age, and that the alcohol selection was a bit limited.

Tempura master frying a dish
The master at work

At last the tempura started arriving at our plates, and it was nothing short of amazing. Really top-notch tempura: hot, lightly battered and not oily in the least. We had eggplant, prawn, two varieties of whitefish, ginnan, squid, onion, anago. Uni was one neither of us had had before, not as tempura.

At some point in the midst of this feast, I had a double-take at the master’s bowl of batter — specifically his stirring implements:

Drumsticks used to stir tempura batter
Stirred with a pair of … ?

Of course I asked, and the master — taciturn until that moment — opened up about his hobby as a jazz drummer. We talked about our favorite genres and performers, and compared CD collections. They had a rather good collection behind the register at the restaurant, but as Nana confirmed, it wasn’t a patch on the one I’ve got at home.

Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP
Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP

By the time we’d finished, a woman from a nearby establishment had dropped in to pick up two large platters of tempura, and another couple had arrived and been seated at the counter. The master’s finishing touch for us (apart from ochazuke rice and sliced pear for dessert) was sweet potato garnished with a few drops of Remy Martin VSOP. (I think this was part of the set and not just a gesture in response for our shared love of jazz.)

Tempura Mikaku house shochu
Tempura Mikaku house shochu

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

The study of Soseki Sanbo

漱石山房記念館

The Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum, located in Waseda-Minamicho, Shinjuku, houses a replica of the famous author’s study from his “Soseki Sanbo” residence, the ground of which it sits upon. (The residence was destroyed during World War II.) The museum also holds an exhibit hall, café, event hall and a library dedicated to Soseki’s works. In addition to the complete works and related materials, the library contains many foreign-language editions, such as a Spanish translation of Botchan and a Korean edition of the complete works.

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum
Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) is regarded as the father of the modern Japanese novel, and is considered by many to be the greatest novelist of modern Japan. He was known for his humorous satire of public officials in the Meiji Era, and one of his recurring themes was ridiculing Japanese attempts to imitate Western society. Among his most famous works are I am a cat「吾輩は猫である」, Botchan「坊っちゃん」, and the trilogy Sanshirō「三四郎」, And Then「それから」 and The Gate「門」.

Soseki Sanbo
Soseki Sanbo

We were fortunate to visit during an exhibit of the author’s draft writings, newspaper clippings of the original serialization of many of his novels, and elaborate scrolls of Soseki’s haiku. The exhibit also contained many early editions of Soseki’s novels, with elaborately decorated covers, correspondence with publishers, a period photograph of Dogo Onsen, the setting for Botchan, and movie posters and stills from various productions of Botchan.

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

Surrounded!

Road work

Happy to report I was able to sleep in this morning despite the continual bang and clank of construction work coming through the window. When I finally got up, I went out on the balcony to locate the source of the noise. It took me a while to find it: a three-storey building across the river where a couple of workers were setting up scaffolding and nets prior to beginning remodeling.

When I finally got out of the house a couple of hours later, I discovered construction work on every side: a park on the corner, road paving in front of the building, and an office tower on the opposite side of the street.

Park under construction
Park under construction
More office space
More office space