After we eat at Tokyo, we go pray. Somehow this sequence reminds me of the novel Eat, Pray, Love. As a first time visitor to Tokyo, I had to go see Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temple, the Sensoji-temple or also known as the Asakusa.
The temple is dedicated to Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy and is supposed to have first been built in 645. Although most buildings have been destroyed during the World War, they have all been rebuilt and it continues to be an important temple in Tokyo. People still worship and pray at this temple. While I was there, I witnessed a ceremony taking place with a few monks but I wasn’t able to ascertain what the ceremony was about.
It’s a fun place to visit even if you’ve been to a dozen shrines already. I particularly enjoyed seeing how this place of worship just suddenly appears to you walking down the street. The entrance is dominated by an enormous “Thunder Gate” under which hangs an equally gigantic paper lantern. It’s supposed to be painted like thunder and lightning. The gate and entrance, coupled with the massive crowds of tourists and locals alike is feast for the eyes. The energy is just buzzing all around the place. It’s so international, I spy several tour groups while I’m there. One can get a little dizy but you’ll find peace once you reach the temple.
I particularly enjoyed the Nakamise-Dori which is a shopping street centuries old lining your way towards the temple. While I was there, to signify autumn all the trees lining the path were dressed in paper golden leaves. Beautiful. Seasons are important in Japan. The street is filled with shops selling japanese souvenirs from postcards to yukatas. Snacks are sold too, but they have a season. Autumn is the time for potatoes, pumpkins and chestnuts. I wonder what is sold during other seasons of the year.
Once you reach the temple you can pray and even ask the Oracle any questions you have. Of course its all in japanese 🙂 My book tells me there are a 100 answers so it must be pretty precise!
The most enjoyable part of the temple visit though was walking through the quiet and meditative garden just towards the right of the temple. It’s so quiet and calm in this garden, that I somehow feel like I’ve stepped into another world. It’s hard to believe that this garden is only a few steps away from the busy temple front. It’s a traditional japanese garden complete with japanese maple trees, a pond filled with healthy red carp and a japanese bridge to finish the landscape. Towering over the garden you have a beautiful view of the 5-storey pagoda. All this is in a tiny little area. Small yet it is enough to give one peace of mind after walking down the busy shopping street. It’s amazing how much power these gardens can have over you. Perhaps we should all have such a little garden in our homes or offices.
In Tokyo, I discovered quite by accident an unexpectedly good kaiten sushi place on my way to visit the Asakusa. I had to change trains at Ueno and I was hungry, so I walked out the station to find something to eat. It wasn’t the best sushi on earth, but it was definitely worth the price and extremely satisfying. The salmon just melted in my mouth. I discovered this little kaiten-sushi or conveyor belt sushi place called Oedo, just outside Ueno Station on a walking street opposite the station. It’s built under the train tracks so it’s a tiny little place.
Anyways, the wonderful thing is that this kaiten sushi place offers everything at one price. All the sushi and rolls are priced at 126yen or just $1.5 !! Absolutely wonderful. Now it not only had salmon, grilled, salmon, but it also had yellow tail, eel, tuna, shrimp and just about anything you could think of. Of course no toro nor sea urchin, that would be too wonderful. I had two servings of the grilled salmon. It was so fresh it melted in my mouth. Oh I wish I could just hop out to have it again.
I wouldn’t mind going back there at all. In fact, if I had more days in Tokyo, I would go back to eat there. Next to me on one side was a man who really just sat there enjoying his meal. He sat alone and just continued to pile up the dishes. He sat there with a little grin and cared not what others were eating. He asked the chef for special ones so he didn’t have to wait for the belt to come around. Personal service. But since I don’t speak japanese you just have to do it the traditional way and pick up whatever you want to eat from the conveyor belt. I love it, I get to sit there watching the food roll by and debate what I shall have for my next bite.
At the end of the meal, a lady comes around to count your dishes and tell you how much it costs. It was so inexpensive I could hardly believe it. The tea and wasabi was of course included already. My extremely satisfying meal cost a mere 500yen or $6. Now that’s even cheaper than what I can have in Thailand! Itadakimasu!
What is a holiday if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy a little bit of eating? Japan is heaven for Japanese food lovers like me, so you have to eat and enjoy yourself while you’re there. What I always tell myself is this: eat whatever you want, beware of portion size, and know the consequences. As long as you are willing to admit the consequences from too much eating, then go ahead and enjoy yourself. I did, and one of my favorite finds during this trip was at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
As any food lover, I wanted to bare witness to the fish auctions that take place at the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world: Tsukiji Fish Market. I wanted to see tuna, salmon, sea urchins, eel and all sorts of food being auctioned away, but this time I have to admit I couldn’t wake up. It was too early. It would require me waking up at around 4am in the morning and getting myself out to the fish market by around 6am to make the first come first serve list. (It’s limited to only 140 visitors per day) I will, however, go back. I have yet to see Japan dressed in pink with the famous cherry blossoms or robed in autumn’s finest colours of red and gold. How beautiful it must be.
Dreaming aside, I did manage to get myself some absolutely divine food at the Tsukiji market. If you don’t make it to the auctions, you can always go there for lunch. Just make sure you don’t go too late. Most restaurants open from 6.30 hours and close at around 13.30 hours. The most value for money ones also have long lines, but the wait is well worth it.
Just outside the Tsukijishijō Station towards the right of the fish market there is an area surrounded by little shop houses. I passed shops selling razor-sharp knives, cooking utensils but most importantly there were many eating houses to choose from. Don’t expect spacious ones with proper seating and service, these are the traditional japanese eating houses with a long kitchen and equally long counter for which the customers are to be seated. The one I sat at was so crammed, that if you pulled out your seat to get more leg space, other customers would not be able to walk behind you to their seat. I dared not move an inch.
There were quite a number of eating houses and take-out places, but I wanted to have sashimi, raw fish and they all looked so good. I decided to go for the one with a long line of locals. There were two equally good looking ones next to each other so I just decided to choose the one specializing in Toro (fatty tuna) and sea urchin (uni). I’ve had them before, but in miniscule portions since they are so expensive. At this restaurant, they were served in larged portions over rice with accompanying soup and side dish. Everything for only 1,800 yen or only roughly $23. Now that’s a good deal. If you don’t want toro or sea urchin, they also serve alaskan crab and shrimp, so you can have whatever you desire.
Now the only thing with this place is you have to eat fast. You pre-order your dish while waiting in line. Once you get your seat, you immediately get served your food and within a few minutes you are to finish it. There is no time limit, but you start feeling the pressure when the person sitting besides you arrives later, finishes before you and leaves in such a rush that you wonder if they have a train to catch. Everyone rushes out so those standing by the door watching you eat can come in to have their turn.
People come to this place for no-nonsense food. There’s no service, no ambiance, just plain good food. And the great thing is that the locals go there. The couple behind us told us they come often. Its no wonder. I thoroughly enjoyed it too and wouldn’t mind standing in line again. The fish was so fresh, it just literally swam down my throat. My mouth waters just thinking about it.
Oh, I’m told the place is called “Nagaya” and it’s next to a little shop selling breakfast of toast and coffee on the right. Also, for an extra 400 yen you can have more toro 🙂
I enjoyed every meal I had, but then I love Japanese food. I could eat it everyday and not get bored at all. I love their raw fish, their udon, ramen, fried foods and all so delicate japanese snacks. I love the way they present their food and I admire the amount of detail they put into every bite. It’s funny how I can grow to love japanese food so much, especially when I am told that in my younger days the thought of eating raw fish just made me squirm. It was all just too “exotic” for me back then.
After the silent Shinkansen ride where everyone was quiet, and extremely orderly, I arrived in Tokyo. The capital of Japan, Tokyo was a completely different story from Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. With a population of 13 million people it was bustling with people. Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by people.
At first glance of the underground map, I thought I was looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock with coloured lines and dots scattered all around the page in seemingly random patterns. It was a piece of art in itself, but upon close study of it, you realize that there was really quite a lot of sense in all this chaos and a pattern emerged. This combination of JR trains, Toei Line Trains, or Tokyo Metro Line allowed you to go anywhere you wanted to. It is no wonder that Japan has one of the most extensive network of surface lines in the world.
I stopped at Shinjuku station to see what this shopping area was all about and was completely at awe at the amount of people bustling here and there under the neon lights, each hurrying to reach their destination, each knowing exactly where to go, each with their own life. I feel like this could easily be made into a movie. Two random lives, commuting to work in Tokyo, crossing paths in Shinjuku to someday meet and begin a whole new life story.
Who knows, these strangers turned friends could have sat or stood next to each other before, but never recognized each other. Life is so fascinating. It must have happened I am sure.
I stand in a corner dazed at the people rushing by, quietly on their way to their destination. It’s not loud or noisy with continuous announcements on the speaker system, people in Japan are very considerate of each other. All you hear is the sound of hundreds of shoes interacting with the paved floor, clothes fluttering by, machines opening and closing their little gates, and soft whispers of people traveling together.
I stand in a quiet corner and am reminded of a scene from Murakami’s book where Okada sits by watching people at Shinjuku station. I wonder if people passing by remember the hundreds of faces they saw today. I wonder if there is someone else watching me like I am watching them.
I start to grow dizzy and come back to reality and discover that Shinjuku station is the busiest train station in the world used by roughly 3.6 million people a day. (This is 2007 data, more people must be using it now!) With 200 exits Shinjuku is also in the Guinness book of World Records. Can you believe that? I wonder how many people like me got lost and took the wrong exit and have to find their way back underground.
Standing at Shinjuku station I am reminded that each of our lives like others’ here is one of the billions of lives on this earth. Each on our way, each on our own path, random yet with a pattern. Each with an end, and each with a story of one’s own.
In less than two day’s time I’ll be on my annual block leave and wondering around the land of the Samurais. I’ve been planning this trip for years and for some reason or the other never made it. I’ve made plans before with friends, bought the guidebook and even had an itinerary. Then something comes up and ‘phoof’ it’s off and gone. This time though the trip is set in stone with tickets issued and an itinerary prepared.
It’ll be by first time in Japan and I’m excited. I have always loved the Japanese maple tree, the landscape, I die for japanese food, I crave to visit the zen temples and discover some peace, I admire the japanese sense of order and am enthralled by the strangeness of Murakami novels.
There is so much that is yet to be discovered in Japan. I grew up with a wonderful Japanese friend, and I can’t wait to see her once again. It’s been many many years. Much too many.
Yet despite all this happy anticipation and planning, for some reason or the other the week ahead of any major trip for me is always so busy and hectic it always makes me feel so rushed and hurried. There are always a zillion things I have to get done “before” the trip and make sure that everything is in place. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting everything in place for a trip like I’d be gone for years and never to come back. Maybe one day it’d be just like that. Who knows.
I’ve read the guidebook on Japan but I’m sure there are many more things out there that are not in the guidebook. If you have any suggestions on what to visit (I’ll be around Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo) and what to eat, please let me know! 🙂
Most importantly if there’s anything special you’d be interested in hearing about during my 9 days there, let me know…I will of course attempt to blog as much as possible (depending on where I can get undisturbed internet access) Keep tuned!