Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tokyo Day 2- Fun with a Friend- Morning at Meiji Shrine

On our second full day in Tokyo we met up with a new friend who had made plans to show us various sites.   We strapped on our athletic shoes and headed off by subway to Harajuku, the shopping area for younger people.  There we saw the famous garb of the Japanese youth- eclectic and fun for the most part. But the real first destination was the Meiji Jingu (Shrine), established in 1920 for the  Emperor Meiji (ruling from 1862-1912) and his consort Empress Shoken, who are considered deities.  We passed through three gates, called torii, where as our host explained you successively leave behind the physical world to enter the spiritual.  On our way in we were lucky to pass two wedding parties in traditional Shinto dress, as well as some "spirits"  and a young woman dressed in traditional kimono talking on a cell phone.

First Torii at Meiji Jinju

Another Torii
Gift of wine from France to Emperor Meiji who opened Japan to the West

Traditional wedding

We did a ceremonial cleansing at the  Temizusha (ablutions font) and then went up to the main shrine, where one bows twice, claps hands twice and bows once again. A coin offering is also accepted.   On our way out of the grounds, which were stunning in autumn colors, I heard chanting so like a child to the pied piper I found a group of elderly people practicing chants for a performance- a Shinto choral group if you will. (see addendum) Very haunting.
Offertory Box to left
Shinto chant practice
Main Shrine
Drum in front of Shrine

Grounds of Meiji Jinju

For more information on Shintoism, which Emperor Meiji made the state religion of Japan in 1868, see here  and here.  Most important, for my niece in particular, is that Kami are Shinto gods.

UP NEXT: The afternoon/ evening in Tokyo at the Hama Rikyu park, Sumida River trip, Asakusa and Ginza.
ADDENDUM :  To the western ear, the people chanting sounded like a choral performance to me.  However, that description is not really accurate in context.  My friend, guide and helpful editor points out that the performance " is called Shigin, which is a traditional form of Japanese poetry and usually chanted. There is strictly only one standard melody."
Also, Lonely Planet August 9, 2010 states: 
Visiting a shrine:
Entering a shrine can be a bewildering experience. Just past the gate you’ll find achozuya (trough of water) with a hishaku (long-handed ladle) to purify yourself. Take a ladle, fill it with water, pour some over one hand, then transfer the spoon and pour water over the other hand. Finally, pour water into your cupped hand and rinse your mouth, spitting the water onto the ground.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tokyo Day 1--Not Lost in Translation

I expected to be very disoriented when I got to Tokyo for the first time.  After seeing Lost in Translation, I thought I would be badly jet lagged and put off by surreal scenes of large neon glassy buildings from a taxi.  Luckily I was neither and in fact loved Tokyo even with the large neon glassy buildings.

 We arrived at night and got a tour through Shibuyu, Roppongi and Roppongi Hills (possibly not in that order) before arriving at our hotel, the Westin in  Ebisu neighborhood.    Unlike Bill Murray's character, I found the cab ride, once we got to Tokyo after what seemed like an endless amount of time on a freeway (it was about 2 hours total in the cab from Narita to the Westin at a cost greater than what we paid in taxes on our frequent flyer air tickets) to be exciting and the city accessible.  One difference I noticed from what was shown in the movie was that there was plenty of English on signage.  I expected none and was pleasantly surprised at how much there was.

Christmas at Westin Tokyo
The Westin hotel was decked out for Christmas with a huge central tree and toy train track, foreshadowing the Japanese love affair with all things Christmas.  One of my colleagues observed that the abundance of Christmas paraphernalia at the Westin at first seems to derive from its being  an American chain hotel.  But once you go out into Tokyo (or even hang around for Sunday brunch) you realize that the Westin is catering to the Japanese in its Christmas excesses.  I had hoped to miss the Christmas carol season but every public place in Japan as far as I could tell was playing American Christmas songs.

Yebisu Garden Place Baccarat Eternal Lights
Our first day out in Tokyo led us across the street from the Westin through Yebisu Garden Place, an outdoor mall that sported during the holiday season a huge Baccarat chandelier.  We took the JR Yamanote to Tokyo Station, walked through the financial district, the Marunouchi, to the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace.

Moat near Otemon (Main) entrance to Imperial Palace East Gardens

To enter the East Gardens you must cross a famous moat pictured here.  The East Gardens were once part of the defense perimeter of the Edo Castle from the Tokugawa Shogunate (the basis for the James Clavell novel, Shogun).  Shortly after you enter the Gardens, you see a guardhouses, called bansho, before you head across a large field toward the site of the donjon or castle tower, dating from 1638.  All that is left of the donjon is the base which you climb to get a loftier view, both of current Tokyo and, in your mind, of shogunate Japan.
Doshin Bansho
Hyakunin-bansho - guarding entrance to Honmaru (inner citadel)

Donjon Base with skyscraper in background
Walking away from the remains of the Donjon, we headed toward the Ninomaru (second citadel or defense ring) which has been turned into a beautiful Japanese garden.  We spent a long time on a  bench soaking up the atmosphere of the small and large pleasures of the garden-- the pond, the little waterfall, the small arched bridges and the three legged snow scene stone lantern.  The scene looked suspiciously like the stock picture I have as my background on my Blackberry but there were enough differences that I concluded the stock picture was taken elsewhere.  And the autumn colors were spectacular.
View of  Ninomaru Pond with reflection of autumn colors

Pond with reflection

Arched bridge in Ninomaru garden

Stone Lantern near pond in Ninomaru

Waterfall in Ninomaru garden
Vivid autumn colors in Imperial Garden.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Charms of Japanese Bathrooms--with instructions.

In my last post, I wrote extensively about the wonders of Japanese toilets and showers.  I forget, however, to include the instructions for use of the toilet.  Here it is. Study carefully.  It's complicated.

The Charms of Japanese Bathrooms

I have grand plans to write up our trip to Japan day by day.  We covered a lot of territory, so to speak, in the ten days we spent there.  I have many pictures of pretty settings and delicious foods.  I promise that I will do some blogging about those aspects of the trip.  However, today I want to feed my lifelong obsession with bathrooms and comment on those I found in Japan.

My family teased me as a child that I could not go anywhere without checking out the bathroom.  I am not sure why bathrooms fascinate me so much but I have touched on the topic at least twice before  in this blog. And  Japan proved to be a bath lovers delight when you found a "western style" toilet.  (Japanese style toilets are in the ground and require squatting  which some of us with injured muscles can not currently do too well.)

Toto toilet
First, western style toilets in Japan, sometimes even in public settings, have heated seats and water sprays to assist you in your hygiene.  Some people like me love it.  Others, like my husband, felt offended by the heat on the tush and would not even consider the water options.  I had been exposed to the Japanese Western style toilet before, through a former colleague who had a small side business in those types of toilets, but could not convince my husband to allow me to replace his home throne with one with heat and sprays. Perhaps in the future if we ever remodel the master bath I can get a Toto toilet like this one from the Hotel Granvia Kyoto.

Flushing sound effect sensor
Second, as one of my Japanese friends explained, people in Japan are not comfortable with the sounds of their body functions on the toilet.  In the past, like certain women in the US, Japanese women would flush the toilets many times to block any sound. The Japanese decided that such flushing was wasteful and instead put in a toilet flushing sound effect in restrooms.  Some of these flushing sound effects are triggered automatically by motion (particularly hand motion like those on some of the towel dispensers) and can be quite irritating to those of us who are less shy and do not want to hear the constant roar of a flushing toilet in the commode. Here is a picture of one of those sensors in a public toilet in Kyoto.

Third, certain women's stalls in public restrooms have little seats for infants while mom is otherwise indisposed.   The great thing about these infant seats are the picture instructions that mom not leave the baby unattended to put on makeup or smoke (see picture below). Not having a baby in tow these days,  I found the seat useful for holding my camera case.
Infant seat in Japanese public bathroom
Slippers for WC in Nishi Hongwanji

Fourth, the Japanese have special slippers for the bathrooms to make sure that  what happens in the bathroom stays in the bathroom.  Apparently this practice is common in ryokan, minshuku and private homes (none of which did we visit).  I found these slippers in one of the Kyoto temple's bathrooms.

Sink shows you where to dry hands
Fifth, for reasons I do not understand, there are rarely paper towels or hand dryers in public bathrooms.  Most women carry little cloth towels in their purses when they are out and about.  This lack of towels seems to me to be similar to the fact that Japanese do not typically use napkins at the table but do have wet towels provided when you first sit down in a restaurant and sometimes again after a course or two.  I learned to use the wet towel as a napkin although I observed that the Japanese around me seemed able to eat without wiping their mouths incessantly like I did after every few bites.  But I digress.  The real issue is drying your hands in the bathroom.  And I found my favorite sink of all time in Japan with a built in hand dryer in the front opposite the electronic faucets.  Such an elegant design.

Sixth, (and finally for now), I fell in love with the shower at the Hotel Granvia Kyoto.  It was a wonder of economic design.  It had the shower from above, a movable handheld shower, and shower sprays at mid body to work on those parts of your back that frequently ache. I have seen showers in a local spa that sprayed from the top and the sides, but those showers were big and clunky. The shower in the Granvia was slim and well designed for someone my size as well as someone my husband's size.  Again, if I ever remodel the master bathroom, I will make every effort to get this shower assembly.  Then I can relive every day my wonderful Japan bath experience.