We met Leif the next morning and made our way to Asakusa, a temple town on Tokyo’s east side, near to the Sumida river. We stopped off at a Don Qijote, a kind of sells-absolutely-everything store, and stocked up on food and water for the day, as Leif had warned us that vendors and eating establishments within the town were more costly than usual; the town being essentially one giant tourist trap. Supplies in bag, we followed our guide under the first torii of the day, and into the town proper.
At this early point in the morning, the town was peaceful, but crowds were growing as we ducked and wove our way through narrow wooden streets lined with merchants selling “hand-made goods” (the same at almost every store) towards the main attraction and reason for coming to Asakusa; Senso-ji, the capital’s oldest temple, predating Tokyo itself. It is said that two brothers pulled a statue of the Kanon out of the river in AD 62, and Senso-ji was built to enshrine it. Senso-jinja, a small shrine, sits to the east in commemoration of these two brothers, as during the early Edo period, it was not uncommon for Japan’s two major religions, Buddhism and Shinto, to share sites. To the west, famously, is the Awashima-do, in which is enshrined a guardian of women deity, and where seamstresses and kimono makers express their thanks to their needles by burying them in tofu, in the hari-kuyo – the needle funeral.
In front of the main hondo is a cauldron of smoking incense that is said to bring good health so people lean over and wash the smoke over themselves. For a small donation, one can also learn a fortune and, if it is bad, you can tie it to one of the cleansing racks to symbolically do away with that bad fortune. Naturally, mine was amongst the worst ones that I could possibly have drawn, essentially suggesting that, unless cleansed, I would fail at everything I attempted. Naturally, I tied it to that rack pretty darn tightly. I only hope that I succeeded in tying it tightly enough.
We continued out through the Hozo-mon gate (flanked by fierce statues of Gaijin and Fujin, the Gods of Thunder and Wind) onto Nakamise-dori shopping street, lined with vendors selling all manner of goods, religious, tacky, or edible. Even though it was barely 10:00am, the street was a press of bodies that was difficult to navigate, but we pressed through to the Kaminari-mon (Thunder gate), from which hangs an enormous chochin lantern, again protected by the Gods of Thunder and Wind. Apparently, these gates have burned down several times over the centuries (from the various signs explaining when things were rebuilt, it seems to be a pretty rare for Tokyo to not be on fire) and these ones date back to 1970.
From the Kaminari-mon, we crossed the Sumida-gawa into Oshiage, following the river northward until we came to a beautiful little park in the shadow of the Tobu Skytree. There, Dan, Leif and I perched on some rocks next to the pond near two incredibly docile ducks, and ate and drank whilst watching the turtles in the water and basking on the rocks. Seeing wild turtles basking and swimming in a public park was such a surreal experience. The park itself was peaceful and beautifully landscaped with hillocks, rocks and wooden bridges, and sitting there it was difficult to remember that we were in the heart of a sprawling city, it was so peaceful.
On the edge of the park, as we headed away from the river, we found a little shrine, apparently Yushima-jinja. There I met a young girl, one of the shrine handmaidens, who spoke very good english. Whilst Dan and Leif walked around and looked at the little gift stall they had set up, she showed me how to bow at the torii to show respect for the spirits as you passed into their home. Then she showed me how to properly purify my hands and mouth with water from the fountain, before offering me a hot cup of macha (powdered green tea) which I gladly obliged. There, another handmaiden was making little statuettes of the Chinese Zodiac, so I bought a snake and a dragon, which I reckoned where my niece and nephew’s years. Sadly, I was wrong about my nephew, who is a rabbit, but he likes dragons so I think I got away with it.
As we left Yushima-jinja, the Tobu Skytree became an obvious feature of the skyline, looming high above all of the buildings for miles. Opened in 2012 as the worlds tallest free-standing tower (634m – though this has since been beaten) the Skytree has two observation decks, but again, we didn’t have the money to go all the way to the top. After exploring all of the shops inside the tower’s base (with a weird and wonderful mix of anime sponsored goodies) we took a ridiculously fast elevator ride up to the restaurant deck. Sadly, the restaurants command the best views southwards over Tokyo proper, but we could still see for miles to the north and east from our dizzying 300m height.
From the Tobu Skytree, not quite wanting to part ways from Leif yet, we made our way back to Akiba, as he wanted to show us a few of the more secretive haunts, including a store, tucked away in the depths of a computer parts store, that specialises in heavy metal and wrestling merchandise. I’m not a fan of wrestling, but the oddness of finding this specialist store buried in the corners of a computer parts shop fascinated me. How a business could survive in such an odd and secretive location was beyond me. I suppose they must have very good word-of-mouth links of advertising in local magazines. We stopped for a second time at the Cafe Excelsior for strawberry and banana smoothies, learning a few key Japanese phrases from Leif, before making our way, once again, back to Ayase.