Saturday was the last full day we had in Tokyo and there were still a couple of places that Dan and I wanted to see; so we awoke at sparrows (a term that Karry has taught me, meaning “the crack of dawn“) and made our way to Tsukiji to see the fish market. Having asked for directions so many times the day before, I felt pretty comfortable that I knew the way.
We passed the Buddhist temple and made our way to the fish market gates, passing into the narrow streets beyond the main road. The stench of fresh fish was everywhere, a scent I am very accustomed to, and comforted by, from my hometown, so we knew we were on the right track. The streets were made narrower still by the press of bodies moving between tables and stalls that spread from the shop fronts into the street, offering all manner of goods from fish, to vegetables and spices. Traders and merchants were hawking their wares to tourists, locals, and the local sushi shop owners.
One lady in a small cafe was serving tea to customers whilst chopping a fresh fish for her cat on the counter. The area was alive with people shouting and bartering in Japanese, and the going was slow as we slipped meter by meter through the crowd towards the fish market proper.
There we came through the gates and were no longer just dodging the crowds but also forklift trucks and small vehicles carrying stacks of polystyrene cool boxes full of fish. The way the drivers operated was like some kind of strange mechanical dance, weaving effortlessly between each other, confidently navigating gaps in the “traffic” mere inches from each other. We had missed the morning tuna market but the crowd showed no signs of thinning.
As we pressed further into the inner market, taking shelter from the roasting sun under covered alleyways, the merchandise began to change from fish to other consumables like tea and vegetables, alongside China bowls and a plethora of steel knives. Presumably this area was more dedicated to serving the local sushi bar which had drawn thick crowds queuing to get in. Each sushi bar was a small unit seating usually no more than half a dozen hungry customers eager to taste the freshest sushi in Tokyo. Both Dan and I are partial to a bit of sushi but with our week’s funding running tight, and with so much left to see in such a small time, we decided not to queue but to, instead, head west to Hama-rikyu Gardens just outside of the fish market area.
Located at the mouth of the Sumida river and with a few salt-water lagoons fed by the river and bay, Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien is a public park opened in the 1940s on the site of a Shogun Tokugawa villa from the 17th Century. As we walked the expansive grassy fields and cosmos fields, sheltering beneath the boughs in the plum tree groves, it was almost impossible to believe that mere minutes ago we had been in the heart of Tokyo’s fishing industry and were a mere stones throw from the industrial bay area.
One of my greatest wishes during the trip was to see the cherry blossoms, and this had been a huge draw to booking in April and here, on the edge of the pond, I found the most beautiful blossoms I had seen. The Japanese often have hanami, cherry blossoms viewing parties, akin to picnics. What had always been a curious flight of fancy, suddenly I understood. As fanciful and romanticised as it sounds, there’s something almost spiritual about the sakura blossoms – and for a country as spiritual as Japan, that connection is almost palpable.
Hama-rikyu also held the greatest wish of all on my Japanese visit for me, to experience the Japanese tea ceremony. There in the centre of the lake, built on stilts jutting out from a little island, was a little tea house. We made our way across the wooden bridges to the raked zen garden, paid our fee, took our shoes off and put them in the wooden locker, then sat down on a red mat on the tatami and waited.
A few moments later, a girl appeared in red hakami trousers and white haori, and laid down a tray in front of us as we sat on our knees, hands on our lap in the gesture of respect. We each gave a bow, cut our manbyun and ate it hungrily. Then, in unison we bowed again, turned the bowl of whisked green matcha twice, and drank the hot fluid down in a handful of gulps. We replaced the bowl with another bow, wiped the edge we had drank from, turned it twice again back to its original position and sat in quiet contemplation for a few moments. When we were ready, we rose to our feet and bowed our thanks to the maid (who, of course, returned a lower bow), collected our shoes and left quietly.
Hama-rikyu still had not given us all of its secrets. I mentioned earlier that Hama-rikyu Onshi Teien was built over the site of a 17th century Shogun Tokugawa villa. The grounds were used for duck hunting. Men would wait in little hides near ponds for the ducks to land, bang drums to scare the ducks into flight where they would then be netted and killed or shot by skilled archers. Alongside one of these hunting ponds we found a small stone which Yoshiro Tube, one of the falconers of the Kunaisho (the Department of the Imperial Household), built in memory of all the ducks that had lost their lives in the park. I couldn’t help but smile – such is the teaching of respect for life in Shinto and Buddhism ingrained in the Japanese.
Next on our itinerary for this last day was to visit Tokyo’s largest Shinto shrine, Meiji-jingu. Founded in 1920 and dedicated to Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, set in a 70 hectare evergreen forest of some 120,000 trees (of 365 species) all donated from across Japan when the shrine was first established, such was the love and respect for the Emperor and Empress (who founded the Meiji Restoration, introducing western culture and starting Japan’s modernisation).
Bowing at the first Torii we made our way up the gravel path through the forest, passing casks of wine from France and Saki from across Japan, waiting to be dedicated at the shrine. Despite the crowds moving beneath the boughs, a serene calm could be felt, and we passed another torii, closing in on the main shrine building.
After purifying ourselves, we entered the main shrine and paid our respects just in time to witness a traditional Shinto wedding, with bride, groom and full entourage in full religious attire. Many of the tourists were taking photos and though I dearly wished to, I didn’t feel right photographing someone else’s wedding, so instead I bowed respectfully as the wedding party passed, keeping my camera firmly in my hands.
We then took a rest for a few moments to drink before exploring the rest of the Meiji Gaien, the grand park around the main shrine (called the Meiji Naien, just so you know), stopping outside the Meiji Memorial Hall (where the Meiji Constitution was drafted in the late 19th century), the National Stadium and Tokyo’s premier karate dojo.
We made our way back out of the park towards the famous Takeshita Street (a name hilarious to a childish minded westerner), home of Japanese counter-culture shopping. We stopped at a local Family Mart and bought food and drink and ate hungrily before making our way through the press of bodies down the street that made Tsukiji look deserted. Its hard to describe Takeshita Street, so weird and wonderful is it, but suffice it to say that if you can’t find something anywhere else in Japan, it’s probably here. At the end of Takeshita Street (having survived the crowd that flowed like a river with a strong current that carried you through) we paused, took a deep breath and decided that we had but one place left to see. Shibuya, home of the infamous Shibuya Crossing. This journey would prove every bit as arduous on our feet as the trip to Shinjuku had been earlier in the week, so seriously did we underestimate the distance and misinterpret the scale of our map…
With our feet already so sore, it took a good hour for us to amble slowly from Takeshita Street to Shibuya, stopping frequently to rest our feet. We had been suggested, by our guide book, to head up one of the local towers to the Sky Lobby for some astonishing views of the local area. We were not disappointed. Even though the day had become cloudy, overcast and very close and sticky, the view spread for miles.
Then, of course, we came to the famous Shibuya Crossing, a scramble crossing where traffic lights stop traffic from all directions allowing pedestrians to flood the entire street, creating the thickest crowd I have ever seen. The craziest thing, in less than sixty seconds, it’s gone again.
For those who know the story of Hachiko, Shibuya is the setting. For those who don’t, Hachiko was an Akita dog who was the pet of Professor Hidesaburo Ueno in 1924. Every day, Hachiko would run to Shibuya station and wait for his master to return from work. In 1925, Ueno died of a brain haemorrhage and never returned to the station where Hachiko was waiting. For the next nine years, nine months, and fifteen days, Hachiko would run down to Shibuya station precisely in time for his masters train and faithfully wait there for his return. This continued until March 8 1935 when Hachiko was found dead, having died of terminal cancer and a filaria infection. The story of the dog’s loyalty has since been made into books and films, and a statue was made outside Shibuya Station’s Hachiko exit. Even the local minibus service is named after the dog.
When we got to the Hachiko Statue, there were two cats cuddled up together, fast asleep on it. I like to think that, after all these years, perhaps these two cats are Hachiko and Ueno, finally reunited.