blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

My impressions of the people

Poster at the Tokyo National Museum
I was among the Japanese for hardly more than a week. I can't claim to know them after so short a time.  However, they seem a most orderly, self-sufficient people. They look smart and well groomed. Having seen in the Tokyo National Museum centuries-old books on how to care for one's appearance, I believe this must go back many generations; it certainly has a lot to do with their upbringing. The children, even the pre-school children, are uniformly dressed in neat clothes and behave in a docile manner. Little girls wear school hats and clean socks. Elderly ladies do not go grey, but have black, dyed hair. I saw some ladies, not only the ones attending wedding parties, wearing kimonos around town and the traditional clogs on their feet. They look lovely, but I doubt if it's easy to walk in them.

Mitsokushimae underground station
with floor tiles for blind people
to walk along
Japanese women tend to stay at home to look after the housework and their children; the ones who do go to work wear tailored suits or dark-coloured dresses. The male commuters are nearly all clad in black suits. This looks like a serious, disciplined nation. Our hotel was close to the IBM offices. We watched the employees coming up the escalators and striding along the metro station corridors on their way to and from work, travelling in ones, making no eye contact. We saw no pushing and shoving. Gangs of construction workers dress differently, in bandit-like headscarves and baggy, wide-bottomed trousers.

The citizens of Tokyo appear to work till they drop. In the evening the men return home after 8 p.m., pale and exhausted. Their eyes close and often they fall asleep on the underground trains despite the constantly broadcast announcements about the next station and how to behave there. A majority of people wear disposable facemasks, ostensibly to guard against germs, but I suspect also as a barrier to too much social contact. After a few days' observation I'd come to the conclusion that they must be a nation of introverts. At breakfast time (the Parisian style coffee and croissant is a popular choice) and in the lunch hours Japanese office workers often eat on their own at solitary tables in "hole-in-the-wall" restaurants, immersed in a book and / or smoking. Smoking is generally allowed indoors, but not on the street, unless you are in a designated smokers' area.
Lunchtime at a quiet restaurant in the business district
We witnessed no graffiti and no rowdiness. We did see teenage boys studying together and trying to get their homework done. The Japanese seem to have a sense of pride in their work. At any rate, the standards of service in Tokyo are excellent. Every place that deals with the public is well manned. The servers behind the counters in caf├ęs were gracious, repeating the standard polite phrases to every customer and proffering change in two cupped palms, hands together, with a little bow. We watched two besuited gentleman saying goodbye to a third on the platform of an underground station; they made a whole series of obeisances to him as his train pulled away. The bowing is ubiquitous. After a day or two, Chris and I were doing it ourselves!

Street in Shirakawa, Tokyo
City streets are kept incredibly clean (by teams of uniformed sweepers such as we saw in China) and smooth. No paving stones to trip over here as there suddenly was in Reading when we landed back in the UK (along Caversham Road Chris tripped and fell flat on his face, grazing his knee.) On the streets of Tokyo are grooved paving stones to guide the blind towards and across every pedestrian crossing. The underground stations, with their colour coded, numbered exits, entrances, multiple maps and indicators, labelled in Japanese and English, are mopped clean at regular intervals. We were very impressed by this and as foreigners felt reassured by the efforts that had been made to make the complex network easy to follow. Goodness knows, other nations could learn from the standards set by the Japanese in public transportation!

Cars parked in Shirakawa, a residential area
I assume they feel they have to be efficient because their cities are so huge. Even after our exposure to Beijing and Shanghai last year, the vastness of Tokyo came as a shock. Not a corner of space in the city is wasted. Buildings are squeezed between buildings in peculiar, three-dimensional shapes. They were constructing a wedge shaped one near our hotel adjoining the network of flyovers; under the great concrete pillars of those main roads was a playground for children, used by a local school for football lessons. It's noisy, dark and polluted there, but at least the children have somewhere to run around. In the residential districts there is rarely room for a private garden so people put rows of plant pots outside their front doors. In the suburbs they have room for bonsai trees and topiary around the gravel paths beside their homes. Cars in the city are parked one above the other in tiered garages. In parking spots beyond the garages, the Japanese never fail to park their vehicles facing forwards.

Monday, February 20, 2012

We saw Mt. Fuji after all ...

Fujisan is on the horizon: look carefully. It was hazy today.

... but from a distance. Chris saw it, wreathed in a torus (as he called it) of clouds around its middle, from the Shikansen bullet train on his way to a meeting with some engineers in Nagoya. Not to be outdone, I found that I could see it too, hazy on the horizon but wonderfully high, conical and snowy, once I'd taken a ride in a lift to the 52nd floor of the Mori Building in Rippongi Hills. I ate a sandwich up there, looking out at it through the window. Before I took the lift back down I also saw a peculiar exhibition of sci-fi creations by the Korean artist Lee Bul which I could describe at length; I'll postpone that for now, though.

Mori Tower in Rippongi Hills
Today was our last day in Japan. We'll check out of the hotel before breakfast tomorrow morning aiming to catch the 7:30 a.m. “Limousine” (bus) to Narita airport. We already have our boarding cards printed.

Before we turn in for an early sleep tonight let me illustrate this post with some of the pictures I took today. I couldn't resist discovering one last Japanese garden, as you see. This was the Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Garden, close to the Hama-rikyu Garden I visited a week ago. It was a necessary place to go after all those tall new buildings and the weather was finer and milder than ever. A dozen turtles were sunning themselves on the rocks around the pond and I saw frogs too.

Eiffel Tower? No, Tokyo Tower
For those of you who remember my blogposts about Hangzhou last year: there was a bridge and little causeway over the pond I walked around today, and the leaflet states: “This part of the garden was designed and built to be reminiscent of Seiko Lake (Xi Hu) in Hangzhou, China [...] The real Seiko Lake was a place inhabited by holy men and Reizan, a nearby sacred mountain, was said to have mythical powers to prevent aging and bring about immortality.” A little hillock in the Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Garden recreates that mountain here in Tokyo.

The view towards the Sky Tree. Our hotel may be in this view

A city cemetery near the base of the skyscraper

The district known as Shimbashi, Hama-rikyu gardens on the left

The little "mountain" in the Kyu-Shiba-rikyu Garden

Japanese carp in the pond

Another tree in blossom

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Art, football and tombstones in Shirakawa

I began the day by taking pictures of the view from the 20th floor of our hotel. The sky over Tokyo is extra clear again today although there are hazy clouds to the west which I think may be hiding an interesting view. It's hard to tell whether the dark shapes over there are clouds or mountains. Sky conditions permitting, Chris may catch a view of Mt. Fuji on his way to his business meeting in Nagoya tomorrow.

We agonised over whether it would be worth making a journey out of town to see Mt. Fuji today, Sunday. In the end decided against it. The see-it-all guided tour for occidental tourists like us would have meant leaving at 8:30 a.m., returning at 10:30 p.m. (14 hours), and would have cost us >22,000 Yen (around $300). The alternative would have been to arrange the transport for ourselves, but when I looked at how difficult that would be, changing trains at a Tokyo station (Shinjuko) listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the most confusing station in the world, with 200 exits, handling 3.7 million passengers each day--that's half the population of London--I abandoned the plan. Chris, who has caught the cold I've been fighting off all week, needed a restful day, and so did I. We have a 13 hour flight to look forward to on Tuesday!

Chris fancied a visit to an art museum and there's one within walking distance across the river in the Shirakawa district, the Museum of Contemporary Art. As we passed that garden I liked so much we were held up by a long and cheerful line of elderly people coming out of it, many of them wearing green jackets, many of them shorter than I am, and all following a smiling gentleman with a yellow flag, who helped them (and us!) across the main road like a lollypop man. It must have been a Sunday outing for retirees.

Chris and I really like exploring the non-touristy parts of town and finding out how the ordinary people live when we're on these trips abroad. The Shirakawa district is residential, with little flower shops and petrol-stations on the street corners and a large variety of plants in pots in lieu of what we'd call gardens in front of people's houses. Pollarded poplar trees without leaves yet, and orange trees with both leaves and fruit, miniature palm trees too. The cars are stacked in two-tier garages and people's bikes are (tidily) parked everywhere, not usually locked. Streets in Tokyo are kept remarkably clean and at every zebra crossing are grooved and bobbled paving stones that aid the blind. There are rice shops and tea shops with the merchandise in sacks, and book shops. We see books, newspapers and magazines being read everywhere, whenever people have a moment to themselves.

The art museum had several outdoor sculptures and installations on display including a rectangular boxlike tower in which small clouds were being manufactured by steamers powered by solar panels produced by Canadian Solar, Inc. of Ontario) You could climb a flight of metal steps inside so as to penetrate the clouds and see them from above. Indoors we enjoyed the surprises in the foyer and looked at some of the museum's permanent collection including two or three rooms full of abstract art by Japanese women artists of the 1950s and a sound and light show running in a curtained off section, for which we had to take our shoes off. When we fumbled our way in, the entrance very dark, we found that we had to step up onto some big cuboid cushions so soft that you couldn't help sinking down into them and relaxing (some people were lying flat) to watch the “film” (projected onto the ceiling and also reflected in a circular, pool-like mirror at our feet) upon which a “bubble” was superimposed showing a contrasting film, the contrast being between city structures and nature, with a definite bias towards nature! In one sequence a woman's hand was caressing the bark of a tree as if she were making love to it. In another gallery were wall-sized paintings for which the paint had been clay of different colours, strongly reminiscent of aboriginal art from Australia. The dots had been done with Q-tips. Then came a room full of 1960s Japanese pop art, political in its intentions but not as provocative as the American equivalent, perhaps because the Japanese find themselves incapable of total disrespect.

In the basement was a posh museum restaurant where we had lunch ... and that reminds me that I haven't yet described my visit to the wonderful Tokyo National Museum last Wednesday, oh dear ... but beforehand we thought we'd see what was in the park behind the museum and came across an astonishing sports field, astonishing by virtue of the fact that hundreds of children, mostly very young (our grandson Alexander's age!) were engaged in a 7-a-side soccer tournament, divided into teams all wearing differently coloured shirts. Their parents were egging them on, on the sidelines and there must have been literally thousands of people on the grass. Each short match was centrally timed so that when the whistle blew all teams stopped playing, lined up and bowed to the opposing side. Very entertaining to watch.

On the way to the station in Shirakawa we noticed that we were walking past the entrance to a cemetery, with memorial plinths rather than graves; I assume the dead are cremated. Stone statues of the Buddhist saints wore red skull caps and red bibs. I had my red beret on today which I hope wasn't too disrespectful in this context. The cemetery or crematorium buildings were elegant and symmetrical, the gardens outside were tranquil and neat, with some narcissi blooming in a neat clump and a row of wooden pails and wooden ladles for the water you might need to keep your loved one's cut flowers alive in the vases attached to each tomb. By the memorial stones stood stacks of wooden sticks with vertical lettering upon them, names perhaps, or prayers. We are illiterate here so have no way of telling. We'd seen these in country cemeteries from the train on Thursday, too. A white funeral car pulled out as we were looking round; white is the colour of mourning here.

Rather than return to the hotel straight away we caught a combination of trains to Asakusa, the district we explored on our first day in Tokyo, which I now realise should be pronounced Asak'sa. After strolling over the Umayabashi, and sitting out of the cold wind in the sun on the far side of the river we walked back across Asumabashi to the Sensoji Temple again, which didn't seem so extraordinary as it had done this time last week. We must be getting used to Japan already. The monkey doing tricks on a lead wasn't there today, though. I could have bought a kimono in the back street bazaar.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Somewhere over the Rainbow ...

We crossed the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo Bay on the Yarikamone Line from Fune-No-Kagakukan Station to Shinbashi. This is a driverless train whose wheels roll on either side of a concrete monorail; the views from its windows are absolutely sensational, especially on such a fine, clear, cold day as today has been. I swear we could see a hint of Mt. Fuji in the distance under the very few clouds to the southwest of here.

Yarikamone Line with train
Our intention was to visit Tokyo's Maritime Museum, a huge building in the shape of a ship, but discovered after a complicated ride (see below) that it was closed for renovation. We weren't too disappointed, being so gratified by our discovery of the Yarikamone Line and there were outdoor exhibits in the grounds of the museum to be looked at free of charge: a bathyscope (reminding us of our friend Nicola Vulpe's novel) and a submarine on one side of the building near the palm trees and swimming pool. An Antarctic research ship called Soya, which we could board, was moored on the other side, like the ship we visited not so many days ago in Bristol. Then followed the Rainbow Bridge for which our train entered a tubular steel cage that we could see through, but not easily take photos through.

The Bathyscope

Radio operations room on the Soya

Notice the “Eiffel Towers” in my pictures? We saw one of them after dark last night as well, as well as the illuminated Rainbow Bridge, come to that, on our way to a noisy supper at Rippongi Hills, but that's another story.

This morning, after coffee and a bacon and egg sandwich under the flyover, via Otemachi Station on the Hazomon Line, we first made for the Imperial Palace Garden which I'd been thwarted from entering last Monday. This time, with Chris, I got in, and we saw the Emperor's blossoming Prunus trees the other side of the outer moat and the imposing walls of huge, grey, tessellating stones (the Emperor himself went into hospital yesterday for a heart bypass operation that, according to the news, was successful). The Honmaru Goten Palace stood here in the Edo period, consisting of three sections: a ceremonial and governmental area, the living quarters and administrative office of the Shogun, and the buildings where the Midaidokoro (his wife) lived with her maids and children. Beijing's Forbidden City sprang to mind! We sat on a bench on the roof of a former guardhouse talking to a civilised gentleman whose English was flawless and looking at the wide lawn that replaced that former palace. On the shadier parts of the lawn a sprinkling of snow had not yet melted. Varieties of bamboo were growing at the edge of the path, labelled with their Latin names.

Part of the Imperial wall, with snow in the shade
After going round the upper garden we looked at the lower garden which had a naturalised grove of trees in it that will soon be full of spring flowers; beyond that we found the blossom and then we passed through the Hirakawamon Gate. “The criminals and the dead,” explained the notice, “were pulled out from this gate, which is why it was called Fujyomon Gate, which means impurity.”

From Takebashi Station (bashi means bridge, you know, or at least I assume it does), after a good deal of research and planning, we took the Tozai Line to Monzen-Nikacho where we changed onto the Oedo Line going south to Tsukishima (one stop). By now it was lunch time so we came up overground to look for a likely place to eat. Rather a lot of wandering because Chris was reluctant to order strange fish. In the end we popped into a little place (the restaurants in Tokyo are mostly little) which looked like someone's dining room with cushions and shawls on the seats, and a motherly lady there spoke enough English to offer us fried rice which came in a large bowl, tasted excellent and was inexpensive, I had a glass of hot green tea with mine. And then to the Yurakucho Line to Toyosu (one stop again) and so to the Yurikamome Line I mentioned in paragraph 1. It went round in loops like my blogpost.

Hirakawamon Gate
Back to the hotel via the Shiodome and from there onto the Oedo Line again straight to Kiyosumi-Shirakawa so that I could show Chris the Kiyosumi Garden that I'd fallen in love with yesterday. It's easy to walk across the Kiyosubashi from there to the riverside promenade near our hotel. A jogger had paused in his jogging to talk to a cat on the steps there.

Friday, February 17, 2012

For my friends who are gardeners

Within walking distance of our hotel, across the Sumida River and a block beyond that on the other side, are two parks, Kiyosumi Park and Kiyosumi Garden. The latter has a 150 yen entrance fee because it is famous: "famous rocks from all over Japan were brought in to embellish the garden," completed in the Meiji period. There used to be a stately home here too but that was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Black pines and willow trees hang over the pond. There are parts of the garden where even at this time of year flowers are blooming. Birds (including some blue backed, long blue tailed ones with black heads, and many sorts of duck) and fish are everywhere, and one of the famous rocks has a haiku carved into it:
Furu-ike ya, kawazu tobikomu mizu no oto
meaning: The sound of a frog, jumping into an old pond.

I'll let my photos speak for themselves. I wandered round the garden for over an hour in a blissful trance. It was warm enough to sit on the benches and gaze. This must be the loveliest garden I have ever visited.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Outing to Nikko in more detail

Without the help of the girl who rescued us at Kita-Senju station yesterday, I doubt if we'd ever have reached Nikko. I have never been in such a confusing station. Many different lines and railway systems connect there and all the instructions except for some of the destination names are written in Japanese characters. We felt very stuck and she saw us looking helpless in a queue for the wrong information office; she led us away to another one where she wrote out the tickets for us for the Limited Express (stopping) train and gave us copious, written advice on where to go, where to stand on the platform, which cars (carriages) to enter (either 5 or 6, because the train would be split on the way), which bus to catch when we arrived at Nikko, even. What an angel in human guise. She'd learned her English in Seattle. As we were about to get on the train, she came running down the steps to find us again, clutching a bus timetable for Nikko.

[Journey description to be added later.]

The founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate had a “pompous” shrine built in his honour at the Rinnoji Temple on the side of the forested hill at the small town of Nishisando, on the edge of Nikko. The temple itself was founded in 766 AD and is presently in the midst of a major restoration, inside a great, hangar-like shed. When it's finished, it will be spectacular. They are in the process of carving the cylindrical pillars which are put together without nails. One of the tourists exploring the place with us nodded to us and said, “Japanese carpenter!” to make sure we appreciated this. Inside, three gilt Buddhas over 8 metres tall were sitting beside one another on an altar. Behind the shed and beyond the Yomeinon Gate, very ornate, were a pagoda and further temple buildings including the Taiyuin Mausoleum shrine to a 17th century Shogun who's motto was “Live a simple life!” The natural surroundings, the tall trees, the cold air, so noticeably refreshing after polluted Tokyo, the spring water (that I tasted from my hand after pouring some from one of the copper cups) would have been conducive to that, but the Buddhist ceremonies and rich ornaments looked complex to me and the explanatory signs, in translation, were not as crystal clear as the mountain streams that ran through these temples:
In Edo it was built the Kidomon gate or barrier gate here. Worshiper [sic] who visited the temple and the shrine were tightly checked about their resident and their name. On the left [...] there was the Banya or guard station or putting up notice board. This was the most important place as the entrance of NIKKO. From the records of the past, we can know a lot of things like this.

We witnessed a ceremony at the next shrine on the self-guided tour, Togashu, the place where the Three Wise Monkeys and other monkeys were depicted as carvings, reliefs, on the wall. When we walked quietly in -- “Be silent! No photographs!” said the notice -- the ceremony was in full swing, the priest chanting and occasionally shouting fiercely as he banged sticks on metal objects at a blazing fire into which he threw the sticks one by one, after making strange hand gestures. It was a very serious and magician like, repetitive performance. At the end of each sequence he waved a fan briefly at the flames and threw something on the fire to make it crackle.

At another part of the Togashu Shrine I took my shoes off to enter the temple and had two sticks clapped at me as I stood in line to see its altar. The polished floor was very cold under my stocking feet, part of the penance? At the exit another blue-robed monk shook little bells, hoping to sell me one. I also went barefoot into the temple at the Futarasen Shrine, where a pyramid of those expensive $3 apples stood on the altar as an offering to the Buddha, with mysterious, golden chambers behind a screen, not all of which I could see. Metal sculptures of cranes and lotus plants decorated the adjacent tables. Very beautiful. Best of all I liked the many steep flights of stone steps up to each shrine and their outer walls with the ancient stone pillars standing in rows with their pedestals in the snow. They reminded me of dovecotes. Pilgrims had laid pebbles on some.

To my disappointment the mountains were hidden from view behind the hills at the temple area, but we caught the No. 7 World Heritage Bus and saw them again in the sinking sun from the main part of town, where we ate an early supper or late lunch of mango lassi, chicken saag and an enormous naan bread apiece, famished, in a restaurant run by a man from Bangladesh who told me he found Nikko a bit too cold and quiet after Tokyo. He had only lived in Nikko for a month. I imagined it would be livelier during the spring and summer when the tourists started to arrive.

Shrines and mountains in the snow

Chris had a day off work and so, on the recommendation of one of the gentlemen from AIST, we went by train to Nikko, to visit the temple complex that is a World Heritage site and to catch a view of the mountains, Nyoho San and Nantai San, nearly 2500 m high. My brain is too saturated with new impressions to give a coherent account of all this yet, though I wrote some notes on the homeward journey after dark, when I couldn't look out at the views any more.

Here are a few pictures. Yes, those are the original Three Wise Monkeys, seen at the Togashu shrine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Dining out in Nihonbashi

Yesterday I ate two extraordinary meals in Nihonbashi our local district, the official centre of Tokyo.

Chris and I at Tempura Benkei, in our aprons
The first was my lunch on Yaesu Dori near Tokyo station, the street above one of the underground shopping arcades there that stretch for miles. It was about time I tried a Japanese lunch, I thought, so took the plunge when I found a place with pictures of what looked like tasty food and entered a cavernous doorway and to take some narrow stairs into the dark depths of the place. The girl employed to approach arriving diners didn't speak a word of English and a queue of customers immediately formed behind me but a man at a nearby table helped us out: "This is a chicken restaurant. You must pay fast." After a moment's confusion I gathered that he meant, order your choice of meal and pay first, before taking a seat. The choice was limited to four items, that were Fried Chicken with (something) and Rice, Fried Chicken with Egg and Rice, Fried Chicken with Rice and Miso Soup, Fried Chicken ...

"I'll have that last one," I said, nodding, pointing at the line on the menu and proffering my 1000 yen note. "Arigatoo gozaimasu" (thanks), and the transaction was done. The girl led me to a sort of cupboard with a sliding door behind which two tables each with four chairs stood in close proximity and motioned me to go in there. I squeezed in, pouring myself some O-cha (green tea) from a thermos flask into one of the teacups without handles. Jazz was playing softly as background music and there was a bell to push on the table if I needed assistance. My meal arrived very promptly on a lacquer tray. "Hai!" said the girl, meaning "yes!" or "bitte schoen." On a smaller tray were little receptacles for salt, toothpicks, cayenne pepper and soy sauce as optional extras; my meal consisted of breaded chicken with thinly shredded cabbage and mayonnaise, rice and a bowl of pickles. Before I'd finished, some business men squeezed in at the adjoining table in my cupboard and started smoking, so I didn't linger.

Supper, as illustrated in these photos, was a slightly more formal affair, with five of the people Chris has been working with this week. We were treated to this meal at "the best tempura restaurant in Tokyo," according to Hayato, who led us there from the hotel in a taxi. It is called Tempura Benkei, Benkei being a character in the Noh or Kabuki plays of old. This place too was accessed by way of narrow stairs, going up, not down. It's apparently typical for restaurants to offer small rooms to private parties, one above the other, in the narrow older buildings of Tokyo. We had our own chef and we sat in a semicircle to watch him work. Tempura means coating foods in batter and deep frying them, a cooking method introduced from Europe in the 17th / 18th century (the Edo period). In those days the fish came fresh from the nearby riverside fish market. It has to be fresh still, because you eat some of it raw. White aprons were put round our necks before we tackled this meal.

Our starters on an oblong tray were a square of fish paste, a piece of marinated (but still raw) octopus (you can see what it is from the suckers) and a slice of radish. A green salad and wasabi paste was provided, but we kept that aside for the sauce to go with the fried items, that could also be dipped into salt or have lemon dripped on them. The chef started beating the egg and water in a metal bowl with a giant pair of chopsticks, stirring in flour to make the batter, with a pile of uncooked fish, prawns and vegetables on wooden slatted trays beside him.

We began with a battered shrimp and a piece of raw fish and thereafter worked through two or three kinds of battered white fish, a sardine complete with its head, a big prawn, a thick slice of sweet potato, some greens, a big mushroom, a "devil's tongue" and a spear of asparagus, all of these vegetables likewise battered and deep fried. As honoured guests, Chris and I were each given a keyring with a plastic battered shrimp as a momento and in case we hadn't had enough batter, or so as not to waste the leftovers at the end, each member of the party was given a bag of bits of batter to take home with us as well. To drink, we were served beers, small glasses of colourless Sake and, at the end, some tea. When we thought, too full to move, that we had finished our meal, bowls of fried rice and soup were brought in as an extra course. The dessert, finally, was very good quality melon and strawberries with a dash of cream.

Our conversation with the Japanese gentlemen was lively and interesting. We got back to the hotel from Mitsukoshimae station on the Metro.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Suitengu Shrine

Yesterday was St. Valentine's Day with expensive heart shaped chocolates for last-minute sale, but we are also leading up to the Japanese Festival of Dolls (Hinamatsuri) at this time of year. The big department stores in the city had displays of the 7-tiered hierarchy of traditional dolls in their entrances and here's the one that was shown in our hotel. I like the musician dolls on the middle row.

It was drizzling outside and came on to rain later; first thing in the morning after a coffee and croissant at the TCAT I went for a walk in the immediate neighbourhood to visit our nearest shrine. It's up a flight of steps from the street level, guarded by those two lions we used to see at gateways in China, and is a place of pilgrimage for people who want to pray for help with childbirth and pregnancies. It was fairly deserted yesterday, but I saw a young couple come up to pray while I was looking round. They took the ceremonial cups and washed their hands in the cold water. An older lady with two younger ones (her daughters?) also came to pray at one of the praying stations. Suiten is the water deity; she also guards against floods.

Another interesting feature of this place was the wall of children's drawings. Later in the day, when I had the chance to speak to some Japanese gentlemen (this'll be described in another blogpost) I found out that what the people are throwing at the devil figure to ward off evil in the children's pictures is a handful of beans.  I had assumed that they were throwing coins, because that's what I see worshipers do at the shrines. The Seven Deities of Good Fortune are supposed to act in your favour at this one.

Cups for the purification ceremony