Friday, 22 August 2014

Old Town Tokyo - Yanaka (Part 1)

This post is dedicated to one of my regular readers. Noel, this one's for you.

The word shitamachi in Japanese means "old town" and as you may have noticed from posts about places like Togoshi Ginza, Koenji and Shimokitazawa I like these areas!  There was one that I had been meaning to visit for quite a while now called Yanaka.  It is quite central, located just out of Nippori station on the central Yamanote train line.  Yanaka was spared the bombing that other areas of Tokyo suffered from toward the end of WWII and thus retains the old town, rustic charm that makes it special.

In 1657, a very large fire called Meireki no taika swept through and destroyed much of Tokyo. During the rebuilding of the city, a lot of the temples were moved to the Yanaka area and as a result, the district is home to about 70 temples! A far greater concentration than the much more famous Kyoto I think!

Based on all of this I decided that a visit to Yanaka was well worth a visit.

My day began badly, however as I got to my local train station to find that the normally reliable train system that Japan has was having a bad day. Everything had ground to a standstill as a train with an "Out of Service" sign sat still on one of the tracks. I had promised one of my students, Natsumi, that I would visit the restaurant that she works at for lunch, and this was seriously going to make me late! I walked to the next station and managed to wind my way to my destination by a variety of other train lines. Finally I arrived at DG Fish and Shellfish or Deli Giuliani depending on which door you walk through.



It is usually an Italian and Spanish inspired restaurant (that also does meat dishes too) but on this day, as it was the last day before their summer vacation started, they had a buffet for lunch. Laid out was a delicious banquet that was just waiting for me and my empty stomach!




I sat down to a couple of plates of delicious food and a nice cold beer (thanks Natsumi!)


The regular lunch menu has dishes such as pastas, risottos and rice bowls while the dinner menu was in Japanese but had nice pictures to assist in ordering if you can't read Japanese. They also have a member of staff (Natsumi) who speaks quite good English to help too!




One of the chefs was also starting to work on a big sea bass that was going to be a nice fish carpaccio for dinner.


The food was great, so if you are ever in the Tsukiji area looking for a good meal, I recommend DG Fish and Shellfish.

Having filled my belly with some great food, I continued on my way to Nippori station. Stepping outside of the south exit, I quickly found myself at Yanaka cemetery. Now this may sound a little morbid, but Yanaka cemetery is actually a top tourist spot in the area! There are about 7,000 graves in the cemetery and it is the final resting place for the last Shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa. The main path that runs through the centre of the cemetery is lined with cherry trees which makes it a popular place in spring time when the cherry blossoms bloom.

I walked away from the station and towards the cemetery entrance.


Just inside the cemetery entrance is Tennoji Temple which dates back to 1274AD. I love temples as they quite often have beautifully manicured gardens inside the grounds and the temples of Yanaka didn't disappoint there!






Tennoji Temple is also home to a big copper Buddha statue that was quite impressive



and a statue of the Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. She apparently has the ability to appear in many forms in order to relieve suffering.


I left Tennoji Temple and walked a little way into the cemetery along the central path



The sound of summer in Japan is the cicada and walking among the trees, the air was thick with the sound of the chirping and screeching away!

I then decided to head out of the cemetery to walk around the edges along the streets where there were some beautiful old style houses.


Pretty soon I came to another one of Yanaka's beautiful temples.


I walked inside the main gate and was greeted by these sights.....






Beautiful. I was the only one there. Yanaka was saying "Here Jason, this is just for you.......".

After pausing to take in the atmosphere of the temple grounds I headed back out to continue walking around the cemetery. Cemeteries in Japan have a lot of these boards of wood at each grave with the name of the person buried there on them.....


and I remember asking one time what they were for. I was told the following (and if this is not true, please correct me). When the wind blows, the boards slap together and the resulting noise is supposed to keep evil spirits away.

I guess this next one may have been for someone important.


Exiting the cemetery I found this information on a post that tells a little about the history of the place.

Exiting the other side, I decided to continue walking the streets to see what other treasures could be found and immediately saw this beautiful old style building in front of me.


I had read before I went to Yanaka that the residential area had the feeling that time had left it behind and walking around, it really felt like that.






Walking along further, another two of Yanaka's temples appeared (and they did kind of appear out of nowhere. One moment I was walking along past houses, the next moment, suddenly, there was a temple!).







I started walking down this street in search of more discoveries



And was passed by a huge group of Italian tourists!


It made me wonder how the locals feel now that Yanaka is becoming more and more popular with tourists.

I think I'll stop this post here and start working on a Part 2. This one is a little longer than I expected it would be.

I hope you've enjoyed it so far. Keep your eyes out for part 2 soon.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Little Edo (Koedo) - Kawagoe

CNN named Kawagoe "The Most Japanese Destination" in 2012, and after today, it's hard for me to disagree.  Kawagoe is actually one of the oldest towns in the Kanto region and the city has preserved areas in the old style.   In the seventeenth century, Kawagoe became more important as a Shogun (Feudal Lord) moved in to the area and built his castle there.  It is only 50 minutes by train from central Tokyo (Shibuya), it is quite easy to get there.

I had been planning to visit Kawagoe for a long time.  I was actually on the train going there in December last year when I saw a message on the train TV saying the train that goes to Kawagoe was suspended (not the one that I was on, but one that I would have to transfer to.....) so I changed my mind and went to Shinatatsu Ramen Street instead.  It had always been my intention to visit and recently a friend, Masae, and her family moved to Kawagoe.  Masae's husband Hiroaki is a Kawagoe native and they offered to show me around when I went there.  I had a three day weekend this weekend and after a few quick messages, it was organised, I would meet them and look around Kawagoe.

I started out from my house early (for me) in the morning and the day was already quite hot.



Japanese summers are quite tropical in that they are hot and humid (I didn't know when I left home, but the temperature was going to hit 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) with almost 80% humidity) and I am not a hot weather guy, but this was Kawagoe, so I was going to endure the conditions and have a great day!

I met Masae, Hiroaki and their beautiful daughter Akari at Kawagoe station.  I jumped into their car and said hello to Akari in Japanese and she started crying (good one Jason!).  I switched to English and she suddenly stopped!  Okay, English it was for the rest of the day with her!

First stop for the day was the historic Kitain Temple to get Masae and Hiroaki's new car purified.



Kitain Temple was built in 830 A.D.  It was burned down during fighting in 1205 and rebuilt in 1298.  Kitain temple also is home to some buildings from Edo Castle (home to the current Imperial Palace).  Due to the damage suffered by Tokyo from the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, these are the only buildings that remain from Edo Castle.  Quite a long history indeed.

I had a quick look around the temple grounds that we were in and it was very spacious compared to the ones back in Tokyo.







The main temple itself,



and a nice little pagoda inside the temple grounds.



Next we had a look at the part of the temple that is comprised of the remains of Edo Castle.  The entry fee is 400 yen, but worth every yen!  These were the last photos I took of this part of the temple as photos inside this building are not allowed.

The garden outside the building,



and an information sign outside.



It is a real shame that I wasn't able to take photos, because the inside was beautiful, and on the other side of the building there was an sensational garden.  Also, just like Ni-jo castle in Kyoto it had a floor that was designed to chirp like a nightingale bird to warn the shogun that someone was approaching.  Walking around on this floor, I had the same silly grin on my face as I had walking around Ni-jo castle last year.  It is incredible the sound that the floorboards make!

At this stage, the purification ceremony for the car was about to take place so Masae, Hiroaki and Akari joined that ceremony, I wandered off to explore the temple grounds some more.  Walking behind the temple I came across the Daimyo graves.  This is the final resting place of five of the Shoguns that ruled Kawagoe in the 18th and 19th century.




Wandering around a little more I came across this.



It required a little more investigation so I walked around closer and discovered a little Japanese garden area with a shrine on an elevated island in the middle with a little bridge to cross to get to it.





Beautiful and something I had not seen before at any other temple I had visited.  A lot of people say that you can only see so many temples before you've seen everything.  I disagree!  Look closely enough and each temple and shrine has it's own unique aspects.

I walked across to the other side of the temple grounds and saw something astonishing behind some gates.






They were behind a locked gate and I walked around the enclosure a couple of times but couldn't find a way in.  I was so disappointed as this looked quite amazing.

I walked back over to where the purification ceremony was taking place and it was still continuing so I bought a beer from the kiosk on the temple grounds and sat back in the shade to enjoy it.

Pretty soon the ceremony was over and Masae and Hiroaki came over and I told them about the statues I had see.  "Don't worry" Masae said, "Our tickets for the castle get us in there".  Great!!!!

We went to a little ticket box and the man explained in English that there are 538 statues in the enclosure that represent the disciples of Buddha.  Of the 538, there are 12 that also have the animal symbols of the signs of the Chinese zodiac.  He explained that if you can find the statue that represents your own sign of the zodiac and rub it, it will bring you great luck.  My sign is the wild boar and just as we were about to enter he said to me quietly "If you can't find it, I can give you a hint.......".  Determined to find it myself we entered and walking around once, we realised the size of the challenge that was ahead of us.  There were statues everywhere!!




We found a few animals, but not my boar or Hiroaki's tiger.  We went back out to have another look at the pictures and re-entered the enclosure and soon found the tiger.  We still couldn't find the boar, and Masae and I were just about to give up when Hiroaki called out to us.  We rushed over, and there it was!



I gave it's head a good rub



and now, let the great luck begin!

Mission accomplished, we got back into the car and drove off toward the old part of Kawagoe.  We arrived and started walking and pretty soon the old buildings started appearing.




I mentioned to Hiroaki how nice they looked and he said "Oh, we're not there yet!".  What, it was going to get better?  You bet it was!

Walking around a couple of corners and we saw this.......










Incredible..........The feeling walking along these streets was completely different, but just as amazing as walking along the preserved streets of Takayama.  Walking the preserved area of Takayama, it felt like I was in a historical museum.  Kawagoe, on the other hand, represented what truly amazes me about Japan.  I always say that I love the contrast of the old, traditional Japan living comfortably next to the new, modern Japan, and here was a perfect example in front of me.  Three hundred year old buildings lined the streets while cars and buses drove past them.  This was the ultimate example that I had seen so far on my travels.

Turning another corner we saw one of the most famous sights of Kawagoe, the Time Bell Tower.




The bell in the tower is rung four times daily (and has been since the early Edo period, in the 1600's) at 6am, 12pm, 3pm and 6pm and it's sound has been selected of one of the "one hundred soundscapes of Japan".

After all of that walking, we found ourselves in an area with a few restaurants and selected one to have lunch in.



We were taken to our seats next to a window that overlooked a beautiful waterfall that was cascading into a little pond with some carp swimming around in it.



Lunch came, chicken skin kamameshi (a rice dish cooked in a metal pot), and disappeared pretty quickly too.


Sweet potato is one of the famous products produced in the Kawagoe area along with Unagi (freshwater eel) and coming out of the restaurant we saw desert........sweet potato ice cream!!



Now, I know what you are thinking, but it actually tasted good!!

I tell you, there is one person that I would not have wanted to be on such a hot day like it was.  This guy!



Even he looks like he doesn't want to be him!  I can't imagine having to run around pulling people and being cheerful in 37 degrees!!

Now, I'm not sure, but I think wearing one of these would be pretty hot and tiring too.......



The next place we arrived at was called "Cat House".



On such a hot day, I didn't expect to see a lot of cats, but there was one out enjoying the sun,



but there were a whole lot of spiders......



A little further on there was a big chameleon telling people that if they throw 5 yen into his little pond, their relationship would grow stronger.  I'm single so I kept my wallet in my pocket.



And then there was this.



I'm not sure what he / she was telling people to do.

Next we came to a little street called "Candy Street".  Both sides of the street were lined with candy shops selling all sorts of sweet things.







One final place we went to was the Kawagoe Festival Museum but I'm not going to write too much about that here as I do plan to go back to Kawagoe in October when the festival is on to see it and write about it then.  The festival will be held on the 18th and 19th of October.

Walking back to the car we walked past (and into) a knife shop.  Now Japan is famous for the quality of it's knives and katanas (swords) so I stopped to take a couple of photos as a friend back in Australia loves Japanese knives.



Those two knives by themselves down on the bottom left hand side of the display, can you guess how much they are worth?...........give up?



Over $1,000 each!!!  I just can't understand.......I guess chefs will pay that kind of money for top quality knives.

Almost back to the car, Hiroaki pointed out one last scene that needed to have a photo taken of it.



It just kind of summed up Kawagoe.  Simply beautiful.

Thanks again for reading, and thanks so much to Masae, Hiroaki and Akari for showing me around Kawagoe.  Stay tuned for the October update on the Kawagoe festival.

Until next time, bye.