Sunday, 13 February 2011

Day 13: Death and the Panda

I woke at my usual 8:30am the morning of our Asakusa trip, and took my time with my usual morning routine as I waited for the others to wake up. For a bit of variety, I picked up a couple of egg-flavoured varieties of bread along with the usual melon-bread.

When the others were up, we decided to make a bit of a start on packing before heading out. Everything in our suitcases had distributed itself around our room along with our purchases, and it seemed to make sense to start getting organised a bit beforehand, so we didn’t have quite such a last-minute rush. It was worth missing a bit of time exploring Japan for the amusement value of watching Henry trying to figure out how to pack a pillow he had bought in Nakano Broadway, which was almost as large as his suitcase by itself.

Asakusa was our first destination after we had left our hotel at 12:00. It was fortunately only one stop away from our hostel, so we were there comfortably by 12:30. Asakusa is one of the more traditional parts of Tokyo. Rickety wooden stands outside shops overhung with lanterns offered lucky cat statues, chopsticks and fans. The atmosphere was altogether much nicer than that of the Oriental Bazaar, and the things for sale were actually being bought by Japanese people rather than tourists, which seemed to make all the difference. I went ahead and purchased souvenirs for my family members, and my friends did the same.
Asakusa's shops were often more colourful than
those we had encountered elsewhere
We hadn’t spent all that long looking around the shops before starting to get hungry, so at around 1pm, we had the usual food debate, settling on a ramen restaurant. Yingke made the very unwise decision to have a cream soda with his ramen, which looked a bit like melon soda served with ice cream (and therefore absolutely disgusting). It certainly didn’t agree with him, and unfortunately, he had to head back to the hostel straight after lunch, feeling rather ill.
Cream soda. Not the most appetising
drink in the world.
Henry, Mark and I decided to continue our explorations, and headed in the direction of the Sensoji Temple, which is one of the older and more impressive temples in Tokyo. Stopping outside the imposing entrance, we saw a large number of stalls selling charms and bracelets. Fortunes and charms sold at temples and shrines are very popular in Japan – much more so than in England. The three of us paid ¥ for our fortunes, and unrolled them eagerly. Unfortunately, none of us did that well – Henry and I received ‘regular luck’, while Mark managed to get one of the uncommon ‘bad luck’ fortunes. The system is that you then tie the paper fortune in a knot to one of the stands around the temple, and this either makes the fortune come true if it was good, or purifies it and makes it disappear if it was bad. I’m not sure what it does if it was ‘regular’ – presumably nothing. In any case, I managed to tear my fortune while I was tying it in a knot, so I imagine I’m now doomed to be devoured by a giant serpent.
Sensoji Temple
After drawing our fortunes, we headed past the grotesque statues and into the massive temple itself. Like the other shrines we had seen, there was a large box with a grate over it in the centre of the temple where you could throw money and pray. Unlike the others, however, the Sensoji temple seemed like a very lucrative business – people were crowding around the box to throw their money through the grate in return for having some wish granted, and while most were throwing coins, several notes went in while we were watching (where the smallest note in Japanese currency is ¥1000 – around £8). In the spirit of things, we threw some of our change in and prayed to the Shinto gods as well. I wouldn’t usually consider giving money to organised religion, but as far as I can see, Shinto doesn’t actively seek to convert or influence people like Christianity does. Most Japanese people seem happy to visit and donate to shrines whether they believe in the Shinto gods or not, just for the sake of maintaining tradition. They would probably be much less willing to maintain that tradition if the existence of the Shinto gods was made into a point of fierce religious debate, as the Christian god has been. I imagine the money is just used to maintain and restore shrines and temples across Japan, which is a cause I’m more than happy to support.
Purify your fortune by tying it onto the railings.
Or tear it into pieces in the attempt...

Donations are thrown into the grid, in exchange
for prayers.
After wandering around the temple a bit more, we headed back to the station. Our next stop was Ueno park. We had had brief glimpses of Ueno before, as it was where we had changed trains on the way to our hotel on the very first day, but were glad of the opportunity to explore it properly. After wandering around inside the park, we headed for the zoo. Ueno Park Zoo was well known for having a giant panda, which are quite rare. I say ‘was known’ because their giant panda died of chronic heart failure in 2008. They are currently in negotiation with the Chinese for a new giant panda. The effort of taking all the panda signs, cutouts and information apparently wasn't worth it just to put them all up again a couple of years later, so the zoo’s non-existent centrepiece is, amusingly, still heavily publicised.
The elephants were a pretty good substitute
for giant pandas.

It's a stylish lion, although I always
prefer tigers.
We paid the ¥600 entrance fee, and wandered around. It wasn’t a huge zoo, but they packed quite a lot into a small area. I particularly liked the elephants, who we saw being cleaned. They responded very obediently to commands to lie in certain positions so that their cleaners could reach different parts of them, and equally obediently to commands to stand on their hind legs and carry buckets and mops around. Clearly, training your elephants pays off. We also saw a variety of monkeys, pelicans, lions and a gorilla. Sadly neither the penguins nor the tigers were visible (the latter of which I was quite keen to see), but we felt we had managed to get good value for money as we headed out of the zoo at around 5pm.

Yingke still wasn’t feeling terribly well when we got back to the hostel, and Henry was a bit tired, but Mark and I still had some energy. We therefore decided to head out and visit one of the places that we had skipped over earlier in the trip due to lack of time: the Shinjuku metropolitan government building. It was right on the other side of Tokyo, and the trip there took over 30 minutes and cost around ¥500 each way, but it was worth it: this was one of the last chances we would have to look around Tokyo.

Shinjuku is the commercial centre of Tokyo, and many of the people who work in the towering office buildings make vast sums of money doing so (it’s a shame that they presumably have very little time to actually enjoy it). The government building is more than twice as high as the observatory we went up to in the Tokyo tower, and the views were spectacular. There was even a restaurant up there, which didn’t seem vastly more expensive than the one we had been to in Kyoto, although the diners were all very well dressed. Sadly, unlike the cameras possessed by Yingke and Henry, mine wasn’t quite up to capturing high-resolution cityscapes through the reflective glass of the observatory, and as such, the photos I took are all too blurry and generally poor-quality to be worth posting. I think next time I would schedule a more extensive evening exploration of Shinjuku. The mass of concrete and glass that surrounds you as you walk down its streets is really quite stunning.

After eating fast food as an attempt to save money, Mark and I headed back to the hostel to meet up with Yingke and Henry again, and slept at around 10:30pm.

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