Temple Time

My nights had been fitful at best since I’d arrived at the hotel, and the next morning Mr. Blond mentioned that I’d talked in my sleep. He told me I had babbled in Japanese and then said something along the lines of, “Do you like to ski?” I immediately remembered the dream: I thought I’d been teaching a horrible lesson in which nobody had been willing to talk, and I’d first explained something in Japanese, which is a Blight no-no, and then, desperate for any common thread on which to fashion a conversation, I asked if anyone liked skiing. I had then opened my eyes to see Mr. Blond lying on the next bed, realized with ineffable relief that I was in Tokyo, and gone back to sleep. The night before, I’d been panicking because I thought I had to write up a lab that I’d yet to even look at. I only calmed down when I woke up, saw Mr. Blond on the next bed, and realized that I was in Japan and had graduated eight months ago.


After double-checking with a hotel clerk that Asakusa Kannon Temple was, in fact, near Asakusa station and the nomenclature wasn’t just some kind of perverse joke to confuse foreigners, we headed for Asakusa. Although we examined several maps in the station before heading to the street, we were still lost and had to check another map at what looked like a tourist centre and turned out to be a police box. We were very close to one of the bridges that span the Sumida River, near which we could see an eight-story building with an inexplicable giant sculpture of a turnip on the roof. I’m told it’s some kind of famous beer building, but in my mind that simply doesn’t justify a hundred-foot rooftop turnip.


The main entrance to the temple was filled with Japanese people taking pictures of each other by the ancient red, black and gold gates. I think I saw one other gaijin the whole time I was there. Passing through the gate, we entered what looked like a street of festival stalls. It reminded me of the outdoor shopping sections at the CNEall we needed was a midway.


The gates to the temple proper were simply huge, with giant tissue-paper orbs hanging just above head level. The impressive aspect of traditional Japanese architecture isn’t so much the size per se, but the apparent weight of the structures. The roofs just seem to bear down on you like suspended mountains. It’s quite overwhelming.


Well, usually.


Asakusa temple has a unique problem compared to other, smaller temples in places like Shizuoka: there’s too much space. Normally, all the weight of the roofs is virtually on top of you, inescapable; but at Asakusa, we could back up and get a clear view of the structures, and it minimized them somehow. The fact that there was, indeed, a midway off to one side didn’t really add much to the magnitude of the place.


The gates contained a pair of large statues of what looked like demons, but we couldn’t see them very clearly because the sun was shining on the wire mesh that surrounded their enclosures. The main temple itself was twice as massive as the gates, and before its steps people were wafting smoke from a cauldron in which were placed burning sticks of incense. To the right we could see a semi-enclosed statuary fountain where people were picking up ladles and either drinking or pouring the water over their fingers.


Inside the temple, people were tossing coins into a grate before a large window and making brief prayers. Beyond the window were a pristine room full of red and gold adornments and a large statue of the Buddha. A few people were inside the room, but they didn’t look like monks; I had no idea how or why they were allowed in there.


We looked at some of the smaller structures and the five-story gold-needle-adorned pagoda that we weren’t allowed to climb, then headed back out the gates. It was rather brief, all in all.


On the way out, I bought some overpriced ningyo yaki, partially to diffuse the nominal impact of our visit and partially because I thought Mr. Blond should be introduced to anko in its most benign form. Anko is a sweet bean paste that Japanese people use the way North Americans use cream filling, while ningyo yaki is a doll-head-shaped sponge-cake snack with anko in the middle. We each had one and headed to Akihabara.

Where is Akihabara?

Akihabara is the place to go if you want electronics of any sort, and I’d been tempted to go there to buy both my laptop and the English software I needed for it. Of course, I didn’t have any idea where to go to find the shopping district, but I assumed that if we headed to Akihabara station it would promptly make itself evident and all would be well.


It would have helped if I’d actually looked at the signs.


After spending forty minutes walking in a huge circle, I took advantage of a long red light to pluck up some courage and approach a businessman standing on the corner. “Excuse me. Where is the famous shopping area of Akihabara?” He directed me up to the point at which we’d started and told me to make a right there.


We immediately discovered a tight alley lined on either side with CD players, laptops, TVs, watches and anything else that had a battery or plug attached to it. I noticed a used laptop selling for 5000 yen ($60)no AC adapter. We plunged through the alley and emerged in a sea of duty-free and discount stores, some no larger than a fruit stand, others up to eight stories high. We had found the Mecca of Electronics.


It was unusual to get hassled to buy things in English; there’s a sort of filtering effect when you refuse service in a second language, but you can’t pretend there’s a language barrier limiting your courtesy when you tell the glowering middle-eastern guy hovering over your shoulder that you’re just looking.


We headed to a tall building with a five-story Microsoft ad on the side to use a free internet café. Mr. Blond found out the details of his stay in Australia while I found out that the Toronto Star wanted me to research a follow-up to my article and started silently kicking myself in the corner. I also received, a little too late, advice from Mr. Blond’s friend about things to do in Tokyo. It included Sumo. I wish I’d thought of that.


We then returned to one of the multi-story shops to pick up a CD/MP3 player Mr. Blond had been eyeing. In our wanderings, we’d seen its price vary from 16,000 to 8800 yen. I happily noted that my laptop was on sale for only 10,000 yen less than I’d paid for it, which, considering the cost of travelling to Tokyo and the freebies I’d received by ordering online, made their prices roughly equal.

Don't Look for Food in Ginza

We decided to look for food in Ginza since it was the next stop on our agenda. Ginza is another name I’d learned in Japanese class, so I figured it was worth a look.


Mr. Blond and I agreed that the general rule of Tokyo was that everything just had to keep getting bigger everywhere you went. Ginza consisted largely of massive shopping of all sorts, from department stores to small, specialized shops, all in eight-to-ten-story buildings topped by giant red and blue electronic adsyet more classic Tokyo. Unfortunately, we decided we wanted to look for sushi, and after following my usual pattern of randomly diving down side streets, the only one we found featured a kanji-based menu I couldn’t read.


By the time we decided we were quite sick of wandering aimlessly, we were in front of a pepper steak place. We sat down at the U-shaped bar and I could see the panic in the waiter’s eyes as he tried to explain that we needed to buy meal cards from the machine behind us and give him the tickets so he could prepare our food. We figured it out surprisingly quickly.


When we reached the street above the station near our hotel, Mr. Blond oriented himself faster than I did. I guess I was never much of a guide.

You Are Clearly Lying When You Say There Are Buses Here

I rushed onto the second-last bus leaving Tokyo for Shizuoka. I had to work the next morning, and I didn’t trust my ability to buy the proper ticket for anything, so I was a little concerned that there was only one more bus if I made any sort of critical error. I’d said a hasty goodbye to Mr. Blond and worried about social propriety as I followed an attendant’s instructions to ignore what seemed to be a long line for my bus and simply get on board. I tried to jovially explain my hesitance to the driver, but he didn’t even blink. I wondered if it was because my Japanese was incomprehensible or because he simply didn’t care.


In the station I’d once again chosen random directions in which to look for the buses because there wasn’t a single sign telling me where they were. I swear there’s some sort of conspiracy pushing people to take the train everywhere: you could find the train platforms if you started walking in Yokohama, but there’s barely any evidence that buses even exist in Tokyo station. I finally asked where on earth they were when I reached a dead-end, and, naturally, discovered that they were at the other end of the station. I had about four minutes left. The first sign I saw labelling the bus terminal was about twenty feet from my bus.


I was worried about leaving Mr. Blond to navigate his way to Narita airport on his own, particularly because he’d left my number in Toronto and I’d forgotten to give it to him again. But he could probably fare just as well on his own as he did with me. His flight was leaving around 9:00 the next evening.


As the bus pulled away from Tokyo station, I found myself feeling quite satisfied with my second experience in Tokyo. Passing the neon-lit nighttime streets, I wondered if I’d visited any of them during the day. I could see Tokyo Tower lit up bright yellow and orange against the darkened sky. I took to peering into the buildings beside the raised highway, and discovered that at 8:00 at night, there were still a good number of people in many of the offices we passed. No wonder these people have a word for death by overwork. After that, it was off to the darkness of the open road.


I used an incredible amount of Japanese in Tokyo. My grammar is still a total muddle, mind you, but most of my trepidations are gone. I was actually disappointed when I bought the ningyo yaki at Asakusa Temple and the storekeeper said in English, “That’ll be 300 yen.”


“Hai. Sanbyaku en,” I’d replied.


Mr. Blond e-mailed me the other day and told me that he’d spent his last day in Yokohama and then went to a conveyor-belt sushi place we’d spotted in Shinjuku. I’m envious. I’ve never gone to one of those places.


Now I’ve just got to figure out how I’m going to get to Akita next month. I found out the night I returned that I’ve been moved to another school a few blocks from my own and my days off have been changed, so it’ll take a bit to get things sorted out.


Until then, all the best.

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January 2002