Nothing says “Hello I’m an American” like a Target bag in Tokyo

The nature of today’s title is stolen from Christine the Dinosaur.  She always has really long titles and today, I do too.

As I was walking into the hotel this evening, I passed a guy on his way out.  It’s not strange to see Western faces here, nor is it strange to see someone carrying a plastic bag – heck, I was.  What was different was that this Western face was carrying a plastic Target bag.  “Hello Mr. American, how are you?”  🙂

So, this post is another with the potential to be quite lengthy as I spent a vast majority of the day outside of my hotel room and in near perpetual motion.  You have been warned.

The morning started with earthquakes and phone calls.  There were the two quakes I posted about earlier, but nothing else throughout the day.  I had a good chat with both Susan & Olivia as well as Christine.  They each offer me a wonderful connection back to home as well as method to unburden myself of worries and fears.  I feel very lucky to have people so close, as well as access to technology that allows for it to happen.  We even had a group chat amongst the three of us at one point!

Before heading out into the world I decided it was time for laundry.  Given that I have no clue how to locate a coin laundry (haven’t seen any), I had to settle for the in-hotel laundry service which I knew would be over priced.  I gathered up all the items that really needed to be washed, dropped them in the bag and headed into the hallway to see if housekeeping was about.  I found someone, used my best sumimasen and held up the laundry.  Via goofy sign language I sorted out that it should stay in the room.  Okay, that’s fine.  Oh – someone else came to pick it up.  And I didn’t listen carefully when he said it’d be back at 7pm so I told him I didn’t speak Japanese… to which he said, “No, English.  You’ll have it back by 7pm.”  I felt like an idiot. :/

At that point I referred to my Tokyo guide book, reviewed some options with Susan, and then told her goodnight.  I decided that I’d go visit a Buddhist temple in Asakusa named Sensō-ji.  According to the wiki link, “it is Tokyo’s oldest temple, and one of its most significant.”  I didn’t realize that when I chose it… which is amusing because I stumbled into another significant shrine in November, Meiji-Jingu.  I picked Sensō-ji because it was in Asakusa and my everyday train station is on the Asakusa line, so I knew it’d be really simple to get there.

(Photos for this adventure start here and go to the left.)

I headed out of the hotel, into the subway and on to Asakusa.  This train covers both airports so its seating configuration was a bit different, with a lot more (comfortable) seats than the standard train.  Plus this is the train that generates a lovely breeze in the station every time it comes in – I can feel it when I come up from my normal train.  This line has an Express train, but it doesn’t stop at this station and I’m not even sure if it comes through the station… if it did, I bet the wind is even more powerful!

Upon arriving at street level of the Asakusa station I found a lot of young men advertising something, but they didn’t seem to be interested in me as a customer.  That’s fine – I’m getting used to A) ignoring people selling stuff on the street and B) being selectively overlooked as a potential customer given my appearance.  (That is, I’m a Gaijin)  I wasn’t quite sure how to get to the shrine from the station, even after looking at the big map next to the road, but I just followed the crowd.  Suddenly I found the Kaminarimon Gate and I knew where to go – Susan and I watched a video of someone walking through here!  Through the gate you’re lead into Nakamise-Dori, a dense area of shops.

(A Google map with my starting location is here.  A map of Senso-Ji is here.)

I made my way through the shopping district, moving closer to the temple grounds, with the beautiful buildings looming ever larger.  At the front of the temple was a huge gate that lead into an open courtyard type area.  In the center of this courtyard was a cauldron full of incense.  The incense were placed by some of the hundreds of people visiting the temple and everyone would gather around to allow the smoke to drift over them as well as to sweep the smoke over their heads.  Apparently waving the smoke over your head is intended to bring good health.  I took a few waves just in case.

I also encountered the traditional cleansing ritual that I’d seen at Meiji-Jingu last year.  This time, though, I had read up and was prepared.  You approach the fountain and take a long-handled ladle full of water.  Holding your hand away from the pool and over the trough, you rinse your left (assuming the ladle is in your right) hand, then you repeat with your right hand.  Finally, you take some water into your mouth (you decide how – plenty just shove the ladle to their mouth, but other cup their hand), rinse and spit into the trough.  As a note, this cleansing routine isn’t a requirement – plenty of people pass it up and no one is preventing them from accessing the shrine.

I headed up the stairs into the main building.  I must have spent around 30 minutes standing in the building.  It wasn’t as if there was much to do or see – it was a medium sized space that you could circumnavigate in 5 minutes or less.  No, the reason I stood there was just to soak it in.  The ritual is to toss a coin into the offering box (which is huge – I said toss on purpose), place your hands together, pray, and then walk away.  I watched hundreds of people come through and do this.

The sound of coins hitting the box never stopped.

Some people would approach the box and drop it in from the side.  Others would pitch the coin in a high arc over everyone’s head because the crowd was too thick to navigate.  Some would say a quick prayer, others slightly longer.  Some would bow, some wouldn’t.  There was a small glass “box” to the right of the offering box with candles, but not many people dealt with that, so I couldn’t quite figure out the routine there.  I thought to light a candle, but I didn’t know the true propose or the process.  I did, however, send my coin into the box and say a little prayer.

There was one little old lady that I watched go through the whole process.  She was clearly there with a purpose in mind, whereas plenty of the others seemed to perhaps just being going through the mechanisms because they were told to by their parents long ago.  This little lady walked toward the shrine and stopped very near to me so she could collect several (??) coins from her coin purse.  She made her way to the candle box where she moved a candle from one ring to another, presumably adding one along the way, and spun the rings every so slightly.  Next she moved to the offering box.  I lost her in the crowd for a bit, so I don’t know if she had a big throw on her coin(s), but I did see her pray intently for some time.  And then, just as she had arrived, she made her way out the door.

Just another strong, independent grandmother making her way through the hustle and bustle to pay her respects.  This and several other ‘old lady’ observations today really brought my grandmother Dot to mind strong today.  I’m not sure why I am reminded of my Southern farm-girl grandmother when I see a stooped and shuffling Asian grandmother, but something connects them in my mind.

After spending so long in the building, being peaceful and observant amongst the din of activity, I left feeling refreshed.

As I’m writing, I just realized that I hadn’t walked through the gate and straight into the shrine, but instead I had explored the grounds a bit first.  I found a number of various statues, including a pair of Buddhas, each with a different blessing.  I spent some time looking these and taking photos.  I watched people collect their fortunes from the boxes on the courtyard grounds.  I wanted to get a fortune, but it’s all in Japanese and I figured it wouldn’t be a good idea to take one home, as the idea is to tie it up on the trees / lines at the temple for the wind to blow away the bad luck.  If I carry it home, I may carry home the bad luck as well!

From the shrine I walked the grounds more.  I saw a group of uniformed women standing in an arc – later I got closer and I’m pretty certain they’re tour guide trainees / soon-to-be graduates.  What was most amusing was the uniform was down to the purse they carried as well as the quantity and placement of their ink pens in the purse.  Several older guides were behind them taking notes or something – they, too, were just as precisely uniformed.

I walked to another shrine, this one the Asakusa shrine – it honored the two men that fished out the Buddhist statue from the river and made Asakusa the important place it became.  This is a Shintō shrine, so the prayer routine is slightly different.  Here perform the same cleansing ritual as well as the coin toss, but you clap twice, bow once, pray, clap twice, bow once and leave.  I didn’t do this one.

I then did more wandering – I covered what must have been the majority of the temple grounds, finding lots of other shrines with lots of other interesting statues.  I also found the row of food vendors!  I walked past them once, taking close stock of what they had to offer, then headed into the surrounding neighborhood.

I generally got myself “lost” amongst all the shops and cafes – I was just walking and occasionally I’d take a turn down a different street.  I always knew sort of how to get back to the temple, but not exactly.  At one point I thought “oh – I’ll be able to see the pagoda at least.”  Then I looked – a 5-story pagoda has nothing on dozens of 15 story apartment buildings.  Oops.

The shops near the shrine were interesting – I spotted a thrift shop that could have given the Goodwill stores a run for their money in inventory, but had a quarter the space of a Goodwill store.  Stuff was just piled on tables, neatly folded.  There was the aging amusement park – it intrigued me at first, then scared me as I looked at the density and age of the equipment from the gate.  The bicycle parking lot was a blast… there had to have been more than 100 bikes shoved into this lot with security guards watching over it.  Now I don’t quite know what the security guards would do… did they know who went with every bike?  There seemed to be absolutely no system of claiming a bike.

Which leads me to a random thought – there are bikes everywhere in this city and a vast majority of them don’t have locks.  For example, I walked down the alley beside my hotel and there were two bikes sitting there with nothing keeping me from grabbing them.  What a nice place.  It does make me wonder why I have to lock my umbrella in the lobby though…

Another really interesting part was an alley full of little cafes.  Not only was it intriguing to wonder what each place offered, they seemed really with their cool outdoor seating at stools against family style tables.  The best part were the staff standing just at the edge of their personal domain, calling (politely) to the people walking the street to come to their place. (“<Something, something, something> dozo!”)  Often these were women, primarily younger, but not always.  They’d stand only 10 feet from one another, each calling to the crowds to visit their place.  While this may sound similar to the mess I put up with in Roppongi, it’s a welcome change – they are asking politely and non-aggressively.  Make eye contact, they won’t follow you or harass you.

I wanted to visit these ladies’ restaurants, but I didn’t feel comfortable – I didn’t have the energy to navigate ordering from Japanese menus, which I presumed they all had given the Japanese only signage on their establishments.  Plus I wanted to eat extra cheap and I’d seen takoyaki in the vendor row.  My stomach told me that’s where I needed to go, so I did.

I arrived, ordered, and paid.  I found a nice shady spot and dug in.  I completely burned my tongue / mouth with the first one because I shoved it whole – and blazing hot – into my mouth.  I was afraid I’d have to spit it out, which might be really disgusting / offensive.  I just kept breathing out of my mouth until I got it under control.  I then took the time to bite into the other pieces instead of popping them whole.  That worked a whole lot better…

I think I’ll end this post here and start a new one, just to make these manageable.  I’m already beyond 2200 words this post…

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