Today we took a trip to meet a friend of ours for lunch. We took our first trip on the underground, using our shiny Suica cards for the first time to get to Kamiyacho station. Using the card with the cute little penguin is a much more efficient process than using the JR Pass, which involves having to show your pass to a man in a booth before being allowed into the station, and will be familiar to anyone who has used an Oyster card on the London underground. The only difference from London is that the gates are always open until you try to go through without a valid card or ticket when they slam shut on you! We got our first taste of packed Tokyo commuter trains which wasn’t as bad as expected. We were just outside peak times but were still pressed uncomfortably up against strangers.
First stop today was Japan Sword, a shop that (surprise) sells Japanese Swords. The shop is kind of a gallery of ancient and modern swords for sale. Given that many of them cost several hundred thousand Yen, it is a good job that the staff are happy for tourists like us to browse and not buy anything. The staff are very attentive and polite, they showed us round the shop and explained the history and significance of a lot of items just as if we were in a museum. There was never any attempt to sell us anything although they did explain how they could mount various different swords and how much it would cost. They were as polite and friendly when we left empty handed as when we arrived. I’m told that if you do buy anything then the staff are well versed in legal implications of ownership in various countries and can arrange import and shipping etc. Now if only I can find a spare £5000 I might use their services!
After the sword shop we still had a few hours to kill and we spotted a small shrine marked on the map amid a jumble of skyscrapers and office buildings and decided to take a look. A winding suburban looking street climbs up out of the otherwise flat district and eventually arrives at the shrine. A small oasis of calm in the city, it was lovely to stroll around the compact shrine with its cherry blossoms and fish pond with the office blocks peeking out from behind them. There are several other larger and flashier shrines or temples in this area but I would definitely recommend visiting this one for its relaxed atmosphere and tranquil beauty. We found another way down to street level by means of a very long staircase arched by tori gates and headed off for lunch.
For lunch we went to a small traditional Japanese place. Menus were all in Japanese so it is a good job we had our friend with us to translate for us. There were only 2 options though and they were somewhat vaguely described. The restaurant is very popular with office workers on their lunch break and only holds about 20 so we were there early to queue. Food was rice with raw fish, grilled fish, miso soup, chawanmushi, natto and various pickles. Not being a big fan of fish or eggs I was apprehensive (as I was about food on this trip in general) and I did find I didn’t like some of the food, but generally I enjoyed it but was defeated by the difficulty of eating slimy natto with chopsticks in the end!
After lunch we went for coffee before heading up to a viewing terrace in an office block for a good view of Tokyo Tower. We walked over to Tokyo Tower to have a look but decided not to bother going up today. Instead we wandered around the park next door and made our way to Zojo-ji Buddhist temple which is so close to the tower that you can see it from many places in the temple.
At the temple there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of little stone Jizo statues many dressed in bright clothes and with toys or brightly coloured windmills. Jizo is apparently commonly worshipped as the guardian of children and this particular collection is for the souls of unborn children. The clothes and toys are offerings to Jizo to either help with the protection of the soul of a particular child or children in general or to give thanks for his help in the past*. I didn’t know this at the time as there were no signs explaining the statues but the whole area provokes a contemplative attitude while the splashes of bright colour cheer you up should your contemplation become too intense. Although a very sad subject, the rows of statues with their bright clothes, windmills and flowers make wonderful pictures.
The rest of the temple complex is unfortunately not that interesting. Like many ancient monuments in Tokyo, the original buildings were either destroyed or badly damaged during the second world war and have since been rebuilt using modern materials to mimic the original. The buildings here are imposing rather than beautiful but are nice enough to look at from a distance. Once you get up close though you start to feel like you are outside a stylised office building. Fortunately though there are hundreds of cherry trees blossoming in the grounds which were very beautiful.
From Zojo-ji we headed to Aoyama cemetery which seems like an odd tourist destination but it is famous for its cherry blossoms. The cemetery is very beautiful and is indeed filled with cherry blossoms alongside beautifully tended graves marked with polished stone or carved or branded wooden stakes. I’m a bit uncomfortable photographing graves, even in my own country, so we had a relaxing walk to end our day. If you want to see what the cemetery looks like, check out Google images.