Sunday, April 2: As I leave Ameyoko Shopping street and prepare to enter Ueno Park, I brace myself to penetrate the crowds I can already see near the south entrance. I wrote in my previous blog post that the cherry blossoms were just past their peak, but now I’ve been told otherwise. They are actually expected to peak next weekend, the 8th and 9th. Sadly, rain is forecast for the upcoming weekend. So what I’m seeing today are sakura before their peak, and this may be my only chance to see them.
Once inside the park, I make my way slowly to the “main” entrance, where I find an 1898 bronze statue of Takamori Saigo (1827-1873), dubbed the “last true samurai.” He was instrumental in bringing the new Meji government to power and in later defeating Tokugawa shogun loyalists who, despite reaching a peaceful agreement for the turnover of power, attacked the incoming government at Ueno; though the loyalists were defeated, they set fire to Kan’ei-ji, the protector temple of the city, and nearly a thousand other houses. Though the statue should have been erected at the Imperial Palace, it was erected here because Takamori, angered by the new government’s abolishing of samurai privileges, led an abortive coup against the very government he helped bring to power. He ended his own life in a ceremonial suicide.
The government was conflicted because they wanted to honor him but didn’t know how to recognize him because of his treasonous act. So they placed the statue in Ueno Park, the site of his victory over the Tokugawa loyalists. However, they clothed him in traditional kimono with his hunting dog at his side rather than in his Meji general’s uniform. Neither the statue’s placement nor his garb pleased his wife, however.
Leaving the statue, I stroll under a canopy of cherry blossoms and make my way to Kiyomizu Kannon-do, a sub temple established in 1631 by Tenkai Sojo (a High Buddhist priest), following the pattern of Kiymizu-dera Temple in Kyoto.
Many people come here to pray to the Kosodate Kannon in hopes of conceiving a child.
At Japanese shrines, I see ema of various types hanging on metal racks. Ema are small wooden plaques on which Shinto worshippers write their prayers or wishes; they then hang them at the shrine. There, the kami (spirits or gods) are believed to receive them. They bear various pictures, often of animals or other Shinto imagery, and many have the word gan’i, meaning “wish”, written along the side.
Ema are sold for various wishes, and help support the shrine financially. Common reasons for buying a plaque are for success in work or on exams, marital bliss, conception of children, and health. Some shrines specialize in certain types of these plaques, and the larger shrines may offer more than one.
In addition, I see O-mikuji, random fortunes written on strips of paper at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. These are usually received by making a small offering (generally a five-yen coin as it is considered good luck) and randomly choosing one from a box, hoping for the resulting fortune to be good. The o-mikuji is scrolled up or folded, and unrolling the piece of paper reveals the fortune written on it.
I attempt to make my way to the Benten-do, an island built in the middle of Shinobazu Pond for the shrine to the Shinto goddess Benten, one of the Seven Gods of Good Luck. In 1670, a causeway was built from the shore to the island. However, the crowds are so thick going over the causeway that I decide against going, and instead walk along the less crowded southern part of the pond.
Below is a photo of the Benten-do from the southern shore of Shinobazu Pond, which means “The Pond Without Patience.”
Walking uphill from Shinobazu Pond, I come to Gojo Tenjin Shrine, dedicated to the gods of medicine and learning.
The ema at Gojo Tenjin Shrine are quite elaborate.
Adjacent to Gojo Tenjin Shrine is Hanazono Inari Shrine. From the latter, a tunnel of vermillion torii leads uphill, eventually to the 1666 Toki-no-kane bell.
I meet the growling fox guardian at the gate. His little red bib detracts a bit from his ferocity.
Uphill, I find a woman selling French fries in a tall paper cup, which I buy because I’m starving. I don’t know where on earth I would sit, so I munch on them while walking. I come across the 1666 Toki-no-kane bell, which once sounded the hours for the temple monks.
At the top of the little hill, I find this intriguing Buddha face.
The ema here have the blue-tinted Buddha face.
On the far side of the bell, a melody is wafting through the air, and I find a peaceful spot where I can sit on a bench and listen to to the music. It’s called “Kabuto Music and Manners” by Dr. Manners.
I sit on the bench and cross my legs, placing my French fries beside me. A gentle man wearing a navy blue haori, a traditional Japanese sort of hip-length kimono-like jacket, comes over and gently nudges my knees, indicating I should not cross my legs. He says, “It’s the Japanese way.” He then offers me a flower-shaped sugar cube on a piece of tissue paper with calligraphy on it. I’m so amicably welcomed here. Each time he comes over, he is so gentle and kind, I can’t help but bow to him and say “arigato.” He then offers me a bowl of green tea, which I drink slowly, enjoying the music and the tranquil surroundings. As I’m drinking the tea, he comes over again and nudges my knees apart, which I’ve accidentally crossed without thinking, and he offers me another sugar cube, which I eat. I feel at one with the universe as I sit and listen to the transporting music. It’s a lovely respite from the crowds and the chaotic energy swirling around us on all sides.
A lovely lady wearing kimono sits on a platform preparing the green tea and sugar cubes; she graciously poses for a picture. The whole experience turns out to be the most memorable and enjoyable experience of the day.
The musician is shown below; I’m not sure if he is Dr. Manners, but a nice lady convinces me to buy his CD, which says “Kabuto Music and Manners Sound by Dr. Manners.” Possibly he is playing a type of music created by Dr. Manners, or possibly he is Dr. Manners himself. I really don’t know, but I buy the CD, which costs me 2,000 yen (nearly $20), and add it to the bulkiness of my pack. I guess I could have just listened to it on YouTube, but at least I was happy to support the musician.
After my peaceful time at the bell, I walk through a long row of food vendors toward Tosho-gu Shrine. Some of the food, especially the corn on the cob, looks enticing, but now I’m full from the French fries, sugar cubes and green tea.
Tosho-gu Shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868.
The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen buildings set amidst a small forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture. The shrine contains both Buddhist and Shinto elements; this was common until the Meji period, when Shinto was separated from Buddhism.
Below are some of the ema at Tosho-gu Shrine.
A double row of 50 bronze lanterns stands near the entry to Tosho-gu Shrine. They were not meant for illumination but were used to purify the sacred fire for important religious ceremonies.
The Sukibei Wall which surrounds the shrine building was completed in 1651. The upper part of the wall is decorated with land creatures, while the lower part is adorned with sea and river creatures. Real world wild animals such as birds, fish, shellfish, frogs, catfish, and butterflies can be found here, as well as mythical creatures.
A sacred camphor tree on the grounds of the shrine is over 600 years old. It was here before the shrine was built and has been continuously cared for by the shrine’s guardians.
The shrine, built in 1651, is in the kongen-zukuri ornate style favored by early Tokugawa shoguns. The main shrine building, the Konjiki-den, or Golden Hall, is in the ornate Momoyama style. The pillars and doors are covered in gold foil and the ceilings are decorated with lacquer and colorful carvings.
A Karamon (Chinese Gate) at the front of the building, built in 1651, is in the elaborate “Chinese” style with gold foil as well as hand-carved flowers, birds, fish and other animals and shells.
The carvings on the gate are colorful, elaborate and mythical.
A kagura stage used for religious dances sits at the approach to the shrine. It also has a roofed bell unit. Today, some musicians are playing melodies on the stage.
This huge stone garden lantern was offered as a gift from Sakuma Daizennosuke Katsuyuki to the Tosho-gu Shrine in 1631. It is said to be one of the three great stone lanterns in Japan together with those in Nanzen-ji temple of Kyoto and in Atsuta Jingu Shrine. The 6-meter height of the lantern is impressive, as well as the 3.6 meter perimeter of the capping stone. Because of its great size, people commonly call it “Monster Lantern.”
I get caught up in the huge crowds walking a northerly path through the park. The crowd is moving at melting candle wax pace, and it’s so crowded I can barely move. It reminds me of the crowds I encountered in Shanghai on China’s International Labor Day: riding the human tide along the bund to cloud 9 & pudong.
I escape the human tide heading north and stop to walk around the statue of the Imperial Prince Komatsunomiya Akihito, the first president of the Japanese Red Cross Society.
Then I’m back on the path, being carried along with the hordes of people. This group of young people playing a festive game with oversized cards makes me smile. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. 🙂
I see there is a path to the west, so I make my escape from the main path, ending up near the Ueno Zoo. Turning north, I’m on a parallel path to the crowded one, and I have this one nearly to myself. I bypass the sprawling Tokyo National Museum Complex and head northeast quite a distance to Kan’ei-ji Temple; after visiting this out-of-the-way temple, I’ll head southwest outside of Ueno Park to visit some quiet, hidden gems.
As there is no daylight savings time in Japan and it gets dark at about 6:00, I can already tell there is no way I will have time to finish this overly ambitious walk in one day. Maybe if I had gotten an earlier start… 🙂