6 days of visa runs across 2 embassies for a 5 days extended weekend break; by the time I got into the plane, I was wondering if it’s even worth it. On second thoughts, those sleepless nights were a perfect prelude to the most exhilarating sojourn I could ever imagine, in the city that never sleeps. In Tokyo.
For the sake of saké and wa-shoku
We arrive in Tokyo on an early spring morning in May. Narita International Airport should prepare anyone visiting Tokyo for the first time, for what to expect from the city. Immigration is cleared in 2 minutes flat as your luggage awaits you. Precise signages lead you to the Airport Express Platform and the JR Express to Shinjuku, where we are staying, arrives right on the second. Having taken enough airport expresses in my lifetime, I know how exasperating an experience it can be; but here in Tokyo, it is a walk in the park.
Shinjuku is right in the heart of the city, a convenient location for tourists and locals alike, if you want to traverse the length and breadth of the city by public transport.
Shinjuku West also happens to be the business district and right after checking in, we head out to mingle with the "salary-men" and "office-ladies", as they are called in Tokyo, in search of our lunch. Not before experimenting with the remote controlled WC in our hotel room, of course.
A hearty wa-shoku (wa means Japanese-style and shoku indicates food) of gohan (steamed rice), okazu (the accompaniments with rice - in this case, a beef dish), tsukemono (pickled vegetables) and tamagoyaki (rolled omelet) later, we look out for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building. Apparently Notre Dame in Paris is the inspiration for this 296 meters high building. There are two observation galleries, with free entrance, one in each tower at the 45th floor. The city view from the top is, undoubtedly, breathtaking. On a clear day, one can even see Mount Fuji and Yokohama, they say, though we could only catch a hazy silhouette of the former.
Evening is kept aside for Kabuki-cho, Tokyo’s notorious nightlife district. It is in the vicinity of our neighbourhood and a leisurely stroll takes us to this multitudinous lanes and bylanes of neon lit restaurants, bars, dance clubs, strip joints, peep shows and hostess bars. Legend has it that the district's name comes from late-1940s plans to build a kabuki theatre and although the theatre was never built, the name stuck. We peep into the stores, strip our inhibitions and blend with the locals and end up making acquaintance with a couple of college kids, eager to polish their English, who eventually take us to a ramshackle restaurant, frequented by locals only, to try some real saké. And believe me for saké’s sake, when I say that it leaves you shaken and stirred. A whole bottle, a lot of conversation and a brief lesson on saké later - that saké is brewed like beer and undiluted saké contains 18%–20% of alcohol (but of course) - we decide to call it a night and tipsily make our way back to the hotel.
A day of Vintage and Avant-garde
We wake up leisurely the next day, with hardly any hangover. A wants to give credit to his scotch drinking system, though I attribute the absence of hangover to the purity of the alcohol that we had the night before. Out to hunt for asagohan (breakfast), we end up having a typical Japanese breakfast of yakizakana (grilled fish), oshinko (pickles), miso shiro (miso soup) and a bowl of rice.
Fortified for the rest of the day, our destination today is Asakusa, a neighbourhood in Tokyo where you still find women in Kimonos and Geisha girls with painted faces, narrow streets with quaint shops, traditional houses and shrines from the Edo period. Once Edo period’s main entertainment district, the neighbourhood is famous for its bright red Kaminarimon Gate with its 220-pound lantern hanging in the middle, and Kaze no Kami, the Wind God to the right and Kaminari no Kami, the Thunder God to the left, protecting the deity enshrined in the Sensoji Temple. Sensoji is Tokyo's oldest temple, founded in the 7th century, dedicated to Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and is popularly called the Asakusa Kannon Temple.
The Asakusa Kannon Temple. A pair of giant slippers has been thoughtfully kept on either side of the gate in case the resident Goddess feels like taking a stroll down the neighbourhood.
Since it is a nightmare to get A to visit any religious shrine, I have cleverly coincided our visit with Sanja Matsuri, one of the largest festivals in Japan, when mikoshis (portable shrines) are carried across neighbourhoods to the temple with much fanfare. This festival is held in Asakusa for 3 consecutive days, every year on the third Friday of May.
The festivities kick start on Friday afternoon, when a large procession of priests, geishas, dancers, musicians and locals - all dressed in their traditional regalia - with Palanquins and Mikoshis, make their way to Asakusa Shrine. This procession is called the Daigyoretsu Parade and is followed by a Shinto ceremony, with prayers for abundant harvest and prosperity. On the Saturday, mikoshis
gather at Asakusa Shrine and then set off to parade through the town streets. On the Sunday, three especially large-sized mikoshis join the parade.
We are aiming for the Friday afternoon Daigyoretsu Parade and after a quick tour of the neighbourhood and some shopping in the temple market, we position ourselves strategically with the crowd, near the Kaminarimon Gate, to catch the festivities.
My heart beats in rhythm with the drums that set the parade in motion. Dancers in colourful costumes, geishas in their fineries, men and women draped in colourful kimonos - it is an ensemble cast of bizarre and beautiful, of music and celebration, of tradition and reminiscences that I pray to Goddess Kannon to mercifully keep alive forever.
A Friday afternoon well spent, we head to Akihabara, en route Shibuya. What a contrast! Akihabara is the electronics district of Tokyo and I need not describe what that means. Rows of shops displaying the latest in Japanese technology; had I been a geek, I’d spend my entire life here. I sense A is starting to talk like a little boy, excited at the prospect of spending some time in this wonderland. So I whisk him away before it is too late, to Shibuya, one of the busiest crossroads in the world, with tales of Scarlett Johansson. Japan's busiest intersection is in Shibuya, with its cumulation of pedestrians, rows of neon lit shops, and five video billboards. If you remember, this spot was a recurring theme in the movie “Lost in Translation”. The busiest Starbucks in the world also happens to be here and if you are lucky to get a seat here, you will find yourself ensconced by the window, sipping your macchiato and well away from the chaos, watching the world spin in a frenzy, with hundreds and thousands of denizens of downtown Tokyo, crisscrossing each other every time the traffic light turns green.
Sushi, Sashimi and Sumo
Got to reach Tsukiji Fish Market by 4 am. Those were the last words I told A before we went to sleep the previous night. However, the frenzy of the last couple of days had caught up with the old bones and by the time we leave for our morning destination, it is almost 6 am. Never mind. Chances were we would not have got our seats at the Auction Market, which in recent years has seen restricted entrance to tourists. But any Bengali, worth his/ her fish, has to visit Tsukiji and hence, here we are. Though the wee hours of morning are when all the action is, with catches from all over the world finding their way to this wholesale market for live auction; once the auction and action is over, the wholesalers set up stalls to monger off the remaining sea creatures. There are apparently 1600 stalls and 450 different kinds of seafood found in this market and one has to see it to believe it.
Once the photography round is over, with much care taken not to be run over by forklift trucks and slide over blood and water (not a place for faint hearted), it is time for some fresh Sashimi breakfast. We head over to the stall that has the longest queue of locals and after a patient wait of 30 minutes, find ourselves in a tiny room and a bench full of smiling hometowners, trying out the omakase set of whatever is good today. I don’t remember what I had, but I remember dying and going to Sashimi heaven.
By noon, we are ready for the next course of action. We have booked ourselves for a Sumo Wrestling Match at Ryōgoku Kokugikan , the largest sumo arena in Japan. The grand tournaments or basho are held in January, May and September and we are right there when the action is happening, in May. These tournaments are more than just wrestling matches. These are Performing Arts, with ceremonies and rituals observing strict hierarchies for the wrestlers, and also for the referees. The competition each day begins around 9am with the amateurs and wrestlers compete in progressing order of seniority. The professional wrestlers start in the afternoon.
We are just in time to catch the top division makuuchi enter the ring for the dohyo-iri (rice throwing) ceremony. We are soon drawn into the action, rooting for our favourites (I was picking by colour, the men in blue being my favourites). Surrounded by diehard fans, who know their ōzeki, from yokozuna (the grand champion), we get into the groove of learning to appreciate the nuances of the art of Sumo Wrestling. Each bout lasts for about 5 minutes or so, each match preceded by an elaborate ceremonial ritual. It is fascinating to watch a century old martial art form, still practiced with so much of diligence and reverence. I could write a whole blog on Sumo Wrestling from the notes I took, but suffice to say it is an experience of a lifetime.
A blissfully bizarre Sunday
Our last day in Tokyo, we decide to spend the Sunday as Sundays should be spent in Tokyo. In Harajuku.
We start with Meiji Jingu Shrine, the most venerable shrine in Tokyo, where we catch a few Japanese weddings in progress. An usual scene if you are there on Sundays, with nervous Grooms and radiant Brides springing up on you from every corner. We walk through the peaceful gardens of Yoyogi, catch the early summer breeze and Elvis look alikes shaking a leg or two. Children running with dogs, families out on a Sunday picnic, lovers strolling around hand-in-hand, it is a blissful retreat to take a pause from the frantic city life.
We retrace our steps back to Harajuku Station and find ourselves in Takeshita Dori. Five minutes apart and the world changes. There are young kids everywhere, in groups or solo, displaying the Japanese teenage culture at its most extreme, engaged in cosplay (costume play), dressed up in crazy costumes to resemble anime characters, barbie dolls, punk and rock-n-rollas, witches and draculas. Bizarre as it may sound, they congregate here every Sunday, to celebrate their weirdness, dressing up as characters they would like to be. It is a part of teenage culture in Japan, the locals don't give a hoot, the tourists gush and snicker while taking pictures. The cosplayers play on.
It’s a good spot for people watching and what other way to spend a Sunday, watching the weird and the wise, merging and mixing together, to form one of the most amazing cultures that I have come across. Our next stop is Kinokuniya Bookstore in Shinjuku - spread out across 3 floors, where we will eventually end up with excess baggage. But that is scheduled for the evening; giving us ample time to hang around with these weird cosplayers, taking pictures and exchanging free hugs and free tips about Harajuku Fashion.
Centuries old Edo charm juxtaposed with modern futuristic revelation; red tiled brick and stone shrines interlaced with steel and glass skyscrapers as backdrops; gothic punk coalesced with traditional kimono - that’s what Tokyo is in short. A city that stands at the crossroad of old & new and embraces both with open arms; in the process, breathing excitement and bouncing with vivacity. A city that charms you, teases you and leaves you yearning for one more day. We just scraped the surface of Tokyo because a week, at least, is needed to even get a proper orientation of this complex city of contradictions. In Tokyo, everything is colour coded and runs like a clockwork. Taking a cue, for this trip, I colour coded all the attractions and decided on the ones that I wanted to absolutely visit to get a feel of the city. Another itinerary is all ready and waiting to be executed, to unearth some more of the weird and wonderful Tokyo, some other day.