Monday, February 23, 2015

Day 4: Happenin' at Happo-en

Shameless.  Absolutely shameless.  Happo-en isn't, really, a "happening" place.  It's very tranquil, and I'm just going for assonance with my title. Happo-en is beautiful, and it is home to perhaps the best bonsai collection in all of Japan....but more on that later. Anyway, grab a drink and settle in.  This entry is a long one...

6:30 this morning didn't feel so bad after only 3.5 hours of sleep. (Admittedly, I was able to sleep on the flight yesterday for a few hours.) We got up to squeeze in a quick run before our tour today - they say that nothing cures jet-lag so well as a run.  The front desk clerk recommended we run to Shiba Park and he...sort of...gave us directions.  He didn't speak English, but was trying so hard to please us (he didn't stop bowing until we ran away) that I figured we'd make do.  Thankfully, our experience of friendly and helpful Japanese people continued, and we made it.  Along the way, we saw a few dozen Japanese smokers huddled together in the designated smoking area near a bus-stop; the smoking section was about the size of my kitchen, and I have a galley kitchen!  It was then that I realised that one doesn't see cigarette butts on the ground in Tokyo. Not anywhere!

Anyway, we were out to run, not to gawk at smokers.  Shiba Park is built around a Buddhist temple and is a BEAUTIFUL place for a run!

The stone stairs made for some tricky footwork, but the orange tree with full-sized oranges was so stunning! (We resisted the temptation to pick any oranges to eat.  In retrospect, we should have taken the chance, I think...) Shiba Park also affords views of the Tokyo Tower - similar to the Eiffel Tower in France, though a little bit taller, and a little bit lighter (stronger materials were used to build it).

Like so many places in Tokyo and - reportedly - throughout Japan, there are cherry blossom trees all over Shiba Park.  Unfortunately, just like everywhere else, they are not yet in season. Only the faint buds colour the branches.

Stopping for photos is a good way to extend a run, so 6.5km took an hour.  By the time we got back to the hotel and cleaned up, it was a rush to get to the bus station to meet our tour.  Directions in Tokyo are confusing due to the number of streets, the language barrier, and most of all, the lack of street names!  Most streets in Tokyo do not have names.  As a result, directions from Google maps can read something like:

Go up the street
Cross crosswalk
Cross crosswalk
Turn left
Turn right
Destination is on your right

Not so helpful when you are in a rush!

We were just around the corner from Hamamatsucho bus terminal with three minutes to go. The problem was we didn't know which corner, or how far around it.  We found a cab driver and asked for directions. He started to explain, and as we realised how complex it was getting, we just hopped in the cab.  Keeping in mind that this is the culture of punctuality, we never would have made it in time without the cab ride. We also wouldn't have seen just how clean the interior of a cab can be.  You could have EATEN right off the white fabric seat covers with lace fringes.

The bus was to pick us up at 9am.  We got to the bus station at 9am.  By Japanese standards, that is already late! Thankfully, this tour was running "late" and we didn't miss anything.  While Mindy and I ate a breakfast of almonds, cookies, granola bars, and whatever was in our bags, we set forth - back to the Tokyo Tower.  This time, we learned that it was built as a radio reception tower for Tokyo as a temporary exhibit in 1958, but the city immediately decided it was there to stay.  And we got to go up for the views of the city!

Tokyo is a big city.  Very big. Big enough that when one looks out from Tokyo Tower in any direction, all one sees is major city.  It's everywhere!

Of course,in one particular direction, there was a running track.  Poor Mindy.  She's in Tokyo for the first time, looking out from Tokyo's slightly-better-than-the-one-in-Paris "Eiffel Tower", and she covets the track.

...Or, she did for a moment, anyway.

Back on the bus, our knowledgeable guide, "Ninja", regaled us with facts and figures about Tokyo as we drove to the Happo-en garden for a traditional tea ceremony. Ninja is so called because of her family's long history of ninja training.  It persists today, and so she and her father (Ninja would be in her sixties, I think...) still pursue the craft.

"They're only illegal if you're caught with them." (What if they catch you making them by hand, as Ninja does?)

The tea ceremony at Happo-en wasn't exactly traditional.  A traditional ceremony takes four hours, and ours was complete in about 20 minutes. Nonetheless, it was really interesting to catch this glimpse into the tea culture.  Once complete, we spent time admiring the gardens, and koi ponds;  the bustling of Tokyo seemed remote, indeed!

Note the tatami wraps around some tree trunks?  Black fir trees in Japan suffer from an invasive beetle species that lays eggs in the ground around the trunk.  These wraps confuse the beetles into thinking that these wraps are the ground, and so the eggs can be destroyed. (Either naturally through the cold winter, or through human intervention, I'm not sure.)

Some of the bonsai specimens in the Happo-en collection are over 500 years old!!

A quick note on Japanese gardens, and the focus on rocks and trees over flowers.  Although Buddhism contemplates the impermanence of everything, both Buddhist belief and traditional samurai mindset prefer the persistence of rocks and trees for gardens.  Flowers fade too quickly, and are too strong a reminder of life's brevity. More recently, Tokyo has established some "official" flower gardens, and the Japanese seem to accept that beauty can be transient.

From Happo-en, we went to the Imperial Palace grounds.  Sometime over the past year, I read that Tokyo's Imperial Palace grounds are THE place to run in Tokyo. Since then, I've been excited to see them.  So excited, in fact, that we booked our second night in Tokyo right near the Imperial Palace grounds in order to run there in the morning. Back to this tour, though.  Only the Japanese would create a veritable forest of painstakingly manicured trees.

The recurring theme of water and reflection pools persists in this grand garden:

Visiting the palace grounds really is just that - a visit to the grounds.  The best views one gets of the palace itself are a glimpse from afar.  The Japanese Emperor still lives there, and only opens the palace to the public twice a year: December 23rd and New Years.  (The former is to recognize the Emperor's birthday, and is not related to Christmas.)  According to Ninja, one can also pay a hefty sum of money to meet the Emperor in person, where he will serve you cake and speak to you for about 20 seconds.  Golly.

A traditional Japanese barbecue at Chinzan-so garden was included in the tour.  The vegetarian version was excellent, and this was way more fun than the Mongolian Grill!

The Chinzan-so hotel lobby presented probably the only cherry blossom tree we'll see in full bloom on this trip - a bonsai:

Chinzan-so is right across the street from the largest Catholic Church in Japan.  Given that Christianity didn't really take hold until recently, it's no surprise that only about 1% of Japanese declare themselves as Christians.  (0.4% of the overall population is Catholic.)  Of course, 0.4% of 128 still a lot of people. The church didn't look very compelling, so we didn't go in.

After lunch, we took a cruise up the Sumida river toward the Asakusa Shrine.  Maybe I was just getting a little tired, but the cruise was.....boring. How many block-style drab buildings does one really want to see? The Asakusa Shrine compensated nicely. Passing through the Thunder Gate, there's a dense row of shops catering to the needs of every tourist and pilgrim (many wear both hats), all leading up to the shrine itself. Our need was for mystery sweets in the Japanese style.

Tokyo has a long and rich history in religion and architecture.  Unfortunately, Tokyo was also bombed to hell in WWII.  As a result, most of the temples and important structures in and around Tokyo are pretty young.  The Senso-ji temple at the Asakusa Shrine was built in 1960.  It is styled on the original one built a thousand years earlier in 942, but it's not quite the same.  Nevertheless, it is pretty fantastic.

To the side of the temple, there is Zeniduka Jizoudou Hall (built in 1964).  The fable behind this building speaks volumes about Japanese culture, The story goes that in the Edo period, a woman found a crock full of coins as she was digging in the yard about her house.  Whereas in any Western European fable (St. Nicholas, for instance), the woman would use the money to marry off her daughters or something like that, this Japanese woman feared that her family fortunes would suffer if they benefited from this money for which they had not worked.  She re-buried the coins, her family continued to work hard, and so her family prospered.

The final stop of the day was Tokyo Central Station, which was extremely convenient, given that we still needed to collect our Japan Rail passes. (The exchange centre was closed when we landed in Tokyo last night.) Tokyo Central Station could be a European train station, except that it is way bigger!

Fortunately, our experience there was straightforward (unlike the warnings I received from a colleague that the warren of tunnels can be overwhelming). We made it back to the hotel to collect our bags from this morning, and ventured forth to the new hotel for the night.  Whereas last night was a gentle introduction to Tokyo's subway (one line and a short walk), this evening was the real test.  Tired, worn out, and craving bed, we managed our way by train, subway, and unlabeled streets to the Diamond Hotel. Brief contemplation of the lobby restaurant turned us off that idea for dinner (shark fin soup, anyone?), and we crawled into bed for a brief nap before food.  It was 8:45pm.  We didn't make it to dinner.

Yawn.....good night.

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