Sunday, July 17, 2011

On the Yanaka Heritage Trail

I had a couple of free days whilst in Tokyo and was able to wander at leisure on the Sunday (3rd July). On browsing through the Lonely Planet guide to Tokyo, I found a section on walking tours that highlighted some earlier traditions and environs around Nippori, Yanaka and Ueno. So after breakfast I took the train on the JR Yamanote line towards Ueno. For convenience my academic hosts had suggested I use a SUICA charge card so that I didn't have to try and figure out fare stages indicated on the maps above the ticket vending machines. I found it convenient as it was accepted on all the train and metro services I used, but it doesn't provide discounts and so is not economical for large numbers of trips (see e.g. this helpful guide).

Still somewhat struggline with jetlag, I started dozing off on the train. Next thing I knew the train had stopped at Nishi Nippori so I jumped out of the carriage and exited the station, under the bridge and onto the western side. Once again I wasn't exactly sure of the route to take, so ambled along up an adjoining street:

Nishinippori rail station (looking North)

According to a Japanese friend, the yellow sign means something like "Safety Street" - but we don't know if that's descriptive or prescriptive! Anyway, on I went and soon came to the corner of a park, which provides a pleasant natural environment with its shade very welcome at this time of the year.

Nishi Nippori park

This area is known for stray cats and we're not supposed to encourage them:

Do not feed the cats!

Perched on a small hill, Nippori and its surrounds have been attractive to settlers for many centuries. It's now a heritage trail, one of 23 designated historical walks in Tokyo.

Pathway to History and Culture

Even today there are some good vantage points offering extensive views, which show carefully cultivated cultural areas merged into rambling urban landscapes:

Cemetery, Nishi Nippori, and the urban backdrop

The initial impression may be a bit disappointing - it may seem to lack overall planning (and made me wonder what kind of permission would be needed for development). However, on reading a little more about Tokyo's urban planning, I came across a plausible explanation which describes how the reconstruction of Tokyo after the Second World War was by necessity implemented at a neighbourhood level using the existing urban 'typology', covering the streets in rich areas and poor. Hence especially the populated inner city areas can appear as a whole rather higgledy-piggledy. I think this is conveyed well in a memo about urban development (Matias Echanove).

Along this trail one can find quite a number of temples and shrines dating to the Edo period and were (as far as I could make out) either Shinto or Buddhist. Many had connections with other more rural parts of the country, sometimes with connections to mountains. The following poster, for a Shinto shrine, is an example:

Poster for Shinto shrine

I know little about Shinto, and whilst sorting through my photos I've had to look things up. After a while I came to recognize a number of distinct features in common. For instance, in the poster you can see some jagged white strips of paper suspended from rope. You encounter these when passing through a Torii gate and shimenawa ring:

Steps to the traditional Torii gate and Shinto shrine

Shimenawa ring

The zigzag strips of white paper are called shime 注連 or gohei, and symbolize purity. They look like lightning, which itself is regarded as holy (and, I expect, may be associated with insight). I saw some visual instructions as to the Shinto ritual for entering the gate: one passes through the ring three times - first moving round to the left, then the right, and then the left ring once more; at each stage, one bows before moving. Finally, one proceeds straight ahead to make an offering and a wish (for prosperity, health etc.). When making an offering one claps loudly to call the attention of the divine beings. There are many online sources of info on Shinto, such as a a shrine guide and Shinto symbols

Along the way, I bumped into two volunteers working on local history projects. They were carrying with them recording equipment and making a podcast for neoKITAKUMIN. Perhaps they interviewed someone at the 'Swiss chalet':

Swiss chalet, Suwadai Dori

I then took a right turn down into Yanaka Ginza, a traditional shopping area with quite narrow streets.

Steps down to Yanaka Ginza

Lots of little shops, many crafts on display, a good place for souvenirs

Basket shop, Yanaka Ginza

The dining places are unusual. I learnt via Google that the following is Iranian:

Zakuro, Yanaka Ginza

It was late morning, so I was actually having an iced coffee in a little cafe opposite. I had lunch later in an Indian restaurant owned by a friendly Nepali, who informed me he had arrived in Tokyo 16 years ago and now had 5 restaurants in the city. It had quite a mixed clientele:

Mother India: Indian restaurant, Yanaka Ginza

Refreshed, I rejoined the trail and explored some Buddhist temples, including a few dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu (Bodhisattva Kuanyin):

Statue of Kannon Bosatsu

Another Bodhisattva, who seemed to appear frequently was Jizo Bosatsu, who is especially a protector of infants. So parents traditionally make offerings for their own newly born.

Statue of Jizo Bosatsu

Often there are 6 Jizo Bosatsus in a row, one for each of the realms of existence (often adorned with red children's garments, such as bibs).

Row of Six Jizo Bosatsu

Some of the wooden temple buildings - here at Kannon-ji temple - remind a little of structures in Thailand:

Kannon-Ji Temple

Not far away, outside another smaller temple, Choanji, I saw a peace pole with its message 'May Peace Prevail on Earth,' which originally came in an inspired moment to Masahisa Goi. They are now found all over the world and are very popular at interfaith gatherings.

It's not a large distance, but there are many interesting aspects, so it's best covered at a slow pace. I spent several hours in the area before accelerating towards Ueno and the Tokyo National Museum, to delve further into the cultural history of Japan.

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