Saturday, June 14, 2008

Day 5: Food for the Soul

We woke up early to go to the Sensoji. For photographs sans people, an early start was a must. Breakfast was a traditional meal at the ryokan itself and a good breakfast it was.

breakfast at the inn

a good look at the salmon

The hearty set consisted of grilled salmon, tiny fish with radish, sweet egg, stewed tofu and mushrooms, pickled vegetables, rice, green tea or coffee. At 1300Y ($19.50) per head, it was not cheap but it got us off to a good start for a full day of sightseeing.

With full stomachs, we pottered over to the Sensoji; Ryokan Shigetsu is practically on the doorstep of Tokyo's most notable Buddhist temple. It wasn't all blue skies but at least it wasn't raining.

the Honzomon or main gate

the obligatory washing trough

instructions for ignorant tourists

As a general rule, Buddhist temples are more ornate and elaborate than Shinto shrines. Where the Meiji had been austere and sombre, the Sensoji was colourful and celebratory.

the altar inside

Buddhist art

omikuji - the art of divination

or you can call god directly

celebrating rice

the temple was for everyone

The grounds of the temple were dotted with smaller shrines and commemorative statues of various sorts.

a mortal heroine who became a deity?

a saintly figure


The temple grounds were clearly animal-friendly.

one of these things is not like the other.

the doves weren't available that day

I am lion - hear me roar!

oh puh-lease stop playacting and grow up!

As the sun rose higher, the tour buses started to pull up. That was our cue to leave the temple and turn our attention to Nakamise-dori.

Nakamise-dori started life as a series of stalls catering to the needs of the pilgrims who came to worship at Sensoji. Today, the stalls cater to the needs of pilgrims of a different sort, both local and otherwise.

learning journey!

fridge magnets

ukiyo-e (woodblock print) postcards

We did a little shopping and bought some snacks.

no idea what these are called in Japanese but the signs said "ren xing bing" (literally, people-shaped biscuits) in Chinese

not "ren xing" at all

nor this

Unlike the ones we saw the day before which were handmade, these were the products of mass production.

the men in particular were fascinated by this machine

Surprisingly, despite the obvious tourist appeal, the place still felt authentic. The Japanese have such great respect for their own traditions that at no point did we feel that any of this was merely for show.

itinerant hawker

It was time for us to make our way to Asakusa station. Our agenda for the rest of the day was nearby Ueno Park, home to many of Tokyo's museums.

On the way out, we passed by our very first Japanese Mcdonald's.

looks good

ooh, merchandising

Fortunately HM did not require me to sacrifice my tastebuds in exchange for merchandise.

At Asakusa Station, we made a detour to the department store upstairs so that HM could check out our very first Uniqlo, the Japanese equivalent of Giordano.

on the train

Ueno Park was round the corner from Ueno Station, but first HM had to check out the Ueno branch of Uniqlo. She was on a Uniqlo roll!

We did eventually make our way to the park.

on the steps leading into the park

The park was sprawling and boasted a motley range of characters.

a homeless man ala Satoshi Kon's animated movie, Tokyo Godfathers.

a busker and his fans

a juggler at work during lunchtime

The park also housed many a shrine and memorial.

the eternal flame in memory of victims of the atomic bomb

another such memorial

a Toshogu shrine - a Shinto shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the last shogunate of Japan

at the Toshogu shrine

at the Toshogu shrine

Saigo Takamori - the last true samurai - and his faithful companion

We headed for the Tokyo National Museum. To our horror, the place was scary crowded. Worse still, we were getting hungry and there was no obvious place to have a spot of lunch. Feeling thwarted, we walked around a little aimlessly until we figured out that any museum worth its salt must have a cafe or restaurant, and so it was that we walked into the National Museum of Science. The only catch was we had to surrender our bags in which was my camera at the entrance of the Museum. There would be no photographs, a small price for food, I'd say.

Our first stop was the cafe, Cafe Mouseion. Lunch was hamburger steak with rice for HM, a gratin for me, and tea and iced coffee respectively. The rest of the Museum was good as well. There was in fact a special exhibition, on Darwin, where a real life Galapagos tortoise was on display. (Poor thing - it did look rather depressed.)

When we emerged from the Museum, it was four in the afternoon and the crowd at the Tokyo National Museum had thinned sufficiently for us to realise that most people were in fact heading for a particular area of the Museum where a new exhibition - as far as we could tell, some important Buddhist artefacts - had opened. The other parts of the Museum seemed quite sane. It was now or never - we had two hours to make a run through the Museum, and of course, the all-important museum shop.

the Tokyo National Museum

The Museum was home to a comprehensive collection of Asian and Japanese art, much of it religious in nature.

Of course there was plenty of other stuff as well, everything from weapons to costumes, and these:


er, saucers for shoyu?

Nevertheless, you can't cater to everyone.

zzzzz (amazing how much this looks like the Reunification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City...)

My favourite section was this one with ancient funerary dolls:

We managed to zoom through most of the galleries and even pick up some gifts from the souvenir store.

When we left the Museum, it was evening and the park was filled with people relaxing after work.

catching some sun

catching up on gossip, dogs included

We were ready to head for home, but then the need for a toilet break became apparent.

well now, if the dogs can't, we can't

We ended up at the Ameyoko Arcade, near the Ueno station, in search of a toilet. It turned out to be a picturesque little spot, a feast for the eyes.


king crab legs

mentaiko or cod roe

umm, not sure what these are

hairy crab

ikura or salmon roe

all things dried

are these girls here for ice-cream or eye candy?

HM wouldn't let me buy one of these, the real thing I mean, not the plastic model

Before we left Ueno, we bought some green tea from a shop specialising in tea and, finally, some t-shirts from the Ueno branch of Uniqlo.

By the time we arrived back in Akasuka, night had fallen. The crowds had cleared and the streets were quiet. Even the shops on Nakamise-dori were shut for the night. It wasn't raining but the air was a little nippy. The area had resumed a melancholy air. In many ways we preferred this to the hustle and bustle of the day.

It seemed the perfect time for a really local experience, like a bowl of steaming beef stew on the roadside! Alas it was not to be. The stall we saw the day before was closed. There was however a lane nearby which was flanked by izakayas, casual drinking places that also serve food.

our izakaya of choice

Now which one to choose? Our only criteria was that the menu should be in English. As it turned out, there was apparently only one establishment with a bilingual menu and everyone we asked pointed us to it. Perhaps no one else wanted to entertain ignorant non-Japanese speaking tourists.


As "outsiders", we expected to be seated outside but the Madame in charge insisted that we sit inside, at the bar counter. Perhaps she thought we would be less trouble if we sat in front of her.

The advantage of sitting right up at the bar counter was being able to see everything. That's how we spotted this:

a steaming pot of beef and tofu stew!

We couldn't pass up the chance to have a bowl:


It was the perfect start to the meal. As we ploughed through the menu, we had us a couple of drinks.

iced ocha (tea) and shochu (Japanese vodka) with ume (plum)

While we were doing this, our neighbours to the right were taking a keen interest in what we were considering. They offered us a taste of what they were eating, satsuma-age (deepfried fish cake with vegetables) and this:

jellied fish

We dug in - the satsuma-age was much like a potato croquette and the jellied fish tasted mostly of shoyu, pleasant and not at all strange. That encouraged us to have fun and try new things.

smoked cow's tongue - tasted like sausage, and yes that was mayonnaise...

grilled pork guts - somewhat chewy but tasty

grilled atsu mackerel - oh nicely done

We also had yellowtail and radish in soy sauce, and we did some of this ordering in menu Japanese. We must have impressed our new friends.

here they are

They had much to say. Mind you, all this communication was done with much gesticulation and primitive utterances, on both our parts:

"You come from where?"
"Ah so, Singapore. Very clean."
"Tokyo very clean."
"No, no, Tokyo very dirty. Asakusa very clean."

"You like?" (pointing at TV) "Base-o-ball-o?"
"No, we watch football."
"Oh, foot-o-ball-o."
"Yah. Nakata, you know?"
"Ah so, Nakata. Base-o-ball-o very good."

Madame was less pleased about our neighbours being so social. We felt obliged to offer the boys some of our food, after all their hospitality. This prompted Madame to lean over and growl at the boys before turning to us and telling us, in not so many words, not to let "those two" sponge off us.

Meanwhile, HM was taking a keen interest in what the suits on her left were drinking.

They seemed a little taken aback when she leaned over to ask what it was. Instead of answering her question directly - did they even speak English? - they called Madame over and said something to her in Japanese. The next thing HM knew, a similar glass had been put in front of her.

"Nigori-sake," Madame said firmly.

The salarymen who had earlier seemed to be on the verge of leaving appeared to have changed their minds. They sat down with their briefcases and stayed on to watch HM drink it up. And she did. It was like Chinese rice wine, she said, and most delicious. (A check with Wikipedia revealed that nigori-sake was in fact unfiltered sake.

All in all, it had been a most instructive and enjoyable evening at the izakaya, a defining moment in our journey through Tokyo. And for only 3950Y ($59.25) – the best value for money, in my opinion.

Then on the way back to the ryokan, we wended our way back to Sensoji. By night, the floodlight lit temple was all black and red lacquer and gold gilt, a jewel box of a temple in the night.

We retired for the night, contented. I had been worried that, after pivotal moments at the Museum Ghibli and Harajuku/Omotesando/Aoyama, the rest of the trip would be an anti-climax. Tonight had been proven me wrong.

No comments: