Konichiwa Tokyo

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Regardless of your personal position on whether the sun does rise above its empire, Japan is one of those places that you must experience in 3-D to appreciate. From everything I’ve ever read or heard about Japan, their minimalist aesthetics and obligation for order have always resonated with me. Their culture seems to operate on a higher level of civility. I couldn’t wait to see whether the polite restraint exercised in their art forms of ikebana (traditional flower arrangement) or bonsai (container grown plants) or chado (tea ceremony) permeated other parts of their daily life.  Or whether this controlled facade is just a mask to a much more flamboyant society that’s waiting to burst at the seams. Otherwise, how else do you reconcile the outrageous fashion found on the streets of  Harajuku with the elegance of Ginza?  Personally I’d love to be 19 and living in Tokyo just to wear outrageous outfits daily and fit in by not fitting in.  But I also love to see kimonos on a busy street:


I got a sliver of an answer from my first real interaction with a local Japanese when I was rushing to board a train from the airport. You have to understand, my biggest nightmare is always fighting the crowd on a train with suitcases in hand, so my instinct is to kick into running back mode and prepare myself for the onslaught. The mission is always to be the first one on in order to find space for the luggage. Hey, when you weigh 90 pounds you can’t afford to just waltz in at the last second where mass transportation is concerned. Anyway, as I hurried to board the train, an older, uniformed man stepped in front of me and shooed me with his hands without speaking above a whisper. Realizing that I did not understand Japanese, he pointed at his watch and then got on the train ahead of me, signaling for me to step back behind the line marker on the platform. Then he pulled out a towel and wiped down the seats, windows, and doors. When done, he half nodded and half bowed at me, motioning for me to embark.  I’d been in Japan for less than half and hour and already felt like a barbarian at the gate. Konichiwa Tokyo! I’d just been schooled.  Only heathens dream of rushing on a public train without refreshing the cabins first, right?


Tokyo is like any large, overcrowded metropolis in the world. Except you don’t feel the frenzy of Hong Kong or New York there. Chaos inevitable from the sheer number of people is never evident, even in the middle of a very busy, crowded rush hour. Yes, people are walking very rapidly, and yes, you do fall into the patterns set by the school of human sardines on the trains just like in the movies, and yet it is all very efficient. Drama free.  Detached. Politesse, whether genuine or fake, goes a long way in crowd control.  But perhaps above all, I always feel safe in Tokyo. Where else but here would I find very young schoolgirls traveling on their own on the subway?

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There are many beautiful sites to visit in any of the 23 wards within the prefecture of Tokyo. But for me, hands down, the most romantic stroll in the world is the long walk from the torii (wooden gate or as my father later tells me literally means “bird dwelling”) at the entrance of the park to the Meiji shrine itself.


I’m trying to wrap my arms around the pole to show how big it is:


To many people this is just any evergreen forest. But what makes it extraordinary is the fact that this 175-acre forest is smack dab in the middle of the concrete jungle of Tokyo. And as soon as you enter the gate, any sign of a modern Japan disappears.

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There are two major areas (Naien and Gaien) of the shrine. In one area, there is a treasure museum of the Emperor and Empress. In the other there are sports facilities and a memorial hall.


Many weddings take place here, and on one of my visits I am lucky enough to witness a wedding party having their pictures professionally taken:


Here are more pictures of the shrine:


The walk along the long gravel road is great exercise not only for the body but also the mind. It is so…zen here that you can literally cleanse the toxins of the busy world outside with every step you take into the forest…


But Tokyo is so much more than its shinto shrines, and my next blogs will reveal other sights and sounds of the city.


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