Tag Archives: 七福神

Goodbye 2013

tokyo sunsetWhen people hear that I teach in Japan the most common reaction is some kind of assumption that all the students (a) work incredibly hard, (b) are unquestioningly obedient and well-behaved and (c) are quieter than proverbial church mice. My response to this is (a) their industry is the same as students in other countries, some work very hard, others do not and many are hindered by a lack of study skills, (b) they are certainly less of a challenge than the students my friends often teach in the UK but not unremittingly well-behaved, and (c) I work at a girls’ school, are you kidding?

As I have mentioned before, I think Japan is a country which is often portrayed in a stereotypical manner, and the appetite for wacky stories in foreign media is always there. What people say to me about my students is an extension of what many people believe to be an accurate portrayal of Japan and its people. It is frustrating to live here and watch with disbelief as yet another journalist files a stereotype-laden report, or takes one incident and extrapolates to imply a general truth. In over twenty years in Japan I have yet to meet a Japanese person who conforms to all those stereotypes, the quiet, obedient automaton.

Over ten years ago, a Swedish gospel singer came to visit the school, and as she sat on the stage waiting to begin a question-and-answer time after she had performed, she remarked that she could tell she was at a girls’ school because there was a noticeable level of chatter in the hall. Some things are not a surprise. What may come as a surprise to people who only know of Japan through cliché’d news items is the levels of noise in Japan sometimes. It is not always a land of zen-like tranquility, as anyone who has ever walked past a pachinko parlour can tell you. Politicians, right-wing sound trucks, recycle companies, roasted sweet potato vendors and purveyors of laundry poles are all capable of disturbing your wa (和), or harmony, as you relax at home, walk down your local street or take the train.

There is a word in Japanese which has a lot of different meanings, but Japanese language learners probably first encounter it as ‘noisy’: urusai (うるさい). My dictionary, however, offers all of the following as possible meanings: noisy, loud, annoying, troublesome, bothersome, persistent, fussy, particular and fastidious. I would say a person who is ‘urusai’ is a wa-disturber, and this year the leading lights of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have been disturbing all kinds of wa. That their antics have not been more widely reported internationally is disappointing. I have heard Japanese friends express concern that this is how Japan slid towards militarism in the 1930s.

So, just to do my bit to draw attention to what Japanese politicians have been doing this year, here are their greatest hits:

* In May, Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka declared that the ‘comfort women’ (women forced into prostitution by the Japanese military during WW2) were ‘necessary’. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22519384

* In July, the Deputy PM, Taro Aso (also a brother-in-law of the Emperor) suggested that Japan could learn from how the Nazis pushed through unpopular legislation. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

He was referring to the current government’s desire to abolish Article 9, the part of the Japanese Constitution in which Japan denounces war and the means of war. Mr. Abe, the Prime Minister, has been getting more and more bellicose and would very much like to ditch Article 9 and arm Japan to the teeth. There is a hefty, so-called Self Defence Force, but Mr. Abe wants more. There have been groups all over Japan for a long time to protect Article 9, but this year it has come under serious threat.

* In September PM Abe reassured the IOC that Tokyo is and always will be safe from any danger that may come from the crippled nuclear power plant, Fukushima Daiichi. Following his statement and Tokyo being awarded the 2020 Olympics, the word ‘lie’ was used by parts of the media to refer to his comments. You can read about it here:

http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/2013/09/25/did-japans-shinzo-abe-lie-to-get-the-olympics/

* Of course, the news that has rumbled on all year is the ongoing dispute between China and Japan (and Taiwan) regarding sovereignty over the group of tiny islands in the East China Sea, known in China as the Diaoyu Islands, and in Japan as the Senkaku Islands. In November China  declared an ‘air-defence zone’ over the islands, just the latest move in this very dangerous dance. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25062525

* Finally, at the end of the year, Mr. Abe decided to make a visit to Yasukuni Shrine in his capacity as Prime Minister. While millions of Japan’s war dead are enshrined there, the souls of hundreds of war criminals, including a number of executed Class A war criminals are also enshrined, and it is this fact, and the apparent honouring or worship of these souls which so infuriates China and South Korea. You can read about it here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-25517205

So, Japanese politicians, I would say that you have been very ‘urusai’ this year, that this war-mongering is deeply troubling, that your lack of sensitivity (or deliberate disregard for other people’s and other countries’ feelings) is equally concerning. What are you doing to the country I love? This has not been a great year for Japan. With the exception of the successful Olympic bid, which did seem to boost spirits, 2013 has been a steady stream of worrying news from TEPCO and Fukushima Daiichi and the constant sound of rattling sabres.

So for 2014, my first prayer is for a concerted effort to really do something about the giant mess that is Fukushima Daiichi. The situation there is scary and there are many people who don’t know if, or when, they can ever go home. My second prayer is also related to the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami; that the people who are still living in temporary housing almost three years later be re-housed in permanent new homes. My third prayer is for peace between the countries in East Asia, that we can all be much better neighbours than we have been in 2013.

12:30 blue skyFor myself, this has been a very mixed year, but I am ending the year feeling positive. I have travelled and seen friends, and in my life in Tokyo I have so many blessings. I have a job I love, friends and colleagues I am grateful for. In the last fifteen months I have found a new joy in writing this blog and been amazed that people read it. It’s a very humbling feeling. I am going into the new year with plenty to think about, lots of things I want to do.

Yesterday I was in Shibuya and saw a lot of people with suitcases, on their way somewhere to celebrate the New Year. When I went out to do some grocery shopping this afternoon I noticed how quiet everything was already. With the exception of the crowds in the supermarket there weren’t many people about. Tomorrow I am going to start the year the same way I did this year, walking a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. The weather forecast is for another sunny day.

Goodbye, 2013. You’ve been an interesting year; not the best, but not the worst either. The neighbourhood has gone quiet, and I can hear the sound of the local volunteer fire corps on their yomawari (夜回り) or night patrol warning us of the perils of starting a fire. My new year cards are written and mailed, it’s time to curl up and relax.

new year postbox

Tokyo at three miles an hour

On my way home from church today I read a BBC article about a journalist who is going to spend the next seven years walking from the Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego, following in the steps of the first humans as they spread from Africa across the globe. You can read the whole article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20902355. Of course, it’s a huge undertaking, with some parts fraught with danger, and he will have a lot of support even if he is largely walking alone or with local guides. What struck me, what stuck in my mind, was the idea that our brains have evolved to absorb information at 3mph / 5kph, or the average walking speed. Now, I am no scientist, so I can’t say if this is correct, but the concept appeals to me, because this is how I like to soak up the sights and sounds of Tokyo.

I have already written a number of posts about walking in Tokyo. Although this is a huge city with an enormous population, one of the 21st century’s megacities, Tokyo is really not so big and much of is it easily walkable; it’s largely flat, it’s not hard to find a roadside map and if you are map-challeneged like me you can always ask someone. There are three kinds of walks I enjoy; following railway lines, walking around neighbourhoods and pilgrimage routes.

Over ten years ago, I got the idea, I don’t remember from where, that I would like to walk around the Yamanote line in one day. The Yamanote line is the overground loop line around Tokyo. It is 34.5km long and carries over three and a half million passengers on an average day. There are twenty-nine stations and a full loop takes approximately one hour. Anyway, I was taken with the idea of an urban hike and luckily for me it also appealed to a friend who agreed to do it with me. It took fourteen hours (including breaks) and is probably the topic for a post all of its own, but it was that mammoth trek which confirmed for me that the best way to see the city was on foot. That day, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, is still clear in my mind, even over a decade later. Three years ago we repeated the walk, on the last day of the year; we shaved a couple of hours off our previous time and counted off each station as the remaining hours of the year ticked away. Same blisters though.

Even before that walk, I had enjoyed exploring different areas of Tokyo, Yokohama and Kamakura; there are a number of guidebooks available. Yanaka became a favourite, but wherever I walked I always discovered something ; a century-old rice cracker shop, where the third and fourth generations of a family were working; a shop selling a skin-whitening treatment made from nightingale droppings; traditional Japanese houses, modern architecture, and the occasional Swiss chalet. So much of Tokyo is small neighbourhoods, with local parks and shrines and temples tucked in with everything else.

The pilgrimages are a relatively new discovery for me. I did the Yamate route for the first time only a few years ago, but am excited to find a new way to explore. I have only done two out of the twenty-four so far, but I intend to do more.

After we completed that first Yamanote line walk we returned a few weeks later, armed with coffee from a nearby Starbucks (not nearly as easy to find as it is today) and did a victory lap. Our fourteen-hour marathon was condensed into a one-hour swoop around the city. That, too, is a fascinating view of the changing cityscape, and an easy way to give a visitor a brief idea of all that Tokyo is. Nothing can compare, though, to just walking and looking, feeling your feet on the ground, knowing that you are just a tiny part of a vast city. Whether you are in Tokyo or elsewhere, it is a rewarding way to spend an hour or more. Slow down, take in the world at three miles an hour. Sometimes, you can see more by doing less. You can go further by traveling a shorter distance. Even in a big city, finding the places that appeal to the senses, that take root then resonate in memory no matter how much time has passed; this is how I have nibbled Tokyo bit by bit, and have found ‘my’ Tokyo, the one that reflects all the reasons I have made it home for so long.

Marunouchi

Turn right at the eel shop

On Saturday I did another Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage. This time it was the Yamate pilgrimage, and I had company. It was a much easier route than the Ebara pilgrimage I did on January 2nd, and unlike all the other routes in Tokyo, this one is open all year. Of course, there is nothing to stop you walking any of the other 23 any time you want, but if you want to gather stamps from the shrines and temples, or buy dolls of the lucky gods, this is the only one that allows you to do this all year round. For these reasons, I’m going to try to give more detailed directions for this one, and if you have a chance I hope you can do this pilgrimage yourself one day.

Map of Yamate pilgrimageSo here is the map with all the shrines and temples marked on the route. Aha, the beady-eyed may be saying, she says it’s a Seven Lucky Gods pilgrimage, but there are only six stops! True; there are only six stops, because at the third place there are two gods in one shrine.

The nearest station is Shirokane Takanawa, on the Namboku Line, and the most convenient exit is 1. When you emerge at street level, turn left and walk to the next crossing. Cross the road, turn left and walk past the fire station then continue across another road. The first shrine is Kakurinji (覚林寺). We had decided to make an early start, so we were there before the office had opened and no-one was about. The shrine is a medium-sized one, with a concrete area in front, but parts of it look quite old. It’s amazing how just a few steps from a busy main road there’s a feeling of peace and tranquility.

Kakurinji   KakurinjiNow, I have already written that the office hadn’t opened yet, so I was unable to buy a lucky god doll, but at the end of our pilgrimage we took the train back and I managed to get one. Each doll has a hole in the base and a fortune is inside, so when you buy one you have to choose your own. By the end of the pilgrimage you have seven dolls (and therefore seven fortunes) so I can only imagine that you look at each one as you go along and keep or discard it according to what you already have and whether it is better or worse than the one you already have. Anyway, the god here is Bishamonten and here he is:

BishamontenWhen you leave Kakurinji, turn left, and retrace your steps back to the road you crossed over before. Instead of crossing the road, turn left and walk past the Miyako Hotel. The next place is Zuishoji (瑞聖寺), about 8~10 minutes’ walk along Meguro Dori. This was one of the largest we visited, and again had a lovely serene atmosphere. As you enter the precincts there’s a bell tower on the right. Although it was still before nine o’clock we could see inside the temple and spent some time just soaking up the atmosphere.

Zuishoji   Zuishoji   I looked up and was delighted to see this amazing wooden fish:

ZuishojiWe decided to hang about for ten minutes to wait for the office to open, and when the staff started to arrive just before nine our presence surprised them. Several of them were apologetic and rushed to open the office, even though we were there early and they were not late at all. I bought my next doll (though actually it was the first of the day), Hotei:

HoteiOnwards to our next stop, Myoenji (妙円寺), where both Jurojin and Fukurokuju are worshipped. To get there, the route continues along Meguro Dori for another 8~10 minutes. The road to the shrine leads down a slope, and the shrine itself is quite small. There are two halls:

Myoenji   Myoenjiand in the photo on the right you can see some disappointing fortunes which people have tied and left at the shrine. If you walk between the two halls you can find this tiny shrine also:

MyoenjiOf course I bought dolls of the lucky gods:

Jurojin   FukurokujuThe walk to the next stop is a bit longer. Continue along Meguro Dori; you’ll walk under the expressway and eventually come to Meguro JR station. Walk parallel to the tracks until you come to the corner of the station, across from the Meguro Atre building. Cross over the road, but instead of walking down the main road, take the smaller road to the left and walk down quite a steep hill towards Meguro Gajoen. The next temple, Daienji (大円寺), is about halfway down on the left. The gate looks very new, but inside on the left there are a lot of small statues which look old and peaceful. There was a small bell to ring and the sound went on and on, it was so beautiful.

Daienji   Daienji                    The main hall is directly opposite the entrance

Daienjiand on the right you can see a statue of a buddha covered in gold leaf. If you are suffering from some illness or ailment you can buy a small packet of gold leaf at the temple office and apply it to the corresponding part of the buddha’s body and he will heal you.

DaienjiThe god here is Daikoku, and here he is:

DaikokuContinuing down the hill, you’ll pass Meguro Gajoen, famous for its wedding halls, banquet facilities and museum, but also for its huge and luxurious toilets! According to its website, it’s ‘a multipurpose community space exuding the pleasant fragrance of highly advanced culture’. If you need a toilet break, this would be a good option! A little further on, you’ll cross Meguro river, lined on both sides with cherry trees; a good excuse to walk this route in spring when the blossoms are in full bloom. A few more minutes and you reach Yamate Dori. Turn left and cross the road (by the overpass) and you’ll see the fifth stop up a small road on the right.

This is the smallest shrine, Banryuji (蟠龍寺), dedicated to Benten, the only goddess of the seven.

Banryuji   Banryuji                         I know the photo isn’t very clear, but it’s the only one I took. The photo on the right is of the little grotto to the right of the main hall, under a tiny man-made (I assume) hill. There’s a pond in front of the shrine and the atmosphere here is very relaxing. Being so small, the incense wafts everywhere and the air is fragrant with its smoke.

At this shrine I bought a doll and also a decorative strap for my phone containing all seven gods:

Benten   7 lucky godsOne more stop to go! Turn right and continue along Yamate Dori. When you see a smaller road leading off to the right, follow it. It will zig-zag a couple of times, and you’ll come out opposite a temple that appears to worship an octopus. I have no idea what’s going on there. At this point, we asked the way because we weren’t entirely sure where we were, and were told to continue along the road and ‘turn right at the eel shop’. We walked on and came to the last stop, and by far the biggest of the pilgrimage.

RyusenjiThis is Ryusenji (瀧泉寺), and the god here is Ebisu. The precincts are large, and when we entered we saw a lot of stalls set up to sell snacks like takoyaki (octopus fritters) and chocolate-dipped bananas. Nothing was on sale yet; it was still only about 10am. We walked up the steps and came to the main hall. There were two groups of high school students, noisily taking photos and checking the fortunes they had just picked out.

I bought the last doll

Ebisuand the pilgrimage was complete. The nearest station is Fudomae, also on the Namboku Line, and you’re only one stop away from Meguro.

So I started this year with two pilgrimages and they were very different. The Ebara pilgrimage is quite demanding; it’s longer and there are a number of hills to go up and down. There were no dolls, but I bought the small ema and collected stamps at each stop. I found it enormously satisfying to complete the route but was very tired by the end. It’s very much a neighbourhood walk, and if you want to stop for a rest or refreshments you’d have to look for a convenience store, because not much will be open in the first few days of the year when you can do the pilgrimage.

In contrast, the Yamate pilgrimage is much easier; it’s shorter and as long as you start at Shirokane Takanawa there is only one hill and you walk down it. (If you start at Fudomae and do this route backwards you will have a steep walk up to Meguro station.) The dolls are a lovely souvenir. If you want to collect stamps you can, but it will take longer, because you have to wait for someone to do the calligraphy for you. Since you walk right past Meguro station it would be much easier to stop for a snack or a meal and the route is far more direct. If you have friends or family visiting Tokyo I would recommend this pilgrimage as a wonderful way to spend half a day. You can do it any time of the year and in only a couple of hours you’ll see the most modern and most ancient aspects of life in Tokyo.

I am deliberately focusing on Tokyo in my posts and not including people’s names, but I would like to thank the friend who got up early and did the pilgrimage with me, and especially for indulging me at the end by going right back to the beginning so I could complete my collection of lucky gods. Thank you! You know who you are.