imperium denied (Senso-ji, Ginza)

imperium denied

Our plan was simple: check our email at the hotel, and then walk to the Imperial Gardens and take a ton of pictures there. Well, parts one and two worked out just fine: the gardens were about a 10 minute walk from Jimbocho. There was only one slight snag: they’re closed on Mondays and Fridays. Oops. So we took a quick walk around about a third of the moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace:

…and then lit out for Plan B: the Senso-ji Temple complex in Asakusa.

But first, since looking at a map revealed that we were close to Tokyo Station, we decided to go convert our Japan Rail Pass vouchers into actual passes. This involved a bit of a trek through the bowels of Tokyo Station to find the Magic Window where you could do the conversion, but it only took a few false starts to find it, and the young women at the window were almost overwhelmingly helpful, copying out in longhand a timetable for the trains to our first post-Tokyo destination. Also, the ‘bowels’ of Tokyo station are in fact a sprawling, sparkling and spotless shopping mall and food court, which managed to remind me that breakfast had been raw fish at 7am, and perhaps it was time to start thinking about lunch. But first, Senso-ji.

Senso-ji is an enormous temple dedicated to Kannon (AKA Guanyin), the Buddhist goddess of mercy. To get to this place of repose and reflection, you walk from Asakusa station on the end of the Ginza line, past this amusing building (which I am certain I should know the name of, but am presently drawing a blank):

…and then through a mammoth, never-ending pedestrian mall full of tourists (Japanese and external) and shops dedicated to separating them from their money.

Backing up a bit, regarding the tourism thing: it’s a little odd. In some ways, I feel far less conspicuous as a tourist than I have in any other Asian country: Japan has a huge internal tourist industry, so it’s perfectly normal to see huge groups of Japanese people gawping and taking zillions of photos right next to you as you gawp and take photos. On the other hand, how much do non-Asian (and really, non-Japanese/Chinese/Korean) people stick out here? We’ve now twice recognized people from our plane flight as we were walking around, something that I can’t imagine ever happening in, say, London. Non-Asians stand out in a crowd so much that you can’t help but spot them instantly, and seeing yourself in a mirror is a little jarring: ethnic homogeneity is really frighteningly easy to get used to.

I remember reading a while ago that non-Japanese immigrants tend to go through a phase of trying to stay as far as possible from other non-Japanese, and I think I get that: as long as you are the only gaijin in a crowd, you can kinda-sorta suspend disbelief. But as soon as that second face arrives, it’s all gone…


Senso-ji is a massive temple complex, with an entrance pavilion, a main temple, and then about a dozen smaller shines and memorials scattered over about half an acre. It’s also very, very busy: between the active worshippers and the gazillion tourists (and a fair number of people who seemed to be both) it got a little hectic. We spent about an hour exploring the various shrines before hunger and heat forced us out. I’m kind of an easy mark, photographically speaking, for Buddhist temple complexes (as the fifteen or so rolls of film I shot on Putuoshan Island in China will attest: thank Elvis for digital cameras), so I took about a hundred photos; I’ll be nice and only post four:

Lunch was a noodle shop in one of the quieter corners of the attached pedestrian mall: it wasn’t ramen, but something with a different name that I failed to retain. Pretty similar in practice, but the broth was fish-based, and the contents were just noodles, scallions and three slices of fatty pork. It was brilliant.

I came here expecting to eat my way across the country, but one thing that hadn’t sunk in from all of my reading was how many restaurants here are single-dish operations: they serve one thing only, and they do it really, really well. It’s a very different feel from how most American and European restaurants work, and I have to say I appreciate the focus.

Once we left the noodle shop, we managed to get about three yards away from it before we passed a gelato store, and were powerless against its evil radiation. It was, after all, starting to get pretty hot. That duty disposed of, and the weather still muggy and getting hotter, I suggested that the height of the afternoon might make an excellent time to check another requisite starter Tokyo tourist item off the list and poke through the expensive and (key feature) air conditioned department stores of Ginza.

Well, I can in fact report that the department stores of Ginza are as expensive and as climate controlled as promised. We spent the most time in Mitsukoshi, which had an entrance from the subway station that lead directly into their basement food court, which is completely berserk: two basement floors of food stalls selling exquisitely prepared foods for prices ranging from the vertiginous to the heart-stopping:

But it wasn’t until we got to the “insane food gifts section” on the top floor that we hit the true madness. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the hundred-dollar honeydew melon:

As “Bob” is my witness, I will never bitch about the prices at the Embarcadero Farmers Market ever again in my life.

The really odd part about the super-expensive fruits (not pictured: the $70 peaches, the $50/kilo cherries, the $45 apricots, etc) was that Miranda notices that none of them smelled…much like anything. Which is just weird: to my mind, half the point of a basket of fresh fruit is that putting your nose into them is a quasi-sexual experience, but these ones were apparently bred for size and visual impact.

Between the basement and the hundred-dollar honeydews were 5 floors of clothing, exactly zero items of which were going to fit Miranda or me. I tried on a snappy-looking straw boater out of a feeling of misplaced optimism, and it sat on my head like a beanie. There’s really nothing quite like a clothing store in Asia to make you feel like a large, hairy ape: even glancing in the mirrors in the escalator seemed to indicate that my stubble (and I am, um, not hirsute) was growing at a thousand miles an hour.

Having had enough self-abuse, we walked out into the steamy Ginza sunshine.

Walking up and down Ginza’s main drag revealed mostly more of the same: department stores, clothing boutiques and coffeeshops. Which was pretty much what we’d been expecting from Ginza, so that was alright. We walked through the basement food courts of one or two other department stores, largely on the theory that you can’t see enough eel-on-skewers in one lifetime. Then just when we thought we’d had enough of Ginza, we ran into Hakuhinkan Toy Park, which is like a 5-storey F.A.O. Schwartz, only much, much cooler, because F.A.O. Schwartz never had half a floor dedicated to Totoro and Catbus dolls. Only extreme self-control and the fact that we’re going to the Ghibli Museum (which presumably has a giftshop) tomorrow kept me from walking out of there with multiple 72” stuffed Totoros (and probably a few dozen soot sprite keychains and cell phone charms). And then there was the Wall O’ Gundam toys! And the Wall O’ Tarot Decks, which included the Gay Tarot! Which was not a misprint or an Engrishism, but was really a Tarot for gay people! (Sadly, my enthusiasm did not survive noticing the $40 price tag.)

It also had an entire room of… well… these things:

…and, ugh, these:

Escaping Hakuhinkin with a surprisingly small haul of crap, we decided to hit the Sony building as our final destination in Ginza, and promptly ended up half a kilometer away from it before we gave up and broke out the map. The Sony building itself ended up being not all that interesting, but on our way to it, we saw two brilliant things. First, right next to it, there is a building nearly as tall with a facade that appears to be made entirely out of glass bricks, and has a statue of a horseman on top:

…and as we were waiting for the light to change, this little piece of awesome drove by:

Inside the Sony building, I managed to leave my camera on one of the displays. This being Japan, it was of course still there when, two floors later, I noticed that my hand was oddly lighter and ran back in a panic. But we decided that bit of absentmindedness was a good sign that it was time to get the hell out of the sun and back to the hotel. So, here we are.

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