Shrines, Hari-Kari, Maple Leaf, The Shogun.

Shrines, Hari-Kari, Maple Leaf, The Shogun.

Nikko: The original, “Monkey See no Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak no Evil.”
March 18: 
Tuesday is a lovely sunny day and I head off through Roppongi and Midtown where the cherry blossoms are just maybe starting to pop to wander through Akasaka.  I figure if I can keep walking in ever increasing concentric circles I will a) not get too lost and b) get a better sense of the neighborhood.   In fact I come across a hidden park, shrine, and historic site at the Nozugaki subway stop at the former home of Count Nogi Maresuke, Meiji General and national hero who committed ritual suicide (along with his wife) after the funeral of the Meiji Emperor in 1912.  I find this story quite moving (except for the wife — did she have a choice?).  He had begged the emperor on several occasions to be able to commit suicide, especially after the loss of tens of thousands of Japanese troops under his watch in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War (including the deaths of both his sons), but the Emperor refused him until after he died. Immediately after the funeral — ritual disembowelment.  It does make you stop and think about the sense of greater purpose of a people for whom this is an honorable act.
I keep walking to the walled Crown Prince’s palace grounds (off limits) and the craft fair building.  The crafts (lacquer, silks, dolls, calligraphy ) are gorgeous and mucho bucks, so much looking but no buying.  Several women sit patiently taking calligraphy classes.  

Next door I see a large Canadian flag and hop into the embassy where I am not given the third degree as at the US Embassy and take the outdoor escalator to the top floor where there is a most unusual stone garden representative of the Laurentian shield.  There is also an exhibit of Inuit sculptures and somehow I am allowed to wander around the building – fascinating.  It’s a very modern and very Tokyo building of cold slabs of stone and concrete – very in vogue, sleek, clean, cold. The contrast with security at the US Embassy is striking. There, I can’t even take a picture on the street, but lookey here…

Continuing in the widening gyre method I hit the smaller back streets of Akasaka looking for the Hie Shrine up on a hill.  I am becoming quite fond of these Shinto respites from city intensity. While many Japanese temple/shrine complexes are a syncretic mix of Shinto and Buddhism, the ones I’ve seen today are pure Shinto.  It’s kind of nice to worship trees and spirits – no punishing God to insist that you pray 5 times a day facing a certain direction wearing fringes or beards or saying a rosary or hitting your forehead on a rug.  Just throw in some money, clap twice, bow twice, ring the bell, write a note on a piece of paper and tie it to a prayer wall.  Peaceful, outdoors (nice when the weather is good – otherwise…not so much).

Back to the kaleidoscope of the city; I find my way back and am oh so proud of myself.  Sash and I eat Korean BBQ and drink soupy white unfiltered Sake – reminds me of bread Kvas in Russia (is it universal to get anything to ferment and then drink it?) and speaking of Russia, we discuss world events, solve nothing, and he shows me the difference between all the various alphabet formats of Kanji, formal Japanese and Korean.
Wednesday March 20 – 
I am off on a day trip north of the city to Nikko. The trip leaves from the central bus station which takes about an hour to get to, and then another hour to get out of the city, and then another two hours north.  This is about the equivalent of driving to White River Junction in VT from downtown Boston, and there is NEVER a stretch of road in which you are either not in a city or a large town and not in sight of another building.  The country is packed. Mountainous and packed. Snow appears. More snow, we climb higher and I am thinking that I do not have the right clothes. Correcto.  It’s freezing and you need boots, hats gloves. Some people on the bus are in flipflops and have come directly from Dublin or the Philipines. Yikes.
Nikko is stunning. Magical, even with the crowds, the cold and the main gate covered in scaffolding for renovations.  Huge towering cypresses in the snow, dark wood gates, shrines and pagodas, highly decorated, delicately painted surrounded by craggy hills and stone outcroppings.  A series of shrines and mausoleums to Tokugawa – the Shogun who unified Japan in the 1700s  – these buildings are very different from the spare Zen lines of most Japanese temples.

A group of high school graduating girls in full kimono are prancing around – a field day of picture taking.  Adorable. How do they get this dressed up and stay that way all day long through multiple bus trips?
We have lunch in what feels like a ski lodge with stacked bento boxes and nesting soup cups and personal stoves for cooking noodles.  I eat tiny bowls of local fiddleheads and wild mushrooms.
Lovely but my stomach does not agree and the long trip back sans bathroom in the bus looms as one of the challenges of travel.  But the day continues with a visit to the Imperial Villa – home for about 5 days a year to the Imperial family, and also used during the war (almost never mentioned, to get out of the range of US bombs); otherwise empty and looking like a Frank Lloyd Wright inspiration with low slung slate roofline in dark wood with inside courtyards, sliding rice paper doors, and as cold as an ice box in our slippered feet even on carpeted floors.  It is 6 weeks too early for what will be a spectacular garden planted to best seasonal advantage with weeping cherries and waterfalled ponds, tiny arched bridges and stunted Dr. Seuss pines with their furry hatted branches.
And it’s not over. Now we head up into the mountains up through 48 hairpin curves symbolizing the formal characters for “Mountain” to see a waterfall. OK – I come from the land of mountains, lakes and waterfalls – not impressed.  I am impressed by the road carved in perfect “S” with vertical drops and a completely netted and incised mountainside to prevent avalanches, mudslides, and presumably the chaos that an earthquake could wreak. At the top a lake sits in the mist and from it tumble waterfalls that are truthfully no big deal.
It’s freezing and so are the bathrooms but at least they exist.  There are several ceramic stores – the pottery takes a depth of knowledge that I couldn’t approach (shape, glaze, clay, prefecture) but I do spy a lacquer set – the only one – and adhering to the rule of – if you want it, do not think you will buy it somewhere else – you won’t – just do it.  I couldn’t even begin to figure out how to bargain and assume this is a total no-no anyway, so I just hand over the big bill and watch the wrapping and taping and wrapping and bowing. I bow and realize that I am bowing as though I were in Thailand with hands in prayer. So not in Thailand — this is the Scandinavia of Asia.
After a brutal return to the city, and city is a word that doesn’t even compute when greater Tokyo goes on for hours and has a population the size of Canada, we are dropped off in our choice of Shinjuku station (which appears to be the size of the Washington Mall and has about 45 separate exits – Sash has warned me to stay away) or, mercifully, somewhere in Ginza – which as it is only about 20 sq. blocks I have some prayer of figuring out.  By now it’s 8:30 and I negotiate the still-packed trains, people standing dead on their feet, heads cocked at weird angles, fast asleep, in black suits, white shirts, dark ties, and white face masks — peering anxiously at the moving map inside the subway car which is not reassuringly in English as it usually is.  But here is Tammieke-Sann station and I walk briskly to exit 12 and haul my tired ass up the hill to the compound. I wave at the guard in his booth who salutes and contemplate the teams of people on duty for their countries everywhere.