Full circle

I was in Tokyo for the first time last October as part of the Tokyo Dateline Journalism team.¬†It’s hard to fully encapsulate what a lovely trip it was and what a deep impression the people and places left on me, so I won’t begin to describe the whole experience, beyond what you have seen on this blog. Instead, I will just say that I will be headed back again this March, to show the people I love what I love about this neon city. I am not sure what better compliment I can give. ūüôā

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Hamarikyu: a slice of Tokyo’s well-preserved past

It’s my last week of work here in Tokyo, and yesterday¬†the folks from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government arranged¬†a¬†walking¬†tour of the Hamarikyu Gardens, located along Tokyo Bay.

The grounds of the Hamarikyu previously served various purposes Рas the family garden and duck hunting grounds of the Tokugawa shogunate during the Edo period, and also as a detached palace that was later used by the imperial family after the Meiji Restoration.

The area is awash with several shades of green against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, it was quite a sight and a welcome reprieve from the bustle of Shiodome just minutes away.

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Though most of the original structures were destroyed in the aftermath of the second world war, Hamarikyu has since been faithfully reconstructed Рdown to small, delicate details such as this wooden wall carving in a teahouse that represents the full moon.

To move from the busy subway to this detached floating rest stop feels almost surreal.

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The visit included us having a sampling of a shogun’s meal that¬†had been recreated¬†by Professor¬†Sachiko Matsushita, an Edo food culture researcher and Emeritus Professor at Chiba University.

Prof Matsushita had gleaned an insight into the culinary tastes of Japan’s Edo rulers by scouring through various materials, including¬†cookbooks preserved from the era.

These, however, often contained only the ingredients and types of seasoning used, so Prof Matsushita completed these recipes in accordance with¬†the preferences of today’s typical Japanese palate.

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The meal was exquisite Рconsisting sea bream sashimi, shrimp and herring roe sushi, simmered lotus root with salt, fish paste, thick baked omelet, rice and a sweet red bean dessert, just to name a few.

You are, as they say, what you eat and I must confess I did feel a little lofty and refined after the meal, as I looked out at the lush greenery in front of me, sipping on tea as I sat on my tatami.

This lasted for approximately 15 minutes before the commoner in me was beset by a food coma, my excitement having caused me to wolf down the food in mere minutes. Some meals are worth a little post-food discomfort, and this was definitely one of them.

Yesterday’s Hamarikyu¬†tour also included stops at the hunting grounds and a floating teahouse¬†built over¬†a pond, where I was served matcha tea and a traditional sweet treat.

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It felt like I was coming full circle, in a way, because my first week in Tokyo had similarly begun¬†with a tea ceremony at Koganei park. It’s been an amazing ride in between.

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The nakajima-no-ochaya – a floating teahouse where the shogun, court nobles and other officials used to enjoy a scenic view as they sipped on tea. Today, the grounds are open to the public, who can also have a taste of nobility.

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The famous 300-year-old pine tree, that greeted me at the entrance of the Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu is a site to behold in spring, I’m told, when the cherry blossoms are in full swing, but even today, on a regular morning in fall, something about the park today left me captivated.

I tried to rationalise it – this deep sense of serenity and calm – which somehow felt a little different from the usual walk in the park in other parts of Tokyo, or even back home.

I find the answer as I’m introduced to¬†gardener Junichi Fujishima, who showed us the ways in which the pine trees here are trimmed twice a year.

It’s a tedious process¬†– referred to as¬†midori-tsumi in spring and¬†momiage in fall¬†– of pinching and breaking shoots that have newly developed within the year in so specific a manner that the trimmed pine leaves are left in the shape of a perfect arc.

The pinching and breaking is entirely done by hand, without any tools.

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Mr Fujishima has been a gardener at the Hamarikyu Gardens for five years, but has worked with flora and flauna for close to three decades

The art of trimming these trees, I learn, has been passed down over generations. Gardeners work their way around each tree from top to bottom, taking weeks to complete a single section at Hamarikyu. They rotate around three different parts of the Gardens every year, and Mr Fujishima tells me he has a soft spot for the 300-year-old pine tree, which he enjoys tending to.

He also explains how neither pesticides and insecticides nor fancy gardening tools are used in the gardens.

To keep away pests, for example, a two-layered straw mat hugs the trunk of each tree at the start of fall to trap worms that usually burrow into these plant hosts and weakens them. The same method has been employed for centuries past.

A fellow journalist asks if the gardeners take liberties with shaping and designing the arc of the pine trees; it has been hundreds of years since the methods for trimming them were originally dictated.

“No, we continue to follow¬†the way things have been done over the last few generations and have left them the same,” says Mr Fujishima.

Hamarikyu, it hits me then, has unassumingly, yet firmly retained a crucial role in this city amid the large swanky glass buildings that surround it for precisely that reason Рthat it has remained unflinching in the face of stampeding modernity.

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You can feel it Рin the way the leaves of a 300-year-old pine tree rustle, or as you walk on sand and stone instead of concrete, or as you look at tree formations that have stayed in exactly the same shape for centuries.

And it makes a world of a difference Рto be in a space, a sanctuary, that is neither pressured nor affected by the demands of the fast-paced, technology-saturated city life.

The struggle between retaining¬†the old and embracing the new is an eternal one – to acclimatise and adapt to the changing needs of today’s world, compromises must be made, whether that means clearing out parks to build roads, or modernising facilities to make them more attractive and accessible to the masses.

But sometimes, retaining a sense of the past also helps us in the journey ahead because it anchors our memories, emotions and feelings and keeps us rooted. The large number of locals of all ages that I saw within just two hours at the park yesterday tells me very clearly that Hamarikyu has lost none of its relevance today.

Instead, this strong sense of the old and refined Edo has given the shiny Tokyo metropolis, in my view, a means with which to ground itself as it hurtles towards an unpredictable future.

Thirty days in Tokyo

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Today marks exactly a month since I’ve been in Tokyo and¬†I thought I’d take stock of what these four weeks have been like.

For the first-time tourist, Tokyo is an endlessly charming city Рpolite Japanese on the subways, endless streets to wander into Рneon lights that hypnotise me along one lane, traditional roofed shophouses that greet me at the next.

Within hours of arriving,¬†I got¬†a sampling of one of the world’s most efficient and fascinatingly complex metro and subway stations, accurate down to the nearest second, and was¬†exposed¬†to the truly world-class¬†service standards in this¬†food paradise.

After two weeks, I started to miss home just a little but had an absolute blast discovering Asakusa, Yanesen, Shibuya and the little alleys in Kagurazaka.

On my way home from work one afternoon, a young sumo wrestler cycled past me, smiling to himself, munching on a snack and seated on a bicycle I fear is much too small for him. It was a lovely sight and I begin to understand that Tokyo is meant to be enjoyed in these small, irreplaceable moments.

Four weeks in, I still can’t get used to the complex metro and subway system, which on days where I am exhausted from work, has become a chore rather than an adventure to navigate through without the use of Google Maps.

In the mornings, I am a sardine helplessly forced along by a swift and forceful subway current. The novelty of having my face barely five centimetres from a complete stranger wears off after the first time.

A few days back, I committed the cardinal boo-boo of entering a restaurant without my socks on and the briefest hint of disdain flashes over the face of the waiter, who recovers within a split second.

I’m not sure if it’s better or worse that my behaviour, though painful to the eyes of many, is excused because I’m a foreigner. There are many, many, many social norms to get accustomed to here.

Just days later, I am at another restaurant, struggling with my limited Japanese to order a plate of dory baked pasta without any bacon.

Three staffers come up to me one after the other, struggling with their English but nonetheless determined to help me place my original order without having to settle for an easier option Рvegetarian or plain soup. This does not happen in a fancy restaurant in the heart of Ginza, but takes place in a small restaurant close to the subway located ten minutes from my apartment in Ryogoku. There is a strong sense of sincerity and pride in service that is found anywhere and everywhere here.

On Monday, I returned from a late night out with my colleagues. We were on the Yamanote line, and the train had stopped at a particular station that was not our final destination. We bantered on cluelessly and a young Japanese Tokyoite in his mid 20s, who had been standing along the platform outside, enters the carriage we are on.

“Train..stop final..here,” he says haltingly. “Change..” he trails off, embarrassed that he can’t convey a clearer message though there is nothing in my eyes to be embarrassed about.

We hop off, deeply grateful and thank him profusely, but he has little time for thanks and is instead preoccupied with the subway map, trying to help us figure our way home. I’m touched.

Vacations give you an idealised notion, a getaway that presents a markedly different alternative to the routine of daily life back home.

At home, you are decidedly honest, quick to spot faults or weaknesses and compliment grudgingly Рall this fuelled by a sense of familiarity, where one can easily do away with the need for surface-level niceties.

On a holiday, there is a postcard-pretty picture of the place you visit, and this is what you take back with you, these surface interactions of the great time you’ve had.

It’s been 30 days since I’ve arrived, and I continue to encounter different experiences¬†that make me appreciate this city for what it is – unapologetically full of charm and idiosyncrasies. It’s been long enough and I’ve been in myriad situations that have helped me to¬†understand better what life is really like in Tokyo, but¬†I know I’ve barely scratched beneath the surface.

Still, that I can complain and fuss and yet at the end of every day be thankful that I am here, makes me feel like a small part of me has already begun to call this place home.

An Edo kind of Tokyo

It’s Tuesday and I got to the¬†RyŇćgoku Kokugikan¬†stadium two days too late – the sumo season ended on Sunday. You might think nothing of this, but I grew up watching episodes on the lives of sumo wrestlers with my dad almost every, single, weekend as a kid growing up.

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The walls of the Ryogoku station are lined with pictures and trivia of famous sumo wrestlers. Underneath the two portraits are the handprints of various wrestlers. I checked. They’re huge.

Musashimaru (sumo wrestler on the left) is a figure I long remember and to see an almost life-sized picture of him just along the Ryogoku station earlier in the evening filled me with excitement (this despite the fact that Musashimaru-san actually retired in 2003). But it was not meant to be and since there was no sumo action to be caught, I decided to head over to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Located just next to the famed sumo wrestling stadium in Sumida, one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, the museum chronicles the history of the Edo period, established¬†by the shogun (General or Commander) Ieyasu Tokugawa in the 17th century and¬†lasting till 1868, when the Meiji Restoration brought the emperor back into power and ended feudalism in Japan.

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The first shogun of the Edo period, Ieyasu Tokugawa

The museum captures Рin the form of articles, artefacts, illustrations and re-eneactments Рwhat life was like during those 250 years, as Edo became the new centre of Japan. Before this period, Kyoto had been the capital of the country.

There was a separate¬†floor of the permanent exhibition – which explained¬†bushido or ¬†the life of the samurai warriors, Japan’s eventual easing of its isolationist policy at the end of the Edo era and the start of its exposure to westernisation, but I didn’t have enough time to finish the entire exhibit.

I won’t bore you with too many historical details, though so many things here were interesting to look at. I was struck particularly by the Japanese wood block printing style known as ukiyo-e,¬†where various woodblocks used to imprint different colours of a single image were then pressed on paper.

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A few stages of the tedious woodblock printing process. You can see with each frame how layers of colours are added.

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The third row of this ukiyo-e reproduction shows the different woodblocks – carved in different ways to add layers of colours at various stages.

The museum also served as a fascinating means of understanding longstanding cultural facets of the Japanese that continue to prevail today.

Chief among them was a strong sense of communalism and an unbending adherence to public order. Under the Tokugawa shugunate, hierarchy penetrated almost all layers of an individual’s life –¬†his social standing, his employment, the location of his house, options for entertainment, and in the case of the 300-odd daimyo or feudal lords, even who to¬†marry.¬†Common toilets and baths were, well, common (no wonder no one bats an eyelid at the public bath here in my sharehouse).

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The peasant class, represented here in this miniature exhibit, had separate living and working areas from the samurai and the daimyo (or feudal lords).

Social norms were also tightly regulated – the Edo period was a time of heightened isolation from the rest of the world and it’s interesting that in spite of this, the Tokugawa era was also when the arts, popular culture and a class of intellectuals thrived – the performance art of kabuki and ukiyo-e¬†printing developed greatly¬†during this period.

I did a bit of reading up after the visit to the museum and it seems the era’s isolationist policies mentioned earlier – which included the banning of all foreign books and limited contact with the outside world save with the Chinese, Koreans and the Dutch from the late 1600s – fuelled an even stronger sense of nationalism. If anything, the Edo period has given me a beginner’s understanding into the complex and perhaps even hardened perceptions¬†that many Japanese have had towards foreigners in previous years. Has all of this changed today? My understanding of the country’s nuances and complexities are too shallow for me to even attempt to make an informed conclusion, right now at least.

History is nothing new, but it always helps to frame perspectives. Tokyo today holds similarly to a lot of the values that were deeply ingrained during the Edo period –¬†but so much has also changed – individualism has crept in and the country is struggling to arrest its¬†economic slump using Abenomics.

The easing of immigration policies, among other solutions,¬†has been¬†regarded¬†as an important tool to encourage long-term growth, though how and to what extent this will actually be executed¬†has long been a matter of debate. But that’s a whole other story for another day.

The Edo Tokyo museum, for a first-time visitor to Japan like me, provides a great backgrounder and a starting point from which to understand and analyse the history, culture and politics of this fascinating nation.

I’ll be back to finish that second floor, for sure.