Asakusa´s histories

今日は! Enchantée! Nice to meet you! Schön dich zu sehen!

Asakusa 浅草 literally means `low city´ but that does not really describe the feeling of strolling through that district. When I headed for that traditional spot of Tokyo for the first time I imagined it to be very quiet and historic, full of dignity and history just as the Meiji shrine I visited before. Meiji and Asakusa are the two main and most popular shrines of Tokyo, whereas the Meiji Temple 明治神宮 is a monument of the Shinto religion and located near Harajuku-station in a big natural park (probably because of this that silent and historical atmosphere gets created). So the impression I had was pretty solemn and comparable to entering a church in Europe: You get the feel of something special and illustrious happening around you. But, like often, my expectation didn´t fit with reality. To get a picture of Asakusa you´ve to imagine a district consisting of a mélange of religiosity, tradition, huge attraction and entertainment square. People in kimonos and yuukatas take pictures of themselves with pink selfie-sticks, trying to capture the mass of people behind them who all come here to either pray, eat, buy souvenirs (you can get the biggest trash here) or just want to conclude their sightseeing tours.

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When come out of the chikatetsu 地下鉄 (Japanese word for underground) the first you see are Japanese men next to their rikschas  (two-wheeled vehicles drawn by humans) that shout out lout for customers and try to attract the touristic-looking people. That´s one of Asakusas typical traditions: Getting on a rikscha, being carried through the whole district passing the temple and feeling like being in ancient centuries, voluntarily guided by the rikscha driver (who´s to sweat in front of you). But we didn´t take that opportunity as we felt sympathy for the poor drivers who had to deal with the cruel sun that day.
After squeezing through the crowded main sidewalk the building you see first of the temple is standing out massively of the tourist´s heads: An impressive light-red lantern, several signs and syllables on its surface that´s probably two times bigger than a human being. Known as Kaminari-mon 雷門 (“thunder-gate”) it´s guarded by two Japanese gods and leads to the official temple plaza. Because of the crowds the square spreads out an atmosphere more like a big tourism attraction pot, just as being in a busy flea market. And that´s exactly what you get after trapping through the lantern gate: A street is enlarging in front of you lined by bunches of little market stands, called Nakamise-dori. Here you can literally buy every souvenir you want (as far as you manage coming through the horde)- but you should not expect very high-quality items. It´s just a market where you can rummage in stalls with little Japanese puppets, fans, sandals, post cards, samurai T-shirts (and strangely Chinese waving cats as well). It´s a great square for grabbing some presents for friends and family and trying traditional Japanese candy.

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After that you arrive at the real temple plaza, through another big gate, where you can wash your hands and mouth for cleaning before entering that holy place. There´s also (as I told you about in a previous article) the possibility to write something on prayer tablets and bound them to a special board, as common in a lot of Japanese temples. The most outstanding building in this spot is definitely the five-floor pagoda that you already can see from far away, a red, filigree tower looking over the grey houses. The plaza itself is often covered by a thick well-smelling fog caused by the huge incense kettles standing in front of the main temple. According to a legend breathing in that fog would bring health and good luck. Another quite interesting (but naturally not free) myth ritual you can do here is raffling special tickets announcing good or bad luck. For that you have to shake little wooden boxes with a tiny holes so long until a little wooden stick is falling out. On that stick is a number carved in (unfortunately in Japanese signs) that refer to certain drawers standing by. Take out of the drawer with the right number a little sheet where you the prediction for your nearer future is written on. Of course that´s rather an intelligent sort of tourist trap, but nevertheless it´s fun doing it and I still carry my good luck sheet with me around sometimes (wow that sounds a little weird now).

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The main temple itself is more like the traditional calm religious place that is actually accessable for foreigners, but you recognize that the real purpose of it is not made for public´s entertainment. You see there Japanese people conducting their ritual way of praying in a Buddhistic temple: Throwing a little coin into a basket, clapping twice in the hand and praying in Japanese, afterwards they bow several times in front of the temple´s interior. There´s also a bell that can be chimed by pulling a certain rope.

Asakusa is one of the most famous religious locations in Tokyo and that´s not without reason. It´s definitely worth looking here around and get a feel of Japanese ways of traditions. Although it only slightly differs with other, similar temples it´s because of its popularity and size something special coming here and breathing the air of old Asian histories.

So that was it from me. I hope I could paint a roughly good image of Asakusa and that you were a little interested. Thank you so much for reading!

いってらっしゃい! -Have a good journey! -À tout à l´heure! -Halt die Ohren steif!

The one who wanna have a full passport

V

P.S.: Sorry that I didn´t write a post for longer time now. My school in Japan started recently and I had a lot to do with organization, but now things slightly start calming down.

24 hrs in Kyoto

Click here for the photo portfolio of Osaka and Kyoto.

今日は! Enchantée! Nice to meet you! Schön dich zu sehen!

The expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizudera” is the Japanese equivalent of the English utterance “to take the plunge”. There it´s obvious what meaningful role Kyoto plays in Japanese culture as even in the language.

If you ever get in contact with a piece of Japanese history, you´ll definitely catch up the name Kyoto 京都市. Its roots go widely back in earlier centuties, in times of cruel wars and peaceful periods, where shoguns ruled the country alternately with the tenno (emperor) and were samurai’s controlled the streets. The city is a guarantee for originality and quality in Japan, as the imperial residence was located there for over 1.000 years. All historical lines come there together, as the European cradle of culture is Rome or Athene.  It´s literally the symbol for sophistication, so popular that you find phrases like “Quality of Kyoto” inside kimonos. As I told you in previous articles Kyoto wasn´t destroyed by the bombs in World War ll, so you will find a temple or a shrine around every corner you pass. Japanese religion is mainly a mixture of buddhism and shintoism (a polytheistic nature religion), so you will see monuments of both beliefs. In the famous Gion-district, where the atmosphere is the same as in earlier centuries, Geishas in colourful clothes step on their getas 下駄 (traditional wood sandals) tuneful on the pavements.

As we arrived at the local train station we recognized that Kyoto is apart from all that predominantly one thing: very touristic. You see there as many Westerners in one scene as you won´t find easily in Tokyo. It´s organized in tourism centers and bus lines, guides will lead you in the right direction or if you don´t know the way, you just have to follow the masses of people. You see officers standing at the sidewalks, trying to overlook the busy crowds, kouban-stations (police boxes) in every street and, of course, the bunches of vending machines provided for dehydrated tourists. The time we visited the city was still in the very hot arid period, so we stood under every tiny shadow spot we found. The assemblies of people were actually quite an amusing picture: Sweating Western-looking folks with exhausted faces and water bottles in hand, who were not used to the heat, and perfectly styled Japanese in their long, wide kimonos and yukatas that seemed to not even feel the strong sun (was a little upsetting, too).

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First big postcard-monument we visited was actually a little outside the town, set in the Eastern surrounding hills: The wooden Kiyomizudera-Temple 清水寺, which is a definition for several buddhistic buildings next to each other. Kiyoi-mizu (清水) means in fact `clear water´ as the temple is named after a waterfall inside the temple-complex. According to a legend the water has healing forces so that you´ll be in health and wealth by drinking it (That explained the queue of Japanese in front of the little basin aside to it).  Before you reach the temple itself you have to come through a very, very touristic street, full of shops where you can spend your money on talismans, Geisha dolls and Japanese traditional sweets (be careful trying them).

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After struggling coming through the crowd you get a first glimpse of the temple. Several impressing, light-red gates are located there and after hiking a little up the hills you see the main wooden terrace, placed on pillars 13 metres above the ground. It´s a curious but also rather affecting feeling standin on that huge ancient pillars in middle of a green forest and having a thrilling view on the city. On the terrace there´s a holy prayer hall inside the temple that is isolated from the public. Buddhistic monks sell joss sticks and prayers tablets there, tourists take photos and inhabitants pray for fortune and health.

The path of the temple continues afterwards into the forest and leads, accompanied by noisily shrieking cicadas, to a shrine of shintoism. It´s called Jishu-jinja and dedicated to a god of love. According to that it is very famous for a superstition: There are two big stones 18 metres apart from each other next to the shrine. If you go with eyes closed from one stone to another, a new love will be ensured for you. It´s a myth mainly practised by female Japanese students and tourists (did it as well).

After experiencing that old Japanese temple-complex we got back to the station and went for our second destination. Unfortunately we had only 24 hours for visiting the city (which is far too less) so we had to hurry up a little bit. Our next historical building to visit was exactly the opposite quarter of Kyoto: The utter West. It took us quite some time to get to it, but as we´d arrived it was totally worth it: The Golden Pavillion is said as to be the most popular monument anyway in Kyoto and it did not get its name without reason. Originally called Rokuon-ji 鹿苑寺 (roe-deer garden temple) it got its term Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺 (golden temple) after its gold-covered surface. The three floors unite different Japanese and Chinese style epochs and the top is dominated by a bird of Chinese mystery, the Fenghuang.
The Pavillion is spotted next to a big lake inside a Japanese traditional park. It´s very admirable strolling through it, especially in the evening when the sun is reflected red and orange in the temple´s surface.

24 hours, 7 days or even 1 month are far too little to get the feel of this wonderful historical city. It´s really a pity that I´ve got to see only such a tiny insight of it as I´m sure there are a thousand other things left to discover. You never can actually see everything as a tourist, but I really hope that I have another chance one day to visit Kyoto and fill out some of the empty spaces I didn´t see. Kyoto is something unique all over Japan and has its own, deep-cultural but also kind of tropic flair. I really enjoyed traveling it (as you´ve maybe noticed).

If you don´t only want to read my experience, you have here the chance to see it: I´ve created a photography portfolio of Osaka and Kyoto.

If you´ve come so far, thank you very much for reading!

いってらっしゃい! -Have a good journey! -À tout à l´heure! -Halt die Ohren steif!

The one who wanna have a full passport

V

A little glimpse of Osaka

今日は! Enchantée! Nice to meet you! Schön dich zu sehen!

If you´re thinking of the ancient parts of Japan, apart from all the glitter and electronic, you´ll have probably pictures of shrines and temples in mind, of Geishas and Sakura (cherry blossoms), Mount Fuji and Buddha figures. Just to tell some stereotypes. Unfortunately the majority of that old traditional heritage was destroyed during World War II by the Americans, so you won´t be able to see a lot of that in Tokyo, Yokohama or Kawasaki.
Only the Southeast of Honshuu, the biggest one of the 4 major islands of Japan, was spared from the bombs. So you still find there ancient japanese wood houses, a huge number of temples and traditional old towns. The most famous and greatest there are Kyoto (京都市) and Osaka ( 大阪市), whereas Kyoto as the old Imperial capital of Japan is actually the symbol for ancient Japan anyway. If you walk down the streets in the famous Gion-district, you feel like you´re in another century, probably in the Heian-or Edo-peroid where Kyoto was Japan´s capital for over 1.000 years.

A few days after we (my family and me) arrived in Tokyo and got into our new apartment, we took a shinkansen-train to Osaka to explore the old face of Japan. It was the first time I went with a shinkansen and I was quite excited about it (although the tickets are rather expensive). Speeding up to more than 250 km/h we were in Osaka after about two hours. We decided to stay there and visit Kyoto by train because of the better and cheaper accommodation possibilities.

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So we arrived in Osaka and knew little about it. We´d heard that it was for a short time a capital city as well and that it was popular for its comedy and cabaret scene. As soon as we were at the station we immediately noticed a difference between Osaka and Tokyo: People were dressed more relaxed, there were (surprisingly) more Western tourists  and most obviously there was an extremely hot tropical weather. Japan´s summers are generally known as very hot and muggy but being at the geological height of Northern Africa increased even that effect.

We had only short time to look around in that kind of obstinate city but the impression I got was easy-going, non-touristic and way more provincial than Tokyo, even if that sounds odd for a town with more than 2.6 Million inhabitants. You just realised that you are in a completely other part of Japan. The streets were clean but not focused on good-looking and the whole ambiance was at least more original-japanese.  People had a darker skin colour than the residents of Tokyo (which is not very difficult) and seemed generally more relaxed. We weren´t able to watch a comedy show there (we wouldn´t have understood anything anyway) but I could understand why it´s quite a good space for cabaret and humorists there.

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Funny fact by the way: In Osaka the people always stand on the right side of the escalator not as in Tokyo. The both cities do not like each other so the local folks do that as a protest to show their independence.

The only big thing we explored in Osaka (apart from delicious food) was the Osaka Castle or Osaka-jou (大坂城) but that was impressive by itself. It´s a huge multi-storied fortress, built up in the 16th century to defeat attackers and to show the force of the former monarch as well. We went the stairs up to a history museum which is inside the Castle and after that to the looking platform on the top. There we had an overwhelming view over the city and a nice place to take photos. That rewarded the heat and the long stairs as the temperatures were extraordinary that day.

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In the evening the weather was a bit more bearable and we went to look for some good food spots. The cuisine of Osaka is known all over Japan and abroad, especially for udon  (うどん– thick noodles usually in some sauce) and oshizushi (押し寿司– kind of “pressed” sushi). And we really had some very good Japanese dishes, even if we didn´t find a traditional restaurant immediately in our area.

I actually liked the more relaxed informal atmosphere of the city. It was rather a welcome change to the more high-end side of Tokyo (depends on the district of course) though it was once not that easy to find something appropriate for us to eat (and we were hungry). It is just something that doesn´t appear on the top of a foreign tourist´s bucket list but that does not mean the city isn´t worth a view.

いってらっしゃい! -Have a good journey! -À tout à l´heure! -Halt die Ohren steif!

The one who wanna have a full passport

V