Friday, May 01, 2015

prayers and flesh

First, let's get this out of the way.  I liked Tokyo.

It is big.  And energetic.  And filled with a long history -- most recently as Japan's capital.

But, I doubt I will put it on my list of cities to visit again.  Japan, yes.  Tokyo, probably not.  It is far too much like Los Angeles.  Spread out far too much.  And that history?  The evidence of it was wiped clean by the American fire bombing of the city in the Second World War.

Having said that, let me tell you why I had a top drawer day in Tokyo.

We docked in Yokohama harbor early this morning.  On the bus ride into Tokyo, something we missed yesterday was remedied.

Right you are.  Mount Fuji.  Admittedly, it is 120 miles further away than yesterday, and it was glimpsed only through the pollution that hangs around Japan's cities.  But it was there.  And we saw it.

What struck me most about Tokyo when we rolled into town was just how mundane it looks.  Other than the presence of water, this street could exist in Los Angeles or Vancouver or, I suspect, Des Moines.

The combination of Japan's desire to westernize and its start from an almost blank slate in 1945 has led to quite a bit of architecture that is less than inspired.  When Shanghai was launching itself into the edgy world of new architecture in the 1990s, Japan was wallowing in a recession -- that it has yet to effectively escape.
Ironically, our first stop was the Buddhist temple and Shinto shrine at Senso-ji.  Ironic because the complex contains the most significant and oldest temple in Japan.  Despite the fact that the oldest buildings in the complex (save one) were built following the Second World War.

The Buddhist temple is dedicated to what Westerners call the Goddess of Mercy -- a venerable figure in Buddhism.  Legend has it that two fishermen in 628 AD discovered a statue of the goddess in a river.  Even though the figure was thrown into the river several times, it always returned.  The villagers built the first temple for the statue in 645 AD, and began worshiping the Goddess of Mercy.

During the next thirteen hundred years, the complex grew, along with the neighboring Shinto Asakusa shrine.  That is, until 1945, when the entire complex (with the exception of one gate) went up in flame during the incendiary bombing of Tokyo by the Americans -- in anticipation of a land invasion of Japan.

Now, here is one of those odd stories that run through many cultures.  There is a tale that the Shinto shrine was saved from fire by a dragon that quenched the flames and saved the structure.

The dragon is portrayed on the front of the reconstructed shrine.  Of course, the original is gone.  Lost to modern flames.  I assume the dragon must have been napping on that night in 1945.

The temple is a working institution.  Inside, Buddhist monks repeatedly fan scriptures -- often making prayer requests for visitors to the temple.  The process looked unnervingly like Las Vegas dealers showing off with their card shuffles.

About fifeen years ago, I visited a Buddhist temple in Thailand.  That was my first introduction to this symbol in the context of Buddhism.

I have always found its presence jarring.  At the Senso-ji complex, it is ubiquitous.  On temple ornaments.  On the crest of the temple.  On the cap tiles of the roof.

And it does not help that it is called "svatstika" in Sanskrit.  But it is not a Nazi swastika.  The arms are bent in the wrong direction.

In Buddhism, the swastika is a sign of good fortune.  It also serves another purpose: as a symbol of Buddha's heart and footprints.  So, we can all calm down about its use.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we were not visiting the Japanese village at Disneyland.  It wasn't that everything was Scandinavian clean.  Or that the buildings had a new car scent.

The essence of the Disney connection could be felt in the unseasonably fresh cherry blossoms.

What looked like a miracle was merely a ruse for tourists.  Those blossoms are actually silk flowers attached by wire to pruned limbs masquerading as cherry trees.

The amazing thing is that the ruse worked.  Just as it would at Disneyland.  Another example of how the Japanese are expert assimilators of Western culture.

We were then off to Tsukiji market -- the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world.  The place is divided into two parts.  The part we did not see contains the tuna and swordfish auction.  All of that takes place in the early morning each day.  We did not see it.

What we did see was the outer retail market.  Housewives and tourists mix amongst its retail stalls selling all forms of seafood and its derivatives.

If you are accustomed to markets in Europe, Tsukiji is far more funky.  And simultaneously breath-taking -- when it comes to prices.  Take these tomatoes.

And you could take a dozen of them.  For about the equivalent of $30 (US).  If you have a few more yen in pocket, you could also buy a few more cherry tomatoes similarly packaged for about $70 (US).

These bamboo shoots are not much less expensive.

Is it any wonder that the Japanese middle class is pressuring their current government to sign a free trade agreement that will lower trade tariffs that make many locally-grown products prohibitively expensive for them?

Speaking of food, the market is also known for its numerous food stalls and restaurants.  Roy and I decided to enjoy sushi in its home land.

Neither of us read or speak Japanese and the chefs at the sushi bar spoke no English.  So, we simply dived into the deep end of the fish pond, and requested a combination platter.  About 19 pieces, if I remember correctly.

I do not care for fish when it is cooked.  Not because I dislike the taste.  To me, it has no taste.  I could just as easily be eating tofu.

Therefore, I am not the best source to determine whether this particular platter of sushi was of good quality. 

To me, it was fine.  I know we ate tuna.  And sea urchin.  And sea urchin roe.  Plus the roe of some fish.  Other than that, I have no idea what some of the pieces might have been.

Would I try it again?  Certainly.  Maybe in a few years.  It simply tasted like nothing to me -- other than some of the seafood pieces.  They each had a -- what is the word? -- distinct taste and texture.

The sushi is a bit like Tokyo.  I am glad I experienced both.  But I suspect life has some better options to offer me.

Maybe we will find them in Russia.

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