Cats often feature in the books of Haruki Murakami and, indeed, in Japanese literature and folklore in general. Of the latter, the most famous is probably the maneki neko ((招き猫)or beckoning cat, images of which can be seen throughout the country, to bring good fortune to the owners. The origins of the tale are claimed by both the inhabitants of Kyoto and Tokyo (and even the Chinese, not surprisingly), but the principle is the same: an impoverished owner of a failing store took pity on a passing cat and invited him in to share his meagre supplies of food. In gratitude the cat sat outside the store raising his paw to invite in passers-by, thus improving the fortunes of the kind-hearted shop owner.
Goutokuji Temple in Setagaya Ward, western Tokyo has its own version. At the end of the 17th century, a lord from Hikone was passing a temple when a thunderstorm was approaching. A cat emerged from the temple and raised its paw as if waving the lord inside, thus saving him from a drenching. In gratitude the lord rebuilt the temple and re-named it Goutokuji in 1697.
Nowadays this is commemorated by the display of thousands of cats beckoning the few visitors who make their way to this hidden gem off the main tourist trail.
But, in the three storey pagoda, if you look carefully, very carefully, you might just spot, and be spotted by, a cat hiding in the rafters.
Feline fans keen to improve their own luck can buy their own version made from wood, plastic or more commonly ceramics. Some even have battery or solar powered rising paws to give you a greater sense of being welcomed. And pause for thought: the right paw raised is to bring money, the left to bring in more customers. Both raised and you can’t go wrong.
The Japanese for light shining or filtering through the trees. What better time to see it than late autumn/early winter. And what better place to see it than in the forest surrounding Meiji Shrine in central Tokyo.
The shrine, which sees various Shinto rituals throughout the year itself was established in 1920 to commemorate the virtues of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken who died in 1912 and 1914 respectively. The forest consists of about 100,000 trees donated from all over Japan and carefully planted by young people to form an eternal forest which recreates itself. Just over 100 years later it takes the form of a natural forest home to many endangered plants, animals and birds. Entering the grounds through the imposing torii gates you’ll often see the shrine’s staff sweeping up the fallen leaves from the public path ways and returning them to the forest as natural composting. Visitors are asked to keep to these pathways and not to disturb its natural form both for the sake of the forest and also because of the sacred nature of the ground; and not to climb the trees. Most visitors head straight for the main Shrine buildings to pray for health, happiness and good fortune, but another path to spiritual enlightenment is just to stroll through the forest paths, where permitted, to enjoy this natural oasis in the heart of one of the world’s biggest cities
Or even just to sit in quiet contemplation for a while
One of my favourite routes is the path that runs from the main Harajuku entrance to Sangubashi as it’s little known and little used so perfect for walking in silence.
But even the main routes have their attractions
Whilst jogging, dog walking, or any form of sports activities are prohibited in the grounds of the shrine to preserve its sanctity, the same is not true for Yoyogi Park. It is free to enter and open 24 hours and many forms of activity take place from picnicking and partying to running clubs out for their weekly training, to a dedicated dog run. Only a simple fence separates it from Meiji Shrine but even though the atmosphere is completely different at the right time of year and day, it’s still possible to indulge in a little Komorebi.
But my favourite park, which does come with limited opening hours and an entrance fee given its status as a ‘royal park’ is Shinjuku Gyoen. It has an interesting history dating back to the 17th century when the area was the residence of Kiyonari Naito, a vassal of the Shogun of the time, Ieyasu Tokugawa . The Government bought part of that estate and surrounding area to create the Naito Shinjuku Experimental Farm which would later become the Imperial Garden and the teahouse from where the Emperor used to visit the gardens forms part of today’s park first opened to the public in 1949. The Naito dynasty lives on and part of the area close to the park which now consists mainly of high rise apartment buildings is still owned by one of his ancestors. I was fortunate enough to live from 2007-2010 in one of his houses overlooking the Park and my landlord, Mr Naito lived in the house next to me. Following a serious stroke in early 2009, as part of my rehabilitation I was encouraged to take a daily walk, and where better to do that in the neighbouring Shinjuku Gyoen, so it has particularly strong connections to my time in Japan, and I still try to get in there at least once a week pausing to talk to the trees giving thanks for my ability to enjoy this oasis just a few minutes’ walk from the world’s busiest railway station. Especially at this time of the year.
So, whenever one wants to escape from the troubles of the world or even of the mind, just taking time to enjoy light filtering through the trees, can lighten one’s mood, thanks to
Although, over the years, as a father I’ve taken my children to theme parks in England and other parts of the world, I’ve never actually been to a Disney resort. So, just two weeks short of my 65th birthday, and with a coupon for a free night at a Hilton Hotel, it was time to put that to rights and to head out to Tokyo Bay on a cool and drizzly evening for a very pleasant night at the Hilton on the Bay. I must confess to being rather apprehensive about my first Disney experience expecting it all to be rather garish and over the top, but my son’s partner who is rather a Disney expert had suggested that DisneySea was probably more suitable for someone of advancing years compared to DisneyWorld.
Not only were we celebrating my own birthday in advance but it was also DisneySea’s 20th Anniversary. The sun was shining and the skies were blue so we had an early start and armed with an all-day passport got in to join in the 20th Anniversary celebrations which were branded as ‘Time to Shine’. And so it was and time to find our way around the venue.
Top of the agenda was to meet the stars, so we oriented ourselves through the centre to do just that. In accordance with Covid protocols were asked not to get too close to Mickey and Minnie; we were wearing masks but they weren’t. Soon after that they emerged from their protective environment with some of their pals for a jaunt around the waterfront.
The culture vulture in me enjoyed the attractions related to popular entertainment and I ‘held on to my potato’ in an exciting ride around Indiana Jones’ Temple of Doom.
A more sedate circuit with Sinbad took me back to watching videos with my kids years ago,
We even went to ‘Infinity and Beyond’ in the Toy Story’s shooting gallery – my wife scored more hits than me but I had a better accuracy rate! No pictures as I was shooting targets rather than photos.
A couple of shows (no photos allowed) with Mickey & friends singing and dancing to the American Big Band Beat sound got us inside for an hour, and then we hit the water with a gondola tour of Venice.
Followed by a trip on a paddle steamer to see the ‘Sea’.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to Tokyo Disney Resort, and it did bring out the big kid in me. However, I’m no stranger to Tokyo Bay as very close by is Kasai Rinkai Koen (Marine Park). As well as being a popular spot for Tokyoites to visit and to enjoy the oceanfront of Tokyo Bay, and also the venue for the 2020 Tokyo Games’ canoe slalom events, it is a very important area of nature conservation. The Wild Bird Society of Japan (WBSJ), of which I am a member, holds regular gatherings there to observe and enjoy some of the 126 species of birds, including many migratory shore birds and waders which can be seen from the hides and on the ponds and waterfront. Just four years ago, the WBSJ was successful, at COP13 in the United Arab Emirates, in having Kasai Marine Park designated as the First Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Site in Tokyo. A very proud moment for my Japanese birding friends.
So, this weekend, it’s time to put away the fake Mickey ears and get out my binoculars to enjoy yet another aspect of the rich cultural heritage of Tokyo.
This week marked the start of the Year of the Tiger and yesterday was 2nd February 2022 or 2.2.22. It’s also two years since my post retirement freelance work came to and end mainly as a result of the Corona crisis. When I decided to take early retirement from my main career with the UK Government and to remain in Tokyo, to where I was posted at the time, it had been my intention to divide my time equally between my family home in the British Midlands and my adopted home in Japan. To which a good friend remarked “So, you want the best of both worlds?” But, a regular contract as a business writing trainer and coach meant I spent the greater part of my time here in Japan.
However, reality now starts to kick in as one year from now, I’ll need to return to the UK to qualify for my State Pension when I turn 66. Joseph Campbell talks about a Hero’s Journey and although no hero, I like the structure that he advocates especially when embarking on one of life’s adventures. In his book ‘The Hero with a thousand faces’ he says one of the ways in which an adventure can begin is a ‘blunder’:
A blunder – apparently the merest chance- reveals an unsuspected world, and the individual is drawn into a relationship with forces that are not rightly understood. As Freud has shown, blunders are not the merest chance. They are the result of suppressed desires and conflicts….the blunder may amount to the opening of a destiny.
Hero with a Thousand Faces, Chapter 1.Departure, 1. Call to adventure
/My failure to find any further freelance work could well be described as my blunder leading to my personal destiny, the call to the adventure of living the Albihon (best of England and Japan) lifestyle as well as writing about it. When I need to think, I usually do so best while walking. My final training contract took place on the 19th floor of the imposing Arco Tower building in Tokyo’s Meguro district.
From there we were usually blessed with views of Mt Fuji on the horizon. Whilst climbing Japan’s iconic mountain has long been a challenge I’d love to undertake, it’s not yet the climbing season so that’ll have to wait. A more realistic destination was the woodland area breaking up the suburban sprawl, I used to gaze down on. So yesterday I visited Rinshi no Mori park for the first time. After starting as a Meguro test nursery in 1900, it became Hayashi trial forest park in 1989. Now forest trails, adventure playgrounds, open areas and a pond make this an ideal location for a spot of forest therapy in the heart of the city.
It wasn’t the best season for a park with numerous plum and cherry trees, but it won’t be long until the weather warms up and we can enjoy their respective blossoms.
As well as the practicalities of the adventure ahead, I expect I’ll also be questioning my own beliefs. As it will also be a spiritual journey as well as a physical one yesterday’s walk included a visit to the Ryūsenji (瀧泉寺) also known as the Meguro Fudō (目黒不動, Black-eyed Fudō) Buddhist temple. According to the temple legend, Ryūsen-ji was built in 808 by Ennin to enshrine a statue of Fudō-myōō, while he was on a journey from Shimotsuke province to Mount Hiei.
Keeping my options open (I used to be a diplomat after all!) I then called in at the Otori Shinto Shrine, the history of which involved an emperor taking a rest stop after quelling some eastern barbarians.
Fortunately, this was something I’d never had to do during my previous career. But the thought of it was making me hungry. In Japanese, the character ‘wa’ (和) can mean ‘harmony or peace’ as well as ‘Japan’, and is often used as a prefix to a compound indicating a Japanese version of the word that follows. I’m familiar with its useage meaning Japanese-style, Japanese-clothes and Japanese-food but the following was new to me.
But my mackerel and tomato ‘wawich’ did the job and fuelled me for my walk home along the Meguro River.
Passing through Naka-Meguro the river pathway is lined with a motley collection of shops, galleries and boutiques, old and new, with a real international flavour to them.
Despite being in central Tokyo, I was still able to indulge in my ornithological interest as well.
/An excellent day’s walk which left me physically tired but spiritually refreshed and ready to face the next stage of my own life’s journey. As I got home, a quick glance at my step-count for the day even left me feeling slightly heroic.
Three more than was needed to have achieved ‘All the twos’! I’ve heard the call and I’m ready to respond
Part travel, part memoir, part cultural investigation but overall an exploration of the urban soul of Japan’s capital city while delving into my own psyche while walking the streets.
I’ve lived in Tokyo for about 15 years now. But do I really know the city? Probably not. Do I really know the people? Probably not. Do I really know the language? Definitely not. But I have scratched the surface of it all, and now is the time to dive deeper.
Quarantine, exile, solitary confinement, self-isolation. In these difficult days of the corona-virus we’re all being urged to cut ourselves off from human contact to avoid contagion and infecting others but at the same time to preserve our physical and mental health by taking exercise daily. In the UK family and friends were allowed one hour/day, but no such rules were laid down in Tokyo. But with pools and gyms closed during the State of Emergency and jogging while wearing a mask not conducive to free breathing, walking at a leisurely pace seemed like a good alternative.
Why ‘psycho’? Is this some horror story about stalkers? Certainly not. Is it Freudian-style attempt at self-analysis? Possibly. Is it an attempt to join the ranks of some of the great city walker-writers? Probably. Or is it a growing interest in psychogeography? Definitely.
Psychogeography – sometimes described as the ‘science(?) of walking/wandering aimlessly’. Iain Sinclair, one of the greatest modern proponents says that ‘drifting purposefully is recommended’. As such, psychogeography is not about walking with a pre-determined destination.
A flaneur is a composite figure – vagrant, detective, explorer, dandy and stroller – yes within these many and often contradictory roles, his pre-dominant characteristic is the way in which he makes the street his home and this is the basis of his legacy to psychogeography…soon the mental traveller(Ann Tso quoting from Merlin Coverley’s Psychogeography)
In the introduction to ‘Psychogeography and Psychotherapy’, editor Chris Rose says that:
Walking in a psychogeographical sense is not the same as a stroll or a ramble; it is observant, analytic and self- reflective. Psychogeographers find unfamiliar routes… Walking appears to have an effect that is unrelated to energy expenditure or exercise per se, and is often recommended as a treatment for depression’
James Kirkup in his book ‘Tokyo’ said ‘only by walking the streets can one really hope to know a city and its people’. So, during my retirement years, and certainly in the ‘social distancing’ era, I’ve done just that in the hope that I could get to know the soul of Japan’s capital. I’ve discovered parks, rivers, shrines and back-alley cafes and eateries that are not covered in the mainstream tour guides, and met some fascinating people.
And, by blogging about my experiences, I hope to offer to those with an interest in Japan and its capital city a personal insight and reflection on the place I have called my home for the last ten years.