Chinatown with Rina Oishi & Natsumi Chonan

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The frantic pace of impromptu sight-seeing excursions in the last few days before leaving Tokyo concludes with a grand finale—spectacular Chinatown in Yokohama. Since I was teaching night classes in Shinjuku during my last two weeks in Tokyo, (May 2013). I met Rina Oishi and Natsumi Chonan (Sun) early one morning and took the long train ride from Gotanda to Yokohama then continued on to Chinatown.

I was so impressed from the first moment we walked up to the entry gate and would soon discover that the architecture and temples in Chinatown are much grander, colorful, and flamboyant than you could imagine—in fact, more so than you would see in Chinatown in both New York and Los Angeles.   Great exposure to yet another environment rich with history and visual interests that one could go back to many times to explore.

Spanning a 150 year old history, Yokohama’s Chinatown is the largest in Asia. Chinese immigrants and traders arrived in Yokohama in 1859 and created a community that would slowly evolve into an impressive cultural hub. Overall, the temples in Yokohma’s Chinatown are much more flamboyant than Japanese temples or shrines. Rich with ornamental details: notably dragon imagery, gargoyles and the abundance of bright colors, particularly, red, gold, orange. I was fortunate to be there on a sunny day, which only heightened the sensory visual overload.

We visited two temples. First, the splendid Mazu-Mio Temple (The Goddess of the Sea). Ship owners and residents prayed to her for a safe voyage as well as protection from: floods, drought, cholera, epidemics,  theft and war. A statue of Mazu-Mio, sits on a lavishly decorated shrine surrounded by flowers and an array of symbolic elements.

In addition, we surveyed the Yokhoama Kan-Tie-Byo with its chief God–King Guan. Referred to as the “God of Business,” King Guan, is recognized for creating the accounting and bookkeeping systems used in China. This temple in contrast, had a playful ornamental roof of glass serpentine and dragon imagery. The Kan-Tie-Byo was first built-in the Edo period and reconstructed, like many buildings in Japan, over the centuries due to fires and earthquakes.

After visiting a couple of temples and eating lunch in a traditional Chinese restaurant, we spent the afternoon strolling through blocks of shops including “Silk Road” which is fancifully covered with dancing red lanterns. I bought last-minute gifts for translators and friends back home: rose petals and chrysanthemums to enhance loose black tea; beads, and paper lavishly decorated paper journals. We stopped to see the huge ships in the port the  before journeying back to Gotanda.

Ship, Yokohama

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Erakokyuu Nakameguroten with Friends

Lots of Lights

A few of the students from TT 2012 wanted to organize a Yakaufune outing on the Tokyo river but bad weather forced us to make a change of plans.  We met instead for an outrageously fun and amazing feast at Erakokyuu Nakameguroten a traditional Japanese seafood restaurant. After a rendezvous in Nakameguro one chilly evening we walked under a canopy of budding sakura towards the restaurant which was situated on the canal of the Nakameguro River. After coming upon a the brightly lit exterior, we entered a rustic and lively setting primarily constructed out of wood. Expressively painted murals of sea themed images, including a rendition of Botticelli’s Venus–covered the walls, hand drawn banners listed the daily specials and colorful paper lanterns hung from the ceiling.
Today's Seafood Specials

A price is set per person for all-you-can eat and the meal was served at a steady pace throughout the evening.  We started off with a hearty miso soup flavored with fish bones, heaping bowls of sashimi and daikon, squid, crabs, salmon and roe, enormous clams, and Japanese fried chicken, mugs of beer and green or oolong tea.

Ensun Ahn Fusae, Natsumi, Mikiko in front of Venussaid that everything is caught and selected that day and even the scraps of seafood are used in the soup stock.  I stretched my culinary boundaries to eat some things, mostly raw, but couldn’t muster up the strength for others–particularly the “crab brains”–the innards of the crab which are considered a delicacy.

The meal evolved into laughs, stories and an exchange of gifts. One gift, scented eye pads, from Akie Asahi, heated up immediately once they made contact with the skin. We squealed with laughter as she explained their use the then said— “1 2 3 “zzzzzz!!!”  I used those eye pads a few nights throughout the training and they do put you to sleep immediately!  Mana Sasagawa gave me goody bag filled to the brim with treats and Tomoe Honjo, an illustrated book on kimonos.  She explained that she was one of the youngest experts on kimonos in Tokyo and carefully wrote out translated segments in key sections of the book. I looked around the able and realized that my students were now friends, and even felt in some ways like family especially since I was so far away from home.

For a good nights rest, gifts from Akie Asahi

I told them that I would always be able to offer help with their careers in the years to come. We made an agreement to meet at Nozomi Kadokura’s new venue Tulsi Yoga Studio in the weeks ahead, which included the presence of a few more students. That too was a special evening where we practiced teaching and gave informal evaluations and feedback followed by a pot luck, treats and gifts.IMG_2113Goody Bag from Mana...

Having a Great Reunion

(Left to Right) Nozomi Kadokura, Charlotte Kasumi Kabe, Romy Phillips, Mana Sagasawa, Eunsun Ahn, Akie Asahi, Mikiko Goto, Mimura Fusae, Tomoe Honjo, Natsumi Ishikawa

Shinjuku Lights

During my last two weeks in Tokyo, I taught evening classes exclusively at YogaPlus, Shinjuku. I would take the train from Gotanda to the busiest subway station in the world, maneuver my way through the maze of stairs, tunnels and people and then walk out  towards the bright glowing web of flashing lights.  I explored the narrow the streets of Shinjuku enveloped in a persistent kinetic hum but  was surprisingly able to tap into my own inner silence and walk in solitude.

Japanese Weddings, Pt. III: “The Hall of Beautiful Ladies”

The final installment on the subject of Japanese Weddings is the “Hall of Beautiful Ladies” at Meguro Gajoen.  These portraits are uniquely distinctive because they illustrate, much like the figures in the wood panel murals, the exquisitely stylish variations of Japanese women’s fashion. Furthermore, I have learned that there are long held customs on the proper wearing of kimonos that are very similar to traditional wedding attire.  (The fascinating subject of Kimonos will be addressed in a future post).

These captivating vignettes of  “Bijin”– “beautiful” women that show so much personality and flair,  were salvaged from the old Meguro Gajoen.   As I slowly walked around looking up at the alluring medallions on the shimmering gold-leafed ceiling panels, I found myself wondering who were these stylish women with so much vivre? Models?  Or, notable women of their time?  (early 20thC, circa 1920’s-30’s)—their true identity is a mystery.

Complimenting these figures is the dramatic “Serial Mural of Trees,” —tranquil and graceful landscapes of flowers and trees transitioning through the seasons—winter, spring, summer and fall, that run along the upper wall spaces of the corridor and also reclaimed from the old Meguro Gajoen.  In addition, each woman’s portrait also represents a characteristic detail of a particular season.  I found out later that the landscapes were painted by artists who were members of the “Seiryu Shah Group.”  I did write down the name of the artists who rendered the portraits and murals, but I could find scant information on them:

Portraits

The Seiryu Shah Group

  • Kano Sanraku
  • Anzai Keimei
  • Kimura Shikanosube
  • Obata Teiko
  • Sakagre Isso
  • Satu Mokuso
  • Hamade Siesho
  • Yamazaki Yutaka

Throughout the halls of Meguro Gajoen are breathtaking depictions of humans existing in the natural world. The timeless stories based on the constantly evolving cycle of life are displayed in a successive range of seasons, emotions and vividly colorful artistry.

Japanese Weddings Pt. II: Meguro Gajoen

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The setting for many of the weddings in Tokyo is the magnificent Meguro Gajoen, which I discovered by coincidence one day as I strolled along the Meguro River.  I was walking back towards Gotanda and suddenly came upon a massive, towering building that seemed out of scale for the neighborhood.  Curious, I revisited the site on my day off and discovered an extravagant world of art, design and architecture.

I first entered the slick Arco Tower with its serene white, glass and steel interior eventually leading to café in an adjoining building that featured a soaring wood beamed ceiling with the corporate offices of Amazon, Tokyo situated on a deck above. The café overlooked a garden courtyard and small pond with a graceful shrine–like structure connecting the buildings.  After a brief snack, I continued on and entered a large hall and was surprised to see a long curving wall lined with over 300 ft. of fantastic wood carved murals!  The elegantly dressed figures of Japanese women rendered in motion, rapt with expression, were characters illustrating various narratives played out against a panoramic backdrop of the seasons.

I followed the glimmering hallway which led me towards delightful wonders revealed at every turn—restaruants, wedding halls, an indoor pond and waterfall, a luxurious hotel, gardens and art–lots of it–all housed inside a looming terrarium-like habitat. I literally spent two afternoons exploring this vast richly decorated building–a perfect place to spend a rainy day.

After some research I was able to find out some history on this unusual compound. Meguro Gajoen was established in 1931 as a social outlet consisting of lavishly decorated banquet, wedding halls with other related services and amenities on a much smaller scale than the current grand incarnation. Extensively adorned with hand crafted wooden panels, murals, portraits and gilded ceilings and more. Many of the images are based on the Japanese fairy tale “Palace of the Sea God.”  Now a popular setting for weddings in Tokyo, Meguro Gajoen was meant to be a refuge for the citizens of Tokyo during a difficult time.  Viewers could be visually transported to an idealized world of imagination and fantasy. After successfully existing on this site for more than fifty years, the original building was torn down to allow for commercial development along the Meguro River. Fortunately all of the artwork was salvaged and restored–even the antique rooms have been seamlessly re-installed, including the “100 Stairs” on one of the upper floors.

I continued to walk each floor transfixed by so many marvelous treasures. Finally, exhausted and over-stimulated by sensory overload and a dead camera battery, I returned again at a future date to take it all in.  On my second visit there, I was fortunate to be there on a quiet afternoon and a courteous attendant let me to enter the foyer of the glorious chapel to take pictures, but I was not allowed beyond the threshold. Yet, still a rare opportunity to snap away un-inhibited and also by chance, to see a couple being photographed for a wedding portrait.

This monolithic compound is now a valued cultural asset of Japan. Overall, I found Meguro Gajoen brilliantly presents a balanced and harmonious unity of modern architecture and traditional imagery. The scale of the contemporary architecture provides a clean and spacious backdrop for the lavish weddings and rich art on display, allowing the viewer to absorb the fine details of the visually compelling works or festivities.   In addition, the self-contained environment provided a comfortable place to leisurely spend time, host a wedding or an event, or perhaps stay a while in the luxurious hotel.  This tremendous project must have taken years to complete, especially if one considers the respect for artifacts, consideration of cultural traditions and the collaborative efforts of many individuals involved in creating an enduring showpiece.

Ryusenji Temple (Meguro Fudon) with Sachiko Inomata

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One day after at the Yoga Plus studio in Gotanda, Sachiko Inomata offered to take me to lunch and off we went by cab to an Italian restaurant in nearby Meguro.  Italian food is very popular in Japan and Sachiko said that the pizza was especially great here. She was right; we enjoyed light, fluffy pizza topped with the freshest ingredients made in a brick oven before our eyes.

Salads before pizzaPizza in TokyoRomy in front of the brick oven

Sachiko suggested we make a quick visit to see a temple in this quiet neighborhood.  We walked for about a mile and came upon the Ryusenji Temple (Meguro Fudon).  I’ve seen at least eight temples or shrines during my visits to Japan and marvel at the fact that no two are exactly alike.  I later found out that the temple’s grounds were designated in 808 a.d. by a Buddhist missionary, “Jikaku Daishi Ennin” and since then, “divine water” has been flowing from this spot for over 1200 years.   A statue of Fudo (God of Fire) is placed in a fountain of water, which is said to have healing properties. It is customary to splash water on Fudo before moving forward.

Ryusenji Temple is nestled deep within a “village-like” neighborhood in the middle of bustling Tokyo. The rambling temple grounds have a rustic naturalness with a liberal mix of fountains; ornamental, mythical and sacred statues including a great bronze Buddha behind the temple that Sachiko said had a “Japanese” face.  After cleansing our hands, mouths and taking off our shoes, we were able to visit the lavishly impressive ornamental altar inside the temple, but no pictures were allowed.  The best I could do was to zoom in and capture an image from the doors of the entryway.  I was also instructed on the process of lighting a bundle of incense to place in a bronze urn outside as an offering in prayer. It was nice to have someone highlight traditional rituals that are a mystery to a westerner like me.

Meguro Fudon seemed especially intimate since there were very few people there.  In fact, I had no idea that this compound was within a couple of miles walking distance from where I’m staying in Gotanda.  Sachiko told me that sometimes she comes to the temple at sunrise when the city is quiet and the air is fresh.

 

Getting to Know Kichijoji

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Traveling around Tokyo to teach is pushing my boundaries in new ways this time,  forcing me to take trains further distances and explore different neighborhoods.  On my  first day of teaching in Kichijoji, Yuri met at the Gotanda station to show me the train route.  After class, I told Yuri that I wanted to stroll around the neighborhood and could get home by myself. She asked “are you sure?”  I said absolutely, “I remember how to get back.” I ended up getting terribly lost on the subway and it took me over an hour to reach my final destination! I slightly panicked because no one spoke English and I didn’t quite know how to get back to where I needed to go.  The subway map wasn’t quite making sense. I finally got some assistiance and found out later that I somehow got on the Chou “Blue Line” instead of the Chou “Yellow” Line. Furthermore, I should have changed trains at Shinjuku for the Yamanote Line (green)!  You really have to stay focused!

I teach two classes a week in Kichijoji and I absolutely love this location, its has a great balance of the old and new, affordable goods, and is bustling with creative energy. It’s also more manageable than, lets say,  Shibuya–even with the multitude of shops, cafes, restaurants, and stores–you get a sense of being in a close-knit neighborhood. Plus there is the beautiful Inokashira Park, which features a lake surrounded by hundreds of cherry blossom trees. I was able to get a first glimpse of the budding cherry blossoms earlier this week which will be in full bloom in the days to come.

Each Tuesday after class, I spend the afternoon wandering around, trying the local cuisine and taking pictures.  I’ve explored Nakimichi Street, Sun Road, and the surrounding areas.  Each turn down an alley or road reveals a new discovery. I literally walk until I’m completly exhausted before heading back to Gotanda. There may be more on Kichijoji before I leave Tokyo!

A Trip to Kamakura with Tomoko Kawahara

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Friday of that week, June 29, Tomoko Kawahara took me to Kamakura–we had been working so hard during the training that we never had time to spend any social time together. Many people had mentioned that I would like Kamakura, a seaside community that features nearly forty shrines and temples, notably the Great Buddha of Kamakura. We took a number of trains there and  finally ended up approximately an hour outside of Tokyo. Once there we paid for a trolley to take us to the local spots. Our first stop was an organic restaurant on Yuigahama Beach for a lunch of tempeh with tomato sauce, and assorted vegetarian dishes.

After walking on the beach we strolled up to the view the Great Buddha at the Kotoku-in Temple.  As usual, before entering the grounds you cleanse at a purification fountain and then proceed. There seemed to be hundreds of people on the Temple grounds on this hot, sunny day. The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu) is massive (13.35 meters/43.8ft tall  and weighs approx. 93 tonnes/270,000 lbs).  It is one of the most famous icons of Japan as well as its tallest bronze Buddha and I was very impressed that this icon has existed on this site unharmed since the 1252.  The original Buddha was made out of wood in 1243 and later destroyed and the various halls that housed the Buddha over the centuries succumbed to various natural disasters.   The current bronze statue was cast to replace it and may have been gilded which would have a magnificent sight to see. The statue is hollow and Tomoko said that it is believed that “going inside the Buddha will let you start a new.”  At first I wasn’t sure–I couldn’t imagine walking through the Buddha in the heat with dozens of school children.  However,  I said, “I am returning to L.A.  and could use a new start, let’s go inside.”

From there we strolled along a cheerful, quaint street through  town, passing a small temple, Shū Genji, which was built to commemorate Shijokingo a faithful believer of the religion Nichiren who was persecuted in 1271.  This temple, a former residence made of wood was modest in size surrounded by a brushy garden.

After a quick snack of  matcha  gelato we took the trolley to another stop nearby to see the hilltop Jojuin Temple (c. 1219),  surrounded by 262  pale blue, lavender, pink & white hydrangea bushes on a slope overlooking the ocean.  Jojuin is also referred to as the “Hydrangea Temple” and we were fortunate to be there for peak blooming season.  “262” is the number of Chinese characters used in Hannya-shingyo Sutra. 108 steps lead up to the temple–“108” is the number of tolling bells on New Years eve. The temple grounds had various statues commemorating prominent Buddhist priests associated with this compound.

As we walked toward the train station, we stopped by the Gokurakuji Temple which was built-in Fukazawa in 1259 by the Buddhist priest Ryokanbo Ninsho and then moved to Kamakura around 1262. After and  crouching down to enter the wooden gate we walked down a shaded path toward a very interesting complex  of ornately carved wooden structures.

From there we took the trolley back to the train station and transferred to a bus that would weave its way through Kamakura to the amazing Hokokuji Temple.  Founded by Tengan Eko (Buddhist name Butsujo-Zenji) who was a representative of the Zen literary movement known as Gozan Bungak, this sanctuary flourished as the family temple of both the Ashikaga and Uesugi clans.  A magical and vast  garden of 2,000 Mōsō Bamboo trees dominates the property which is the reason why this complex is commonly referred to as the “Bamboo Temple.”    We decided to rest for a while at the tea house (Kyūkōan) and had fresh matcha tea under a canopy of bamboo overlooking a small waterfall.  A leisurely tour of the temple grounds revealed surprising highlights:  carved stone reliquaries, statues decorated with red hats, deep blue tinged hydrangea, a cave of tombs (Yagura), and a thatched roof bell tower.

Once back at the train station, I saw  trees decorated with colorful ribbons of paper and origami. I can’t remember the specific story associated with the decorated trees that Tomoko told me, but they were delightful and whimsical, so I took a picture.

In all, we saw five temples that day and it would take several trips to see them all.  I asked Tomoko what the difference was between a “temple” and “shrine” and with a little more investigation I found that one is “Buddhist “and the other “Shinto.” “Shinto” (Kami Nomchi—“the way of the Gods”) is a religion indigenous to Japan that worships nature. Originally people prayed to the great natural phenomena such as mountains, wind,rain, trees, rivers, fertility and powerful deities that inhabit heaven and earth.  Distinguishing characteristics of “Shinto Shrines”–are a Tori Gate, such as the grand ones featured at the Meiiji Shrine. In addition, there is a purification fountain near the entrance to cleanse your mouth and hands before prayer.

“Buddhism”  (Bukkyō) made its way into Japan in the 6th century via China and Korea. Predominant details of “Budhhist Temples” are:  the presence of the color red as evident with the Senso-ji Temple ( or a red gate (Yukuimon) and other items); an image of Buddha; and a large incense burner placed in front of the temple. Smoke created by the burning of incense is said to have healing properties. In addition, a pagoda is on the premises.

My trip to Kamakura was the perfect final sightseeing adventure to summarize my experiences in Japan and I ‘m no expert on the subject, but I could see first hand that influences of Shinto are pervasive in almost every aspect of Japanese life and culture–the naturalness of the structures, food and even clothing; respect for people, animals and towards all living things; traditions and celebrations.  Furthermore, there is relatively little crime in Japan and people are generally good spirited and very kind. Nevertheless,  these two religions—Shinto and Buddhism–coexist and complement each other which creates a harmonious balanced life.

 

“Yokocho” Tokyo Alleys & Side Streets

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Space is a premium in Tokyo, alleys and side streets are prime real estate and I’ve discovered that they are hidden communities where locals convene to go to the market.  Yokocho means “alleys to the side of the main street.” One of my favorite side streets is Togoshiginza in Gotanda. I usually take a stroll there to relieve tension after the teacher training on Saturday or Sunday evenings; or to get my favorite fish sandwich for lunch at the bakery; shop for vegetables; or stop at the 100Y shop.  There are other neighborhoods interesting “side streets” as well, Sangenjaya is a maze of rustic and colorful venues; bargains can be found in Kichijojoi; and the narrow streets in Shimokitzawa make up a lively bohemian village.  Next to Ueno Park is the popular “Ameyayokocho,”  an exotic, sprawling mix of food stalls, shops and even a  gorgeous shrine. If you ever visit Tokyo, remember to be adventurous and look around the corner, you never know what you may find.

Gotanda

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In contrast to Shibuya is the neighborhood in which I am staying, Gotanda,  and in my opinion reflects a real Japanese community.  Over these three months here, I’ve come to realize that Tokyo is not Shibuya but more like Gotanda, a balanced mix of residential and business and a small city within a city. I’ve now explored the quiet streets, walked along the river and eaten in many of the petite restaurants and cafes.  It’s relatively quiet for an urban environment and when I walk home from the station or class, I feel grateful that I’m staying here and not in Shibuya.  One day, in search of a park, I walked all the way to Meguro and back.  It took me all day, but it was one of the best days I’ve spent here. The photos depict the contrast of the imagined Tokyo and the real.