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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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.

A Tuesday Morning at Tsukiji Market

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During the last week of April, Sachiko Inomata also invited me to join her for another outing on a Tuesday morning at Tsukiji Market.  Sachiko said that she goes there several times a year to stock up on special items.  The market opens to wholesalers at 3:00 a.m. and to the public after 9:00 a.m.  We started out early and took the Toei Oedo Line to Tsukijishijo Station, which features colorful murals and the pungent odor of fish which fills the air way below ground.

Boisterous and sprawling, the Tsukiji Market (Jonai Shigo) covers over 56 acres of land bustling with bikes, motorcycles, small trucks, machinery, throngs of people, amidst mounds of styrofoam crates and cartons.  As we walked amongst the aisles of stalls in the massive warehouses, I saw fish and seafood that I never knew existed, nor could I imagine eating.  Apparently there are over 450 types of fish and seafood represented and a visit here is not for the squeamish or vegetarians!  Yet, the market is a popular tourist attraction and I did enjoy the energy, excitement, visual and sensory stimuli.  The outer lying market (Jogai Shigo) is composed of blocks of restaurants, vendors and food stalls selling: fresh and frozen seafood, including sea vegetables; cooking utensils, especially knives and dishware; dried foods, such as, bonito, grains, beans; pickles, nori, ocha, seasonings and dozens of other delicacies.  Moreover, it was fascinating to see a multitude of exotic sources from the sea that are the basis for Japanese cuisine.

Sachiko and I of course had fresh sushi served up on large banana leaves at one of the narrow food stalls.  After our morning meal, Sachiko  picked up bundles of fresh bonito flakes to take home to her family.  She said that this particular bonito were the best quality and gave me a few packages as a gift. I have to agree with her–I have been sprinkling the flakes on salads or mixing them into soup broths, adding a delightfully distinct flavor to my meals. To my surprise I get a burst of energy,  which I’ve found is from the rich source of B vitamins that are inherent to the flakes.

As we set out to explore Jogai Shigo, we briefly visited the Namiyoke  Inari Shrine (c.1657)  which has been a fixture in the  marketplace for almost 350 years.  Namiyoke–“protection from the waves,” and Inari — “God of commercial prosperity and safe operations at sea.” Nevertheless, this shrine is designated as the unofficial guardian for the marketplace and traders.  The red and black male and female lion heads  (incarnations of Inari) are the highlight the annual “Lion Festival.” Sachiko lamented that the entire market and environs would soon be relocated to another part of Tokyo. This I couldn’t imagine, as there seemed to be so much history here.

Later, around twelve noon, Sachiko and I somehow ended up at a traditional Japanese tea house in Ginza where we had bowls of delicious sweets beans with cups of green tea. A very healthy dessert at the peak of the day!