We woke up late, groggy and discombobulated, after a night out at Vent in Tokyo. The place was interesting and all, with its audiophile soundsystem, its concrete monoliths, its orderly drinks queues and its unexpected houseplants. On the other hand, I’ve never really liked minimalism, or techno music and its many bastard offspring, and the whole place took itself a tad seriously for my taste. It was an experience worth having, I reckon, but probably just the once.
Regardless, we were up and half ready to face Tokyo, and we weren’t moving quickly. my compadre was looking kinda pale and dashing off every now and then to be sick. We were struggling with the subway, and just with things in general, but we did make it to the Imperial Palace Gardens.
The Plains of Tokyo
We entered the palace grounds through the Sakurada-mon gate. Outside this gate one of Japan’s most famous assassinations happened. During the heady, tense years when Japan was opening to foreign traders and diplomats after two hundred years of solitude1, Ii Naosuke was a cautious advocate for allowing relationships with foreign powers, and also a blood-stained vizier who had purged many of his political opponents. Both of these qualities made him deeply unpopular amongst certain samurai. He was set upon as he was leaving the palace2 in 1860, and beheaded on the bridge before the gate. The palace isn’t all that old, but even so, there’s history all around you here.
Once you get inside the outer compound, the most noticeable thing is the scale. Tokyo’s financial heartland towers to your east, but there’s a vast plain in front of you. It’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen in a Japanese city, where space is always at a premium- god knows how much this land would sell for. A meandering walk takes you past a bunch of sealed-off gates, flanked by guards protecting the emperor’s inner sanctum. Eventually, you end up at another pair of gates, Ote-mon and the lovely Hirakawa-mon, which directs you towards the grounds of the old Edo Castle. If you’re mentally reading the gate names as Digimon, I’m with you.
The castle keep itself fell victim to the fire gremlins, of course. It burnt down in 1657, and probably a couple of times before that. There are a few seventeenth-century buildings around the fringes of the castle compound, but in the middle is just a park and a pretty, well-loved flower garden, with Japanese irises growing in the shade of bamboo. Japanese culture adores a flower or two, no more so than in spring when wisteria, plum and cherry trees all blossom. The whole country feels like it’s in bloom at the moment.
A Meal to Remember
Anyway, enough of the florid prose. We lurched off through the financial district in search of a sushi restaurant (Nemuro Hanamaru) we had on recommendation. Locating it on the 5th floor of a rather dull upmarket shopping mall, we took a bangōfuda: customer number #258, and waited to be seated.
Fuck, I’m hungry just thinking about it.
I’d heard fairy tales of Tokyo’s famous queues before: entire evenings gone by in the queue to some super-exclusive bar, children growing up and having families of their own while waiting for concert tickets. After about an hour slouched in front of a dinner deferred, we went off for a walk to pass the time. We roamed through underground chambers, half mad with dreams of sushi.
It was worth it, though. Possibly the best sushi I’ve had in Japan, and cheap to boot. I ate a lot and had a beer with it, and spent less than ¥3000. Spider crab, cod roe, monkfish, vinegar seasoned tofu, punchy wasabi and sweet mochi, all carried on a conveyer belt into our ravenous maws. The only more questionable delicacies were the tuna-natto3 hybrid and the sea squirt, which was luminous orange, bitter and pungent. But yeah, the place is great, you should definitely check it out. (They didn’t pay me to write this, but NeHana, baby, if you’re reading, we can make a deal).
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Day Four of our trip took us out of Tokyo altogether, eventually. I ballsed up the train schedules, and so we ended up on different trains, both crawling interminably north towards Tochigi Prefecture. The Tokyo suburbs stretch on and on, only giving way to agriculture after about forty-five minutes of steady movement. Then for a little while you’re in a rare, broad stretch of flat farmland, looking for all the world like some corner of the fens in England.
And then on again, once more into the mountains. Our destination was Nikko, where the founder of the country-reunifying Tokugawa shogunate4 was buried and his successors were honoured for almost three hundred years. I got there first, ate some excellent ageyuba manjū5 and detoured up a hillside, passing a posse of bikers en route. With time to kill, I sat down at some roadside eatery and drank a hot coffee in the cool mountain air, looking over a decidedly Rocky Mountains landscape. The patron of the place denied it was Wild West-themed, although outside I could see the words ‘cowboy café’ and the serving trays had kitschy cowboy boots on them. He didn’t try to lasso anybody, I guess.
Anyway, once the others arrived, we headed off to see some history. Disappointingly, many of the famous temples are under renovation, as is much of Japan in preparation for the Olympics. Here and there, a Buddhist stupa jutted out from behind a hulk of scaffolding. Rinnō-ji was sealed off behind construction fencing, although Futara-san Shrine was uncovered and beautiful.
But Tōshōgu shrine/temple complex, at the heart of Tokugawa projections of power, was incredible. It was beyond all expectations. I’ve never seen wood panels so ornate or buildings painted with such relentless, gaudy abandon. The gold, emerald and vermillion colour scheme extended to the temple, pagoda, storehouses and even the purification platform at the entrance. Only the stable was spared, and even it was carved with some less-cheeky monkeys, refusing to see, hear or speak evil, as per custom. Statues of mythical beasts dot the sacred landscape, and one roof is painted with a roaring, white dragon.
The Last Rites of Tokugawa Ieyasu
Within Tōshōgu’s walls are a number of stone, bronze and iron lanterns, sent from all over Japan to the early Tokugawa shoguns by various daimyo (lords). The power-broker Date Masamune sent two lanterns made from iron he had imported from Portugal. Meanwhile, back at Edo, some lords sent more than lanterns to the shogunate. Maeda Toshinaga, daimyo of Kanazawa, voluntarily sent his own mother as a hostage to Tokugawa Ieyasu, after he won a decisive battle in 1600. They must have been terrified of him; or perhaps Maeda just didn’t like his mother very much.
A famous, small wooden panel hangs over the entrance to Ieyasu’s tomb. On one side of the panel is a dozing cat, and on the other side, some playful sparrows. The official Tokugawa line is that the panel represents the strong and the weak co-existing in harmony together. But cats eat sparrows, and Tokugawa Ieyasu spent much of his life murdering people weaker than him. I can’t help but interpret this panel as a warning. I’m sleeping now, but just wake me up and watch what happens.
Finally, you climb a chain of well-worn, cracked stone steps through a pine forest and, behind a bronze gate, you stand before the tomb itself. The place is high and quiet. I’m not sure why Tokugawa Ieyasu was buried here, so far from his seat of power, in the mountains of Tochigi. Perhaps Ieyasu, after all his decades of bloodshed, really did crave peace after all?
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Our last day passed in fairly conventional tourist escapades, and I’ve lingered too long. So I’ll leave you with a very unexpected find in the streets of Tokyo. My hometown spirit lives on in the strangest of places. All eyes on the saint.
1- between 1641 and 1853, the only foreigners permitted to enter Japanese waters were a small group of Dutch traders.
2- back then, it was the shogun’s palace, not the emperor’s.
3- natto is fermented soy beans, and it smells awful. The taste is okay, I suppose, and apparently it’s good for you.
4- Tokugawa Ieyasu formally became shogun of all Japan in 1603, after decades of disunity and war known as the Sengoku-jidai. He wasn’t the only unifier of the country, but he was the one who survived and reaped the rewards.
5- one of my favourite sweets which I’ve tried here in Japan. Sweet pastry filled with red been paste, wrapped in tofu skin, deep fried and salted.