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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 October 30, 2008

Posted by hslu in Travel.
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Our 6-Day Kanto Tour (関東六日游) 10/3 – 10/8/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺

Tuesday, 10/7/2008 – Imperial Palace and Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 Sensō-ji

Imperial Palace

Imperial Palace was boring to me. It was just like another castle that we have visited before and we had to walk half a mile or so because the bus can’t drive up to the gate. We couldn’t get into the Palace either because it is for the Imperial family only. The Palace is open for public only two days a year. In any case, the whole thing about the royal family didn’t interest me but Yuri did tell us a few stories about the Crown Prince and his wife and daughter which was quite sad. Yuri said that the Crown Prince had asked her, a diplomat working in the Ministry of Foreign Affair, to marry him three times before she finally said yes because she knew this would be a difficult role to fill by an outsider. She was born into the family of a judge who was Japanese’s ambassador to the United Nations, received a degree in Economics from Harvard and has also educated in Oxford. However, she is a commoner who is not supposed to married into the Imperial family, just like the wife of the reigning Emperor, mother of the Crown Prince. She had suffered greatly from the governing council which has ultimate power over the entire Imperial family matters and from her late father-in-law, the previous Emperor before he died in 1989.

The engagement and marriage of the crown Prince and his wife had to be approved by the governing council which also put on many limitations on the Crown Prince and the Princess. For instance, she wasn’t allowed to pursuit her diplomat career and had to stay inside the Imperial Palace all the time. To make the matter worse, she wasn’t able to give birth to a boy. The stress resulted in her sickness through a stress-induced depression just like her mother-in-law who is also from a common family.  Because she wasn’t bale to have a son, the Japanese Parliament had considered making changes in Japanese’s law to allow their daughter to eventually take over the position of the Emperor. A panel ultimately approved the change and the former popular Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi had agreed to submit a bill to the parliament. But the proposal was put on back burner because the wife of Crown Prince’s younger brother had given birth to a son in September 2006.Yuri seemed relieved for the Crown Princess and her daughter because this opened the door to allow her to leave the Imperial Palace and the control of the government council. it was apparent to me that this was a very serious matter for Japanese but I would rather go some where else where it is fun.

Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 Sensō-ji

My desire was answered when we arrived Asakusa which is in the heart of Tokyo.

The moment I stepped into this place I said to myself: “I’ve been here before.” It was almost 22 years ago when we visited Tokyo for the first time. Back then, Jing Jing, that’s what we call Jennifer, was a 5 year-old girl and Xiao Bao, that what we call Kevin, our son, was still a baby. We were on our way to Taiwan and we stopped over at Tokyo for a short vacation. The place looked just like it was back then. The street was filled with tourists and stores on both side of the street had many Japanese items for sale.
The place we were visiting this Tuesday morning is called “金龍山浅 Sen 草 So 寺 Ji”, a very famous temple in Tokyo. The original temple was built almost 1,400 years ago when a couple of fishermen caught a very small “观音Guan Yin” statue, also known as Goddess of Mercy, when they were fishing in a river near by. The locals then built a small temple to house the statue and this was how the oldest temple in Tokyo, 浅草寺, got started. Unfortunately the temple was burned down many times over the years until 德川家康 (Tokugawa Ieyasu) the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, rebuilt it in the 1600’s and made it a place of worship for the Shogun family and for people of Japan. During WWII, the temple was heavily bombed and destroyed. The current temple, about 3 times bigger in size, was rebuilt in the 1960’s after WWII, according to Yuri. The smaller temple, 浅草神社 Asakusa Shrine, the one for the Tokugawa family, is to of the right of the 金龍山浅草寺. The 浅草寺 Sensō-ji is a very popular place to worship for Japanese people and it attracts almost 30 million visitors every year.
Before visiting the temple, we had to make a detour to a department store 3 blocks away called 松屋百貨店 to check out their fruit vinegar supplies. We did the 酢 trick and was shown to the shelf in the back of the food court in the basement. Unfortunately, they didn’t have much in stock either. We left disappointed and then went back to the temple.
The entrance of the temple is 雷门 (Thunder Gate.) From there, a 1,000′-long street called 仲见世通 (You can see the street sign in this picture. It is a little to the right of my head and a little above Maria’s head too) takes the tourists through a gate called 寶藏門 (Treasure gate) to the main temple, the 浅草寺. The temple is majestic, peaceful and beautiful. We first followed the Japanese tradition of cleaning our body and soul before entering the temple. This was done at a small shack not too far away from the temple where there was running water at all times. We used a small ladle to get some water from the sink, wash our left hands and then wash our right hands. We then used the ladle to put some water on our palm and drink it. We then went into the temple, stand in front of the Guan Yin status, cleared our thoughts and prayed that our loved one be safe and healthy. We also offered a small amount of money as a form of respect to this holy place.

The outline of the temple is graceful but it doesn’t have small statues and sculptures on the roof like many Chinese temples do. To the left of the temple is a 5-level pagoda called 五重塔 . The construction style of both buildings must have been influenced by Chinese culture over the centuries because they look like many temples and pagodas in China.
浅草神社 Asakusa Shrine was hiding behind a line of small trees to the right of the main temple. It is much smaller in size and looked old and needed some maintenance. When we were there, we only saw a few tourists stopping by to pay their respect. I guess it has lost its glory and has been forgotten by most Japanese people. We took a look of the inside of the shrine and got out of there soon. On the way out, Maria saw a small cat, much like our cat, sleeping under the feet of a lion status to the left of the shrine. She took some pictures of the cat and called me to take a look. I also took some pictures and surprisingly our interests in it didn’t even wake it up. It must be a good day to take an afternoon nap: the sun was out, the temperature was in the mid 80’s, calm and the statue, a bit warm to the touch after baking in the sun, provided the much needed shadow. So cute! We wondered what happen to our cat that is under the care of Maria’s brother. We hope it has plenty to eat and does not miss us too much.

After paying our respect to Guan Yin, it was time to check out 仲见世通.

仲见世通 Nakamise Dori is about 30′ wide and is lined with some 60 stores on both sides of the street selling popular items and food to tourists. 仲见世通 has many stores selling 人形燒, Japanese art works, baby dolls, deep-fried red bean mantou, 米果煎餅 baked rice and fruit cakes, 和服 Kimono﹐招財貓 Musashiya (money cat,) 羊羹 (popular Japanese Red Bean Jelly), dried seaweeds, ¥100 store, and a Starbucks.There is another street perpendicular to 仲见世通 called 新仲见世通 (The new 仲见世通.) Although this street is relatively new, it was also filled with stores and tourists. 新仲见世通 was a little different; it was filled with artists displaying their skills and selling their finished art works; calligraphy, sculptures, painting, knifes, ink stones, etc. Many people stopped by and talked to the artists about their work and the art. I liked the stall where an old Japanese gentleman was displaying his products: 日本武士刀 Katana. He had many display and was making a small dagger when I stopped by. Several people was watching him with and he apparently enjoyed the attention.

I have always liked places such as this: people from all walks of life from different parts of the world, stores big and small selling local stuff to willing tourists, restaurants advertising food I never had before, happy young couples chuckling, talking and checking out menus and artificial food for lunch or dinner, tourists taking pictures of their loved ones, pretty young girls with wonderful smile posing for their boy friends, young boys trying so hard to please their girl friends, children holding ice cream, candies or cakes in their hands showing a satisfied smile on their faces, parents, while keeping an eye on their small children, looking for deals to buy for their kids, older folks closely watching over their grand kids and, last but not the least, salesmen and saleswomen giving all they have trying to attract your attention. Occasionally, if you are lucky, you may get a free sample or two to try before you dole out that cash in your pocket. Here I was with Maria walking among the tourists, watching their faces, sharing their happiness, enjoying the laughter in the air and treasuring the chance of being here. Why not leave your headache and work behind, enjoy yourselves while you can, and immersing yourself in a happy and joyful surrounding. Life is too short to get too uptight about it. This is also 潇洒, I guess. In any case, who cares! As long as we have a good time, I’ll worry about other things when I have to.
We didn’t buy any stuff because we still have many days of travel ahead of us and we didn’t want to haul that extra weight with us for 10 more days. However, we couldn’t resist the lure of 人形燒, bought a small package from the store recommended by Yuri, ate a few and 逛逛 until it was about time to have our lunch.
We had two lunch options and we have already decided our choices the day before so that the restaurants could get ready for us. The two options were 藏 and 麻鳥.

藏 is a high class traditional Japanese restaurant just one block from where all the activities were. Yuri said that their sushi is top class and very fresh. Their tofu is super soft and tasting. Although the word classic got my attention, we decided to try something new at 麻鳥 because we have already had a few meals of sushi since we came to Japan.

麻鳥 is a block away from 藏. It is famous for their Japanese style 釜飯 in this tourist hot spot. 釜飯 is rice cooked inside an aluminum pot which was then covered with shrimp, meat, sauce and vegetables. Before we entered the restaurant, Yuri got us together in front of the small two-story restaurant and told us the proper etiquette of this place:

1.  Our dinning room was upstairs and we had to sit on tatami. However the restaurant let their guests sit with their legs stretched in a 2 ½’ opening beneath the small knee-high table.

2.  We should remove our shoes first before entering and put them in the small steel cabinet by the entrance. Walked into the restaurant with our socks on or bare-footed. And DON’T TAKE the KEYS or the hostess would yell at you.

3.  We will first have our soup and then the rice will be served in time.

4.  After finishing your meal, put on your shoes and leave.

As promised,  釜飯 came out on a small wooden stand with a heavy wooden cover on top. The 6″ OD and 8″ tall aluminum pot looked just like what I used to see in Taiwan when I was a little kid, except smaller. Back then, many Taiwanese families and night market vendors used this style aluminum pot (Of course much bigger; more like 14″ to 18″ round and 16″ to 18″ tall) to cook rice and all kind of stews. The 釜飯 pot was covered by a much too thick wooden cover which also looked like what I used to see in Taiwan. Since Taiwan was occupied by Japan for 50 some years before it was returned to China in 1946 after WWII, it wasn’t surprising that Taiwanese adopted this cooking utensil from Japan. And I am sure it was still used in the rural parts of Taiwan until this date.

We sat at our small tables and enjoyed the meal. Yuri waited until we all have been taken of. She then disappeared from the upstairs dinning room and had her meal with the bus drive downstairs.
The rice was steamy, warm, soft and fluffy with a hint of caramelized smell because some rice at the bottom of the pot was browned during the cooking process. We call that 鍋巴. On top of the rice were a couple of large shrimp (size 20 -25), a few slices of meat and some vegetable. Along with 釜飯 were a bloc of tofu about 2.5″ square on a piece of banana leaf in a bamboo basket which was served cold with its own sides and sauce, a cup of miso soup, xiao cai and a cup of tea. All were nicely done and very tasty. But we didn’t eat the shrimp because of its high cholesterol content. We only had a taste of the meat but didn’t finish that either.

The next stop after Asakusa 金龍山淺草寺 was Ginza, downtown Tokyo. Twenty-two years ago, I booked a hotel room in  Ginza for our short stay in Tokyo. I knew Ginza was expensive but I wanted to stay there just for the sake of having stayed there. When we stopped by the front counter of the hotel, we were told that each room was big enough for 2 persons only. And a baby counted as one person. No exceptions! We ended up staying at two separate rooms for two nights at about $200 per night. $200 didn’t sound much now. But, that was 22 years ago and I just started working as a young engineer. No savings, two small kids, a wife, two car loans and a huge mortgage! I knew that Japan was expensive back then because Japanese stock market and Tokyo’s real estate market were the envy of the entire world including the US and Ginza was the center of everything luxury. Maybe the streets in Ginza were paved with gold and the place was shinning and bright with all the reflection from the yellow metal. No kidding, I experienced that first hand and paid dearly for it. Well, I asked for it. I got it. No one else to blame but me!

This time around, we would not stay here but will stopped by a restaurant for dinner. Shabu-Shabu, here we come!


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