Keep up with the addict

Day 1: 16 March 2009

Although I could have slept for what seems like days at this point, Andrew decided that the first day would be the easiest of the days to get up god-awfully early to go to none other than the Tsukiji Market.  In hindsight, he was right, but don’t tell him that.  We popped (read: struggled) out of bed at 4:45 in the morning on this, our first true day of vacation.  We took the 5:14 a.m. subway from Mita Station to Tsukiji Station (170 JPY) and arrived at the entrance to the market complex at about 5:30 a.m..  We carefully and vigilantly picked our way through the bustling wholesale market (which we’ll get back to) to get to the building where the famous tuna auction takes place each morning.  As a side note: I was very surprised that I did not get run over by the many, many crazily driven vehicles that swarm the market.  Seriously; the market is simply insane with people walking, biking and motoring in every conceivable direction.  I constantly felt as though I might be run into or run over at any moment.  Moral?  If you visit Tsukiji, stay alert!!

Anyway, Andrew and I crammed into the small viewing area in the center of the garage-type structure that houses the tuna auction with many, many other tourists and tuna enthusiasts.  The auction was in full swing and the size of some of these fish was stunning…

After a few minutes and many photos, Andrew and I headed out to explore and photograph the “open air” wholesale market portion of the Tsukiji Market complex.  It is in this market that you can get just about any seafood imaginable and then some.  It was impressive and somewhat intimidating.  The market consists of row upon row upon row of individual vendors.  While we were there, many of the vendors were still in the setting up stages of their daily operations, which meant lots of yelling, lots of blood and lots of water splashing.  The weather was a bit nippy but I still took way too many photos.  Really, I just couldn’t help myself.  Here are some of my favorites:

After more sleuthing than I care to admit to, I have come to believe these are akagai (赤貝), also known as Ark Shell or red clam.  Stylized and handwritten characters, such as the ones that appear on these signs, are hard for me to decipher; I’ll have to work on that.  Apparently, akagai is a popular sushi seafood that is eaten mostly during the summer months.  I’ll have to try it some time.

I like this shot of the wholesale market that I took while experimenting with Andrew’s 4-point cross filter.  I have to get myself some cross filters now…

These are some of those gigantic tuna we saw earlier in the auction.  They are now thawed and being cut up into more manageable pieces using these gigantic sword-knives.  Impressive.

Anyhow, I took way, way, way too many photos at the market and posted a reasonable number to my Flickr page.  You can see the rest of my Tsukiji pictures, including more from the wholesale market, in this set.

After spending quite a bit of time in the wholesale market, Andrew and I went in search of a suitably fishy breakfast in the small shops and restaurants section of the Tsukiji Market complex.  This section of the market was small but fun.  The small shops sell restaurant and cooking wares such as vegetables, dishes and knives to complement the selection that can be found in the wholesale market.  The restaurants, of which there are quite a few, specialize in mostly – you guessed it – fresh seafood dishes including sushi and sashimi.  From what I could see, they were all very tiny, typically seating no more than 10 diners at a time.  This means that there were lines at most of the good ones – even at about 7 o’clock in the morning, which is when we were on the lookout for breakfast.  We ended up eating at one of these small restaurants – one of the ones towards the far end in this picture, you know, somewhere in that mob of hungry people…

Following a breakfast of chuutoro-nakaochi don (中とろ‐なかおち丼) – a bowl of rice topped with medium fatty tuna and some small tuna pieces scraped from around the rib cage of the tuna, served with soy sauce and wasabi – and green tea, Andrew and I explored the shop and restaurant section a bit more and came across a small shrine.  This particular type of shrine, called a Suitengu (水天宮), is dedicated to Suijin (水神) – a Shinto water deity known by many names including the more common Mizu no Kamisama (水の神) who protects fishermen and holds sway over fertility, motherhood and easy childbirth.  I kind of fell in love with the lanterns around the entrance.  I liked the lighting.

After stopping to take a picture at the shrine for some other visiting tourists, we headed back to the apartment to pick up Andrew’s parents so that we could start our day!!  “Our day?!”, you say.  Yes; Our day.  We still have a long, full day ahead of us.

On our way back to the apartment, I stopped to get my first commemorative stamp of the trip.  Commemorative stamp?  Yes, commemorative stamp.  As I mentioned in the previous trip report post, the Japanese have an obsession with stamps; they use them for many, many things from official signatures and approvals to fun and decorative additions.  Well, one of the myriad of uses to which they put stamps is as commemorative souvenirs (read: collect-them-all-obsession-inducing-objects) of visiting everything from famous landmarks to train stations to shrines and temples.  Official commemorative stamps are placed at key (read: often hidden) locations where visitors can use them to stamp something, usually a book that one uses to collect these commemorative stamps.  My first stamp was from Tamachi Station and is one of a huge series of stamps from JR train stations.

I stamped this particular commemorative stamp into my travel journal.  It was the start of an addiction, one that probably kind of got on the nerves of some of my traveling companions but one I enjoyed nonetheless.  To be honest, the above stamp impression was not my first stamp.  My actual first attempt at stamping turned out like this:

Complete and utter failure.  Anyway, I have started a Flickr set for the commemorative stamps that I collected on the trip and will be adding them as I get them scanned.  If your interested in stamps, check it out, as I won’t be sharing each and every one of them here on the blog.

We finally made our way all the way back to the apartment and, once we had everyone ready to go again, we left the apartment, heading to the train station, at about 8:30 a.m..  We took the train from Tamachi Station to Harajuku Station (190 JPY).  On my way out of the station, I found my second commemorative stamp of the trip!!  After I was done stamping, we crossed over the Harajuku Girl Bridge – which was sadly empty this early in the morning – to get to Meijijingu (明治神宮).  Meijijingu is a Shinto shrine, dedicated in 1920.  The shrine’s grounds – which also house recreational and sports facilities – are quite large, covering about 175 acres, most of which is covered by an evergreen forest.  The grounds that we walked through to get to the main shrine were beautiful, with huge trees and massive torii to match.

I was impressed by just how secluded the grounds felt even though there was all the activity of a bustling city taking place all around it.  This was a feeling that I was going to have to get used to, however, as most of the temples and shrines I was to visit had the same sort of serene feeling, despite their location.  On the whole, Meijijingu’s grounds were pretty quiet and empty, allowing some time for exploration and photography.  I again took way too many photographs.  Some of my favorites are below but you can find the rest in this Flickr set.

This is one of the chozuya (手水舎), also called a temizuya, at Meijijingu.  According to Shinto custom, visitors are supposed to purified themselves with the water from the chozuya before entering the main shrine.  Chozuya appear at all shrines and most temples in Japan.

This is a monshou (紋章), or crest, carved on the doors to the main shrine at Meijijingu.  This particular crest depicts the paulownia plant, known in Japanese as kiri (桐); thus, this crest is given the Japanese name of kirimon.  Kirimon, together with the chrysanthemum, or kiku (菊), crest – kikumon – have been used in different forms for centuries as symbols of the Japanese imperial family.  Meijijingu, which enshrines the remains of the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken, uses these two crests.  If you look closely at the photograph of the giant torii above, you can see the golden kikumon that adorn the shimagi (the lower portion of the highest beam of the torii).  Although these kikumon depict a 16-petaled chrysanthemum, the official kikumon of Meijijingu is the 12-petaled variation because the 16-petaled kikumon is the symbol of the current imperial family.  Likewise, the flowers above the leaves in the kirimon are in a 3-5-3 configuration because the 5-7-5 configuration is reserved for the seal of the Office of the Prime Minister.

Lastly, a photo of some of the ema (絵馬) at Meijijingu.  Ema are wooden prayer plaques that one can purchase at a shrine, upon which can be written a prayer or wish.  These plaques are then placed on walls covered in pegs and, usually, many other ema, where they can be read by the kami (神), or spirits.  Typically, each shrine has a unique ema design, one side of which is covered in a shrine-specific design and the other side of which is left blank for the writing of  prayers.  As you can see in this photo, Meijijingu’s ema currently depict its two crests, the 3-5-3 kirimon and the 12-petaled kikumon.

While at Meijijingu, I picked up another addiction that would follow me throughout the trip: shuin (朱印).  Shuin, as you might have guessed by now, involve stamps!!  Shuin, literally meaning “red seal”, is a term that refers to an imprint of a set of temple- or shrine-specific stamps, which are typically accompanied by an inscriptions noting the temple or shrine name and the date of visit.  Temple or shrine pilgrimages, known as henro (遍路) or junrei (巡礼) in Japanese, are a popular Japanese pastime.  As proof of the pilgrimage, pilgrims collect shuin from each of the temples or shrines that are visited, typically in an accordian-style book that is made especially for this purpose is called shuin-chou (朱印帖).  Since I would be visiting quite a few temples and shrines during my time in Japan and because I have soft spot for stamps and shodou (書道) – Japanese calligraphy – I just had to get my own shuin-chou and start collecting shuin during my upcoming, slightly disorganized pilgrimage.  Luckily, as is the case with most temples and shrines that we visited, Meijijingu had shuin-chou for sale at the same counter that one goes to to have the shuin added to one’s existing book.  The particular shuin-chou they had for sale was covered in a lovely purple on white patterned fabric and came with a protective plastic cover.  Here is what the front looks like:

Here is what my first shuin, the one from Meijijingu, looks like:

[As I get a chance to scan them, I’ll be adding my shuin to this Flickr set.  Check it out if your interested since, as with the stamps, it is likely that I will not show all of them here on the blog.]

At this point, we had spent at least an hour in the shrine complex, enjoying the scenery and taking plenty of photographs.  I was tired but ready to move on to more sights and sounds of Tokyo.  As I waited for Andrew to finish taking some photos, I turned around and, to my surprise, saw some people that I recognized.  You’ll never guess who it was, though…  No guesses?  No ideas?  Ok.  I’ll tell you.  It was the group of Canadian high schoolers from the plane!!  Yep.  That’s right.  It became immediately eviden: they were definitely following us!  I’m convinced.  After a few minutes of panicking, we made a run for it…

But on the way out I caved into Euan’s pleading for a photo-op…

I also got yelled at by a security guard while sitting on the steps near the outer gate to pack my stuff up.  So, yeah; don’t sit on the steps at a shrine or temple…  Just trust me.

Well folks, I think that I’m going to have to stop today’s story here in order to avoid a post of ungodly proportions.  We did so much on our first day that it certainly warrants two posts worth of content.  Next up for our entrepid traveller (me): adventures in shopping and dining…  So, stay tuned for the next installment of my Tokyo Travel Journal – Day 1.5: 16 March 2009 (Still)!!