Japan: Real-Life Anime (Part IV)

Kyoto was everything I imagined and more.

Part I

Part II

Part III

I finally saw Mazinger Z‘s birthplace.

Bullet Train or Shinkansen

For my day trip to Kyoto, I booked right-hand side tickets on the 6:00 AM bullet train (my first ride ever!) and hoped for a clear morning to see Mount Fuji—Japan’s highest mountain and unmistakable cultural icon.

Mount Fuji

I realized my expectations of a quaint village were wildly off when, two hours later, we arrived at the massive and futurist-looking Kyoto Station. Tokyo’s signature combination of traditional and modern extends into Kyoto and beyond.

Kyoto Station

A case in point is the Kyoto Tower, which welcomes visitors across from the busy transportation hub. Erected for the 1964 Olympics, the steel structure topped by a needle-shaped spire faced initial opposition for looking too modern for the old imperial capital.

Kyoto Tower

It eventually became a symbol in its own right, as much as the ancient Nijo Castle. The palace of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from the early 1600s until the Meiji Restoration, is one of the city’s various UNESCO World Heritages Sites where history comes alive.

Nijo Castle

In the palace’s exquisite tatami rooms, purposely-built squeaky (“singing”) floors alerted of ninjas trying to break in. Kano School paintings of soothing landscapes or scary creatures welcomed or intimidated friends or foes, respectively.

Outside, a beautiful traditional Japanese garden—where Prince Charles and Princess Diana partook in a tea ceremony once—completes this national treasure.

Nijo Castle

Another medieval jewel: Kinkaku-ji, or The Golden Pavilion, sits at the center of a Chinese-influenced Zen temple housing the sacred relics of the Buddha himself. Its reflection in the contiguous lake on a bright autumn day, such as the one I was lucky to experience, evokes paradise on earth as, indeed, is intended by design. 

Golden Pavilion

Contemplating the Togetsukyo Bridge in the Arashiyama district, one understands why Emperor Kameyaba dubbed it “Moon Crossing Bridge” while he navigated the Katsura River at night. Just as breathtaking in the middle of this bright fall day, it gleamed against the magnificent hills in the background.

Togetsukyo Bridge

The bridge leads to Arashiyama’s main street, packed with trendy restaurants, clothing stores and ice cream parlors to the famous Arashiyama Bamboo Grove or Bamboo Forest. The giant timber bamboo pathway filters the sun’s rays into a green, otherwordly realm. It is quite a religious experience. 

Bamboo Forest

Geisha district Gion is another idyllic part of town with a broad canal, narrow streets and charming quarters where maiko and geiko live, shop and entertain as their sister ancestors did centuries ago. I was lucky to spot one of them. She was a vision. That moment alone was worth the whole trip. 

Gion

The Higashiyama District regaled me with another vision just as striking: the Yasaka Pagoda. The five-story tower is the last remaining structure of the 6th-century Hōkan-ji Temple. It’s survived fires, earthquakes and wars to become one of Japan’s many icons of beauty and resilience. 

Yasaka Pagoda

Back in New York, I saw an Instagram video of Japanese fans cleaning up the stadium after one of the FIFA World Cup games. I remember learning about tidiness as a powerful Zen technique to achieve fulfillment. And, like that, many of the beautiful things I saw during my ten dream-like days in Japan made absolute sense. 

Japan: Real-Life Anime (Part III)

Japan, a country where anime artists design public transportation, is living in 2022, while the rest of us remain stuck in 1954.

Part I

Part II

There’s not a dull moment in Tokyo.

I’ve spent six days in the Japanese capital and have already experienced sensory overload, a lunar eclipse and an earthquake.

But none of these things stop Tokyoites, who are intensely punctual, clean and orderly.

No one jaywalks, and everyone wears a face mask while looking sharp (no sweats, leggings or any of that “business casual” nonsense).

The city has thirteen metro lines: nine Tokyo Metro and four Toei Subway ones, along with the JR East and Yamanote lines—each with multiple interconnected, numbered, Romanized and color-coded stations.

JR East

It is rush hour all day long, even on the weekends. Everything blinks and beeps everywhere: perennial PA announcements, ubiquitous video screens of all sizes, arcade game-type music and even artificially-generated bird-chirping.

This city is intense. And this is coming from a New Yorker.

Thank god for urban oases like Gotokuji Temple, the birthplace of the famous “Lucky Cat.”

Legend has it daimyo li Naotaka was hunting on the temple grounds when the abbot’s pet cat beckoned him inside, saving him from getting struck by lightning.

Gotokuji Temple

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden is another peaceful retreat for stressed office workers and overwhelmed tourists in the middle of the busy Shibuya and Shinjuku districts.

The shogun bequeathed it to Lord Naitō in the Edo period. The latter used it as a family residence until the Meiji Restoration, when it underwent various phases, including as a botanical and an imperial garden. 

The current layout dates from the turn of the 20th century. As one sits on the tranquil and beautifully-manicured lawns, it’s hard to imagine the obliteration the site sustained due to Allied air raid bombings during WW2.

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Yasukuni Jinja, a Shinto shrine founded in 1879 by Emperor Meiji in Chiyoda City, memorializes many WW2 victims and those from previous conflicts. 

The grand First and Second gates, Tearooms and Divine Pond Garden lead to the Main Hall, which features the Japanese Imperial Chrysanthemum, honoring the over 2 million men, women and children who died for the country. 

The Memorial Fountain “Statue of a Mother Offering Water” was the most moving. The Kiwanis Club of Tokyo, a volunteer organization founded in Detroit, MI, dedicated it to many of the war dead who “longed for their mothers and pure water at the last moment.” 

Yasukuni Shrine Memorial Fountain

Every corner of this city is historical, including open-air markets like Ameyoko. The shopping street next to Ueno Station in Taito City is a haven for fresh and prepared food, clothing and technology. 

In the aftermath of WW2, it was the site of a black market that sold surplus US army goods, including candy, at a time when sugar was scarce. Among the current businesses, a store that sells military gear stands out.

The shopping district is bustling the week after Christmas when locals flock to take advantage of New Year’s sales, which offer many staples used in traditional Japanese end-of-year gatherings.


Ameyoko Shopping Street

Kappabashi Street—or Kitchen Town—between Ueno and Asakusa is another famous urban market that caters to the restaurant business. 

Stores selling sushi knives, ramen bowls and ultra-realistic versions of plastic dishes restaurants use for displays line the street.

A couple of shops specialize in chopsticks alone. They have multiple designs, which, upon sale, they wrap up beautifully. It’s hard to imagine such establishments in the US, where Amazon has substituted even the more general brick-and-mortar stores. 

Kappabashi Street

No Tokyo visit would be complete without riding the Leigi Matsumoto-designed Himiko boat. 

The anime legend, who collaborated with Daft Punk in several music videos for their 2001 album “Discovery,” created a real-life vessel out of his mythical space operas, like “Space Battleship Yamato” and “Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage.”

It’s a water bus fit to cruise Tokyo Bay and admire its futuristic landmarks, including the Tokyo Skytree and the Rainbow Bridge.

Himiko Cruise

Part IV

Japan: Real-Life Anime (Part II)

Remember when Bugs Bunny dug a hole so deep he ended up popping up on an upside-down oriental world? News flash: we’re the upside-down ones.

Part I

Japanese culture is rooted in politeness, loyalty, justice, modesty, refined manners and respect for the elderly. 

Do yourself a favor and research before visiting. 

If not, asking the hotel staff or your tourist guide about basic etiquette is useful. 

When everything else fails: read the room.

For example, when entering Meiji Shrine, walk along the sidelines, never through the middle, which is the gods’ path. 

Meiji Shrine, Harajuku Entrance

The Japanese people dedicated the shrine to their 122nd emperor, Meiji, a progressive leader who modernized the country through a “Japanese Spirit and Western Knowledge” philosophy.

Meiji Shrine

Leading by example, he encouraged the Japanese to wear Western clothes and haircuts and to broaden their food and drink consumption. French wine lovers, especially those who favor Burgundy, will marvel at the display of barrels after the Harajuku entrance.

Meiji Shrine Wine

Across the vast and lush gravel gods’ path, another display signifies the intersection between Estas and West through spirits. Barrels of sake, the only drink the Japanese enjoyed before introducing wines, whiskeys and beers, provide another Instagrammable photo op.

Meiji Shrine Sake

Nowhere is Emperor Meiji’s legacy more evident than from the Tokyo Skytree. The 2+ thousand-feet broadcasting structure’s observation deck affords a dizzying 360-degree view of the 40 million people megalopolis (think New York City’s One Vanderbilt times five).

Tokyo Skytree View

Nearby, Sensō-ji stands as the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. A gigantic complex with halls, gates, a five-storied pagoda and a shopping street, the site holds religious festivals attracting as many as 30 million local and foreign visitors a year.

Sensō-ji Temple

Tokyo feeds both body and soul. The Tsukiji Fish Market is one of the best places for the former. Opened in the 1930s, it encompasses wholesale and retail shops, restaurant supply stores and street-style eateries, like the one where I had the freshest (and most giant!) oyster of my life.

Tsukiji Fish Market

After sampling the delicatessen of Japanese cuisine, a stroll to Ueno Park, established in 1873, is in order. Tokyo’s oldest public park exemplifies the Westernization of the early Meiji period. Think London’s Hyde Park with museums, temples and shrines. 

Ueno Park

The park is home to the Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, among other cultural institutions. It also houses the magnificent Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine, established in 1627, next to the Sacred Tree that predates it by 200 years.

Ueno Tōshō-gū Shrine

Ueno Daibutsu is another religious gem on the park grounds. The remaining head of an ancient Buddha statue, salvaged after earthquakes, fires, and wars, is a symbol of Japanese resilience and a popular spot for students to pray before exams. 

Ueno Daibutsu

North of Ueno Park, in Taitō City, you’ll find the upscale and bohemian neighborhood of Yanaka, which would give Venice Beach, CA vibes if Venice had ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. 

Yanaka

The WW2 Allied bombing spared Yanaka, which shows in the well-preserved quaint homes. Wandering among its lovely neighborhoods, enjoying coffee and shopping for traditional Japanese souvenirs and stationery is a real treat.

Yanaka

The tomb of The Last Shogun in the Yanaka Cemetery is the cherry on top of this historic area. The last warrior to rule Japan surrendered Edo Castle helping to restore imperial power. In 1902, Emperor Meiji granted him the title of duke, which he bore until he died in 1913. The mausoleum is a nostalgic reminder of the end of an era in Japan.

Tomb of The Last Shogun

Part III

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