SYNOPSIS:  About a day filled with event and sites neither of which fit the expectations I had, yet…

What to do in Tokyo if you have only one more day?!  Yesterday was easy.  I did my ‘duty’ as an art-historian and visited the National Museum.  But today?  Where to start?  Tokyo is, by a huge margin, the largest city in the world and the guide book devotes a whopping 150 pages to it.  Tokyo is cram-packed with sites, monuments, museums, entertainment centres, neighbourhoods, activities, parks, shrines, zoos, shopping districts, etc.  I was overwhelmed.

My biological clock had not quite switched over to the new time zone yet, so I was up early.  One of the recommended sites for early risers is the Tokyo Fish Market.  It opens at 5 AM with serious biddings on hundreds of thousands of tons of all imaginable fishes as well as the most bizarre sea creatures.  According to the Lonely Planet, some of the rare fishes go for $1000 per pound.  Tourists must have been a nuisance for this business since for some time now, they are only allowed to enter after 9 AM.  By then the business activities have slowed down to a trickle and by 11 AM all is over and swept clean again.  By 8 AM I was on my way and I could have made it by 9 if I had not gotten sidetracked by an imposing barrel-vaulted building along the way.  This was a Buddhist chaitya hall of the sort I had studied way back at sites like Ajanta or Ellora, in India.  What was it doing here?

The Temple I was looking at, Tsukiji Hongwanji, was the third incarnation of the main temple of the Shinshu denomination of Pure Land Buddhism.  The first temple had been lost to the great Tokyo fire of 1657 and the second one had been a victim of the great Kanto earthquake in 1923.  The one rising in front of me had only been built between 1931 and 1934.  Ito Chuta, the professor of architecture in Tokyo at the time,  responsible for this unusual design, obviously wanted to pay his respect to the Indian roots of Buddhism. I read that Shinshu is one of the largest and most influential sects of Buddhism in Japan with over 10,000 temples and 30,000 ministers.  Wow!

But this was not the end of the surprise.  After being duly impressed by the masses of gold sparkling across from the altar and by the enormous gongs displayed to either side I turned back to leave, only to face a massive organ!  A pipe organ in a Buddhist temple?  Now what was that doing here?  I have been to a few Buddhist temples but this is my first one equipped with an organ.  Anyone out there with more examples like this?

So it was 10 AM by the time I got to the fish market.  But I got what I would have gotten probably not much different one hour earlier: a few good photo ops and a sense of the hustle and bustle of a life mostly hidden from modern-day Tokyo.  These fish mongers were out there cutting huge fish with chain saws, wrapping, chopping, packing and shouting.  They were heaping up loads of discarded fish parts, garbage, and packages of fish onto various small dolly carts powered by huge gas cylinders which they then zipped back and forth through the tiny alleys.  And if you were not jumping out of the way, I don’t know what?  They were not impressed by visitors slowing them down and they were far from being polite.  And they were starting to pack up what was not sold into styrofoam containers filled with ice, as time was ticking.  There was water everywhere.  They meant business and they meant fresh.  No displaying of food for hours in the heat of the day surrounded by flies and exposed to germs as I had seen for so many years in other parts of the world where I would travel and where I could only wonder how not everybody would get sick from just eating.  But still, this smelly, loud, chaotic world of the fish market was a world that did not seem to fit into the clean, efficient, septic, ultra-modern world of Tokyo.  It was a curious contrast.  A leftover from the past.

What else could I do that I could do only in Tokyo?  Climb the Eiffel Tower!  I was sort of in the vicinity (that is, by the enormous dimensions of Tokyo).  I have to admit that despite teaching the Eiffel Tower as a key monument in class for over a decade, I never knew that there were two of those towers in the world, identical, until recently. I owed it to myself to check this out.

In 1958 they copied the darn thing.  They called it the Tokyo Tower.  What were they thinking?  By then this was hardly the same pioneering feat of engineering it had been for Eiffel. The Japanese had to add 11 meters to the tower to make it 333 meters instead of the 320 meter the older brother in Paris could show for. Did that prove anything?

Squeezed between the legs of the tower, into the square below the first platform, the Tokyo Tower straddled a three-storied mall with food courts, souvenir shops, beauty parlours, etc. It does not get any worse.  But it takes away all the awe one feels when standing directly beneath the apex of this all iron and steel tower one gets in Paris.  Too bad.  Instead of the Otis elevator which was built in Paris in two stages — to this day you have to switch from one elevator system to the other to get to the top — this tower has a slick glass elevator which zoomed in no time to the top.  And I won’t even make a big deal out of the fact that there is a totally fake “shinto” shrine on the top platform where you can pray to … the tower god?  I did not want to find out.

Admittedly, the views over Tokyo were stunning.  Not the same stunning as you have looking down from the Sears Tower over Chicago, since there is not the same density of skyscrapers surrounding the tower; or from the Eiffel Tower looking over Paris, since there is not the same number of familiar landmarks to spot.  But stunning in the sense that you get a good idea of the city, its layout, and its sprawl.  And you get yet another perspective on how spotlessly clean this city is.  Not a speck of dirt on any roof top.  No back yard or back alley filled with garbage anywhere.  All the roads look like they have been paved yesterday.  How do they do it?!  Still, I felt a keen sense of cultural displacement to find myself on top of the “Eiffel” Tower in Tokyo.  And to top that sense of cultural twist, I had a hamburger at MacDonald’s for lunch at that mall.  And that in Tokyo.  Yikes!

UENO park had one attraction left that I wanted to see and so I hopped onto another subway, back to my stomping grounds from yesterday.  On the way, I took in the small Taito-ku Shitamachi Museum which promised a glimpse into the Tokyo of the 19th century.  Indeed, it held the recreation of a small alley of the Edo period with two houses equipped with all the furnishings of the period as well as a blacksmith’s workshop.  But it was all housed in a square concrete building built in 1980… Another irony.

But my main destination was the villa built by Iwasaki Yatoro, the founder of Mitsubishi.  I love to visit the mansions built by the rich.  They tell you so much about the spirit of the time.  If money is no object, what do you do with it?  Well, Yatoro had an architect named Josiah Condor who built him an estate combining Moorish elements, with Renaissance features, mixed in with Pennsylvania country homes and dominated by the Jacobean style of 17th century England.  And throughout the house you had the most dazzling embossed wall papers sporting flora and fauna all made with what must have been real gold leaf, loosely recalling Viennese Jugendstil.  The billiard house – yes it was a whole separate “man cave” connected to the mansion by a tunnel, was built like a Swiss log house, mountain chalet with a few Gothic features.  When the house needed an extension, a whole Japanese style home was attached seamlessly, in what is known as the Shoin Style. This was impressive alright, but I was getting dizzy from all this cultural mishmash madness.

If this had not been my last day, I would have called it quits at this point, but I am here only once, and so I went on to stroll through Yanaka, one of the few neighbourhoods which was spared by all of the three disasters that struck Tokyo:  the aforementioned fire of 1657, the 1923 earthquake, and finally the bombings of World War II.  This was indeed a Tokyo which I had not seen so far.  Narrow alleys, too small for cars, small homes, some of them still wooden, small shops, tiny gardens, and many temples and shrines.  In the 2 square kilometres which I covered there must have been over 20 of them.  For American standards they were old:  16th and 17th century.  But for Japanese standards, the real jewels are of course the ones from the 6-9th centuries, or perhaps still the ones from the 10th to the 13th centuries.  No reason to get too excited over the 16th or 17th century.

And to round out the theme of cultural incongruities today, by chance, I came by a most unique and amazing studio of the painter Allen West who over 30 years ago came to Japan to study art, after he discovered that the painting methods he thought he had invented all by himself, were closely related to what Japanese artists had done for centuries.  He must have found his calling since he stayed on.  He married a wonderful woman name Mami who was tending the store since he had gone on a trip to Kyoto.  Too bad I missed him.  His art was dazzling, subtle, traditional, yet very personal.  His colour schemes were beautiful.  I spent quite some time there just in awe.  Even if he had taken one zero off all his prices, his work still would have been out of my price range (e.g., a beautiful pair of hanging scrolls for $8000), but it was wonderful to see that this tradition was alive and well and developing.

Just like his counterpart Iwasaki Yatoro, who had built himself a Western Style home incorporating as much as possible of the outside world in his villa, so Allen West incorporated all the Japanese traditions in his work.  And both of them contributed in their unique way to Japan’s cultural fabric as it is today.  And perhaps, even the Eiffel Tower has a place in that world of borrowing, incorporating, and evolving from there.

Good night.


5 comments so far

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  1. I was waiting to read that you were the favored one to receive the fish head for your dinner but that may be another night. Then, finding the Eiffel tower – did you know that you can find the Cairo pyramids in China? Next week we leave for France where once again we will walk through Monet’s garden (like walking through his paintings) and dance beneath the Eiffel tower as we did in the past. Such happy memories. We never dreamed of dancing under the one in Tokyo – or that it was even there.

    It’s no surprise that you are wonderfully filling each day with exquisite sights and stories. Elida

  2. Sorry about two comments today…I meant to put this in my first comment. When I click on the pictures in this post, they do not enlarge, they just stay thumbnails.

    • Click twice on the images – actually, they are huge. I have not figured out how to cut them down in size. 🙂 ET

  3. Wow…such a day: fish heads and the Eiffel Tower. Immediately when I read about you finding that Japanese Eiffel Tower, I ran to the PP and put it in. There are a whole bunch more Eiffel Towers in the world I found in good ole Wikipedia…and I put a link to that in, too. Yikes…what next?
    You always “run into” such different things…incongruities indeed…but aren’t they really the very fabric of our world. Oh no…she’s waxing philosophical.
    Bye…have fun.

  4. Each day brings a dip into a Tokyo very different from the bits I encountered in 1973. Fascinating. It’s prompting me to look again at some slides from my long-ago visit. As always I marvel at your energy, the images you share in images and words, and your passion for exploring. Your travel gods are doing a good job so far. As always, Thanks for your energy in managing to share the day’s doings with us. Diane K