2014
08.09

SYNOPSIS:  About one of the oldest Buddhist shrines and one of the newest mosques in Tokyo.  The end of Ramadan.

 

Already by 9 AM the thermometer had climbed to over 90° Fahrenheit.  Another one of those hot and humid days lay ahead.  I was absolutely not motivated to do anything, and would have been hiding behind my computer all day if not in the early afternoon a much needed thunderstorm cleared the air at least a little bit and at least for a little while.

What to do?  Tokyo is overwhelming in its options and after all the temples and shrines, castles and gardens of historic value, I was not in any mood to do more.  A museum perhaps?  There are dozens around and they are one as good as the other.  An aquarium?  After all, I had missed the one in Osaka.  Another theme park of traditional buildings?  Shopping? …

Carl in one of his recent comment posts had mentioned the Sensoji Temple vandalism incident that happened on June 12, 2014, and since Sensoji is the oldest and one of the most venerated Buddhist Temples in Tokyo, I decided that it would be the event for the day; just one more temple.  I can do it.

A Saudi Arabian Muslim exchange student was mentioned in the Tokyo news to have destroyed four Buddhist sculptures as an act of Jihad.  After his arrest he reportedly admitted to the deed and further to a similar act previously at another temple. A premeditated religiously motivated act of violence.  That is a new one for Japan!

The Sensoji Temple is as impressive as any I have visited.  Two giant red gates and several huge lanterns as well as a five-storied pagoda, and a sizable hall with several side temples, make for an impressive complex.  As usual, none of the monks in attendance spoke enough English or had enough time for me to get a conversation going:  Did it happen?  Are you afraid more will happen?  What is the reaction of the temple?  More security?  None of these questions were answered.

Just across from the temple there is a major Shinto Shrine.  The attendant spoke enough English to understand the incident, but then had never heard of it.  100 meters from it!  “I don’t know what is going on at the temple” was her excuse.

Finally,  there was a local volunteer guide of the sort I had seen all over Japan.  They usually are older people who in retirement brush up their English and then guide foreigners around their town in order to practice it.  These guys are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and usually well informed.  I picked a moment when the guide was waiting for his group to look around and asked him about the incident.  Yes, he had heard of it.  But which temple, he did not know!

The one we are in, I said.  Which sculptures would have been the target?  He did not know.  So I was on my own again.  I made the rounds and came across two areas that had enough evidence to match up with the reported event and the news image: one area is a graveyard behind the temple.  That was not in the news, but several images had very recent and visible “neck repairs”.  And there was a small group of shrines to the side of the temple which looked just like the ones in the news.  Indeed, the images there too showed signs of recent repairs but only if you looked very carefully.

A small group of vendors have stalls right across from this site and I located one who spoke enough English to communicate with me:  Yes, that happened.  But now, it’s all fixed.  End of story.

I am not sure what I expected.  But obviously, this had not been news that was big enough to be known even 100 yards from the incident.  Now what?  I was out and about, finally, and now definitely in the mood to do a bit more sightseeing.

How about a mosque?  Are there even mosques in Japan?

As I found out, there are.  The current count is between 80 and 100 mosques in Japan.  The largest and one of the most impressive mosques in Tokyo is the Turkish-style Camii Mosque associated with the Islamic Cultural Center.  Sounds great!

Criss-crossing Tokyo via subway is a breeze.  The subway system is efficient, tight, speedy, and trains come at a frequency that boggles the mind.  So, distances in Tokyo should not intimidate anyone and an hour can propel you from one end of Tokyo to the next.  And I had time.

I arrived at the Camii around 6 PM.  There obviously was an event going on inside the mosque — I assumed it was the scheduled prayer.  I walked around, took pictures and as I did so, more and more cars filled with Muslims arrived.  Something was cooking.

Many of the new arrivals were foreigners wearing the typical Arabic single piece suit sporting the long unshaven Muslim-style beards.  More and more hijabbed women arrived piling in.  Finally, I asked somebody if it was okay to enter.  Sure.  If I had just prepared for this, I could have come with my own hijab and impressed the locals.  🙂

As it was, I had to borrow a shawl.

Sometimes, I think the travel gods are just pointing their fingers.  This morning I was not even going to leave the house, by night I found myself in the middle of a sizable event at the Camii mosque and before I knew it at a table sitting with the Japanese Muslim community breaking fast over a nice meal at the Cultural Center!   No kidding.   It was the end of Ramadan.  But had I paid attention to that?  Of course not.  I was traveling in a Buddhist and Shinto nation, not in the Middle East!

But this very serendipitous coincidence gave me a chance to get a sense of the Muslim community in Tokyo which I would otherwise not have seen or imagined like this: most attendees of this mosque were foreign-born and had either moved to Japan or were working temporarily in Japan, as were some of the women at my table.  Shams was my main partner talking.  She was a convert of Buddhist parents who had studied in California and converted there into the Sufi branch of Islam.  In the midst of all the activities I was not able to ask a lot of pertinent questions.  But here are a few of them.

Why did you convert?  Did you study a lot about Islam or read up about it before you converted?  No. I just followed my heart.  I wanted to be a Muslim since I was 10 years old.

What about your Buddhist parents?  Do they accept your conversion?  They also converted to Islam just two months ago.

Have you heard about the vandalism incident at Senso Temple in June?  No.

What do you think about the new caliphate and what is going on with ISIS in Iraq and Syria?  Those are not real Muslims.

The implications of some of her answers are startling on many levels.  But I did not challenge her on any of them.  I was a guest and grateful that I could participate in this event and experience a facet of Japan I did not even knew existed.  She was a wonderful person.  I wish I could have met her again.  But her time did not allow it and my time is getting very short.

All of this came about because of one man who with a big smile greeted me after the event in the mosque, a lecture on fasting and body hygiene, was over:  Zachariah from Morocco.  I was ready to just put my shoes on and leave, but he engaged me in conversation and offered me a date — that’s when I realized that it was the time of the breaking of the fast.

We talked about the differences of traveling in the Middle East and traveling in Japan.  There, an invitation for tea or the offering of a date is so commonplace.  Two months in Japan and to the very end I remain a disconnected stranger.  One hour at the mosque and I am invited to dinner and am part of a community.  No wonder that some people who follow their hearts end up here.

Good night.