Japan: Calm

Jan 04, 2015

March 12, 2011 

The night of the 11th passed uneasily with aftershocks rolling through intermittently. The next morning I stepped into the small alley outside my hostel and was struck by the calm. After a moment I realized: the main street was empty, there were no delivery trucks or schoolchildren crowding the alleyway between the hostel and the 7/11. Tokyo held its breath.

“Fukushima” wasn’t yet a word I’d heard. Parts of Tokyo lacked power and some trains weren’t running but the city itself was considered safe. Not until much later did I learn about the threat of a nuclear disaster.

I grabbed a can of coffee and two onigiri from the 7/11 and walked up to Asakusa’s sprawling temple, Senso-ji.


Normally this temple, Tokyo’s oldest and one of its most popular attractions, is packed with tourists and school groups. Today it was myself and a small number of elderly Japanese:


In front of the temple is a shopping arcade, Nakemise. Nearly every shop was closed.


Inside Senso-ji a group of Buddhist monks sat chanting. I moved on to a nearby area called Kappabashidori—literally “kitchen street.” Stores filled with miniature plastic food models, pots, pans, even one selling nothing but coffee equipment (my favorite). Many were closed today so I took the metro on to the Imperial Palace.

Possibly my favorite feature of Tokyo is the ubiquitous ramen shop. Every street, every metro station of any size, has a small noodle restaurant catering to legions of silently slurping salarymen. There’s no talking. A vending machine at the entrance shows you the multitude of ramen options available (hopefully with pictures). You insert your money, pick one mostly at random if you’re me and pass the ticket through a small window into the kitchen. Someone hands you back a token of some sort with a number—sometimes just a piece of plastic, occasionally more interesting. You take your bowl of udon or soba or ramen and sit at the counter, staring into your broth and doing little else. I stopped at a noodle shop on my way out of Chiyoda station, near the Imperial Palace.

The Imperial Palace can’t actually be entered. I no longer remember if I knew that at the time—I know now that it’s only accessible to tours which must be arranged beforehand.

I have previously mentioned how I have become a better traveler. The day I’m writing up in this post is a good example of viewing the world through a glass pane. I flitted from site to site, neighborhood to neighborhood, ticking off boxes as I went. Tokyo’s biggest temple, Tokyo’s kitchen supply district, Tokyo’s French neighborhood (that’s next). I like to think I occasionally delved deeper but that was not a skill I’d yet learned. I remember knowing I lacked something as a zipped about on the metro but that realization came much later.

As to the French neighborhood, I saw very little French about it. I’m sure it is—plenty of French bakeries but many were closed. yet here in Kagurazaka I found what is still my favorite Tokyo viewpoint.

Akagi Jinja

This is a shrine, Akagi Jinja, in the middle of a small expat neighborhood. Endless concrete, devoid of any notable features, surrounding this small Shinto shrine. A single ray of fierce color against the monotony. Japan is filled with these. Akagi Jinja is fairly large but walk anywhere in Tokyo and you will find a tiny shrine tucked between two buildings or above a parking spot or, at a hostel I stayed at on another trip, on a balcony. In Osaka’s rowdiest party district, a minuscule shrine, 4’x4’, is tucked in an alleyway of bars and clubs. I can’t claim to find any deep insight into Japanese culture from this, though I’m sure many make their own claims, other than to point out the nonchalantness with which these little places of faith blend in. Eventually you stop being surprised when you find one.

A few of us—–mostly the same group from my first night—–went out for dinner at a sukiyaki restaurant near the hostel. Not knowing the extent of the damage, or of what was to come, we had a good time. The uncertainty of Fukushima hadn’t found us yet.