That’s what we say to our kids. We drum it in from an early age. Sometimes when you’re travelling however, it’s in talking to strangers that you can open up a world of discovery. I’ve been sucked in before with stranger talking…shuttled to a Bangkok tailor and being “encouraged” to purchase clothing by a tuk-tuk driver (I know I’m not the only one).
This morning, after checking out our across-the-road Ushijima Jinja (founded 860) Shinto shrine, we met an older lady who asked where we were from, complemented the kids on their “kawaii”ness, and guided us to HER temple, a “true Buddhist” set up in a hall, with a gawdy golden alter decorated with cranes (no photos allowed). The congregation crowded around us, welcoming us in, and in an evangelical-like wave, produced photos, brochures and special beads, showing us how to chant to Buddha. APPARENTLY we were there because in a former life, we did something good in the world, and we were now being rewarded by being found by them. I was just waiting for the “well that’ll be 10,000 yen arigato”, but they were all totally lovely, and just wanted to share their passion with some foreigners.
After that somewhat bizarre start to the day, we continued with plans, and walked into Asakusa, to explore the myriad of crowded alleys, old shops, and a glimpse of how Tokyo may have looked before it was shattered by earthquakes and war. We’ve encountered a few of those “what do they want from us?” moments while travelling, expecting to be gyped at any minute. They do it in tourist haunts everywhere…in La Boca, Argentina, tango dancers pose for a photo and then insist on a hefty payment. Punks do the same in London. But it doesn’t seem to happen here. The girls had their hair put up in one shop with fancy geisha hair pins, the assistant asked us to take photos, we politely said we didn’t want to buy any (at $50 a pop for what was essentially a fancy chopstick, we thought them a tad pricey), and she didn’t huff, or insist. She smiled, took the pins out, bowed, smiled, said goodbye, and smiled some more. Japan is keeping my cynicism in check!
The heaving markets around Asakusa essentially lead to one of Tokyo’s biggest temples, Senso Ji. Today was “Children’s Day” the final day of “Golden Week”, a week of holiday celebrations, and local tourists from all over the country were here. Many younger women were dressed in traditional kimonos, giggling and taking selfies with their friends, or being followed about by professional photographers taking model shots of them. There were families with gorgeous little kids enjoying green tea ice-cream wedged between fish-shaped wafers. The main symbol for Children’s Day is the carp shaped windsock, and families put them on display in their homes. Businesses in the area also hung “shimenawa” at their door – twisted rice rope with “shide” or zig-zag strips of white paper attached to them, to ward off evil spirits.
Watching people go about their religious rituals is fascinating. There is a huge incense pit just through the main torii gates of Senso Ji, and it’s good luck to scoop up the smoke and wash it over your body. Before you enter a temple, you should also cleanse yourself with a “misogi” ritual, scooping water with a bamboo ladle, washing each hand at a time, rinsing your mouth and spitting it out. There are fortune-reading opportunities (o-mikuji) at every turn! You can either buy little lucky-dip envelopes with fortunes ranging from “great blessing” to “great curse” (ouch!), or go through some fabulously complicated rituals to reveal your fate.
At Senso Ji, for a mere 100yen ($1) we shook a cylinder containing a bunch of inscribed chopsticks. Shake with intention! Whichever chopstick number that comes out is your fortune number. Find the corresponding little timber draw, and inside are pieces of paper letting you know if you’re in luck or not. If you are, congrats! Take your fortune home and live a long, happy, wealthy life. If your slip of paper is a curse, well luckily there is still hope. Fold your piece of paper up, and tie it to the wire frames nearby, and the bad luck will attach itself to the wire instead (phew, that was close! Now say 3 “Hail Mary”s and go home.)
Street food stalls were also fascinating around Senso-Ji. While being pretty adventurous with our food, the octopus sitting in the sun at the takoyaki stands didn’t look too flash! The deep fried (with bubbly McDonald’s apple pie type batter) curry puffs were incredible, the cooked-on-bamboo seafoody thingos were pretty good, and our sushi lunch at a place where you order on an iPad, and the sushi arrives on a superfast conveyor, direct to your table, was delicious.
Lots of walking. SOOOOO much amazingness. Time to sleep and get some rest for a day of intense “Hello Kitty” action tomorrow!