The vending machines are everywhere. There’s a rumour going around that they fractionally outnumber people in the cities, and there’s probably a great herd of the things roaming the countryside somewhere. Drinks, books, cigarettes, used women’s underwear… you name it, Tokyo’s got a machine that nicely packages it and distributes it in exchange for a suitably exorbitant fee.
Japanese lifestyle – at least the parts of it that I’ve managed to experience in a mere two days – really is the ultimate in convenience culture. If you can’t find it within a hundred square metres of wherever you happen to be, well then it’s probably not worth having. The less classy of the restaurants (which weigh in at approximately the same price as the more classy ones in Seoul) require that you pay for your meal at an insanely confusing machine and hand over the receipt directly to the chef. In fact, the use of machines is so prominent that it’s a little surprising that there seem to be enough jobs going around for anyone to afford the frankly incredible prices: $80 for a 1 hour return journey to the airport, British train companies take note, maybe you can squeeze a little more cash out yet…
I hate to shun local culture, so in fitting with the convenience theme, I chose a slightly more expensive hotel in the party district of Roppongi – a measly thirty seconds from the subway station – as my starting point. A quick glance around Roppongi during the day gave little insight into its supposedly messy nightlife, but there was plenty of time for that later. Instead I decided to follow what’s fast becoming a tradition, and start with ‘Senso Ji’ (Senso Temple) in the Asakusa district.
I’m quickly discovering that East Asian temples often make even Indian temples look somewhat understated, and Senso Ji was no exception.
The Nakamise Dori market district leads from the subway station to the temple. A kind of traditional market, Nakamise is yet to completely succumb to the touristic draw of the temple (though there’s a definite nod to it), and features some really imaginative traditional stalls, alongside bustling street side food vendors. Finely painted fans (which stretch to as much as $1000 a time) take their place next to Octopus Balls and open-air Sake and kebab bars feature strongly. The ends of the markets are capped with one of the landmark images of Japan (see photos!), a 12ft red paper lantern hung under a huge traditional gateway, the bronze base dropping to just above head height. High above the marketplace, the main walkway is penned in with a huge number of white lanterns, each bearing a different Chinese character.
Avoiding the overpriced tourist tat and impressive quantity of hugely expensive real-hair wigs; I check out a few of the culinary offerings. One store serves what looks like frozen fruit, but turns out to be fruit candy, solidified temporary in ice before being served up in a small ice cream cone. Predictably, I end up with a chin covered in soft candy and just about avoid sticking my teeth together. Perfect for a visit to the temple itself!
At the far end Nakamise drops under a second huge lantern, and opens out into the temple to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy. On the left a well-lit five-tiered pagoda fills the skyline. Straight in front the statue of Kannon is housed in a single tiered structure draped in cloth and paper lanterns, and to the right locals tie notes about their dreams and wishes to a series of strings and pull texts predicting their future from a row of numbered draws.
Tokyo is so lively that even a well known temple struggles to be serene, especially when surrounded by a lively market, but it is a truly beautiful place, familiar in it’s Asian-ness, yet uniquely Japanese. I could kill hours here, but Tokyo’s the biggest city in the world, there’s far more to see….