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Japan Is Cool

MY TOKYO SANTA The Shigetsu is on a lane of elegant sweetshops, restaurants, and a samisen store piled high with the lute-like instruments. But just a few steps away is Nakamise-dori, a pedestrian boulevard packed with souvenir stalls that leads to the Senso Temple. Need an Astro Boy trinket to dangle from a cell phone, or a box of pastel bean-paste confections?You will find them every few steps. At one stand I got what I think was a frozen pickled crab apple, swirled in sugary gelatin, on a stick. Another stall sold dog accoutrements—including doggy martial-arts outfits and kimonos. Farther down the street, we settled on a gumball machine dog charm and a notepad with an Afro-sporting pooch on the cover. The Japanese souvenir collection had begun!

At the temple, you can pay 100 yen (85 cents) to pull out a bamboo pole containing a number that corresponds to a fortune. A young man walking by offered to translate mine: "Some happy, some not happy, some gray hair, someone you meet like," he paused, searching for the right word. "Like Santa Claus."

IF ORLANDO WERE A TOKYO ISLAND One morning, after a visit to the Hamarikyu Garden, manicured and somber in the rain, Tommy led Janet and me onto a suijo basu, or water bus, a discovery from his last trip. A bright red boat with neat white curtains, the bus passes under countless bridges, each one a different color and design, and gives you a sense of Tokyo as the vast working harbor it is. But for real contrast to the Edo mood of Asakusa, you must go to Odaiba, a man-made island in Tokyo Bay that is, in the parlance of teenagers, "mad ill." The view of sweeping shore and skyline as the train crosses the Rainbow Bridge quickly gives way to this Isle of the Consumer, bursting with beaches, gigantic office complexes, sprawling malls, museums, and, most important, Sega Joypolis, a virtual heaven of virtual skydiving, virtual white-water rafting, a virtual aquarium, and a vast metropolis of video games. Tommy had no one else to share these marvels with, so Janet and I were cajoled into racing cars against him and losing, to swatting air-hockey pucks and losing, and to exhausting ourselves on a treadmill playing a video game of walking the dog. My dog, a jolly Akita, was quickly hit by a car, poor thing. At this point we were ready to retreat. But Tommy led us through more neon, noise, and Japanese couples on dates. As we waited outside one ride, a baby beside us sobbed from his stroller while his mother and Tommy were whisked away to virtually spin and dip and whirl. The ride's attendant soothed the child (imagine that in the U.S.), and Janet and I soothed ourselves in the gift shop by buying a package of sweet dumplings with Green Tea Dog, a cartoon pup, on the label. There were hours more before we were allowed out, but it was worth it when we emerged and saw Tokyo, across the bay, glittering in the night sky.

CARTOONS VS. KIMONOS The Meiji Shrine, an austere 1920 Shinto structure next to Tokyo's Harajuku section, offers a perfect, distilled glimpse of the oddly intimate juxtaposition between Japan's youth culture and its ancient tradition. The entrance to the shrine is a plaza at the end of a glamorous shopping street, where girls with pink wigs, white faces, and yellow lips, wearing gauze and satin tutus and electric-blue platform boots, stoop down to help paint the faces of other girls in other wigs and costumes. Boys in black satin tights, their faces slashed by black-lightning zigzags, stand idly holding unplugged electric guitars. This spot, which looks like the outdoor dressing room of a circus, is where teenagers gather to participate in a popular fad: dressing up as cartoon characters, often of their own creation. I was snapping photos as if the kids were wild exotics, which annoyed Tommy, who took the garish getups in stride. But even he was not prepared for what we saw next: a small but mighty parade of Tokyo residents decked out in green and playing bagpipes. It was, apparently, St. Patrick's Day.

We finally tore ourselves away and passed through the gates, where women were walking toward the shrine wearing sober kimonos. We followed them along a wide, peaceful gravel path to a courtyard and saw our first collection of ema, small wooden votive tablets, which had been hung around a sacred tree. They're sold at almost every shrine, and people write wishes on them in black marker. One said: "Pass the entrance exam! Meet beautiful company! Improve English!" Two of the cartoon girls we'd seen earlier were scanning the plaques. Then, as if to remind us where we really were, a solemn procession wound its way slowly past us to the sounds of a flute and a drum: a bride in a white hood and white kimono, and a priest holding a vivid red parasol over her head. We were walking reverently back, feeling we had found a bit of the real Japan, when another bit of the real Japan found us: a voice booming from a hidden P.A. system asked us, in Japanese and then in English, to "please follow the rules and so keep this area clean and orderly forever." Such announcements leap out unexpectedly into Japanese gardens like Godzilla alerts in a 50's Japanese horror movie. Sometimes, when a public place is closing, hidden speakers politely broadcast a tinkling Game Boy version of "Auld Lang Syne."

THE COOLEST CASTLES We left Tokyo on the Tobu express, a train (which you can pick up right in Asakusa) staffed by young women in pink uniforms who bow before entering or leaving the car as they push their snack carts. Our destination, Nikko, an ancient city surrounded by the lakes and waterfalls of a national park, is where the first Tokugawa Shogun (the one in Clavell's Shogun) chose to be buried. We were completely unprepared for the majesty of the 17th-century Tosho Shrine, built in just over a year by 4.5 million workers. We arrived a little before closing and walked to the stall of the sacred horse, above which is the original carving of the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys. The few remaining visitors all stood with their arms outstretched, cell phones that double as cameras oddly saluting the monkeys. At the top of the steep steps is the Yakushido Temple, whose acoustics turn a clap of the hands into the roar of a dragon. "Nikko"means sunlight, and the opulence and scale of the buildings, the bright vermilion and gilt (16 acres of gold leaf), the elaborate carvings, the swatches of late snow all flashed brilliantly in the golden afternoon sun.

Nikko was utterly different from the monuments to come. In Kyoto, for example, we toured austere and minimalist Nijo Castle, its elegance so acute it left us speechless. At Tommy's urging, we also took a day trip from Kyoto to Himeji to see an extraordinary castleknown as the White Heron because of the way it perches on a hill. Solid, enormous, and impenetrable, it does nevertheless look as light as a bird.

THE MONKEY KING EXPLAINED Nara is not far from Kyoto; during his earlier visit Tommy had spent an afternoon there and found its famous park only mildly interesting. The trick, we discovered, is to stay overnight. And not just anywhere. Spend the night at Edosan. If you go to only one ryokan, make it this one. It's nestled in the 1,600-acre preserve, with shrines and miniature deer for neighbors. The deer, once thought to be messengers of the gods, pose picturesquely in the moonlight. They even come to the door of your room.

When we drove up the twisting drive in the dark, three women in kimonos, delicate as flowers, came rushing out, hoisted our heavy bags from the cab, seated us at a low table in a room of painted shoji screens, and came floating back with tray after tray of a kaiseki banquet. Tommy, who frequently ordered two full sushi dinners, asked for another bowl of rice and poured soy sauce all over it (a faux pas, but one he could not resist). The ladies giggled, then brought him three huge mounds of rice wrapped in seaweed, in case he got hungry in the middle of the night.

The next morning, at the Todai Temple, we gaped at the giant ears of a colossal Buddha, then watched children squirm through a hole in a wooden post the size of the Buddha's nostril. If you can get through it, you'll reach enlightenment. Realists all three, we left the nostril to nirvana. Along a path to the Kasuga Shrine, with its 3,000 stone lanterns, we ambled past tearooms and ancient shops, stopping to buy blocks of ink and calligraphy brushes. Then we bought special cookies to feed the tiny deer, who followed Tommy everywhere, sticking their noses in his pockets. "From cute to intrusive in thirty seconds," he said.

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