Culture Day 2022

November 3 is a national holiday in Japan – a day to celebrate culture. The part of Asakusa where we are staying has a bit of a holiday feel to it most of the time – this is an entertainment district historically and it still has many theatres, bars and an amusement park. But it is also a residential area and there are many small businesses here. Big ones, too. Lots of bustle, all the time. And even the weekends have a sense of ‘getting things done’. This past Thursday was Culture Day and the vibe around here was very different. This wasn’t a work day. It wasn’t even a ‘doing the Saturday errands day’. It was a holiday. It didn’t hurt that it was 20C and sunny.

We had seen a poster for a taiko drum festival, and scoped out where we thought it would be, so off we went. One thing about a drum festival – it is not hard to find! Just follow your ears….

The park is right beside the Sumida River, with the SkyTree as a pretty cool backdrop. It was hot! I wasn’t the only person who forgot their hat and had to wear their handkerchief on their head, as you can see. Wilf kindly did not record that, but suffice it say I fit right in with the crowd – handkerchief on head, brochure as a visor.

Anyhoo. The drums. The 12 groups varied from big to small. Most of them had their own equipement, but the two big drums on the stage were shared. I expect they’re pretty difficult to move around.

It was all fantastic. Some groups had little kids, some seemed to all be made up of women of a certain age, others appeared to be student groups. All were highly choreographed and the skill level was amazing.

Volume up for this one!

It was great way to spend the afternoon. When we got back to our hotel we discovered that our street had a little ninja situation going on, but that is a tale for another day!

I’m glad I got to see the taiko festival. We have a taiko performance group in Victoria and they show up at all sorts of events and festivals. I always enjoy coming across them at the 10K road race, feeling the pulse of the drum before I can see them.

Tori no ichi 2022

When we visited Japan in 2018 one of the highlights was a visit to the tori no ichi festival in Shinjuku. I wrote about it here. It was a big deal, but we knew that the really big event was in Asakusa.

And – the way things worked out for this trip we are staying in Asakusa, so the festival is about a 15 minute walk away.

As a refresher – Japanese businesses often have a decorative object called a Kumade, which originally looked like a rake. The tines of the rake would be decorated with auspicious symbols and the idea is that you would ‘rake in’ good fortune and prosperity. Over time the ‘rakes’ have become more and more abstract and elaborate. Some have lost the handle all together and look more like a box or a basket.

My brother Bill is with us in Tokyo right now, and last night he and I decided to walk up and scope out where the festival is to happen. Things start at the stroke of midnight on the fourth of November – we figured they’d be in prep mode as the evening wore on. We were also concerned that it might be mob scene today and we may not be able to get to the shrine itself.

The shrine was ready and not too many people were there so we could go right in.

All decorated and ready to go.

The kumade stalls are ready.

Today the food stalls were getting busy.

We knew we were in the right area because people were walking down the street with their new kumade.

Part of the ritual is to bring in the kumade for the previous year – it is to be replaced with a bigger, better and more auspicious one for the new year. On the street there is a place to put the old ones. You see here a big kumade being taken away while an attendant from the shrine waves an implement called an onusa to purify the outgoing rakes.

Two more attendants stand at the entrance to the shrine to purify those entering.

And it is getting busy.

Here’s a video of the scene in front of the shrine.

People are waiting to approach the shrine where they can ring the bell and make their prayer. At the same time a shrine official is up on a balcony area – perhaps making a blessing. In the video you can hear a voice close by – the police were managing the crowd very carefully. Although there were a lot of people it was not a press and we felt safe.

This family was having professional photos taken at the shrine – in the background you can see one of the hundreds of stalls selling the kumade.

We did buy one. We were sidling along looking at the stalls and everyone was polite enough, but there was one guy who got to chatting with us. He told us about his products and we settled on one packed with auspicious emblems. He asked me to write my name on a piece of paper and then he went away for a moment. When he came back our little kumade in a box was all decorated:

I’m very impressed at how beautifully he wrote my last name. If I’d had to write my last name in Japanese it would not look nearly so beautiful. Sadly my writing in Japanese looks just like what you would expect from some with grade two level abilities. But by the way it looks like this typed out: ストーンマン .

Part of the routine of acquiring a kumade involves a ritual exchange of good wishes for prosperity in the coming year and a ceremony involving clapping hands. I think we acquitted ourselves well.

Of course the other reason to go to a festival is for the food. The shrine itself is quite small so the food stalls spill out through the neighbourhood for blocks and blocks.

The festival equivalent of mini doughnuts are these little cakes called castella (かすてら). Lovely little sponge cakes.

And if there is an octopus, you know who will find it! There was everything you could imagine. The only thing we couldn’t find was a place to sit down! It is one of the few times it is appropriate to walk along the street, eating and drinking.

We ate the sausages and karaage chicken before we got pictures! So good!

I expect that by tonight (Friday night) the whole area will be just heaving with people. We went out for dinner tonight and there were people walking about with their new rakes, parading them down the sidewalks as they returned to their home or business, secure in the fact that they would be raking in good fortune for another year.

A first for me – Michelin Dining

Did you know that Tokyo has the most Michelin starred restaurants of any city in the world? There are more than 200 restaurants in the city that have a star.

I’m not interested in chasing after restaurants with rankings like that – I’m pretty basic in my food preferences and would rather eat a well cooked down home meal than a cheffy concept meal.

Having said that it turns out that there is a restaurant a few blocks from where we are staying that has been noted by the Michelin people. And it turns out to fit my ‘not too fancy’ criteria.

This is Asakusa Onigiri. I didn’t expect that we would be able to get in to the restaurant, but we scooted in as the last two people for lunch service. There are two tables for four people and six seats at a counter. It looks like a sushi restaurant with all the ingredients displayed behind the counter, and a chef preparing the onigiri as they are ordered.

And yes, I’m talking about onigiri – rice balls! The lunch set is a cup of tea, a bowl of miso soup and two onigiri.

Our soup has arrived, and the tray between us has the first two onigiri (grilled salmon filling).

At this restaurant they wrap the nori (seaweed) around on one side and the other side of the sheet of nori stands up like a wing. Because the onigiri is made and immediately handed over the nori does not have time to get soft, so the contrast between the crispy outside and soft warm rice inside is perfect.

For our second ‘course’ I had the pickled ginger filling and Wilf’s had tiny little shrimp boiled in soy sauce.

And all this for about $6.00 per person. Some might say that’s alot for rice balls that can be had at the 7-11 for two dollars, but these were Michelin approved rice balls. And it was a great little meal!

Lost in Translation – the Sharon and Wilf edition

Not that we’ve been chomping at the bit, but one week after the Japanese government opened their borders to independent travelers – guess where we are! Usually Wilf has our big trips planned in great detail well in advance. And, in the past two years, he has discovered the world of city video bloggers on YouTube, which means he has been ‘visiting’ Tokyo virtually since the spring of 2020. This trip is not like the usual for us. We booked a hotel for a month in Tokyo and just showed up. We’ll figure the rest out as we go.

We are staying in the Asakusa district. Way, way back the city of Edo, the precursor to Tokyo, was founded in this area on the banks of the Sumida River. Besides the great temple of Senso-ji, which has endured through the many versions of the city, this was at one point an entertainment district and a horse racing area. There is still an amusement park, and venerable theatres. Wide modern streets cut through little areas of narrow streets packed with shops and restaurants. Much of this area was destroyed during WWII, so while people have lived here for a very long time, it is mostly a modern district.

Usually when we come to Japan we have Places to Go! Things to See! Trains to Catch! Food to Eat! We hit the ground running and get to it. I suppose we’ve been jet lagged, but we’ve been to busy to notice. Let’s just say the pace this time is more relaxed – and we’re both fighting the time difference. I’m writing this at 5:30 pm and trying to figure out how we’re going to stay awake until 9:00 so that we can sleep. And not be up at 4:00 like we were this morning

Thank heavens our hotel room is big enough that there is a bedroom with a door and a sitting room with a couch. At 40 square metres this place is positively capacious! Most regular hotel rooms are about half that. I’ll take pictures later and show you what the place is like.

When we were here in 2009 we found a shrine to the tanuki, the raccoon-dog patron saint of good times and prosperous business. I wrote about it here: Tanuki shrine. And here is an article about who he is and where he fits in Japanese culture. Every time we come back to Tokyo we make a visit to the shrine to say hello. And we have learned that there is a small street in Asakusa with little lampost shrines to various aspects of tanuki-ness. It is called Tanuki street and it runs between Hoppi and Orange street.

Looking a little bleary, I’m saying hello to Mr & Mrs Tanuki

All you have to do is look up to know you are on Tanuki Street.