Visiting Temples and Sumo Wrestling

Trip Start Dec 02, 2008
Trip End Jan 20, 2009

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Flag of Japan  , Kanto,
Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Morning after Disneyland was Sunday, so we slept in. It felt good to sleep in, even though we were in a new city with tons of things to see, we couldn’t resist the temptation to just do nothing for one morning. After touring Europe, Karla and I are professionals and “Combat Vacationing”. We can pack in all top 10 things to do in a city within the first three days with time to spare. Sometimes I forget that Vacations are for relaxing and recharging your batteries. There’s no point in killing yourself seeing the sights, then needing a vacation from your vacation. So we hit snooze and killed the morning. …zzzzzzzzz
When we finally got motivated, we found that it was another beautiful day, crisp and clear with high wispy clouds that promised no rain in our future. From the Shinigawa station we traveled East this time on the Yamanote line to the Harajuku station. Just out the door and over the bridge is a large park that includes the Meiji Shrine. The park and shrine was originally built in 1920, a few years after the Emperor Meiji died. The park covers some 175 acres and is heavily wooded. Some of the buildings were bombed in WWII but in 1953 the local communities came together to rebuild the shrine to it’s original state. Being that this was a Sunday the place was buzzing with people enjoying the day walking around. Crossing the parking lot, which was surprisingly empty compared to the number of people walking around. We entered through the main gate. In the parking lot were a number of large black Chevy Van’s with the Imperial of Japan flying from them. ‘That’s funny, I thought they stopped using that flag after WWII’, I said to myself. But after all, this was the Meiji Shrine, perhaps it had something to do with the old Emperor. At the entrance there was a large arch with an upward curved cross member, this is the standard entrance to all Shinto shrines and once you see one, you will begin spotting them all over the place in Japan. This entrance was just like the others, but HUGE. Just inside that, there was a large wall where the giant paper lanterns were hung. I was thinking, ‘Jeez is everything in this place giant?’ These lanterns represented the list of people who donated to build the shrine, or in this case, rebuild it. When we got closer I could see that they weren’t lanterns at all, they were decorated barrels, painted to look like the wall of lanterns you see at most shrines. Come to find out later they were barrels of Sake, Not sure if there was any Sake in them now, but they were symbolic, and there were a lot of them.
There were many signs in Japanese and I could tell that this was a place that catered to all tourists, but mostly Japanese tourists.

*side note:
I’m not sure how Lonely Planet missed this, but somehow we went to this temple, dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, walked around it all morning, and never actually realized that the Emperor was entombed IN that very building. Perhaps that is just assumed in Japan when you talk about a shrine, it means also “tomb”. I suppose the person being honored has to show up to his own party. But I somehow missed that memo, anyway… I digress. This is the reason why this place has special meaning to Japanese people. And perhaps why there weren’t so many signs in English, which the Japanese are pretty good about placing everywhere else in Tokyo.

We arrived in the main area just in time to see a wedding happening. I didn’t want to rubberneck, but after I saw several of the other Japanese tourists whip out their cameras and start standing around snapping pictures of the procession, I figured I could participate without feeling too awkward. Keep in mind, I am already white, and a foot taller than everyone around me, so It’s not like I was keeping a low profile to begin with.
After the ceremony in the central square area, the procession moved through a little gate into a more private area to do some more of the ceremony. Karla was looking at me with dreamy eyes… I told her if I had a diamond in my pocket, I would have already given it to her by now. She took it in stride.   By the main entrance there were places where you could draw a random fortune for a 100 yen donation. There was an option for English so I gave it a go. All of the scrolls had poems or phrases written by the emperor Meiji. They were thoughtful and timeless words, it's amazing how the phrase that I got still held true today.

On our way out of the shrine we passed back over the bridge where several young girls in dress up costumes were gathered, as if, preparing for some kind of dress up event. If I hadn’t read about this in the Lonely Planet guide, I would have thought that this was some kind of Asian flash mob. But this is actually a weekly happening, and these participants are commonly referred to as the “harajuku girls”.
Some were dressed in short frilly dresses, others in combat boots and G.I. dress downs. Goth, Punk, Rave, Futuristic, and Retro were all represented. Many people who were not in a costume were standing around taking pictures. I had read that Harajuku was a popular fashion and shopping district. So this was the place to show off your style on a Sunday afternoon. I had not considered it before, but all these Japanese kids wear uniforms to school, the only time they GET to show their style is after school or on the weekends. No wonder there were so many girls here. Aside form standing around in groups and talking, there was really not much going on, no demonstrations, no events, just dressed up girls, standing around.
I took some pictures and got a free hug from a girl holding a sign saying “Hug Free” in English. I knew what she meant so I obliged.
We hopped back on the subway and went back to have lunch at the hotel. On our way from the station to the hotel I saw some more of those black vans, this time with VERY LARGE imperial flags and loud speakers on top of them. As we crossed the street we saw a woman on the sidewalk preaching into a megaphone, she did not look very happy. Along the parameter of the action were several uniformed police officers standing and watching. Wondering if this was some sort of Anti-American demonstration, I asked a police officer if it was ok to walk down the sidewalk, he assured us that we were ok, and we passed by the woman without drawing too much attention to ourselves.
I asked around, and to the best of my understanding, they were not necessarily Anit-American’s as the were Pro-Imperial Japanese. Demonstrating to protest the dissolution of the Royal family from the governmental seat. Which happened to be done by the Americans, well….Allies, but nobody blames Britain for anything.
Oh yea, except that whole empire that THEY had back in the day.

Again, I digress….

Arriving back at the hotel had Lunch and rested for a spell, we had something special planned for this afternoon: A Tea Ceremony.
Karla was about to start studying Cha-Do with an instructor in Portland. Cha-Do is the study of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, and also includes iki-bana flower arranging, kimono dressing, and calligraphy. Getting to see this first hand was a great start to understanding the traditions and functions of the Japanese tea ceremony. Even though we were sitting at a table in the hotel, and not in the traditional tea room, It was still very cool to see. The simple task of serving tea is stretched out into an elaborate performance, with each move delibrately thought out and carefully executed. Before seeing it I had no Idea that it was such an involved event that held so much importance to the Japanese and their culture. Back in the day, a woman who knew how to perform the tea ceremony were in high demand and was a good catch if you could marry her. The tea was called Matcha, finely ground green tea, not strained through a bag or strainer, it was ground so fine that it was simply added to the water and it dissolved fully when stirred. It was a little bitter if you're not used to is, but it was very good. We were also served sweets to go along with it. They were rich, but a nice contrast to the flavor of the tea.
The Tea Ceremony is not just for Women, It was first developed by men. And the entire package of flower arranging and calligraphy was actually encouraged and taught to Samuri warriors. For what good is all that violent skill of a samuri if there isn't any balance with beauty. It's the Yin to the Yang.

That evening we set out to dinner at a place called the Black Lion Pub, this was an English style bar for Ex-pat looking to get away from the noodles. This was a place recommended by my good friend Bill who's grandfather has a house near there. He had visited it before and it was great to be somewhere where you didn't have to feel obligated to ask if someone spoke english before breaking into conversation. I had nachos and watched Soccer, we played some darts and I got pretty saucy. While talking to one of the bartenders, we found out that she was moving to Seattle. We talked about the northwest for a while and then she invited us to come see sumo wrestling the next day, she worked at the stadium and could get us extra tickets in the nose bleed section if we showed up early! WOW Awesome! We took her information and the location of the stadium and I thanked her and the owner, perhaps a little too much thanks (I love you, *hiccup, man!) And then stumbled our way back to to the hotel. It had been quite a full and eventful day, even though we got a late start.

Our last full day in Tokyo and we had made it, the weather was again, going to be clear and I felt like we had totally beat the odds getting this many days in a row of good weather. Our Suica cards were also working out very nicely.  We found that the prepaid cards could be used to purchase a number of things around the city from vending machines to coffee houses to subway markets and magazine stands. I had become a pro at simply sliding my bum over the sensor and getting through the gate without even taking my wallet out of my pocket, I love technology!

Our first stop of the morning was way up in the north of the city in Asakusa, Senso-Ji temple is Tokyo's oldest buddhist temple and probably the most important temple in the city. About a block or two before the actual temple is a gate and the biggest paper lantern I have ever seen, passing through the gate there was a long market area with shops on both sides, we walked slowly down the street looking at the neat little shops that were selling everything from samuri swords to kimono, to chocolate.
On the other end of the long marketplace is the Hozomon gate, another large entry way with three very large lanterns.
There were so many people here, even on a monday morning, that it was
almost impossible to take a picture of each other without people
walking in front of us. Inside the gate, there was a square area that had a large incense pit where people would gather around and waft the smoke toward themselves. Posted on a sign were instructions to waft the smoke toward the part of your body that ailed you and it's healing properties would assist your recovery. To the left as you entered the temple there was a towering five story pagoda, and directly ahead of the incense pit was the main shrine..To the right of the entrance, there was a hand washing station and a little shop that sold incense to add to the smoke pit. Within the temple itself, and also at many places on its approach, were small stalls with lined with droors. For a suggested donation of 100 yen, people may consult the oracle and divine answers to their questions. You
shake labeled sticks from enclosed metal containers and read the
corresponding answers they retrieve from one of 100 possible. This time there were no english options, so we bought some incense instead.

The Sumo stadium was a short distance from Senso-Ji temple and only required a short subway ride. We arrived about two hours early for the event in order to meet our friend from the Black Lion Pub and get our tickets. The tickets were for general admission seating in the top 2 rows on the upper deck. Not the best seats, but it was cool to be at the event at all. Sumo wrestling is a big time event in Japan. The wrestlers are held with the same esteem as our Professional Sports Athletes in the States. We thanked the girl who got us the tickets and then left the stadium to have lunch and kill an hour or so before returning early for the event. On our way out of the stadium we passed some Sumo Wrestlers on their way in. Seeing how they were using the main entrance, and didn’t have a throng of people surrounding them, I assumed it was one of the Jr. wrestlers.  Unlike my mind’s image of a sumo wrestler, these guys are not fat, they’re BIG, but undernieth the cushy outer layer is a man of steel. Those guys are ripped and work out constantly but are kept on a vary strict diet of 200 cheeseburgers a day or something like that to make sure they keep their round look, because in sumo wrestling as in roman wrestling, the weight advantage is everything.
We walked around the neighborhood for a while and finally had lunch at a local Pepper Lunch location. I love that place, and want to try to replicate some of the food dishes back in the states. After lunch we made our way back to the stadium, people were beginning to line up at the ticket window. Apparently this is the only sumo stadium in Tokyo and possibly in Japan, When I got inside I saw that it was the same arena I was watching on the TV while we were barhopping in Kagoshima (see Travel blog : A Tale of Two Surveys.) The arena was about the size of a Pro basketball arena, but only had two levels. It was almost perfectly square as opposed to other stadiums in the US which are mostly longer than they are wide. On the lower level there were boxed off areas with tatami mats and cushions. They spread out in all directions from a large earthen mound about 30 feet square and about 4 feet off the ground.  We saw price lists for these seats and they seemed a little ridiculous, Several hundered US dollars for a single seat ringside. That seemed like a lot to me, considering this was just one of many regular tournaments, nothing special. On the square mound in the middle was the ring, raised about six inches above the rest of the area, so when pushed to the edge a wrestler could use it as a brace to push back. Two lines in the middle of the ring mark the starting positions of the two wrestlers. Above the ring was suspended a temple roof in the classic Shinto style, and above that a large Japanese flag.
The upper level was very similar to theatre seats in a concert hall. The lower areas had foldable tables that you could set your drinks on, the nose bleed section were just standard seats. Along the upper rafters were giant tapestries with the pictures of all the previous grand champions on them. Karla and I were told that if a seat was open below us when the event started, we could move to it, so we went ahead and guessed on a couple of seats in the upper level, I took my jacket up and draped it over a couple seats in the nose bleeds just in case.
The show began and the parade of wrestlers started coming out of the wings and standing around the outskirts of the ring, each one with an elaborately decorated apron-like smock covering their legs. All of the wrestlers were of Japanese heritage with the exception of two, one from Hawaii, and one from Bulgaria…randomly. There was actually an article in the program about the Bulgarian, he was converted to Sumo from traditional wrestling and has been one of the fastest rising wrestlers and one of the highest ranked Gajin wrestlers in the history of sumo. After the parade of the wrestlers, one of them came out to do the opening sword ceremony. This is where one of the wrestlers comes out and lifts his leg high like the stereotypical sumo guy. When the opening ceremony was over the matches began. One tournament is about 24 matches long, It starts with the most junior wrestlers and works its way up to the two grand masters duking it out at the end. 
A match begins with two wrestlers entering the ring, they stare each other down from a distance, grab some salt from a bin on the side and toss it into the ring and usually pat their stomachs, cock their necks, grunt, etc. Then they will square off standing in front of the white lines. The round officially begins when both the wrestlers fists touch the white line. This is a game within a game (for ease of description in this scenerio,I’ll call these two guys First wrestler and Second wrestler).[ It is often that the first wrestler will place one hand down, then stare down the other, the second wrestler may put one hand down, then stare back. Usually along the line, someone will not like the way things are starting, so they’ll stand up, causing both to go back to their corners, toss some more salt, slap their bellies and grunt. The second time around they’ll do this again, maybe the second wrestler will put one hand on the ground first, then the first wrestler will place both hands down at once in a statement saying “I’m ready, your move”.PHOTO_ID_L=sumo-wrestling.jpg] This freaks the second wrestler and they stand up, walk back to their corners, throw salt, grunt, pat their bellies, and come back to the center. Usually by this time the two of them have figured it out, and one of them will walk right up to the line and lay both fists down. He’s ready! The second will place one had on the line and with his other hand as the trigger, slowly move it toward the ground, it barely touches for a half instant and the two are embraced in a powerful pushing, slapping, twisting ball of fury until one of their hands or knees touch the ground, or one foot leaves the ring. The referee watches intently to make sure a foul is not committed, sometimes getting so close that he’s almost hit when the two start to move in a new direction. This entire process takes about 15 seconds, a fraction of the time they spent tossing salt and slapping their bellies.
All the matches lead up to the final match between the two grand champions. The crowd was now very loud and excited. Of the 24 matches, most of them had ended within a matter of seconds, but you could tell as the fighters got better, so did the tactics, and the bouts began to get more exciting and the crown grew louder as the match neared the end.
The final match had a very long stare down, each time the wrestlers would stand up after squaring off the crowd would go nuts, yelling and shouting for their favorite guy. When the two began the match lasted for almost a whole minute. If you've ever tried to push over a 300 lb man who was trying to attack you, a whole 60 seconds is a heck of a long time.
After the last match there were closing ceremonies, a wrestler came out and did a ceremony similar to the opening ceremony, replacing the sword for a bow staff.
After dinner we wandered around Akihabara agian on our last night. Karla wanted a truly authentic dinner so we searched around until we found a place that looked fitting. We walked in and immidiately I thought to myself "what the hell are we doing, we don't speak Japanese!!" This was going to be some experience because the only thing I could say besides thank you was : Please, can i have some ____ and then use the phrase book for the rest. Luckily I used this line to order some tea at first and the waiter came back with tea and a man who could speak English. I was horrified to find there was very little chicken and NO BEEF on the menu. NO BEEF!!! what the hell kind of place is this. We ordered a number of authentic Japanese dishes, Tempura was on the list, there were several things that would probably make me gag if I knew what was in them, but I tried them anyway. I was really going out on a cullinary limb eating at a place like this. At least there was good sake. Although it was a little on the scary side, it was totally authentic and exactly what Karla was looking for. We thanked the host profusely and made our way back to the subway. Strolling through the winter lights we walked hand in hand recalling all the great memories of the last 4 days, we really packed it all in a short amount of time. I feel like we got a great Japanese expericnce and I really want to bring Karla back so that she can see Kyoto some time.
The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast, packed all our things and said goodbye to the fish in the garden pond. We had ordered a bus to take us to Narita and it arrived right on time. After more than a month and a half I was finally going back to the states. What a long strange trip it had been. I couldn't wait to get home so I wouldn't have to ask people if they spoke English before engaging in conversation or could buy an item without having to convert Yen to Dollars in my head. I bought a Tokyo Giants hat as a going away gift to myself and got some small souviners for people back home. My final review of Japan is that it is the friendliest palce I've ever traveled to. People are so nice and honest, and I feel safer there than I do in most places in the US. Anywhere where someone can leave a coin purse at a subway pay kiosk and nobody will take it is my kind of place. As usual the flight from Narita to Portland took 8 hours in time but because of the date line, we actually arrived before we took off, by about 7 hours. I went straight home and embraced my apartment with all it's little Americanisms. It's good to get to travel, but it's so nice to be home :-)

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Troo on

Those aren't lanterns, they are empty Sake barrels which housed the sake donated to the temple by various local businesses or families.

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