Travel to japan: flight, hotel and food

Here, we start at the beginning, namely arriving in Japan, but if you want to go directly to Sensō-ji, click here!

It was after a flight of just over 9 hours from Helsinki that I landed rather “fresh and ready” at Narita airport in Tokyo. It’s the first time that a flight of this distance has seemed so short to me… Indeed, I don’t remember being bored for a moment and even being surprised when the cabin crew told us about the imminent landing. in Narita. So, I’m thinking of going back to New Zealand soon: 21 hours of flight (12h + 9h) should no longer be a problem, haha!

The flights with Finnair from Switzerland and Japan Airlines (JAL) from Finland went very well and I can only recommend their service: the seats were comfortable, the legroom and luggage more than adequate and the food very good, even if it remains airline meal trays. I imagine you have to go into business class to see a real difference. I forget to mention the excellent service and friendliness of the cabin crew, especially with JAL. So don’t hesitate to consider a flight with one or more stops if the price of a direct flight is not in your budget!

DIRECTION TO DOWNTOWN!
When I arrived around 10am, the weather was very nice outside and I am therefore looking forward to arriving downtown to start my visit! However, you have to leave the airport already, but everything is indicated in English for us tourists, so no worries there. We do not yet realize that we are in a megalopolis of 30 million people, but it will come!

As soon as I arrived, I rediscovered (let’s not forget that this is my second trip) this famous Japanese practicality, the “procedural” aspect of everyday life in Japanese society: for example, if you find yourself on an escalator in Tokyo, you will always see the Japanese standing on the left side in order to keep the right side free. I will come back to this practicality in other articles, but I know quite a few countries (all?) Which could be inspired by it. Be careful, however: in Osaka, you keep to the right on the escalators! And for Kyoto, it’s kind of how you feel … No, it’s true! The old capital is home to so many tourists and Japanese from the countryside that there are no real rules.

Also be aware that the Japanese are an extremely visual people: everything is not only explained verbatim, but also in the form of pictures. I will come back to this in other articles as well, but just the campaign “Please don’t do this here!” / Please do it again! Of the Tokyo Metro (and its images of respectful behavior) is worth a look!

Nothing special here: we check your boarding pass, take your fingerprints and stamp your passport as long as everything is in order.  I then quickly go through the customs office where after a few questions, I am allowed to continue my journey without checking the contents of my bag too much. Anyway, finished with the entry procedures, here I am in the arrivals hall: welcome to Japan!

Now it’s time to get my Japan Rail Pass and I can do that here at the airport or at any major train station. So I head to the train departure platforms on the lower level. I remember the location of the JR office (still in relation to my previous trip), so find it easily and directly exchange my voucher for the precious sesame! And as long as I’m in a JR office, I take the opportunity to also get a Suica card (also buyable at all train and metro stations). I refer you to my review article to learn more about this. I am therefore fully equipped to reach the city center! Well almost, I’m still missing the train ticket to exit the airport. Since I have to get to Ueno, the easiest way is to go via the Keisei Line which takes just over 40 minutes for around ¥ 2,200 (discount included). At first, I was interested in buying the “N’EX TOKYO Round Trip Ticket”, but it changed in March 2015: it currently costs ¥ 4000 for a Narita-Tokyo round trip with a validity of 14 days. , which does not suit me given that I am staying a month there, but it is a very good offer for those who stay 2 weeks in Japan, with arrival and departure from Narita of course! We can also find cheaper, but the journey will necessarily be a little longer. Best if you are in no rush! So I buy a ticket for the Keisei line with my Suica, then walk to the platform.

The train arrives after only 3 minutes of waiting, perfect timing! I settle down comfortably in my seat in an almost empty wagon and calmly enjoy the scenery. Everything is calm, clean and comfortable: we are in Japan! I see some cherry blossoms, one of the main reasons for my visit in April, and I look forward to seeing them up close. I also take this opportunity to write a few lines in my travel journal before finally arriving at Ueno station. The latter is located on many railway lines including the famous Yamanote circular line, one of the busiest in Tokyo because it serves the main areas of the city (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Marunouchi, Ueno, Akihabara and Ikebukuro). I walk around there for a short while, mainly to do a little scouting because it will be my daily starting point as long as I am in Tokyo.

As it is 11am and I cannot check in at the hostel before 4pm, I chose to put my large backpack in a locker right in front of the entrance to the Hibiya metro line (perfect to pick it up on the way back to the hostel) and to continue directly with a tour of Asakusa. Indeed, the weather is nice, but I’m not sure how long it will last, so you might as well enjoy it now! Using the lockers is very simple: you select the one in which you have previously placed your bag, you pass your Suica in front of the reader (or you insert a ¥ 500 coin) and voila!

With my bag well sheltered, I am now heading towards the entrance to the Ginza line, one of the capital’s many metro lines.

Ah, the metro in Tokyo! Allow me a little parenthesis.

Many foreigners see the Tokyo transport network as a real jungle-like maze. Quite the contrary!  What is more, the network of the Japanese capital has quite a few advantages: punctuality, cleanliness, security, complete and precise directions, generally clean toilets and free wifi thanks to more and more hotspots.

And for all this to work, travelers must comply with a certain number of rules of good conduct: we respect the marks on the ground and the barriers, we queue without cutting the lines (always according to the markings on the ground), we do not enter until everyone is out of the train, we respect the calm, we place our backpack on the ground or on the high gates, we do not eat in the trains, we pay attention in the reserved places (for the disabled, pregnant women, etc.) at the ends of the wagons and we avoid, if necessary, the wagons reserved for women at certain times of the day. Yes, yes, you read that right! Rush hours in a capital of 30 million inhabitants = people literally squeezed into the wagons = promiscuity problems = harassment, touching and assaults of all kinds on women finally led to the establishment of this service at certain times during the day, service also accessible to children as well as to the elderly or disabled.

In short, I could go on talking about the Tokyo metro or the different Japanese transport systems for hours, but that’s not really the purpose of the article and besides, others do it much better than me … Ask Google! End of parenthesis.

So I take the first metro of the Ginza line which passes and comes out after a few minutes at the terminus of the line, Asakusa. At each station, yellow signs show you where you will arrive by taking a particular exit, which is rather practical when you know that almost every street corner is full of places to visit! So I head for the exit leading to Sensō-ji as close as possible and draw my camera. Tired of this introduction (long enough, I agree)? So much the better, we are at the end, ahead for the visit!

Equipped with my little “home schedule”, I first headed to the Asakusa District Information Center. Opened in 2012 and adding diversity to the streets of Asakusa with its interesting architecture, the eight-story building offers a tourist information counter in several languages, free wifi, a cafe and an observation deck that offers beautiful views around. And that’s why I’m here!

Given the queue in front of the elevator, I chose to get on at foot. Pfff, eight floors all the same! But the view once at the top is a well-deserved reward! We can see on one side the Tokyo Skytree (next visit on my list), the HQ of the Japanese beer Asahi and its famous golden “poop” (I will come back to this in a future article), as well as the Sumida River.

What interests me, however, is the view north of the observation platform: the Sensō-ji and Nakamise-dōri Street. Magnificent ! As you can see, it’s crowded, but it’s like that all day without really empty. And we are on a weekday a little before noon: imagine what it must be like during the weekend or on a festive day! Okay, I’ll get there before it’s totally crowded, if it’s not already …

The Sensō-ji is a temple particularly appreciated by the Japanese and dedicated to the Buddhist goddess Kannon. This explains the number of customary Japanese in the temple at all times of the day!  I’ll let you read this little story while I get to the main entrance.

Legend has it that on May 17, 628, during the reign of Empress Suiko (593 – 628), two brothers, Hamanari and Takenari Hinokuma, fishing on the Sumida River, found a statue of the goddess Kannon in their nets. This discovery reached the ears of the lord of the village, Hajino Nakamoto, who came to find the two brothers and gave a passionate sermon to the Buddha, the goddess being a bodhisattva. The Hinokuma brothers were greatly impressed by this and later converted to Buddhism. The statue of the goddess was placed in a makeshift temple, and the three men then devoted their lives to preaching the Buddhist way. The Sensō-ji Temple, completed in 645 AD, flourished, as did the Asakusa district in which it was established. In 1649, to pay homage to the three men and elevate them to the rank of deities, the Asakusa Shrine, also called Sanja-sama (三 社 様, Shrine of the Three Deities ”), was erected by order of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu.

There you are, I now face the first element of the said shrine, Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate), an impressive portal from which hangs the largest red paper lantern in Japan and a true symbol of the Asakusa district!

The flood of tourists posing is also impressive, but since it’s impossible to take a daytime photo without someone in front of the gate, I don’t dwell on it for too long. Especially here, you fall prey to the dozen rickshaw pullers who want to take you on a tour of the neighborhood! Well, they are obviously only interested in couples and much less in single people, but why not make it your first activity in the neighborhood if there are two of you, just to scout in an original way? Be careful though, because the tour is not cheap (up to ¥ 9,000 for 30 minutes!).

You have to elbow your way through it, but don’t forget to look up as you step under the lantern! There you can admire a very beautiful wooden sculpture of a dragon! However, nothing prevents you from using the side entrances and more discreet by circumventing the gate on the left or the right. Before reaching the temple itself, you have to cross a 250m shopping arcade that is perpetually crowded during the day, Nakamise-dōri, where souvenir stalls selling everything and food stalls offering various culinary specialties meet. Here too, we have to work together!

Do not forget to quote Shin-Nakamise or “The New Nakamise” perpendicular to Nakamise-dōri Street. It is a long, covered shopping arcade lined with a multitude of shops and restaurants. No doubt you’ll spend some time shopping for your memories! Plan a half day, see a full day in these alleys (and the neighborhood in general), and you will find anything you can imagine! I insist: everything! Well, the price is undoubtedly more expensive there than elsewhere (tourist place obliges), but the choice is simply enormous!

I trudge along the alley, pushing my way through schoolchildren in uniforms, tourists from all walks of life.

horizon and of course the premises. I also walk past many food stalls and, greedy as I am, I buy a few specialties here and there. My favorites are hands down Ningyo-yaki, delicious cupcakes of various shapes filled with red bean paste (Anko). You will not be able to miss the stand that sells them; let yourself be guided by the delicious smell of fresh cakes!

The shopping alley is also famous for its Kibidango, rice balls on a skewer covered with soybean powder, its Agemanju, very soft fried cakes, also filled with anko, and its Osenbei, crispy rice cookies. Yum !

I also admire the few beautiful cherry blossoms for many minutes, which gives me comfort in my decision to come to Japan in April: it really is the best time (with autumn and its maple trees) to go in Japan, what beauty represented in each petal which flies with the wind!  The set is clearly imposing, with its two Niō statues (two Japanese guardian deities, I will get to that later) on the front, two oversized pilgrim sandals on the back, and three lanterns in the center.

The straw sandals 4.5 m high, 1.5 m wide and weighing 400 kg each are called “o-waraji”. They were braided in 1998 by 800 inhabitants of Murayama, want to be a protective charm against evil spirits and are known to bring good luck to those who touch them.

The main lantern (in the center, called a chōchin) dates from 2003 and bears the name of the town of Kobunachō to thank its residents for their donation of ¥ five million in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the Edo era. . On either side of the red lantern are two copper tōrō, 2m75 high and weighing about a ton each.

It was erected in 942 near the Kannon-dō. Ravaged by fire, it was rebuilt in 1648 by Iemitsu Tokugawa.

Declared a national treasure by the Japanese government in 1911, it was again destroyed in 1945 by American bombings, as was the majority of the temple. The mobilization and donations of faithful from all over the country allowed its reconstruction at the end of the war. The current pagoda dates from 1973 and has retained its original style. It is rare that one can visit the interior, let alone climb to the floors of a pagoda and this one is unfortunately no exception to the rule. So it will only be a view from the outside, but how pretty!

Once the second door has passed, it is once again a moment of ecstasy: at the top of a flight of steps stands the main building of the temple, against the backdrop of a general crowd and incense fumaroles. I am happy to see the temple with my own eyes, because it must be said that during our visit in 2010, the Sensō-ji was being renovated under a large tarp and therefore impossible to get an idea of ​​the exterior appearance of the building. . So now I can say it: it is simply splendid!

On either side of the square facing the temple are small shops run by the temple priests who sell various charms, rosaries and other good luck charms. There are also Omikuji (the “Sacred Lottery”), but will also come back a little lower.

Shortly before the entrance to the Kannon-dō is a large incense burner. It is customary to wrap yourself in this smoke that is supposed to have therapeutic and purifying virtues, and it is fun to watch the locals (especially senior citizens) crowding around the small structure. I don’t even have to go near it, the smoke is so pervasive. Besides, I can’t imagine anyone who could last long in the fumaroles, they are so strong and sting the eyes! Afterwards, I told myself that that must be what the smoke was trying to cure: my eyes! Or not, who knows?

First, we purify our body and mind …Before addressing his prayers to Buddhist deities, it is also customary to perform some purifying ablution. This is valid whether you are visiting a Shinto or Buddhist shrine. What changes is the way of praying (I will come back to this later), but the purification ritual remains the same. So we find to the right of the incense burner a fountain surmounted by a statue. The procedure is as follows: first take the ladle in the right hand, then draw some water with it and pour it on the left hand. We pass the ladle in the left hand and we rinse the right hand in the same way. We pass the ladle again in the right hand and a little water can be poured into the palm of the left hand. We take a sip of water to rinse our mouth, we wash our left hand again, then the ladle, and we replace the latter pointing downwards above the pelvis.

Complicated ? But no, usually. Be careful, however: for obvious questions of hygiene, we do not drink directly from a ladle, we spit out the water outside the pool (a space is provided for this purpose at the foot of it) and we do not don’t swallow!

… And only then do we pray!
First of all, let’s distinguish between Shintoism and Buddhism, the two majority religions in Japan. Shinto shrines are easily recognized by their entrance, marked by a torii, a high wooden door (more rarely in stone) covered in a vermilion red color. In most shrines, the sacredness of the place is also manifested by a shimenawa, a large braided cord that is placed around trees. Buddhist temples are characterized by a mon, an entrance more imposing than the torii, guarded on each side by Niō statues.

First, place a coin in the trunk (a bass drum at the entrance to the honden, the main building) and ring one of the bells.  Once the moment of contemplation is over, we bow again for the last time.

The process is similar in a Buddhist temple, except that you don’t clap your hands. There you go, I hope I haven’t written any nonsense despite my numerous proofreading. Correct me if necessary!

Once clean physically and especially spiritually, it is time to address a prayer to the goddess within the Kannon-dō itself.  In the center of the first is the gokuden, the altar which houses the sacred statue of Bodhisattva Kannon, as well as its replica carved by Ennin in the 9th century. Both are hidden from the public eye, but you can admire the replica if you visit Sensō-ji on December 13.

Surrounding the gokuden are two protective deities; the Bonten and the Taishakuten. At the back of the naijin are two statues of irritated Buddhist deities, to the left Fudo Myo-o and to the right Aizen Myo-o, both of which assist Bodhisattva Kannon in the dissemination of her teachings. I imitate the premises for the prayer in front of the altar and quickly leave the place, a tight crowd quickly forming around me.

Both inside and outside the temple are the famous Omikuji (the “Sacred Lottery”). These are sacred papers that are collected by drawing lots. Let me explain: you insert a coin in the intended location (usually ¥ 100), then put on a metal box and shake it until a numbered stick pops out. We open the drawer corresponding to the number, we take an Omikuji, we close the drawer and we put the stick back in the metal box and put it back where we took it. Easy, right?

You can therefore read the prediction written on the Omikuji in Japanese and very often available in English (on the back or in a smaller version, next to the Japanese version). Several types of predictions exist:

Some are good and should be taken “home” and others, bad, should be folded and tied in designated places in or around the temple to reverse their effects. For my part, I drew a “half-fortune”, which is not too bad! Only one line matters to me: “You start a smooth journey”. Perfect, I’m taking the paper that will follow me throughout the trip!

Delighted with this positive prediction to say the least, I move away from the temple, where there is a small haven of tranquility: the garden

Japanese. This is a good stopover to escape the crowds and get lost in the contemplation of the koi carp in the man-made pond, which I make sure to do! I walk among the statues and other monuments and take advantage of the ambient calm while taking some photos of this magnificent place, decorated with some cherry blossoms. This is without a doubt one of my favorite places in the Japanese capital. All simply magnificent !

Ah, one more info: if you are in the area during the third weekend of May, know that we celebrate here the Sanja Matsuri which attracts 2 million visitors every year, Japanese and foreigners. I am now leaving the beautiful garden, because I am hungry …

And to avoid eating only delicious fried and filled desserts, each more appetizing than the next, I go to the Shin-Nakamise alley and spot a small takoyaki stall, one of the many dishes of Japanese cuisine and an Osaka specialty. These are dumplings cooked in a mold (similar to pancake batter, but salty) containing pieces of octopus, seasoned and covered with mayonnaise and green onions. It goes without saying that I order a full tray with extra puffed rice! Delicious, and above all very very hot! And the least we can say is that it is quite filling!

And I’m not the only one! About ten people, like me, are waiting for the opportunity to taste another Japanese specialty: taiyaki (not to be confused with the takoyaki mentioned above!). This is a Japanese fish-shaped cake, mostly filled with anko, a paste of sweet red beans, but also custard, chocolate or other sweet and delicious variations.  It should also be noted that you will find anko in 85% of Japanese desserts, but no worries: it is a delight!

During my stay, I came back several times to test the different variants. Verdict: simply excellent, a must-try if you are in the area! There’s even a small bench where you can enjoy your Taiyaki while admiring their making through a window.

Ah yes, be careful if you buy something edible to take to this shopping street: some establishments will want you to eat what you bought in the immediate vicinity of their establishment, no to advertise them (well, a little anyway!), but because you don’t eat while walking and above all to avoid bumping into someone every 3 seconds while gazing at your dish.

Anyway, it’s with a full stomach that I head for Sumida-ku, the neighboring district, where the Skytree tower awaits me! This will be the subject of a future article, however, but being a nice person, here are two little extras: a video of the temple (TokyoStreetView) and a night tour!

As you can see from the photos above, the temple is stormed daily during the day by hordes of tourists and people who come to worship. While it is essential to visit the area during the day, I cannot recommend enough that you come back after dark, which I did a few days after arriving. Indeed, around 10 p.m., we discover a completely different place, totally transformed!

Few people come to Asakusa Temple at night, so the place is almost deserted, the surrounding calm contrasting with the hustle and bustle of the day. What is more, the temple, the pagoda and the surroundings are sublimated by many lights for the viewing pleasure and the objectives, so do not hesitate! For your information, the temple’s illumination ends around 11:00 p.m.,

To say the least, the place now looks pretty empty! The Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate) can be easily admired (and photographed). Once crossed, it is the turn of Nakamise-dōri, the shopping alley, to appear deserted, as if abandoned. How calm, it is so simply restful!

I walk along the alley, while visiting the parallel streets, lit by a quantity of neon lights and other paper lanterns. Smells escape from the few restaurants still open, but having already eaten, I continue my way towards the temple!

Here I am again in front of Hōzōmon, the Door to the Treasure Room. What a spectacle! I’m repeating myself, but this nocturnal lighting gives a whole different aspect to the surrounding buildings, as each corner of the building stands out against the night background. The red lantern and its two tōrō are still there, swaying very lightly in the wind. I step up to admire them up close, and I do the same for the notorious Guardians, the Niō, whom I promised to tell you about earlier in the article.

They are usually in robe or armor and display a threatening demeanor, for they are primarily forces capable of driving out evil spirits. Here is a small presentation from right to left, meaning of reading in Japan:

The statue on the right is called Naraen Kongō, exemplifies expressed power and has its mouth open to pronounce the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet which is pronounced “a”. The statue on the left, called Misshaku Kongō, symbolizes latent power and has its mouth closed to represent the last letter of the Sanskrit alphabet, pronounced “um”. These two letters (a-a in Japanese) together symbolize the birth and death of everything.

What do I see now around the door? Ah, the pagoda under night lighting, magnificent! It is said that this edifice presents itself as an object of art in Japanese culture and is primarily meant to be admired.  What’s more, the different light sources and the half-moon proudly enthroned on the pagoda’s spire further accentuate the mystical aspect of the building! I also approach the statue depicted on the fountain, the “Jade Warrior of the Nine Dragons” as I have named him. Yes, you have to believe that this kind of place inspires me!

Finally, I arrive in front of the main building of the complex. Without the crowd or incense fumaroles, the place regains its serenity. You might think that this vermilion red color would tend to irritate or excite, but in any case, it does not work on me: I stay long minutes on the spot to meditate, permeating my memory with every square meter that surrounds me, each piece of wood, each tile… So look at the myriad of details with which each element is decked out! It’s only when all the lights slowly go out, one after the other, that I walk away from the temple, my mind completely calm and serene.

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