Field Report: Tōkyō, Japan (03 February 2014)

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Today’s the 3rd of February – Setsubun – and in Japan that traditionally means spring has arrived. Let’s have a look at how Tōkyōites welcome the new season.

After this morning’s visit to the MOA Museum of Art in Atami, I sped back to the Japanese capital on another Kodama train and made my way to Sensō-ji, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks and the venue for a long-standing annual tradition.

I’ve been here a couple of times before, so I didn’t linger particularly long at any spot in the compound until I reached my destination. From the subway station, I set off at a determined trot for the Kaminarimon (surrounded, as usual, by hordes of camera-clicking tourists) . . .

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. . . down Nakamise-dōri, ignoring (or trying my best to ignore) the shops lining the street . . .

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. . . through the Hōzōmon, Sensō-ji’s inner gate . . .

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. . . within which lay Sensō-ji’s central compound, including its main hall and pagoda.

The paths were lined with scores of temporary food stalls, no doubt set up to cater to the Setsubun crowds.

I walked over to one side of the main hall, where a temporary stage had been built.

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People were starting to gather, so I took my place close to the front and waited along with the others in the rapidly growing crowd.

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So, why exactly are we here?

One of the ancient traditions associated with Setsubun is mamemaki, a ritual consisting of throwing roasted soybeans in order to drive out misfortune. Many households do it on a small scale, but at major landmarks like Sensō-ji, things are taken up a few notches. Here, packets of beans – quite a lot of them – will be thrown from the stage we saw earlier by local celebrities (“local” being the operative term; I certainly didn’t recognise anyone who later showed up on stage). The event can be fun to watch but could also get just a wee bit rowdy, with such a large crowd eager for their share of the tossed beans; no wonder a row of policemen marched out before the event and took their places in front of the temporary stage.

Judging from last year’s schedule, the event was supposed to start at around 2 PM, but we ended up waiting well past that before the real action began. I distinctly remember a young boy standing just behind me, accompanied by his father; the lad was pretty excited all throughout but gradually started to descend into (still quite good-natured) impatience, with the dad soothingly and repeatedly assuring him that it was about to start shortly.

After a procession of ceremonial lanterns, which were mounted along the edges of the stage, the bean-throwers finally marched into view. Watch the following video to see what happens next. (I do apologise for the jerky footage – my hands tremble a bit, and they did so even more after the long wait with my camera held at the ready.)

Mm, that was fun – but now I’m feeling quite hungry. Off to a rather well-hidden, but also quite well-known, gyōza joint for a well-deserved late lunch/early dinner. I’ve put up a separate food report about that experience; click here to read more.

Later, after sundown, I headed out to Roppongi for a visit to one of Tōkyō’s best observation decks.

Completed in 2003, Roppongi Hills was designed to be an integrated property development with all that a city dweller would require in terms of work, living, and leisure. Whether or not it succeeded is up for debate, but it certainly gave Tōkyō one of its tallest buildings in the form of the 238-metre Mori Tower.

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The park/plaza surrounding the skyscraper features a gigantic, er, spider-tarantula-thing. Might make a good meeting point, as it’s probably the most arresting object within view in this area.

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But we’re not here to chase arachnids; we’re here to gape at urban sprawl. Up with us, then, to the top floors of the Mori Tower for some night views of one of the largest cities on earth.

I first went to the Mori Tower’s Tōkyō City View facility several years ago, when it was the highest observation deck in the metropolis. It has now been spectacularly eclipsed in height by the Tōkyō Sky Tree, which I visited last year. The newer, higher vistas from the Sky Tree were certainly incredible (and something I highly recommend), but I wouldn’t necessarily say they’re better than from the Mori Tower. In some ways, the Sky Tree actually seemed a little too high, with views rivalling that one would get from an aeroplane; it made one feel a little detached from the city being observed (which could be good or bad depending on what you’re after). The Mori Tower may be much lower, but it’s still tall enough to provide excellent views, and by not being so far off the ground one gets a stronger sense of looking at the city from above whilst still being surrounded by it, part of it, one with it.

The views tonight were great, but the sky was a little hazy (whether from fog or smog I wasn’t sure), and the reflections on the windows didn’t help. For an additional fee, I availed myself of the opportunity to go even higher, all the way to the open-air deck on the roof of the building – something that not even the mega-tall Sky Tree can offer its guests.

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The haze was still quite apparent even from here, but I loved not having to dodge reflections from windows when taking photographs of the view.

Despite the poor visibility, the distant Sky Tree actually managed to turn up in a couple of shots. Here’s one with the structure faintly visible as a vertical stack of lights near the centre of the image.

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And here’s another with two of the city’s crowning landmarks: the bright orange Tōkyō Tower on the right, and (very faint but just about discernible) the Tōkyō Sky Tree in the far distance towards the left side.

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I’ll definitely want to come back here someday, in full daylight (and hopefully with clearer skies). No doubt the view will be well worth the time, money, and effort.

Back in the tower, I passed by the entrance to the Mori Art Museum. Due to my lack of interest in contemporary art, I gave the place a miss this time, although I did spend a few moments near the entrance looking at an old race car decorated by Andy Warhol (the subject of the museum’s 10th anniversary exhibition which was being held whilst I was there).

On the way back to the metro, I snapped another image of the Tōkyō City View and Tōkyō Sky Tree’s esteemed predecessor.

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Well, the day is almost done, but we’re not quite finished with Setsubun just yet. Feeling peckish, I went into a convenience store and got myself an ehō-maki.

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This is essentially an uncut futomaki that one is supposed to eat whole on Setsubun whilst facing the lucky direction for that year. (I’ve read that this was formerly a Kansai-area custom, although it has now spread to the rest of the country.) Indeed, the package bore a small diagram specifying which direction one should turn towards.

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Now I’m not the sort of chap who believes in lucky directions or that sort of thing, so why on earth did I buy one? Simple: I’m a big fan of futomaki and I’ve long dreamed of eating one whole (instead of the usual slices). I couldn’t care less what direction I was facing, so long as that plump nugget of goodness found its way from the wrapper into my waiting stomach.

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Mmm, simple but filling. As a wise but not particularly original man might say, an ehō-maki in the hand is worth all the luck in the bush.

Tomorrow, we’ll go on an excursion to visit two very different Japanese castles.

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3 responses to “Field Report: Tōkyō, Japan (03 February 2014)

  1. This may sound silly but I quite enjoyed the “narration” provided by the couple speaking throughout your video. I had to laugh when the man was worried a packet of beans would fly in to his eye and how they kept saying “itai” when pelted with a packet. Seems like such a fun event with everyone laughing and shrieking away. Were you able to grab some beans for yourself?

    What gorgeous pictures you captured from Mori Tower! It reminds me that I need to learn how to take night time pictures, mine always come out so blurry. Really such a shame because during this last trip we went up both Mount Hakodate and Mount Inasa and our pictures are pretty awful.

    “…an ehō-maki in the hand is worth all the luck in the bush.” LOL! Thanks for pointing out the direction diagram on the packaging. Although I don’t believe in that stuff either, it’s still a very interesting and useful piece of information.

    • I nearly did – a packet landed by my feet and I would have picked it up, but one of the other bystanders quickly snatched it away! (Lightning-fast, that lady.) The rest of the time, I was too busy filming so I couldn’t reach out and try to catch one. But that’s fine, just being there and feeling all that excitement in the air was quite the experience.

      I’m glad the pictures from the Mori Tower turned out, well, not as horrible as I’d feared, though most of what little credit can be given goes to the camera (I’m just the mindless bloke who pushes the button). Real pity about the haze though – if it had been a clear night the view would have been spectacular.

      Speaking of narration – when I first watched the video after coming home, I was very pleasantly surprised that the camera picked up so much of the surrounding chatter. I find that next to scents, sounds evoke memories more effectively than almost anything else, even pictures – though I’m speaking personally and not making a scientific generalisation (it might be very different for others). On my next journey, whether to Japan or anywhere else, I think I’ll want to actively record a lot more of the local soundscape (as well as photographs) in order to help me remember the trip better in the years to come. The cute train station jingles in Tokyo might make a good starting point. (^_^)

  2. Pingback: Field Report: Atami (03 February 2014) | Within striking distance·

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