We practically fell over the famous Asakusa temple complex on our first day in Tokyo, having missed the hotel and overshot all the way to the banks of the Sumida River. Since it wasn’t our hotel, we didn’t pay it much attention. But this time, we knew what we were doing, and strolled through the shady tower-block canyon beneath a cloudless blue Boxing Day sky. At the river crossing, we got a clear sight of the vast new Tokyo Skytree – a novelty for both of us, as it was still under construction last time Fran was in Japan. I know on paper it was taller and far larger than Ostankino Tower, but it somehow felt less impressive; I think it must have been due to seeing Ostankino in low cloud, which accentuated its height, whereas the Skytree was set against clear sky with no frame of reference. We watched barges and ferries on the sunlit river for a while.
Past the great Kaminari Gate (meaning “thunder” – the giant wooden statues flanking the gate were of thunder deities), the approach to the temple was a calculated tourist money trap, a huge long avenue of red-painted market stalls – we tried hot, soy-saucey rice crackers (sembei), little ricecakes (kaminariokoshi), which are specifically an Asakusa specialty, named for the gate, and moulded red bean paste sweet things (ningyoyaki), which were delicious. The temple itself was much more workmanlike than Meiji Jingu, but no less impressive: house-sized paper lanterns dangling in arches, huge green-painted bronze bells and stacks of sake barrels, a little pagoda and statue garden off to the side, the immense temple roof itself. Hanging from another arch were a pair of car-sized sandals; a sign nearby informed us that they had been made not far from Tendo, and between them comprised two and a half tonnes of straw to make. A huge bronze cauldron full of burning joss-sticks billowed fragrant smoke through the crowd, who wafted it into their faces appreciatively.
We were both hunting for Christmas/New Year presents for friends and family, and secured a few in the sprawling markets; down the back streets, in a vaguely hungry search, we found both an amazing little china shop maintained by an old lady, where I bought a cup for Emma K, and a sort of Japanese greasy spoon; encouraging signs as to the place’s quality included us being the only non-Japanese people there, and a bunch of the Japanese customers being salarymen who looked like they a) came regularly b) could definitely afford much fancier food. We ordered spicy beef on noodles (tantanmen) – very nice, and about as hot as Japanese food gets. After returning to the hotel to dump the day’s spoils, we took a slightly convoluted train trip across town, to the Studio Ghibli museum.
It was a decent walk from Mitaka station, down a very long, straight double avenue of trees, atmospheric as anything in the blustery cold. The Museum itself was rammed with tourists, but charming – it shared a sort of calculated high-quality opulence with some of the more eccentric noble houses I’ve visited, that certain feel of being commissioned by someone with a lot of money and an idea of exactly how they wanted things to be, with little iron spiral staircases and wonderful warm, wood-panelled decor, stained-glass Totoro windows, and a play area which was just a room containing a massive stuffed catbus. Miyazaki’s office, plastered with amazingly diverse reference images and gorgeous work-in-progress watercolours, was a high point, as was a display of amazing interwar comics featuring all manner of cool pop-science machines. There was a library, an exhibition full of illustrations from old European fairytales, and a life-sized statue of the Castle in the Sky robot on the roof (sadly, no Nausicaa props, but the head of a god warrior would’ve been a stretch). In the basement was a little cinema, in which (attendants sitting us in the aisles with a pleasing disdain for health & safety) we watched a short film about an elderly couple feeding the mice who lived in their house so they could win a sumo match with another set of mice. It was even more fantastic than that sounds.
Then, after a chilly walk back to the station, we trawled Tokyo for more presents. I had promised Caroline “something sexy”, but the novelty condom store in Harajuku (don’t ask) was a disappointment; a manga shop in Ikebukuro (“We could look in the yaoi district!” “There’s a yaoi district?” “Well, there’s a yaoi street. A long one.”) was however perfect, providing me with a volume of godawful yaoi manga for Caroline, the requested fancy artbook for Emma L, and a Hatoful Boyfriend artbook for Fran. Then, after a decent dinner down a side street (based solely on its picture I went for something which had beef and onions; the beef turned out to be tongue, but the accompanying gyoza were so good I didn’t complain) we found our way back to the station through the endless, seething crowds and lights.