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Central Tokyo at night

28 April 2018. In Vancouver, while researching Japan, Don printed out and gave me a map of Tokyo’s metro and train system. It looked incomprehensible, even though it was in English. Over the years without difficulty I’ve figured out the London Underground, the Paris Metro, the Montreal Metro, even public transport in Istanbul, but Tokyo’s metro and train system looked like something a hyper-active child had scribbled with an entire box of coloured crayons. I’d be lost for sure! My immediate reaction was that I’d never be able to figure it out. Overwhelmed, I barely even looked at it. I put it away out of sight to deal with later. Or preferably never.

Our pre-trip research might have led me to Tokyo’s impenetrable metro map, but it also led me to the Kurayami Festival in metropolitan Fuchu City and going to it immediately became a priority. There is very little information about it online, but I know there will be parades, with taiko drums as big as houses being hauled down the street while men stand on top of them and others on the ground beat on them, and huge golden shrines. To get there looked like a metro trip, and then a train trip, and a change of station, and another train, and then this and then that. I’d punched it into HyperDia and the first of the recommended itineraries said get on at B station going in the direction of X. Get off at D station. Walk six minutes. Get on at M station going in the direction of J, etc. etc. Walk six minutes? What does that mean? Walk in which direction? How am I supposed to know where to walk? And do I need to time myself? And how will I know when I’m there? And what if I walk too fast or too slow?

Thank you Tracey, at Wondering Woman, for telling me about Tokyo Free Guides. For all our research neither Don nor I had discovered this organisation. Tokyo Free Guides (which turned out to be not so free due to the doofus factor) was exactly what I needed.

Day one in Tokyo, right on time at ten in the morning, Osamu, my free guide, is at my hostel ready to take me out for the day. And of course the first thing Osamu and I do is head to Fuchu. He has more detailed maps of the train system and he shows me how they all connect together. We ride the metro and then a couple of trains. He tells me the difference between a local train and a limited express train and how to know which is which. Slowly it all starts to make sense. It’s incredibly detailed, but all the details are available if you know where to look. And Osamu knows where to look.

Tokyo is a city of 38 million people. It’s a number that’s barely comprehensible to me. Tokyo alone has more people than all of Canada. Fuchu City may have once been a separate city, and may still be technically and legally a separate city, but it was swallowed up long ago by the relentless spread of the Tokyo metropolitan area.

In Fuchu we go straight to the Ohkunitama Shrine, which is the spiritual centre of the festival, and on this day, this first day, a week before the festival, the shrine is a quiet and peaceful place. Osamu mentions that he has not been to this shrine for many years and is pleased to be visiting it again.

This young woman hurrying by is a miko. Mikos in the past were female shamans and fortune tellers – shrine maidens who performed spiritual rituals. Today they perform the ritualistic traditional kagura dance, and act as shrine receptionists.

And here a wall of wishes. These small wooden plaques with prayers written on them are called ema. They are left hanging in Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples with the hope that the spirits will catch them. I love the images. Some are plain with only words, but others have images of the Kurayami Festival. In other shrines I saw images of birds, dogs, and dragons.

Osamu and I are looking at the ema when suddenly we are alerted to a wedding taking place in the inner courtyard of the temple. What luck to get a glimpse of the traditional ceremony. The bride and groom and their parents are posing for pictures as the guests look on.

Soon they form a procession led by priests and pipers. The bride and groom, sheltered under a large red umbrella,

are followed by their parents and guests.

They leave the inner courtyard and enter the interior of the shrine. They’re gone, but I feel as if I’ve been given an unexpected gift, a lightning glimpse into something special, something uniquely Japanese.

Osamu and I leave Fuchu and go to the Shinjuku neighbourhood where he takes a selfie of us to record the day.

After exploring a little

we eat a late lunch of excellent sushi, and then, having established that I know how to get back to my hostel, we go our separate ways.

What an amazing service. What a wonderful man he is to give up his time to help strangers like me. Afterwards I received a questionnaire from Tokyo Free Guides and at the end was prompted to give a donation, which I gladly did. My plan was to donate 1000 Yen, but I didn’t pay enough attention to all those zeros. Due to the doofus factor I gave Tokyo Free Guides a very generous donation of $120, so not so free after all, but still worth every penny. (There are more stories to come like that – like the one about the $40 cup of tea, but that didn’t happen until weeks later in China).

Shibuya and Shinjuku, two of the most well known areas of Tokyo, come alive at night with crowds of locals and tourists. There are bars and restaurants everywhere and menus are in Japanese and English. On another night I go to both, but my hostel is in Central Tokyo and it’s quiet here. On this night, this first night, I walk a few blocks and find a pedestrian street with a bunch of small restaurants. I have no idea which restaurant to choose or what to order. There are no English menus. I’m feeling a bit lost, and shy: a stranger alone in a strange land. Finally I choose a restaurant for its warm and casual ambiance and walk in. I am shown a menu with pictures. I’m staring at all the pictures with the waiter hovering. The more I stare at them the less sure I am what each dish actually is. The dim lighting, which is part of what attracted me in the first place, doesn’t help. I point at one thinking it looks kind of like noodles. It turns out to be pork; thinly sliced pork in a delicious sauce. Oh well. I wouldn’t normally choose to eat a plate of pork for dinner, but it tastes good and I don’t go hungry.

Back at the hostel I tuck myself into bed, confident I’ll be able to find my way around, and pleased that I’ve managed to walk eleven kilometres over the course of the day with virtually no pain. And enormously pleased that not only can I find my way to the festival, but also that I have information, in English, about the festival schedule. It’s been a good day.

Next posts: More about Tokyo – Sensoji Temple and Harajuku, and Shibuya and Shinjuku at night, and of course the festival.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.