“The temple bell stops, but I still hear the sound coming out of the flowers.”
Rain was threatening the early morning sky as we began our second day in Tokyo. Herb and I were headed with our tour group to the city’s old town district called Asakusa and its Sensō-ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple and number one attraction. “There will be crowds,” tour director Theo had told us before we set off from the hotel. And then as if to make sure we truly understood his words, he smiled and slowly repeated…”There will be crowds.”
Before reaching the temple, we stoped at Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, the Emperor’s official residence. Built on the site of the former Edo Castle, the palace is nestled in a city park and is surrounded by moats and a stone wall. The Imperial Palace is closed to the public, but the park and its gardens and famous Nijūbashi Bridge are open to all and are a popular gathering and photo spot for locals as well as visitors.
The palace park is filled with 2,000 black pine trees that are continually pruned and manicured into sculptural works of art. As we walked along the tree-lined pathways, the pines danced and spun in such unusual ways that it was hard to imagine what they must have looked like in their original habitats. It was especially fascinating to see them juxtaposed with the city skyline – blankets of whimsical-looking green puffs against sleek blue and gray steel and glass.
The Nijūbashi Bridge, or “Double Bridge,” spans the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace’s main gate and is actually two bridges. When viewed from the front, they appear as one, with the old stone bridge in the foreground and the rebuilt steel bridge mirrored behind it. The stone bridge is also known as the Eyeglass Bridge.
The threatening rain held out for about an hour, but finally came pouring down as we made our way to Sensō-ji Temple. Theo was definitely correct about the crowds, but what made the scene even more challenging were the umbrellas. It wasn’t the best-case scenario for photographing the stunning red lanterns or ornate pagoda, but this was our day at Tokyo’s oldest temple, and we were determined to make the best of it.
I was also intent on starting a book of temple stamps called a goshuincho, a sort of “proof of pilgrimage” that you’ve traveled to a temple. A calligrapher at the temple or shrine will create a special stamp – or goshuin – that includes the temple name and date of the visit written among one or more unique red stamp designs. I loved the idea of collecing this memorable and meaningful souvenir at each of the temples and shrines we would be visiting, but first I needed to purchase a goshuincho and figure out how the process worked.
Herb and I passed a large incense burner and walked inside into what appeared to be the main temple. I didn’t see anything that looked like a stamp station, but when I approached a woman working at a souvenir stand and asked, “goshuin?” she pointed to a door that led outside to another building.
Inside was a veritable assembly line, with one queue for ordering and another for waiting while the goshuin was created. I picked out a deep blue brocade-covered goshuincho decorated with golden dragons, paid a small fee and selected my stamp from a list of designs. A temple monk handed me a number and motioned toward the second queue. In a few minutes, a woman called my number and presented me with my new book, wrapped in a bright yellow protective thick paper cover that was folded and glued to the exact shape of the book.
The goshuincho is designed in an accordion style, and the first entry is written on what appears to be the last page – from back to front. A piece of delicate vellum or parchment paper is placed on the page where the stamp is finished, serving as a blotter to keep the ink from transferring to the facing page until it dries.
I was struck by the care and ceremony and reverence that went into the entire process. When it was finished, it felt as if I held a special treasure in my hand.
The main gate of Sensō-ji Temple spills out into a festive street called Nakamisi-dori, or the Street of Outside Shops. Vendors selling everything from souvenirs to shoes mix with small food and beverage stands as well as cafés and restaurants, creating a carnival-like atmosphere.
Herb and I turned down alleyways and offshoots of the main street, taking it all in and not looking for anything in particular, when we happened upon a “Japanese Pancake” stand. A baker was carefully placing dough into miniature molds that looked like muffin pans. We watched as he released the finished treats from another mold into a basket, intrigued by the unusual shapes, which turned out to be pagodas and lanterns – and were quite tasty!
Back at the hotel, I was getting ready to charge my camera battery when I realized that something was terribly wrong. The battery wouldn’t budge from my camera’s spring-activated slot, and no matter how hard I tried, it seemed hopelessly locked in place. I wasn’t sure if the problem was with my camera or the battery, and with the late hour – it was after 5 p.m. on a Friday – I doubted whether I’d be able to get it repaired.
Herb and I explained the situation to the hotel concierge, who told us there were two large camera shops not too far away that were open until 9 p.m. We jumped on the hotel’s shuttle and headed into the dark and drizzly night, opting for Yodobashi Camera, the closer shop to the shuttle drop-off spot.
After walking a couple of blocks in what seemed like a business district of high- and low-rise buildings, we found ourselves in a large electronics store. I showed my camera to a most helpful clerk, who smiled and said, “Ah, Nee-kon” and began walking outside to another building that turned out to be a photography center.
Again, I showed my camera to another helpful clerk, who again said, “Ah, Nee-kon” and pointed up a staircase. I couldn’t believe the size and scope of the place. It was the Itoya of camera equipment! Every imaginable brand, every model of camera, every possible camera accessory decorated the walls and floor displays. We brought my camera to a gentleman behind the counter and showed him the stuck battery. He nodded and cut a piece of sticky black electrical tape and placed it over the battery casing. Like a magician performing a never-fail trick, he quickly pulled out the battery and demonstrated that the spring mechanism was working just fine. Apparently, the battery had somehow failed, swelling in its snug environment.
We bowed and told him “arigato” and were directed to another counter, where we purchased a new battery and headed back down the staircase. I was absolutely giddy with relief and also with the whole experience. We caught the shuttle back to the hotel in time for dinner, marveling to the concierge, to Theo and to anyone who would listen about our surprisingly wonderful adventure. “Oh, you should see the appliances in those stores,” Theo told us. “Everything you can imagine is available in miniature to fit on the countertops in Tokyo’s small apartments. I couldn’t believe it when I saw the blenders!”
A Final Thought
In this post-pandemic time when so many department stores have closed and retail shops have reduced their inventories, when staffs have been transformed into minimal crews, and when a knowledgable salesperson can often be hard to find, it was amazing to me to discover this alternate universe alive and well in Tokyo. I will never know if those kind people understood that they saved my trip that Friday night – we were leaving Tokyo the next day – but I got the feeling that they were happy to help and that it was part of their character and culture to to offer such exquisite service.
I couldn’t have been more grateful.