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••• The International Writers Magazine: Hacktreks Travel - JAPAN

Temples, Torii & Tatami on a culture-crammed Tour of Tokyo
• Elizabeth von Pier
Everyone bows upon greeting, signs are in Japanese script, women wear kimonos, people slurp their soup, gifts are exchanged for no reason at all, and having a cup of tea involves unfamiliar behaviors. Sure, I had eaten ramen and sushi at home and watched a tea ceremony at one of the local museums, but the experiences here were real and ubiquitous. Tokyo challenged me to look beyond my small world and embrace a culture that was very foreign to me.


I stayed in an American chain hotel with some distinctly Japanese touches. My first night there, I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to flush my high-tech toilet with its piped-in music, heated seat and built-in bidet. I had to ask the nice young man from room service how to do it. He just grinned and showed me a knob mounted on the vanity. I swear I had tried that earlier and concluded that it was used to open bottle caps. Upon leaving, he thanked me (“arigatou”) over and over again, bowing all the while. I bowed in response.

Most of the tourist attractions were a subway ride away, but pretty Shiba Park with its Buddhist temple complex on the grounds were within walking distance of the hotel. The temple is dedicated to Jizo, the guardian of children and a very loved divinity. Around the perimeter of the temple are hundreds of tiny statues of Jizo, about one foot high and all with baby-like faces to resemble the children he protects. Most of them had tiny red crocheted hats covering their little bald heads which had been put there by parents grieving a lost child or thankful for one who was saved.

Wonders and Weddings at the Meiji-jingu Shrine

The Meiji-jingu Shrine is a Shinto shrine right in the heart of Tokyo but you would never know that you were in a city. You approach it through a dense forest consisting of many different species of trees that have been donated by generous benefactors and planted by thousands of volunteers. There are two large wooden torii (the traditional entry gate of a shrine) that you pass through before coming upon the shrine. At the entrance is a purifying fountain with many long handled dipping spoons which you fill with water and pour over your hands to clean them. Then you pour water into a clean hand, lift it to your mouth to clean your mouth, and spit it out into the trough below.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Everjean, Antwerp, Belgium)
Meiji-jingu wedding

It was Saturday and, as we strolled around the shrine complex, we encountered a wedding party. The bride was in a traditional white gown and hooded headdress, the groom in a long pleated skirt and black kimono, and the female guests in colorful kimonos. The hooded headdress the bride wore is meant to cover her “horns”, thereby symbolizing submission and a happy marriage.

On our way out of the shrine, we made an offering to the deities enshrined there by tossing a five-yen coin into the box, bowing twice, clapping our hands twice, and then bowing again.

Shopping, Video Screens and Noodles

Omote-sando is a beautiful tree-lined boulevard which showcases the best and brightest of contemporary Japanese architects. It was a Saturday night and the sidewalk was packed with Tokyo's youth in their stylish western outfits, heads bent over cell phones. We admired the design of the Dior building with its filmy exterior of translucent acrylic screens behind glass and the eight-story glass cone that houses the Japan Nursing Association. Most of the major designers are represented here, but there are also many boutiques and small shops catering to the youth. We noticed a unique shop called Condomania—it sells condoms in a wide range of sizes, colors and styles.

Shibuya Crossing, with its giant video screens and flashing neon lights, is an epic sight like Times Square is in New York City. This is a shopping and entertainment area and we were there at the right time—after dark on a Saturday night—when the lights were bright and when it was crowded with young girls in high-heeled boots and their tousle-haired male counterparts.

Tokyo Station, the main railroad station, reminds me a bit of Grand Central Station in New York. Under the station is an entire city filled with streets selling food and other products.

noodles Noodle Street caught our attention so we entered a tiny ramen restaurant where we sat at the counter and watched as the cook prepared us a bowl of steaming hot broth filled with noodles, finely sliced vegetables, hard boiled egg, and roast pork. Typically the only utensils provided are chopsticks, so you put your face close to the bowl, lift the noodles to your mouth and suck as much as possible into your mouth. Do the same with the vegetables and meat, biting the slices of meat into small pieces if necessary. Then, you lift the bowl to your mouth with both hands and drink the rest of the broth. Slurping noises are appropriate and, in fact, appreciated by the chef.

One slight glitch at the very beginning of our experience here: we did not know how to place our order. There is a vending machine at the entrance to the shop with photographs of the dishes and descriptions written in Japanese script. The buttons next to the script are related to the size of the portion and whether you want your meal hot or cold. You put money into the slot, make your selection, take the printed receipt, and hand it to the chef who then prepares your meal. I was not able to figure out the role that the wait staff played except to show us how to use the vending machine.

A Quiet Corner and a Gift

The Imperial Palace is the permanent residence of the emperor and the imperial family. You can't get into the palace, but you can see it from the other side of the moat. Its East Garden, laid out in Japanese style with a koi pond, stepping stones, sculpted evergreens and winding paths, is a great place for strolling. Even though it was November, the day was sunny and warm, many trees were still very colorful with their autumn foliage, and we relaxed on a bench in this quiet spot in Tokyo.

Japanese department stores are an institution in themselves, known for their abundant and courteous service and their basements selling all manner of food.

We decided to check out one of the oldest and grandest, Mitsukoshi, where we went to buy a gift. Stepping off the elevator, we encountered plenty of attendants to help us make our selection. Then we were escorted to comfortable chairs where the transaction took place. Attendants arrived one by one, and we chose from a beautiful assortment of wrapping papers, ribbons and boxes. Finally our gift, exquisitely wrapped, was delivered in a lovely shopping bag and the clerk escorted us to the elevator where he put us into the capable hands of the uniformed elevator operator.
Mitsukoshi Deptartment Store

As we took our leave, there were lots of bows and “arigatou's” from both the sales clerk and the elevator operator. The Japanese love to give gifts, often for no reason at all, and we found that even the smallest purchase from a street vendor came nicely wrapped.

Like other department stores in Tokyo, Mitsukoshi has a basement entirely devoted to foodstuffs. There are several tiny restaurants here and we chose a small sushi counter with seven seats. After making our selections from the wax models at the entrance, we sat down to enjoy a relaxing meal with some Japanese beer. This is a rather intimate experience: there were two chefs tending the seven customers and each morsel is placed with great pride on a palm leaf in front of you. You eat using chopsticks and nod your pleasure to the sushi chef. If you're not adept at using chopsticks, you eat at a slower pace and the chef adjusts his pace accordingly.

A Performance of Kabuki

Geishas Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese drama known for its highly stylized movements and the elaborate makeup worn by the performers. I studied a synopsis of the story before we went so I would have a sense of what we were about to see even though we planned to rent earphones translating the performance into English. The show was an all-day affair, with the first four acts in the early afternoon and the last four acts in the late afternoon and into the evening. If you want to see the entire thing, you'll be there 10 hours, from 11:00 am to 9:00 pm, and you'll have to buy two tickets.

I can understand why the performance lasts all day. The story was dreadfully long with several subplots which added to my confusion. The costumes were colorful, the voices high and shrill, and the action slow-moving. This was a memorable experience and I would advise that you try it, but I wouldn't go back any time soon.

Performance of kabuki with geishas (Source:, author unknown)

Tea and Incense

The Hama-Rikyu garden is considered to be the best garden in Tokyo. It features a duck pond, several small islands, a tea pavilion, and manicured pine trees, some of which are hundreds of years old. The skyscrapers of modern Tokyo surround the garden, making for an interesting counterpoint.

We went into the tea pavilion for a break and some tea. It is on an island in the middle of the pond and is accessed by a wooden bridge. You choose between taking your tea sitting on the tatami mats on the floor or at a table on the deck outside. Stepping down onto the deck, we slipped on a pair of slippers set out for that purpose. Tea and a confection were delivered by a kimono-clad server, along with a set of instructions. You cut the confection into pieces and eat all of them before drinking the tea because their sweetness enhances the flavor of the tea. Then you pick up the tea bowl in your right hand, place it in the palm of your left hand, and turn it counter-clockwise twice, drink the tea in four or five sips (don't fret, the instructions say it is OK if you have to take more than five sips), and use your thumb and forefinger to clean the rim of the cup.

Tea service in Hama-Rikyu garden (Source: Elizabeth von Pier)
Tea and Tatami

At the edge of the Hama-Rikya garden, we boarded a ferry to take us along the Sumida-gawa canal to our next destination.

Tokyo Garden
East Garden of Imperial Palace (Source: Elizabeth von Pier)
This ride affords a different perspective of Tokyo — barges making their way down the river, high-rise apartment buildings with laundry fluttering from balconies, warehouses, and modern office buildings.

Our destination was the Senso-ji temple, Tokyo's oldest and most popular temple in honor of the Buddhist goddess of mercy and happiness. To reach the temple, you pass through a majestic gate which houses a pair of ferocious protective deities. Before the main hall is a huge incense cauldron where you can stop and fan the smoke and its scent over your body and head to ensure good health. Then go to the well to clean your hands and mouth. Then you will be ready to enter the temple and pay your respects.

The street running up to the temple is lined with tiny shops selling traditional Japanese crafts. At one of the bun and cracker shops, we tried a bean bun, a gummy little concoction filled with a sweet bean paste. We looked at fans, kimonos, chopsticks, bowls and postcards, and we stopped to watch a cookie maker fill his cookies with a sweet paste, then hold them over the fire to bake them.

On the Subway in a Wheelchair

My companion uses a wheelchair and the way the public transit system handles wheelchairs is nothing short of amazing. One day, we were going to have to change several times before we reached our final destination. At the entrance to the first train, an attendant saw that we had a wheelchair and came out of the office dressed in a uniform and wearing white gloves. With great authority, he paved the way for us through the crowd to the platform. When the train arrived, he used his white-gloved hands to stop those about to get on or off the train to make way for us. Then he placed a folding ramp between the train and the platform so that I could easily wheel it onto the train. Unaware that he had called ahead, we were greeted at the next station by a similarly uniformed attendant who also held back the crowds as he placed the ramp over the gap for us. And so it went through the next two stations. It appears that the entire Tokyo subway system knew that we were on our way!

Mt Fuji
Mt. Fuji from top of Metropolitan Government Offices building (Source: Elizabeth von Pier)
One day I set off on a walking tour of the Yanaka district. This is largely a residential area with narrow lanes. Small two story houses are crowded next to each other, there are temples, shrines and statues on every corner, monks chant and birds chirp, and there are no tourists or traffic. I walked quietly through the Yanaka Cemetery and admired the Tennoji and Daienji temples. I passed school children all dressed alike in their uniforms and yellow hats, was unable to read any of the signs because everything was in Japanese characters, and got a little lost in this delightful neighborhood where life goes on at a very slow pace.

It may seem like an unlikely place but you can get a fabulous view of the city from the 45th floor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Offices. The day we were there, the sky was so clear that we could see Mt. Fuji in the distance.

Kobe Beef in Ginza

Ginza is the Fifth Avenue of Tokyo where all the main designers are represented. We had a Kobe beef dinner at a restaurant on the top floor of one of the office buildings in this area. The meal was cooked in front of us on a hot stainless steel counter and included grilled broccoli, onion, mushroom, potato, sprouts and, of course, the beef. Behind the chef were floor to ceiling windows with a view of the Tokyo skyline all lit up at night. Superb, expensive and a great way to toast our vacation in Tokyo.

© Elizabeth von Pier October 2016
evonpier at

If you go:
Sheraton Miyako Hotel, 1 Chomo-1-50 Shirokanedai, Minato, Tokyo 108-8640, Japan, tel. 81-3-3447-3111
Mitsukoshi, Nihonbashi (main branch), 103-0022 Chuo, Nihonbashi, Muromachi, Tokyo, tel. 03-3241-3311. There also is a branch in Ginza.
Kabukiza Theater, Ginza 4-12-15, Chuo-ku, Tokyo, tel. +81-(0)3-3545-6800
Photo credits: Elizabeth von Pier,, and

Elizabeth von Pier is a retired banker who travels extensively throughout the world. In her retirement, she has written and published articles in GoNomad,, WAVE Journey, Travel Thru History and Ms. von Pier lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.

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