Finding quiet moments in Tokyo

14 Sep

I feel like I’m in a jungle. It’s unseasonably warm for September, over 90 degrees and the air is almost dripping with humidity. Trees tower overhead, and all I can hear is the loud, insistent buzz of insects and birds. The Nezu shrine, with its ponds, vermilion gates (called torii), and quiet corners is my favorite spot in Tokyo–and that’s without having seen it in spring when azaleas blanket the hillside with color.    
 
A corner of the Nezu shrine grounds in Tokyo

 

 
Tokyo is crowded, bright, noisy. It can be exciting, and overwhelming.  Walking across the famed five-way Shibuya crossing, or indeed finding yourself in any downtown street amid the rush-hour onslaught of business suits and briefcases, is like being swept along by a current.  The neon signage from ground to sky, sales pitches from storefronts, and music from loudspeakers can be a feast for, or sometimes an assault on, the senses. 
Shibuya crossing mid-afternoon — not even the busiest time of day!
A Shibuya shopping street
So it’s no wonder that there are oases of quiet in almost every corner.  Temples and shrines large and small are visited by people of all ages on their way to or from work. Gardens take pride of place, large swathes of green for strolling, and discreet corners with koi ponds and seasonal color.  I find myself seeking the invigorating buzz of the markets and crowds, and then reveling in the moments of quiet when I find them. 
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden
Another day, I visit the Hie Jinja shrine in the morning, to see its torii and to sketch.  By noon it’s hot and humid again, and like many of the women I put up my umbrella for a bit of portable shade.  The streets fill with the lunchtime rush of office workers.  With very few exceptions the men all wear black or blue suits, with white shirts and dark ties.  The women are almost all in demure blouses, and full skirts that fall below the knee (often with nylons); I feel a bit out of place in my shorter, sleeveless dress. Just off the main roads, a tangle of electrical wires overhangs remarkably quiet, narrow side streets on which tiny restaurants seem to appear out of nowhere.  
 
A businessman pays his respects at Hie Jinja shrine on his way to work in the morning.
The torii at Hie Jinja
 
Every walk here turns up gems.  I discover the Japan Traditional Crafts center at Aoyama Square. Air conditioning!  And gorgeous art: painted and woven silks, lacquerware, knives, calligraphy brushes, glass, metal, woodwork and more. It’s a spectacular display, with prices ranging from around $10 for small items to thousands for some of the more exquisite pieces. 
A peek through the window of a kimono shop.  The bland, almost colorless daily wear here here is perplexing, given the vibrant colors and patterns of the traditional clothing.
Always on my agenda in Tokyo, Asakusa falls squarely into the crowded category.  The main attraction here is Senso-ji, a Buddhist temple and Tokyo’s oldest, with a history going back to the year 645–although like most of Tokyo its buildings were rebuilt post-WWII.
 
Inside the temple grounds, the approach to the main hall is through the Nakamise shopping street. Dating back several centuries–the sale and purchase of souvenirs is not a recent phenomenon–it’s a great place for items to take home, snacks, and people-watching.   
The smoke is coming from incense burning in the small structure in the center front. People light a stick and lean in to let the smoke waft over them.
The color is irresistible! (Side note: vending machines are everywhere.)
The maze of streets surrounding the temple is fun to wander, and a walk from there to Ueno park takes you past shops selling home altars, a ceramics store filled with bowls, cups, teapots, and other tempting items, more shrines, and even a drum shop/museum with fascinating displays including festival shrines, masks, and clothing as well as all manner of drums. Prices run into the tens of thousands of dollars!  
 
Not far away, and also crowd-filled, the Ameyoko market sits under the rail lines at Ueno station. You can buy almost anything here, from eels to shoes, and it’s a fun place to browse and try street food.  And here too, you’ll find a small temple on a side street. 
Just another day in Tokyo… the crowds at Ameyoko market near Ueno station.
I chose my snacks based on how much other people seemed to be enjoying them. This lady’s Takoyaki (octopus dumplings) were very popular and, generously heaped with toppings, delicious!

 

A brief thunderstorm breaks the humidity a bit and, for a few minutes, thins the crowds.
Another crowd/quiet juxtaposition is lively Harajuku, and the nearby forest surrounding the Meiji Jingu shrine.  Although the shrine itself dates back only a hundred years–and was rebuilt after being destroyed in WWII–more than a hundred thousand trees were planted around it and walking through the huge wooden torii and along the wide path makes me feel transported back to ancient times.  There’s a museum of treasures on the grounds, and an inner garden that is well worth the entrance fee, especially when the irises are in bloom.  The shrine itself is popular for weddings and if you’re lucky you’ll see a procession. I like to just hang out here a while, and soak up the atmosphere. 
The crowds in Harajuku. Even on weekdays it’s crowded, but it’s most fun on weekends when school uniforms are traded for baby doll outfits and other fashions in stark contrast to Tokyo’s usual buttoned-up conservative style.  
The 12-meter (39 ft.) tall gates at Meiji Jingu are world’s largest wooden torii
It is possible to find glimpses of an older, quieter Tokyo.  Not far from the Nezu shrine, Yanaka is one of the few neighborhoods that survived the bombings in WWII.   The Yanaka cemetery and the many temples and shrines nearby are peaceful and quiet, and Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street, brims with treasures from kitschy to high-end: postcards, ceramics, handmade baskets, leather goods, and more. Nearby, a century-old rice cracker shop, a puppet maker, the Isetatsu paper store selling everything from origami paper to handmade cards to exquisite wood block prints, and even a lucky cat store selling handmade figurines and other “lucky cat” items. 
Yanaka Ginza shopping street
A neighborly side street in Yanaka
A cemetery in Yanaka

Every time I visit Tokyo, I struggle to find a balance between revisiting places I love, and looking for new ones.  But in this city of more than nine million people, it’s the quiet corners that always draw me in. 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Finding quiet moments in Tokyo

  1. Love the pictures and comments. Tokyo is an amazing city. I think you captured the quiet versus crowded nature and new versus ancient.

  2. I just love reading your texts and looking at your pictures. Thank you Linda for sharing. Almost feels like we hide in your back pack… 😉

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