Oniko's Travel Diary:
The Three Mountains

(August 5-31, 1998)

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan


Saturday August 15th, 1998
Today I got out early for one simple reason; I wanted to spend an hour or two exploring Tokyo ward for ATMs that could give me money using my American ATM card.
Back in 1990, when I visited Tokyo with a group of other American students as part of a home stay program, we visited Tokyo ward as one of our cultural field trips because it's the big financial center for the whole city of Tokyo; we got to visit the Tokyo Stock Enchange building, which was loud, confusing, and interesting... once. I am in no hurry to re-visit that particular attraction.
But, being the financial center for the city, Tokyo ward is full of banks, which is why I had high hopes of finding at least one more ATM that would let me get at my American bank account. Alas, high hopes often have long falls... I didn't find a single ATM that even pretended to understand my card. So I'm still stuck with only one ATM that I know of that will give me cash from my American account.
But, as long as I was in Tokyo ward, it seemed stupid to not take a little time at least to briefly visit one of the other attractions here... the Imperial Gardens. I'm not sure why I, as a student in 1990, wasn't taken to this particular tourist attraction; but that's one reason I returned -- to catch the sights that I'd missed last time. So I walked the short distance from the bank I finally gave up at to the great moat that surrounds the grounds of the Imperial Gardens. This moat is like a still river; it's a straight drop thirty feet down to the water on the side near the street where I was. On the other side of the forty foot or so wide moat, a stone wall rises up about fifty feet; in some spots on top, the gardens come right up to the edge... you can see dirt, grass, and trees. Walking around, I eventually came to a bridge and gate that I could enter from.
Entry was free, but I did have to take a large plastic "ticket" as I entered and return it when I left... I think this just lets them keep track of how many people are wandering around at any point in time; it's a very large place to get lost in! A little into the park area was a small museum -- again, free entry -- which had a small variety of the Imperial Treasures on display. Personally, I was quite taken with a spectacular ink and watercolor painting of a tiger posed on the tip of a precipace facing off against an etherial dragon forming out of storm clouds and the mist of a turbulent ocean... unfortunately, no photos allowed.
Outside, and just a little further along the path, is a rest area/souviener shop where I grabbed a map of the grounds (which I immediately put away and forgot), then I walked on to the main starting point of all the paths -- paths? Make that roads -- that stretch throughout the spacious gardens. I was examining a wall made of huge chiseled blocks of stone, and wondering why no one ever mentioned these blocks when they were claiming aliens were needed to build the pyramids (I think this way; sorry), when a voice from behind asked me a somewhat hesitant question.
"Do you speak English?"
It turned out to be a man in his fifties, named Yamazaki. He was learning English, and participated in a club where the members would get together to speak English to one another. Since I wanted to practice Japanese and he wanted to practice English, I agreed to his idea of touring the grounds together.
Traditionally in Japan, the Imperial Family and other high goverment officials performed most of the national Shinto rituals for major holidays. Nowadays, the Imperial Family still performs some of these national rituals, but the rest of the government is pretty much out of the business.

What I didn't know before we got to talking was that today was a special day. Mr. Yamazaki had traveled all the way from Saitama Prefecture far in the west to be in Tokyo ward today because, as it turns out, the fifteenth of August is one of the few days a year that the Imperial Prince makes a public appearance. This is as part of the general month-long O-Bon festivals; of course, there's no real guarentee you'll get to see the Prince... his appearance time at the nearby shrines is brief and unannounced. Nonetheless, the shrines are especially sacred today, just for the promise of a royal visit. [UPDATE 2000: The fifteenth is the primary day of O-Bon throughout Japan, whether it is celebrated in July or August (different parts of the country celebrate at different times).]
The grounds were vast; me and my improptu guide didn't even start to see half of them (of course, we spent a lot of time talking). I did see a stand-alone room made of stone on a side path, meant for use in times of fire as an emergency shelter. I also got to view the grounds from the top of a short guard "tower" (really just an artificial hill with stairs), and a lovely pond surrounded by the first bamboo I've seen this trip. It was here that I and Mr. Yamazaki exchanged addresses, and he told me about the Imperial appearance.
Mr. Yamazaki was headed for a somewhat nearby shrine next, a big one... and I asked if I could go also (hell, the comic convention will still be there tomorrow). So we were off. I said "somewhat nearby" because we managed to walk to it, but it probably would have been easier to take the subway... the final shrine was located in Kanda ward, fully two rail-stations away from Tokyo ward. We stopped at two smaller shrines on the way, each bristling with activities, but didn't spend much time. Since the main streets had been closed off for the Prince's convenience (and safety), we had to make some long detours around the moat.
It was at one point during this detour that, under a tree-shaded walkway, we passed a small group of people wearing odd white shirts with red kanji writing on the front and backs. "White shirts," my companion explained. "Oh," I rejoined. He went into some more detail... they were people on religious pilgrimage to the local temples and shrines; the white shirts identified them as such. I had read about this on the plane here, in a book about Japanese pilgrimages1 (I'm hoping to make a pilgrimage one myself later this trip); now I know what the shirts and pilgrims look like.
There are two distinct words for places of worship in Japan; tera, which always means a Buddhist temple, and jinjya, which always means a Shinto shrine. In these diaries, I will use the words temple and shrine to designate the same difference.

The Kanda shrine is amazing. Clearly a Shinto place of worship, indicated by the gigantic torii gateway over the path to the shrine, and by the young female wearing the traditional white robes and red pants that marked them as shrine employees (and virgins). Thousands of people were buzzing around and within the shrine's grounds, and many, it turned out, were veterans of World War II. Directly in conjunction with the shrine is a small history museum, full of models, books, uniforms, weapons, and other artifacts... and mostly focused around WWII at the moment. I don't know if the veterans are here because of the museum display, or if the museum decided on the display because it knew the veterans would be here, but the two are obviously related. Mr. Yamazaki and I visited the museum after briefly visiting the shrine; and I suspect the museum was more what he was interested in.
After we finished at the museum, Mr.Yamazaki excused himself... it was now four o'clock (how time flies!) and he needed to get back to his daughter's house. So we said goodbye, after agreeing to try to meet at the Imperial Gardens again next year on the same date, and I turned back to the shrine to get a charm while I was here. As luck would have it, the shrine's "gift shop" (technically, you are offering a donation and they are offering a present) also had a reproduction of the tiger and dragon painting I'd liked so much at the Imperial Treasure museum earlier, so I got that also. Then I made my way back, walking the long walk back to Tokyo station, and then catching the train back to Nishikasai. I wrote this; now I'm going to soak my aching feet! [NOTE: It was only at a later date that I realized there was a station near this shrine... if I had known, I wouldn't have walked back to Tokyo ward!]

On to August 16th, 1998

Return to Oniko Goes To Japan Home Page - Back to Top!

All illustrations in these pages are copyright (c)2002 Garth Haslam, and shouldn't be used without his permission. To contact him Click Here!