My Side-trip to Japan: Shibuya Crossing and the Shibuya Dog

Shibuya Crossing in the rain

My friend Ian had described to me the mesmerizing ebb and flow of the pedestrians crossing the street at Shibuya Crossing, a scene made famous, in addition to Shinto temples and the act of reading one’s fortune, in Lost in Translation. It was raining, so there were apparently fewer people than normal crossing the street when I was there. What amazed me was how none of them jostled each other, and how they walked in straight lines, in columns. It was quite incredible to watch for a few traffic light cycles.

The last picture from my Japan trip will be the Shibuya dog. The story is that this dog faithfully went everyday to the train station to meet his master, who would return from work. Then one day the master died, but the dog faithfully went to the station everyday anyway. Nowadays, a statue celebrates the virtue of the dog, who now serves as a popular rendez-vous point.

Shibuya dog

When I think of the dog, I think of my friend Ian, who encouraged me to visit Japan, of my wonderful students, who so kindly showed me around, and of “Auntie Helen,” a family-friend who so generously went above the call of necessity in keeping me happy and housed.

My Side-trip to Japan: The Imperial Palace Grounds

Imperial Palace

My students very kindly took me to the Imperial Palace; we were unable to go inside, of course, but we were still able to take in a subdued, majestic beauty. The next photograph shows the backside of the famous bridge.

Double-barreled bridge

The palace is surrounded by a moat; I caught this swan swimming in the water. In a different spot in the moat, some months ago, a white British man was caught skinny-dipping in broad daylight. The video of the man and the police response to him circulated on Youtube, and was quite funny.

Swan in the imperial palace moat

The palace grounds are covered with these very lovely, distinctive trees:

Distinctive tree

After having seen pictures of the Imperial Palace when I was a very young boy, it felt good to actually be there in person.

My Side-trip to Japan: The Shinto Meiji-Jingu Shrine

Japan Meiji-jingu outer gate

In contrast to Buddhist gates, which usually stand between demonic guardians sculpted or painted on a larger than human scale, the distinctive outer Shinto gate exists in bare simplicity. The above gate is the entrance to Meiji-jingu, the Japanese equivalent, perhaps, of the Vatican. While Shintoism is a religion, the Japanese do not regard it as exclusive, and the country is known for having Shinto weddings and Buddhist funerals. The seriousness and scale of the Meiji-jingu shrine impressed me in a serious way; this was unlike my visit to the Buddhist Senso-ji, which I would actually describe as equal parts fun and fascination.

Like Catholic and some high Anglican churches, and also like the Buddhist Senso-ji, a ritual bath stands at the entrance. It’s not suitable for real full-bodied bathing, of course, but the water and the cups are used to cleanse the hands and mouth of the visitor to the temple. There is a precise order and location for washing properly so that the spring water is not defiled.

Ritual bath

I thought that this inner gate resembled a warrior’s helmet:

Meiji-jingu Shinto Shrine

It was pouring rain when I was there; in the rain, it was interesting to observe the very dark brown wood with white touches, and the green forest on the temple grounds.

Meiji-jingu shrine gate

Meiji-jingu buildings in the rain

Despite the rain, I nonetheless managed to catch a Shinto wedding, “pure photographic gold” as the Lonely Planet’s City Guide to Tokyo puts it. Note the bride’s headpiece.

Japan Shinto wedding at Meiji-jingu

Inside a building in the shrine complex I spotted these suits of samurai armour. One of my students told me that boys are given similar helmets to what these warriors are wearing as a kind of rite of passage.

Japanese samurai in Meiji-jingu

The temple grounds have over 100,000 trees on them; here are just a few:

Japan forest in Meiji-jingu

Perhaps the oddest thing for me was the huge barrels of sake on one side of the road; there was an equal amount of wine on the other side!

Barrels of Sake in Meiji-jingu

I am unfamiliar with the ritual (?) use of wine in Shinto, but it certainly was interesting to see that this outer display was matched by an inner one.

Sacred alcohol in Meiji-jingu

My Side-trip to Japan: Asakusa & the Buddhist Senso-ji Temple

Japan 156 Asakusa

The neighbourhood of Asakusa (pronounced “a-sock-sa,” as far as I can tell), enjoys the presence of the splendid and historical Senso-ji Buddhist temple. As you can see, this is not a pleasure to be dismissed on a rainy day. The incense in the air warms and dries the wet visitor, and welcomes him or her to the temple grounds.

The neighbourhood is old, and is known for being old; consequently, there are all kinds of tourist shops not just in the area but right on the temple grounds. The difference between these temple shops and most touristy shops in the busy areas of the world, though, is profound: these shops are interesting and not tacky! My students purchased wonderful paper balls, which can be blown up, for young Telemachus; they also gave me some of the snacks that are sold there. The snack foods were delicious, and the tourist shops actually had more than useless nic-nacs. I purchased a wind-chime for my mother there, and it has the most perfect melodious sound I’ve ever heard in a wind-chime. I’m sorry I didn’t get more pictures of the shops and bakeries, but they are visible through the front gate in this next shot:

Senso-ji gate towards the temple-shops

The temple grounds, which have been dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon for more than a thousand years, boast a five-storey pagoda, one of the tallest in Japan; it is a recent reconstruction, though. I was fascinated by the spiral spire at the top. The painted colours of this Buddhist temple were unlike anything I saw in South Korea, where greens and blues tend to dominate. As a non-believing connoisseur of historical religious buildings, I appreciate both styles.

Five story pagoda in Senso-ji in Asakusa

The next few pictures show some of the various gates around the temple complex.

Senso-ji temple gate

Senso-ji gate and lanterns

The main shrine building in the temple features a high ceiling; it seemed higher than the temple shrine buildings in Korea, but that might have been because it also seemed smaller, though it wasn’t. In any case, there were fewer practical shrines on the premises than I would have expected; I never saw anyone sitting and praying. It felt almost like a schematic experience of what a Buddhist temple should be, as though the temple were preserved by loving citizens for cultural, rather than religious, reasons. Perhaps that’s so. The next pictures show the shrine building and the shrine itself:

Senso-ji inner building

Senso-ji "holy of holies"

Directly in front of the shrine, inside the main hall, there is an “offertory box” into which visitors throw small change and wish and pray for luck. There is also another offertory system involving luck, too. One puts an amount of money into a jar, and takes out a stick at random. The stick corresponds to a drawer, and the visitor can then open the drawer and remove his fortune paper. Mine was translated into English, with many details. It was “Best Luck,” and although I don’t believe in luck, I am going to frame it and hang it on my wall. The reverse of the document is shown below. Interested readers will note the presence of number 13–which, of course, is regarded as unlucky by some in our western culture; the number has no negative associations in Japan.

Japan best luck; lucky number 13

There is also a small and beautiful garden on the temple grounds, and gardens and gods go together in Japan, too, it seems.

Garden in Senso-ji

Asakusa was my favourite neighbourhood in Japan, and I ended out going back with my students a second time, I liked it so much. Later, we went to a pub, where we drank sake. Afterwards, I took this picture of white lanterns with black writing:

lanterns by night

My Side-trip to Japan

Japanese rice fields from the air

While in South Korea last April, I took a solo two-night trip to Japan to visit a good family friend and several former students of mine from UBC. I had a delightful time, and everyone spoiled me; it was also good that the flight was free.

In the next posts I shall post a few pictures of some of my favourite sights; here, though, there are more “down-to-earth” shots.

Vending machines in Japan

The next picture shows me on the Tokyo subway during a slow time. The Tokyo trains seem to be a bit narrower than the ample Seoul cars, but still much more roomy and spacious than the toy we here in Vancouver call the Skytrain.

Yours truly on the Tokyo subway

Japanese bidet toilet

That was my first bidet toilet.* I never used the washing features as the buttons were labeled in Japanese, but I did appreciate the heated seat in the early, chilly mornings!

*Come to think of it, I have sat on them before, in South Korea. I don’t remember such nice heat, though.

Two More Blogging Holes Filled–Or not

Despite the name, not actually Japan: a commuter line train in Seoul

This is another picture I have been waiting to take for the last couple of years. My wife’s parents live in Z, and to go to Seoul we always got on the commuter train at Y Station. There is only one stop before this station, and so the cars are usually empty. Incidentally, this train travels a few dozen kilometers for about $2; our local equivalent here in the Vancouver area, the West Coast Express, while much nicer, costs many times this price. (Our local transit authority looks bad in comparison to Seoul’s subway authorities: while I was away for two years, Seoul built two new subway lines!)

My wife also took this picture of me; despite the fellow’s lack of good looks, I like it:

Yours truly (again, not in Japan, despite the file name)

By a fortuitous coincidence, I was in South Korea for the days leading up to, and following the Buddha’s Birthday, my favourite Korean holiday. This is a time when Koreans decorate their temples with beautiful, colourful lanterns. When I first arrived in Korea, I saw Bongeunsa, one such temple, on this holiday; unlike the other temples that I saw, this one had only white lights. The ambience was otherworldly and altogether pleasing. I returned to Bongeunsa this time, but the white lanterns were gone; fortunately, the display was still very beautiful. I took many night-time pictures of my old favourite haunt, but the unfortunately colours were all washed out as I forgot to use the settings properly. Fortunately–the last in our string of fortunately-unfortunatelies–Ian reminded me of the correct camera settings on our way out the gate, and so I present this picture of the brightly-coloured drum hanging there:

Bongeunsa in South Korea, not Japan, despite the file name

The Historic and Eclectic Samcheongdong, Seoul

Samcheongdong 1

Samcheongdong is one of the most historic, classy and creative parts of Seoul. I had never taken photographs there while I lived in South Korea before, so this post is my first on this neighborhood. I was lucky enough to visit twice (first with my friend Ian, later with Z and young Telemachus), but I was foolish enough not to take enough pictures of the streets. Here’s one of them, though:

Samcheongdong side-street

Many of the historic houses in this neighborhood have been turned into jewelry and clothing shops; I suspect that some of the artists live in them. The courtyards, flowers, streets, and alleys of the neighborhood are a delight to the eyes.

Samcheongdong 2

Samcheongdong alley

Samcheongdong shop wall

The preceding image shows the surprising creativity of the place, as does the image below:

Samcheongdong wine bottles

Many of the houses in this neighborhood date from the Japanese occupation, and are old by Korean standards:

Samcheongdong historic houses

The main street itself is quite beautiful:

Samcheongdong street

By the way, Cook ‘n Heim, the restaurant whose advertisement, courtyard, and food is shown below, makes one of the world’s most outstanding burgers! Heartily recommended, but, alas, no fries.

Samcheongdong restaurant advertisement

The courtyard of the restaurant shows well the tendency towards eclectic creativity:

Samcheongdong the eclectic

Samcheongdong restaurant burger--one of the world's best!

That burger was one of the most delicious burgers I have ever eaten!

Another Blogging Hole Filled

Korea trip 274

I believe that the only picture I ever had of the small pavilion on the island at the back of Gyeongbokgung palace (Koreans and expats in Korea must excuse the redundancy) was of a former student of mine, a nine year old boy. (Interestingly, one of my favorite adult students was his teacher.) Since I didn’t remember to ask his permission to post his picture on the internet, I never posted it. Accordingly, I made sure to stop by this lovely pavilion to take a picture of it this time. There. Now it’s done.

Here are a couple of other pictures I took with my good friend Ian while at Gyeongbokgung. Spending time with my dear friend was a wonderful experience, and I’m sorry that there is so much physical distance that separates us now. In any case, it was interesting to try to find a new angle (literally) from which to take photographs of a place I had photoblogged several times before.

Korea trip 277

Korea trip 253 Gyeongbokgung

Korea trip 244

Korea trip 240

Korea trip 238

The White Tiger in Seoul Grand Park Zoo

Korea trip 126 white tiger

While in Seoul on one of our several daytrips from the countryside where my wife’s parents live, we visited Seoul Grand Park, the large zoo in the city. And thus I filled in a photoblogging hole that has bugged me ever since I left the country in 2007: I took a picture of the gorgeous white tiger there. This picture really doesn’t do it justice; from every standpoint, those bars are a pity. (Incidentally, this animal is housed in a much smaller enclosure than the regular tigers. It’s quite sad, really.) The animal is easily the most beautiful non-human animal that I’ve ever seen, and if I had to pick an animal to kill me, this would be the one. How tragically majestic it looks in its sad prison! I wish the zoo would improve the living conditions of this white tiger.

The next pictures show the gondola at the park and a friendly bear.

Korea trip 144 bear Korea trip 060 gondola in the zoo

A Trip to South Korea: A Twosome Place


The month of April saw my family on a vacation to South Korea to visit my wife’s family. It was a time full of nostalgia for me, as my dear friend Ian still lives there, and since I met my wife in this country while teaching English there back in 2004.

Z and I met each other in the Sinchon neighbourhood of Seoul, in the cafe shown above; I remember that my knees were shaking as I introduced myself to this beautiful woman. It’s a good story.

The next several posts will focus on this trip, and a lovely little side trip I had to visit some friends in Japan.