Tokyo is one of the most crowded capitals on Earth but in the middle of it all there is still opportunities to see a little bit of non-human nature. A while ago I was walking through Tokyo’s famous Asakusa district and saw these pets taking their owners for a walk through the city. Cats are commonplace, both in trams and roaming the streets on their own, seeing a pig though, was the first for me! A few foreign tourists tried to communicate with the pig but he was incredibly focused on the food his owner was enjoying.
Apart from pets there is a surprising amount of wildlife in the city. Even in the most central parts we have Palm Civets, Raccoons and cats. In the outskirts we have foxes, rabbits, kites and eagles and still within city limits but in the most remote areas we have bears, badgers and boars!
Tokyo is full of history and interesting stories if you just know where to look and aren’t too distracted by the food, the fun and the shopping! I have passed these two statues at the famous Sensoji Temple in Japan’s number one tourist site, Asakusa, maybe over a thousand times but I only recently learned about the history of them.
In the first half of the 17th century when Edo was the trading and crafts center of Japan and the home of the ruling Shogun (Warlord) a struggling trader in rice took in a small boy from modern day Gunma prefecture and did his best to teach him about trade and commerce. Eventually the boy returned to his home town and started a very successful trading business. His old master though was not so lucky and died impoverished and destitute. The former apprentice, Takase Zembe, heard of the tragedy and ordered two huge statues of the bodhisattvas Kannon and Seishi. They were donated in 1678 to the memory of the rice merchant and his son. Both the statues miraculously survived the US fire bombings of 1945 and they are still in their original positions to the right of the second Nio gate.
But the story doesn’t end there, because almost 300 years later one of Zembe’s direct descendants, Takase Jiro who was the Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka in 1996 developed a cultural exchange and partnership between the Sensoji Temple and the famous Isurumuniya Vihara temple in Anuradhapura, the capital of ancient Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As the Senso-ji’s pagoda was rebuilt in 1973, the temple in Sri Lanka dispatched its senior abbot to the dedication ceremony, bringing with him a granule of the physical remains of the Buddha, a massively important relic, to dedicate to the Japanese temple.
The granule remains in the pagoda to this day and I hope both it and the two statues representing the gratitude of a devoted apprentice to his former master will remain for many thousands of years to come.
I passed the statues a little while ago, and found them occupied by two birds who posed perfectly for the camera.
Continuing on my series of obscure but interesting spots, here is Ubagaike – The Pond of the old Woman. In the old days this unremarkable park with its little pond was shallow marshland that grew smaller and smaller as the city of Edo (old Tokyo) grew around it. In 1891 the local government finally had the marsh filled in and the present day park was put in its place. The name of the pond comes from an old legend concerning a stone pillow housed at a nearby temple.
During the reign of Emperor Youmei (585-587 A.D.), in a place called Asajigahara, there was a small trail connecting Oshu and Shimofusa. It was the only trail in the area and along it there was only a single house, inhabited by an old woman and her beautiful daughter. Any traveler wishing to rest on his journey had to stop over at their house where the old lady would promptly bash his head in with a stone pillow and steal his clothes and belongings. The old lady would then dump the bodies in a nearby pond. Naturally her daughter was not happy with this and pleaded with the old lady to stop the killings but there was no persuading her. The body count reached 999 and the daughter was desperate to stop the killing. One day a young man came to stay over and the old lady, as was her habit, took the stone pillow and promptly split his skull open. Upon closer inspection though, the old lady found that she had killed her own daughter who had gone in disguise, hoping that this final sacrifice would persuade the old lady to stop the killings. As the old lady was going mad from the realization of her deeds she took her daughter’s corpse and threw herself and the corpse together into the pond. Since that day, the pond has been knows as Ubagaike, the Pond of the old Lady (old hag might be a better translation).
The park and the pond isn’t much to see anymore, but the legend is interesting enough. It is a short walk from the north of Sensoji Temple in the famous Asakusa District. The final picture is from a series of legends illustrated by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861 A.D.) showing the Goddess of Compassion visiting the house of the old lady as she is arguing with her daughter.
Kamishibai (紙芝居) is an old Japanese form of entertainment in which a story is told by a narrator showing colored paper sheets while telling a story to an audience. It first started in temples in the 12th century where monks and nuns would use picture scrolls to tell religious stories to their local parish members. Later professional story tellers would travel around the country first on foot and later by bicycle with their wooden boxes and story cards. In the recession of the 1920s the tradition surged in popularity as it was a very easy business to get into and allowed unemployed men a chance to earn at least enough money not to starve to death.
The stories told by the Kamishibai narrators were often serialized so that each time they visited a place they could keep telling a story from the point where they stopped last time, like modern day TV drama or comic book! People would be eager to hear the latest chapter in their favorite characters and it was easy for the narrators to adapt to what audiences enjoyed, instant feedback that today’s TV producers can only dream of. One of the first nationwide stories was about one of (if not the first) real superheroes, “Ogon Bat” (or Golden Bat) which was introduced in 1930, quite a few years before Superman or Batman. Ogon Bat had all the things we associate with super heroes today: he fought evil, had a super villain arch enemy, a cape, dressed in tights and had a background story to explain his amazing powers and invulnerability and he has a secret super hero base in the mountains. When he is called upon by a woman in distress, he sets forth to battle evil where it occurs.
Ogon Bat was a God of Justice from the ancient island of Atlantis who was put in suspended animation by the ancient Egyptians when Atlantis was submerged, with the goal of awakening him in the future when his powers would be most needed. His sarcophagus and sleeping body is discovered by a Japanese egyptologists, Dr Yamatone and his assistant, his daughter Marie. In the tomb they are attacked by the evil Mazo and in the struggle the tears of Marie fall on the sleeping body of Ogon Bat, waking him up to once again fight for justice.
Originally Ogon Bat looked quite scary, with a white-golden skull shaped head, a flamboyant costume with a large cape and collar carrying a spanish rapier. His image was later made a little more kid-friendly though, and the rapier was changed into a scepter. Ogon Bat could fly, was invulnerable just like Superman and had his base in Japan, as he followed his friends the Yamatone family back to Japan from Egypt. Terrific story! Ogon Bat was later to become both regular manga, trading cards and even an animated series and a movie in the 1960s. As American entertainment industry has done so many times before in everything from Westerns to Star Wars to Godzilla, I think the time is ripe to dust off this great old superhero!
But back to the Kamishibai. To this day you can sometimes see modern Kamishibai performers at festivals and in parks, mostly on the weekends, entertaining kids and adults. They often sell candy and accept donations for their storytelling. I doubt there are any people living only on Kamishibai these days, but a little money always helps to keep these old traditions alive! I have blogged about Kamishibai before, in Yokohama. In the comments to that blog post there was a link to a photo of this man who narrates comic books from his portable library to anyone willing to listen. I mention this because I ran into the very same man in Shimokitazawa last Sunday in mid-story. If you don’t know what he is doing it is most likely you will mistake him for a lunatic but he is in fact very entertaining.
I saw this Kamishibai artist, one of the most famous in Tokyo at this year’s Sanja Matsuri in Asakusa back in May. Here he is telling the story of Ogon Bat (黄金バット)!
Kamishibai in Asakusa by Tokyobling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.