It’s not very new anymore but I still make a point to go up to the top floor every time I pass, the new tourist information building in front of Asakusa’s famous Kaminarimon, the entrance gate to the huge Sensoji temple. I took these photos at the Sanja festival earlier this month, just as the dozens of omikoshi, portable shrines, leave the temple through the main street and spill out on the big scramble street crossing. It was fun to see it all from above, as I have been down there in the middle of it all many times, trying not to get trampled by the rickshaw pullers, the busses, the police cars and the omikoshi! I think it was the first time I ever saw an omikoshi from above like this.
As a tourist in Tokyo most people are pretty much limited to getting around on trains and subway, with the occasional use of taxis, trams and ferries. My dream of a zeppelin passenger service connecting Hakone, Odaiba (in Tokyo) and Odawara still hasn’t won the approval of the Japanese government! Actually though, there is also a pretty excellent bus service in the city, filling the gaps between hard to connect stations. For example, the most convenient way of getting from Shibuya to Roppongi, to major centers inside Tokyo and not far away there is no trains or subways and you’d have to do a lot of tricky detours to stay within the subway system to get from Shibuya to Roppongi, if it wasn’t for the excellent bus service! Things have become even more convenient in the last few years as you can now use your train passes on buses as well. In Tokyo’s tourist destination number one, Taito City (home of Asakusa, Kaminarimon, etc.) there is a loop bus system aimed exclusively at tourists, the Taito City Loop Bus, or Megurin for short. Consisting of small frequent buses on three interconnecting routes and tickets for 100 yen per ride or 300 yen for a day pass it’s easy and convenient for local tourists to travel around Taito, and especially the route connecting Ueno station with Asakusa station. Taito is also full of other more minor things to see and do and if you’re into the charms of downtown Tokyo but want to spare your legs it is a good way to just loop around and see so much more of the city in these slow buses than what you can see from the subway or trains. The only trouble is that most of the information is in Japanese! But if you have a local friend to help out, or if you are a local and want to show visitors around, this is an excellent way to spend a day in Tokyo. Besides, the buses are really cute. Here’s a map in Japanese of the routes – pretty impressive!
It’s summer again and that means the season for discovering very local countryside train lines! Here’s the Ichibata Taishasen (一畑電車大社線) running between Izumotaishamae and Kawato stations (出雲大社前駅-川跡駅). This line is actually just an off-shoot on the main Kita Matsue line that is very rural even in itself. This train and the terminus pictured here is famous for being the station closest to the famous Izumo Taisha. There used to be a line dedicated just to service the town of Izumo with a connection to Matsue City, the capital of Shimane Prefecture, the Taisha Line but it was cancelled in 1990, even before the end of the bubble economy. If you’ve been traveling around rural Japan you will have noticed that almost nothing has happened since 1991-1992, the famous lost decade of Japanese economy is now famously two lost decades. Still, the areas close to the main cities (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Yokohama) have fared better but it is still amazing to see how robustly the Japanese countryside has managed to withstand the death sentence meted out to most rural areas in North America and Europe. But I fear even the Japanese countryside will succumb to the final death blow with this TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership). Once Japan signs the agreement the last lifeline of the Japanese rural economy, the domestic market, will implode and that will be the end of all these cities and towns spread out over the country. If you will allow me to be political for a moment here, it is my opinion that the TPP is an even great threat to Japan than earthquakes and nuclear accidents. Once the agricultural sector is left defenseless from cheap imports there will be no reason to farm in Japan anymore, and with that the supporting businesses and civil society built around the farms will collapse. Many people fail to realize that Japan is essentially an agricultural society. You don’t need to venture far out from the cities to enter a countryside that in essence has remained the same for the last two to three thousand years. However, the TPP can still be stopped and I urge anyone with voting rights in the concerned countries to vote only for parties that are fundamentally opposed to the agreement.
Traveling around Japan I often meet idealistic young farmers who are putting their livelihoods on the line to keep the countryside of Japan alive but there is absolutely no chance of them being able to stand in the face of the TPP. And with them the rural train lines, like this one.
The Grand Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo’s historic Asakusa district is one of the biggest in the country and this year it was the 700th anniversary as well. It’s famous for being overwhelmingly crowded even though it is spread out over several city blocks. It’s a three day event, all building up to the big ending on the Sunday night where three of the main omikoshi, the portable shrines, get to be presented in front of the great temple Sensoji, approaching through the Kaminarimon (the gate of thunder) where the traditional lantern has been raised. It’s possible to witness this from the front of the temple but only a few hundreds can fit in the small area that is made even smaller by huge portable metal gates being rolled out to restrict access. I wasn’t one of those brave people up front this year so I stayed out in front of the Kaminarimon to see the mayhem up there instead. It was amazing! tens of thousands of people had crowded in front of the gate when the priests showed up. And at just that moment, even though the main street had been closed for traffic during the whole day someone decided that it was time for the city buses to start running on their normal routes again. The whole crowd let out a collective groan as the lone police officer tried to tell people to move aside, much easier said than done. It took quite some time for the bus to move through the crowds and we all cheered and clapped when the first bus passed us, the few passengers inside looked really surprised to be getting this almost royal treatment and waved back at us. And then the omikoshi came, at first the elders tried to tell us gently to step back as the beast of a thing came lumbering towards us on its feet of dozens of bearers, when that didn’t work they yelled, and finally pushed as people scrambled to get out of the way of a couple of ton of lumber, metal and men. For some reason the crowd made it and no-one was hurt, not even the little kids next to me! I wasn’t able to take any photos of the scramble as I was busy staying on two feet and keeping my camera from becoming too friendly with the asphalt. Great fun by all and lost of cheering when the omikoshi was presented to the shrine and disappeared to make the last journey towards the main temple building. Being unable to follow that part I took some photos of the usually superbly calm police officers looking as cool as always!