Alas, part two is long overdue, I sincerely apologize. The new school year has started with a frenzy, and the last thing I want to do after work is set my gaze on a computer screen. But I promised! So here we go.
…(continued from Part one) We awoke the next morning with a greatly rejuvenated spirit; sleeping in a relatively decent hotel bed after eight months of sleeping on tatami will do that for you. This morning was to be the morning of cultural awkwardness.
First, we headed downstairs for breakfast, during which time we were treated to a conversation with an enthusiastic Japanese man who wanted to practice his English. A normal enough occurrence, until we got to the part where he asked us our heritage. It seems he understood enough about Canada to know most of us are originally from somewhere else. As we confessed our heritage to be Dutch and German (me), and German (astroviper), he said, “Ah, Doitsu,” and gave us a Hiya Hitler salute. When we recoiled in awkwardness, he wanted to make sure we understood that he understood, and he repeated the gesture. We nodded in acknowledgement, and respectfully excused ourselves from the conversation shortly thereafter, but not before he invited us to stay at his family’s home in Kyoto, and gave us his pen as a gift.
We then headed to a famous shrine called Yasukuni Jinja. The shrine is both famous as well as infamous for its enshrinement of convicted war criminals. Political figures who pray at the shrine can cause controversy due to the appearance of paying homage to war criminals. There are, however, many non-war criminal casualties enshrined there as well, but as it was explained to us, since their spirits are all enshrined together, you can’t just remove some of them after the fact. They even had statues of animals of war, such as hounds, horses and birds that aided the armies. Adjacent to the shrine was a small World War II memorial museum, with the token war plane, a couple howitzers, and a historic train engine. Wandering the museum was interesting but again culturally awkward, since unlike the Canadian War Museum, it reflected a different… side, as did the descriptions on many of the plaques. Don’t get me wrong, war casualties are all equally horrible and equally worthy of remembrance, but as a tourist in that environment I felt a vivid sense of not belonging, in the most uncomfortable way.
From there we sought a change of mood and pace in Harajuku, a shopping district of Tokyo known for its crazy youth fashion (and, in my mental repository, Gwen Stefani’s “Harajuku Girls”). The streets were teeming with people, many dressed in the extreme fashions the area is famous for. Our fashion-spotting yielded many people dressed in Lolita, Fruits, and Gothic styles, as well as a few cosplayers. After swimming through the crowd on the main strip, we sought refuge in a small cafe just across the bridge. Honestly, for all the excitement Harajuku had to offer, the cafe was my favourite part. Less than a five minute walk from the fashion-inspired chaos, there was a secluded cabana-style building surrounded by tall trees which blocked out much of the noise, and had delightfully bright green chairs. With a churro in one hand and an iced tea in the other, I experienced the most relaxing (albeit brief) moment I’d had in awhile.
With Harajuku behind us, we continued on to Ueno Park to get in on the sakura (cherry blossom) viewing party action. It was there that we encountered the post-crisis Tokyo spirit firsthand. After wandering down the wide sakura lane, lined on either side by endless groups of revelers, we ventured through the festival-food-vendor’s area. As we neared the end, the ground shook slightly, for just a few moments, an earthquake. It startled us and we must have shown it on our faces, because a nearby vendor lady called out to us in Japanese, “Daijoubu! Ganbaro, Nippon!” Which essentially means, “It’s okay! Let’s all do our best, for Japan!”
Her words gave voice to the atmosphere we encountered during our time in Tokyo, less than a month after the crisis began. Businesses all across the city were running on significantly reduced power, the escalators in many a train station were off, and the giant TV screens and neon signs in the famous Shibuya intersection were dimmed, many even black. The lanterns that traditionally light up the sakura at night weren’t turned on, and while many sakura festivals had been canceled out of sensitivity to the suffering of fellow Japanese, many people still held modest parties, also out of support for their northern neighbours. The hanami (sakura-viewing parties) weren’t held out of disrespect for the tragedy, but to gather together to remember and support those suffering, to paraphrase what I heard several people say in the Japanese news. We may not have seen the lights of Tokyo at their brightest, but the spirit of Tokyo was definitely at its best.