Sensoji shrine

We at last managed to pay for the second week at J Residence – having been so keen to get her hands on our cash on day one, the manageress had been strangely insouciant about the second payment, telling us that “later” or “Saturday” would be better.  It made me worry that she’d messed up and we weren’t really going to be able to stay, and the cheapest available place on was now well over £100 a night.


Ritual washing

With our Pasmo cards successfully topped up we headed for Asakusa.  The weather was cool and dull but not actually wet, so the crowds were out in force.  The approach to Sensoji shrine starts at a large red torii, the traditional Japanese gate or archway – beyond, a narrow pedestrian street was lined with tat and snack stalls but they were barely visible for the mass of people.  The red painted shrine was wreathed in incense smoke from the black iron cauldren in front, and to the right was a fountain with visitors dipping ladles and pouring water over their hands in ritual cleansing before approaching the shrine itself.


Leaving bad luck behind

My attention was drawn by an incessant rattling sound and after a minute or two’s study I figured out the system – shake a tub of wooden sticks while making your wish, and when one emerges from the hole in the top check the number on it and open the drawer corresponding to the number.  So I did.  The piece of paper in the drawer contained the verdict on your wish – if it was good you took it away with you, if not you tied it to a handily placed rail to leave your bad luck behind.  Like at every shrine we vistied subsequently, hundreds and hundreds of paper fortunes fluttered on wires like tiny white swallows.  Only afterwards did I realise that I was supposed to have paid ¥100 before I shook out the stick – oh well, I guess my verdict wasn’t valid then (which is fine, because it wasn’t an optimistic one!).  I suspect the omikuji at most shrines are not written in English and Chinese as well as Japanese, but at a shrine with so many tourists it’s only good business sense to cater to them.


Torjii at Sensoji

At the top of the stairs leading to the actual shrine the crowds were thick, and there was a constant clinking of coins being cast into a hopper.  A sign announced that entry to the shrine was restricted to regular worshippers that day due to a ceremony being in progress, but when I managed to get close enough to the grille to peer through, nothing was happening.  So we went for a wander in the shrine’s garden and watched the koi carp for a while.

Temple garden in Asakusa

Temple garden in Asakusa

For the first time we saw women wearing kimono – on this occasion it was young women, in a small group of kimono clad friends or with a boyfriend dressed in ordinary clothes.  It seems that traditional Japanese wear is enjoying a renaissance – understandably, since it’s very pretty (although not terribly practical).  However one of the kimono wearers was a white American girl and that looked a bit odd really, like someone in fancy dress – she clearly thought she looked the bee’s knees, but actually the bright kimono made her look pale and washed out.

Restaraunts in Asakusa

Restaraunts in Asakusa

Back out through the main entrance we turned right to get away from the packed approach road, into an area of low rise shops, and restaurants with outdoor tables shielded from the weather with sheets of polythene – oddly, they reminded me of Paris bistros.  Rather than fight for a table in the Saturday lunchtime crowds, we bought snacks from a Familymart and ducked back into the metro to head for Akihabara.



Akihabara is otaku territory.  Misfits?  Nerds?  There isn’t an exact English translation.  If the main characters of The Big Bang Theory were Japanese, they would be otaku.  Fans of manga and anime congregate in Akihabara to play in the arcades, buy computer games and collectibles, and read comics.  We went into a place at random – the first couple of floors sold discount goods, but the 3rd floor was filled with young guys (and a very few girls) playing fast paced video games.  The noise was deafening.  Most games seemed to be the kind that required fast reflexes to navigate obstacles or manipulate objects on the screen, but there were also music games – a pair of guys were dancing in front of one screen, mimicking the movements of a winsome, mini-skirted young woman (cartoon, of course), their perfomance tracked by movement sensors and the verdict flashed on the screen.  In another corner a skinny teenager in a sweat soaked T-shirt was following visual instructions on where to place his feet on a pressure sensitive mat.  He gripped a rail behind his back to support his body, enabling his feet to move so fast they were just a blur.  Around the corner were young men trying to beat the odds against those notoriously rigged claw machines – seemingly the opportunity to aquire a plastic, skimpily clad doll was just irresistible.

You have been warned!

You have been warned!

Passing a display of what looked like party dresses for 4-year olds but in adult sizes, and a section of French maid costumes, we rode the escalator up to the next floor.  Signs with pictures of mobile phones warned us to “Watch out for Upskirting!”.  A nice clientele they get!  The games on the next floor were more serious – role plays in fantasy worlds, simulators, and shoot em up games.  The players here were older and the place reeked of cigarettes (Japan is oddly behind the times when it comes to smoking – it’s even allowed in restaurants).  Part of this floor was given over to a maid cafe, for which there was a lengthy queue. Paying a ¥500 each cover charge to be served cutesy food by pretty girls in frilly maid costumes wasn’t on our to do list, even though there was a possibility that they might sing, dance, or want to stir our coffee or play a game with us.  Actually, especially because they might do those things.



Up another floor was another queue – this time to buy tickets to see AKB48, who have their own theatre in the building.  AKB48 are a Japanese pop senstation, a girl band to outnumber all girl bands.  Originally a troop of 48 (the AKB bit stands for Akihabara), there are now around 140 of them, all under 25 and many much younger, performing in teams to churn out bubblegum pop, and playing rock, paper, scissors to win a place in the lineup for the next single release. They are not allowed to to drink, do drugs or have boyfriends, on pain of expulsion.  Their pictures adorned the walls – all dressed in a kind of stripey school uniform and pigtails, making it hard to tell one from another – none looked older than 15.  Supposedly their fan base is pre pubescent girls, but the queue appeared mostly to be 30+ men.  Okaaaayyyy….

These are promotional girls, but their clothes are nothing unusal.

These are promotional girls, but their clothes are nothing unusal.

Close by was an anime store.  The manga comics on the ground floor were innocuous enough – although I struggle to see their appeal to perfectly literate adults, I can see that there is skill in the drawings.  The upper floors were more disturbing.  I guess if a grown man (or woman) wants to purchase a provocatively posed, half naked plastic figurine it’s odd but harmless, but mentally I drew the line at the pornographic cartoon software.  It wasn’t so much the very explicit poses on the covers, or the implausibly large breasts, as the fact that the girls’ huge eyes and little pointed chins made them look about 8.  Apparently anime is exempt from Japan’s child pornography possession laws (which, incredibly, were only introduced last year) – the argument being that because it’s not real, no children are harmed.  But to me it gives a green light to the sexualisation of young children, and it puts the childlike fashions of young Japanese women in a rather distateful light.


A Beating Angel, presumably

On the way to the station some kind of event was taking place – some people on a temporary stage under a marquee, watched by a few dozen young blokes, and a car decked out with an “Angel Beats” livery (yup, you guessed it – sexy, stocking clad anime little girls, this time with guitars).  I’ve no idea what was going on.  We passed another maid cafe and this time we could see the food (well, plastic versons of it) – rice teddy bears slept under omelette blankets, heart shaped desserts bore chocolate sauce messages of love, burgers had ketchup faces, and ice cream kittens peeped out of sundae glasses.  Kawaiiiii!!!

Cute and overpriced

Cute and overpriced

We took the Yamanote line back to Shinjuku, an above ground line that circles central Tokyo.  Unfortunately we took a wrong turning when we left Shinokubo station, so our walk home through the dusk and drizzle was much longer than planned – that bottle of wine we bought yesterday felt well deserved.

Plastic model vending machines in an Akibihara street

Plastic model vending machines in an Akihabara street

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