Saturday January 17, 1998

At 10:00 we met Okimoto-san in the hotel lobby. As always he was bright-eyed and ready for anything. He asked us where we wanted to go, and I countered with asking his advice first. His first suggestion was the Tokyo National Museum, where I thought we could go tomorrow and get around easily without Japanese. He agreed. His second suggestion was Asakusa, which was where I wanted to go today. So a consensus was easily agreed upon. The weather was partly cloudy but we felt it would hold off the rain for us, and it did.

We took a taxi to the Thunder Gate where we met the many pigeons of this special area and had our first photos taken under the huge red paper lantern with the character for thunder.

overcast skies

on the great red lantern


We started off down the street Nakamise (Inner Shops) which was crammed with tile-covered stalls selling cheap, gaudy toys, special crackers, kimono and happy coats in a carnival midway atmosphere. The street was crowded with young couples, all dressed very smartly. We were constantly being appraised for what we were and were not, and what of our style was worth borrowing.

At the end of the street was the Hondoh, the Main Hall of the temple rearing up an impressive more than two stories high above the milling crowds. In a huge bronze 'wishing well' were whole bundles of incense burning in colossal clouds. Instead of using water for purification, the people scooped up the incense smoke to pat it on their bodies where they needed cleansing or even additional spiritual help.

As I was patting myself with the smoke on my shoulders, I happened to look up to see that directly across the cauldron was a man, with his eyes closed, seriously patting the smoke on the top of his head. I got the impression he did it to be smarter. Thinking that was a good idea (I would like to become smarter, too) I patted more smoke to the top of my head. Just then he looked up and saw me imitating him. He smiled broadly and scooped up more smoke and exaggerated his motions, as I followed his example, also smiling my broadest. Pretty soon, we were laughing out loud which was incongruous because everyone else was so serious about being purified. The special moment only lasted a few seconds but I felt it was very meaningful. I watch him as he told his wife about our exchange, but she gave me a hard look like she did not find anything funny about it at all. Our connection was so positive and so complete, I had the feeling we were sharing a joke from another life that transcended the language barrier.

It was so helpful to have Okimoto-san with us to explain the signs we could not read. For the first time I felt comfortable within the temple knowing he would not let us do anything accidentally disrespectful. The sun came out and we shot photos of each other quickly as if we knew how fast our visit was going and that the clouds were massing at the edges of the high buildings grouped around the open space of the temple grounds.

We went inside the temple when we both ran out of film at the same time. On the temple porch was something new to me. People were lined up at these tall wooden cabinets with many tiny, flat drawers identified with Japanese characters. On the metal covered shelf was a hexagonal metal canister with one tiny hole in one end. After dropping a 100 yen coin (80 cents) in the table slot, people would shake the canister, then turn it over so one long wooden stick emerged from the hole. On a flattened area of the stick were some characters. By matching these characters with those on the little drawers, one could open the proper drawer to retrieve a sheet of paper with one's fortune on it.

While Okimoto-san and Werner discussed cameras I wandered over and got in line. Just as I got my fortune stick out and was wondering how I would ever find the right drawer, Okimoto-san was at my side helping me. How delighted I was to find that my fortune was also given in English. And it was very strange:

No. 26 - Regular Fortune

Thousands of soldiers obey you without failure to the order and dignity of the General. All soldiers even to the far countries will be the same by your order. To get win or to loose [sic] are unknown while they attack the enemy's castle. Show why the great honor (indifferent) in defeating the enemy, is not worth while so much to the people. * You request will be granted. * The patient will get well. *The lost article will be found soon. *It is good to start a trip. *Marriage and employment are all well.

I wanted Okimoto-san to try his luck and dropped the money in against his wishes. Oh, he drew out bad luck because I had pushed. I was sorry. We got Werner out of the wind where he was watching people so intently he did not realize how cold he was. Werner tried the stick trick and he drew out:

#18 - Good Fortune

The cloudy sky will get more and more clear and the moon will appear. The linen robe turns into a green one. [?] What you've been troubled for a long time will soon begin to fade away. Your virtue and happiness reveal themselves.

Pleased with ourselves, we let Okimoto-san pay for his own luck this time. As soon as he saw his number he knew he had good luck. He opened the drawer and took out the paper. As we read it, we realized that someone had mixed up the fortunes because he had the very same paper as Werner had - even out of a different drawer. We felt some mystical situation was being played out just above our heads.

We tossed our coins in the metal-barred vat, clapped our hands and said our prayers. Mine was thanksgiving that Nakajima-san had offered to personally give the Majesties our books.

praying to Kannon

"May the Majesties enjoy

our books, too"

We stood as long as we could staring into the great golden-plated inner shrine that celebrates the finding of a tiny golden statue of Kannon a fisherman found in a sea bream in 628. The whole inner temple was draped with fishing nets, but this was not for decoration:

compassion goddess

in her temple

the many pigeons

From the high porch of the temple we had great view of the Diabutsu, a smaller replica of the one we were not seeing in Kamakura today. Next to it was a shrine 'owned' by two ugly temple cats who were very possessive about their territory.

fresh flowers

before the unknown shrine

two motley cats

Off to our left the five-story pagoda abbots' quarters made a pleasing photograph to mix China and Japan. We started to go to the Chingo-doh temple, dedicated to raccoons [or badgers?] with enormous testicles, but a grumpy food vendor who refused to let me photograph him, turned us back and we walked around the temple grounds from the other direction. It was probably a saving grace. I do not know how Okimoto-san could have told us the stories about those big-balled raccoons which I had also seen as statues outside a restaurant in the area of our hotel.

In a side plaza where the crowds were less, the temporary food stalls more varied. Many of them were baking pancakes. One man had written his name in pancake dough and fried it. Another was baking the pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste in iron forms so they made golden sea bream. I got one for Werner and he had great fun eating it and sharing it with me. Okimoto-san seemed to think he had children at the fair.

Also around the shrine were many booths selling talismans and souvenirs. I had wanted to get Ashley one of the manekineko (the white cats with a paw raised to wave or beckon to customers). At first I was shocked at how high the prices were. The farther we walked, the lower the prices became. It turned into a game between us that made the getting by the gaudy booths easier.

Between this variety of county fair-like booths were sprinkled exclusive shops selling very expensive, handmade wares. One shop featured tortoise shell combs, hair pins, and other jewelry. Just after I told Okimoto-san that it was illegal for us as Americans to take tortoise shell goods into the states, Werner offered to buy one for me as a birthday gift. I felt I could not let him buy something I would have to worry about at the immigration gate, so we quickly walked on to another shop I had eyed on the way up the street.

It, too had far less items offered and these seemed of better quality. High on the wall were imitation, I know, masks from the Noh theater. I had liked so much the face of the middle-aged woman mask in the play and wanted to be able to look upon that face more at home. Werner picked wooden dolls portraying the fierce-looking evil-chaser instead of a mask, though he was very tempted by a bulging-eyed demon mask.

Finally, at the very edge of the cheap-booth area, I found manekineko, the cat that waved to me and got it for Ashley. By now it was after one o'clock and the good smells from the tiny restaurants lining the alleyways behind the souvenir booths began to attract us. Somehow Chinese food was agreed upon and within a couple streets, Okimoto-san had us sitting into a cozy corner of a clean and comfortable restaurant where we could watch the whole family cooking. The first time the whole stove erupted in a blaze I was ready to bolt for the door. Later, we learned to enjoy the show of seeing food and cook engulfed in flames.

Individual bowls of soup were served in family-sized tureens. That looked like too much to eat so we only ordered rice and the half-moon dumplings I recognized on the pictorial menu from our meal on Thursday. The rice came as Chinese fried rice with eggs and bits of ham which was a delicious surprise. Even Okimoto-san enjoyed the fried dumplings with us. I was surprised they did not have hot tea. They only served beer and cold tea in glass bottles. It was good and not at all bitter as our iced tea can be.

During the meal, the skies had gotten more and more cloudy, so when we went back into the streets, strong and ready to shop, we headed for a covered arcade where the furs and jewels were offered. One jewelry store was having a sale, but even discounted the prices were unreal. I saw a ring -- the biggest one in my life -- the stone [jade or moonstone?] was over two inches long and an inch wide and surrounded with a blaze of diamonds. One would get a tennis-elbow just waving such a ring about under the nose of one's enemies.

After that fun, things got serious as we found a tiny store selling obi [the wide waist bands women wear with kimono] and the woven ties kabuki actors wear with their costumes. Some of the obi were closer to being works of modern art than clothing. I was fascinated and the lone shopkeeper lady seemed glad for the company while we just looked. Okimoto-san charmed her out of her socks which gave us time to stare at and enjoy endless rolls of beautiful silk.

As we were ready to finally leave, Werner and I could not go without one tiny remembrance of this warm experience, so we got a cotton belt for men woven in two colors for about $32. In silk the same tie was priced at $320.00. The lady was so very gracious, wrapping our small purchase in exquisite paper, giving us a calendar, a map to get back to her shop should we ever come again. All this was then put into one of her beautifully designed shopping bags. With this purchase and her stories of kabuki actors who shopped in her store (she had posters on the wall of her favorite customers) was born my desire to go to the kabuki theater, also.

Our hands were getting filled with shopping bags so it seemed time to go back to the hotel. Here we had time to rest, write some diary notes and postcards to children. Our room was beginning to feel like home to us. Warm and cozy, satisfied from a rich and beautiful temple experience, we were not sorry to have missed going off by ourselves to Kamakura.

Proceed to Sunday January 18 , 1998.