Food First, Then Morals

Some time in the early morning I’m woken up by a crow squaking so loudly, it sounds like it’s in our room. Shutting the window is enough to drown out the noise, then a few more hours of precious sleep. Eventually, waking life asserts itself. With great lethargy we slowly pull ourselves out of bed. After a long hot shower, I’m sufficiently awake to start thinking about the day ahead.

‘Beep, beep’, a text message arrives, Yuko is ready and waiting for us.

We go downstairs and meet her in the lobby. There’s no breakfast in our guesthouse so we leave with the resolute purpose of filling our bellies. We walk towards Sensō-ji, the temple area of Asakusa which is only a few minutes away. None of us know the area, but the girls are sure that there’ll be plenty of restaurants near the temple.

It’s a very reasonable supposition; because temples have always attracted large numbers of people, and because these same people have always needed food after their spiritual exertions, there’s a good chance we’ll be spoilt for culinary choice near one of Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temples. But unlike the pilgrims, we intend to eat before praying, or as Brecht pithily put it, “Food first, then morals”.

We follow the pedestrianized streets that narrow and become alleyways as we draw nearer to the temple. We pass little shops selling souvenirs, others stores selling all manner of knives & samurai swords and other stores again selling kimonos, scarves and handkerchiefs. There are also a myriad of little stalls selling knick-knacks and trinkets to the many visitors. But we don’t waiver from our purpose: a nice restaurant catches our eye, and we enter. It’s a quaint little place of wooden panelling, rice paper screens and hanging lamps; it also has a choice of seating styles: upright on benches or cross-legged on the cushioned floors. I reassure my Japanese friends that I’ll be able for the floor, so we leave our shoes on the floor and the three of us sit around a low table with a hot plate embedded in the centre.

We’re given a menu, but before I look at it, Yuko recommends monjayaki (a speciality of the Tokyo area) and yakisoba (a heavily Japanesed version of chow mein) and so that’s what we order. Both these dishes require us to fry and cook the food ourselves. Shortly after we order, the hot plate in our table is turned on and we psyche ourselves up for the task ahead:

In general Japanese food choice isn’t as segregated by meal type as Western food. There aren’t certain dishes that you can only have for breakfast (e.g. cereal, or a fry) or dinner (potatoes, steak, stew). It was around 11 a.m so our meal could be either breakfast or lunch, but which it was didn’t affect our choice of food. A welcome side-effect of this liberal approach is that one can have food for breakfast that goes very well with beer, and that’s exactly what we do; so before we eat even a morsel of food that morning:

‘Kampai!’

Since there’s no cooking required of the chef, our food (i.e. ingredients) for the first dish (monjayaki) arrives very quickly. Yuko has cooked this food before, so she leads the way:

First we oil up the hot plate:

Then we take that bowl of noodles, prawns, sweetcorn, marinated ginger, onions, shrimp, squid, cabbage, corn, mochi (sticky rice) and tarako (cod eggs)…

And pour it on to the oiled-up plate:

We fry it up:

Then form a circle with the noodles and pour in the sauce of flour and fish stock into the middle,

The result is a sort of pancake, which with so many ingredients, is absolutely delicious. We’re done eating when the ingredients for the second dish (yakisoba) arrive and we repeat the whole process again. And once again, the food is delicious.

On the tatami mats beside us are two Japanese families with young children, already fluent in chop sticks and sitting cross-legged. In school all Japanese perfect their chop stick skills by transferring individual grains of rice from one vessel to another. It still takes me a degree of concentration, but I’m starting to get the knack of eating with chop sticks: when they witness my efforts, my two Japanese co-diners are effusive with praise.

Despite it being a very sunny day outside, the interior of the restaurant has very little natural light and the overhead lamps provide a slightly yellowed luminence. The combined effect of the finely polished wooden floor, table and panelling, the beautifully embroidered cushions for seating, and the rice paper screens behind us gives this tourist a very strong sense of being in the ‘Orient’. In addition to this ‘atmosphere’ of a foreign land, Japan is also a place of intriguing details where close looking is rewarded – on the rice paper screen behind us I notice a small and beguiling illustration:

We finish, then fetch our shoes, pay and leave. Satisfyingly full, we now go to investigate the Senso-ji temple more thoroughly. Since the temple is the central landmark in the area, to some extent all the surrounding roads and paths lead to it; there are also many different gates one can pass through before reaching the temple. However, the Kaminarimon or Thunder Gate is the most popular and that’s where we go. On a North-South axis from the temple, it is a grand wooden structure with a sweeping tiled roof. An gigantic lantern hangs down in the middle of the entrance, on which is written ‘Thunder Gate’. Since it is one of the landmarks of Old Tokyo, it’s de-rigeur to stand under it for a photo and there’s no way I’m going to be let away:

We meander along the path that leads in from the Thunder gate to the main temple area. The temple itself was founded in the 7th century after two local fisherman caught up a statue of Buddhist deity, Kannon, in their nets. Since that time, the temple has been demolished and rebuilt many times, most recently following the firebombing of Tokyo during the second world war, which obliterated the city.

We stroll along the long line of shops selling colourful dolls and masks, kimonos and yukatas, folding fans, folkcrafts and numerous other little trinkets. Also for sale are many local snacks such as osenbei (rice crackers) or octopus balls. As we get nearer the temple, the crowds thicken. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and everyone’s out for the day.

On the way we pass a cherry blossom tree. Despite nearly all such trees in Tokyo having lost their cherry blossoms some weeks ago, this one is still in bloom. By itself it looks a bit forlorn and it only really holds my attention for the lack of impact it has, compared to the more stereotyped image of cherry blossom extravagance.

But Yuko can’t pass by without taking a picture with her camera phone. As she’s snapping, I photograph her. It’s a simple photo but I’m quite pleased with its two contrasting elements: a 1000 year old Japanese tradition – admiring cherry blossoms, in the midst of the modern Japan – the use of innovative electronic products for everyday living. This combination of the ancient and the modern is something the Japanese seem to manage effortlessly.

We approach Hozomon gate which is lined on both sides with a sequence of hanging lanterns. At first, I take these lanterns to be decorated with old proverbs, sutras or some such wise saying.

But it turns out they’re merely the names of the local businesses who have donated money to maintain the upkeep of the temple. We pass through the Hozomon gate entering the central area surrounding the temple itself.

In the inner courtyard, we take a break and have some free green tea. We then press on towards the temple itself. We pass a little well billowing smoke which is surrounded by people eagerly trying to ‘catch’ the smoke with their hands and redirect it onto themselves. Sachiko explains that they’re attempting to get the smoke onto whatever part of their bodies that ails them. Sounds crazy but there are lots of people who look like they’re having fun.

We carry on, travelling up the steps into the temple itself. There’s quite a melee of people now, all ages and all pressing forward. The polite reserve of Japan seems to have been left behind, everyone is enthusiastic to get inside and we’re carried up the steps into a large sanctum, where people are massing up in front of some kind of central shrine. The people at the front of the crowd are throwing coins into a enormous donation box and then bowing a few times in prayer; however, there’s such a throng of people that even before many have reached the top of the ‘queue’, they’re flinging coins over the heads of others and then bowing and praying in the middle of everyone else. By this stage I’ve lost my friends who I can’t see anywhere. It’s all a bit mad, so I withdraw and walk around the rest of the inner sanctum.

After a few moments, I find Sachiko and Yuko who are about to indulge in some fortune telling. The process is simple enough, although I never would have figured it out by myself: a large tube is handed around, in turn each person shakes it and out of a tiny hole removes one stalk; this stalk has a number on it, which sends you to a corresponding drawer; out of this drawer, you take a sheet on which is written your fortune. Both Yuko and I do it and we both we get “No. 3 Bad Fortune Luck”. Helpfully it’s written in English, and so I learn exactly what the gods have planned for me. It’s pretty unambiguous.

-Your wishes will not be realized
-A sick person will recover but take a little while
-Making a trip will not be good
-Building a new house and removal are both half fortunate
-Marriage or employment should be stopped
-The lost article will not be found
-The person you are waiting for will show up after a long while

It is quite bleak, but on the one hand I am impressed: my very limited experience with fortune-telling is that you’re generally told what you want to hear, i.e. change is coming but it will be good. Our prediction is remittingly bad. But there’s another part to the ritual and Sachiko’s positive interpretation is quite impressive. The slip of paper detailing our fortune is rolled up tightly and tied around a stand with some wires. In this way the bad luck is externalized and banished. We follow others who are doing the same and walk out into a brighter future.

From the volume of people in and around the temple, it appears that religion in Japan, or this temple at least, is in rude good health. I’m taken aback by this. Japan, and in particular Tokyo, was I thought, a country of science and materialism, where evolution is taught in schools without any protestations. Yet much of the activities in the Senso-ji temple appear comically superstitious. It’s more like a fair or a playground with everyone getting involved, kids wetting their hands at the ablutions shrine, couple laughing with great mirth over what fortunes they’ve been give. In fairness, everyone just seems to be having good fun – there’s a real buzz from the mix of ages and people. There are also some areas of open space with shaded benches, which makes the temple equally important as a place to relax, away from the hurly burly madness of downtown Tokyo.

We hang out for a little while under some orange trees and then we decide to travel to the fish market in the Tokyo dock area. After we leave the temple, we walk down the road passing a few rickshaws, a word that in fact comes from Japanese: jinriksha. We enter the subway, buy our ticket and make our way towards our platform. But all times we take our time, following the instructions from a local sign:

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5 Responses to Food First, Then Morals

  1. Pingback: Zenkoji Temple in Nagano | Lemon Squeezy Japanesy

  2. tokyo5 says:

    >our meal could be either breakfast or lunch

    That’s generally true…but I have never heard of anyone eating “heavy” foods such as Monjya-yaki, Yaki-soba, Sushi, etc for breakfast.
    Japan does have a pretty standard traditional breakfast that includes fish, rice, pickles, soup, etc.

    Anyways, how did you like Tokyo’s “Monjya-yaki“?

    (Please check out my blog about Tokyo:
    http://tokyo5.wordpress.com )

    • finorgan says:

      Thanks for the comment Tokyo5!

      We were rising so late, I guess it was easy to find restaurants serving lunch. On another occasion we had sushi for breakfast and I found that was a really powerful start to the day.

      Monjya-yaki was delicious and the one we had in Asakusa was particulary good. Wasn’t too oily and had lots of tasty ingredients & flavours.

      Is there a bit of rivalry with Osaka and okonomiyaki?

      • tokyo5 says:

        >Thanks for the comment Tokyo5!

        And thank you for commenting on my blog too.

        >On another occasion we had sushi for breakfast

        Yes, there are 24-hours sushi restaurants in Tokyo. I have had sushi for breakfast before, too….but it’s not normally eaten for breakfast.

        >Is there a bit of rivalry with Osaka and okonomiyaki?

        Osaka and Tokyo’s main rivalry is between the baseball teams.
        Around Japan, Okonomiyaki is more popular than Monjayaki.
        Okonomiyaki can be found all over Japan…but Monjayaki isn’t easy to find outside of Tokyo.
        Okonomiyaki and Monjayaki are served in the same restaurants in Tokyo…and people here usually eat both when they go to these restaurants.

      • finorgan says:

        Thanks for the meticulous answer Tokyo5, I’m much more informed on Monjayaki now 🙂

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