Rice ball and coins outside small Nakano shrine


Saying a brief prayer at my local shrine, I was startled to see that another visitor had left a saran-wrapped onigiri (rice ball) next to a small pile of coins on the threshold. I guess the local gods enjoy earthly food as well as currency.

Shrine entrance invites tree lovers and prayers


I bike to school on Yamate Dori, one of Tokyo’s modern ring roads. It’s currently under construction and rather ugly: a freeway underground, a 6 lane road on the surface, sidewalks torn up, new and mostly undistinguishable apartment buildings. On this ride from Nakano to Shibuya, one of the highlights is glimpsing the stairs leading up to this tree-filled shrine. I stopped and found out that it is Yoyogi-Hachiman shrine. I haven’t made it up the stairs yet, but it beckons as an inviting escape from the more functional, profane city racing by it.

Spirits, lights, food, prayers, & drinking at summer festival

I managed to visit the Hanazono festival in May twice, once during the day and once at night. In the nighttime, the lights, food, and atmosphere are magical. I particularly like the mix of the spiritual with eating and drinking. A large public space that normally serves as a quiet place with a few people stopping briefly for prayer becomes full of people and celebration.

Hanazono is particularly interesting because of its Shinjuku location in the heart of commerce, commuters, and night life. In all the festivals, the stalls sell the same types of food: yakisoba, okonomiyaki, hot dogs on a stick, fruit encased in clear candy, chocolate bananas, and newer imports like shwarma (called “kebob” in Japan). It seems that the stall operators travel from festival to festival, and I have heard that this business is controlled by the yakuza.

I like how everything that is separate in Western culture gets mixed together in Japan: prayer and eating, spirituality and fun, the sacred and the ordinary. Rows of lanterns hung high signal the special event and add an extra sense of festivity.

Walking in Aoyama and Harajuku

On a walk through Aoyama and Harajuku this winter, I entered Hatomori jinja, a beautiful green space with a shrine and and Noh theater.

It was strange to be in an urban oasis of trees and greenery and see this glass encased theater decorated with an elaborate pine tree painting.

Is art civilizing nature? Or is nature sheltering art? I do not understand much about Noh theater but I love how the image of an idealized pine assumes a sacred and formal role in the performance.

Across from the Noh theater is the shrine itself. Because it is winter, there is a circle of rice straw you walk through in order to enter the shrine. I love how this shrine had visual signs about how to wash your hands, and the proper way to pray. Japanese can be very precise in providing step-by-step instructions.

Aoyama is a mostly wealthy neighborhood, and includes a famous ginko lined street as well as the Crown Prince’s residence in Togu Gosho. There are many good-looking modern buildings, too. I was surprised to see this ruined old building.

Finally, heading into Harajuku, I saw an apartment building named Maison Harajuku covered in plants. I believe that it is a single vine originating from the right side of the front of the building. How long could it have taken for the vine to cover the building? What maintenance is required to keep it from swallowing the building?