The Origami City [Tokyo, Japan]

by - June 11, 2019

“Tokyo was an origami city folded over and over until something was made of virtually nothing.” 
―Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

Sometimes, someplace will leave you feeling some kind of way, and nothing that you put into words seems to come anywhere near describing the experience you've had. This is precisely why I still struggle to recount some of my trips in my blog months, even years after the fact. But the world goes on and I may as well try, lest time begins to eat away at my fondest memories, beginning with my journey to a place I've dreamed of seeing ever since my days of watching Samurai Jack on Cartoon Network: the Land of the Rising Sun itself. Join me, dear reader, and follow me on my way through Japan.

After the conclusion of our layover in Qatar, which you can read about in this post, we were ready to take Tokyo by storm! Although we were not expecting it to be quite so literal... upon our landing, parts of Japan were struck by the worst storm the country had seen in a quarter of a decade, Typhoon Jebi. The ominous rocking of the imposing Boeing did nothing to alert us of this and we attributed it to a combination between turbulence and the sheer mass of the airship. We only realised what had happened once we saw that the Japanese railway, famed for having an average annual delay rate of 0.9 minutes, were either fully stopped or delayed by half an hour or more. Luckily, ours was amongst the delayed ones, and we managed to reach Tokyo, albeit at a fairly late hour, and to locate our hotel in Kabukichō (which is actually the capital's Red Light district. Figures we'd wind up there, somehow).

Before I move on, something I highly recommend if you intend to visit Japan and travel around the country is to look into acquiring a JR Pass for the railways. It saves heaps of money in the long run and was a blessing in times of turmoils, rushing to catch transport and wandering through areas with very few signs in English.

Before we went to bed, we made a loose plan for what to do on the following day. Our first task in the morning would be to locate any traditional ramen shop nearby (you know, the kind where a friendly gentleman prepares the noodles and broth right in front of you whilst you watch from behind a bar). It didn't take long for us to find one, but it certainly took longer to figure out how the self-order machine worked. Thankfully, the man working there was very pleasant and eagerly lent a hand to two utterly jetlagged and entirely bewildered foreigners. Task complete!

As luck would have it, one of the things we wanted to see in Tokyo, the Samurai Museum, happened to be right down the road from us. The entrance, although constructed and adorned in the traditional Japanese style, seemed oddly unassuming, sandwiched between two modern-day apartment blocks. And indeed, the inside of it, though beautiful to behold, was smaller than what we'd expected (and I say that with no negative note). You could only see the museum with a guided tour, so we wandered the gift shop as we waited. Funnily enough, the shopkeeper was not only incredibly sweet, but he'd also spent a fair amount of time living in my home city of Sofia, Bulgaria, with his former partner. He said that he would return there in a heartbeat if he were offered a convenient opportunity, which made me unabashedly proud of my mother country.

We needed not wait long, before our tour guide arrived and took our small group around. The armour sets and weaponry were gorgeous, some more intricately crafted than others, but each of them telling a long history of the Japanese people. Our guide was friendly and responded to any questions with ease and a smile on his face. We even got to try out some of the weapons and armour, but we decided to forego the full dressing experience. Many of the things I learned on this tour, I have recounted in my set of Instagram photos from the trip.

 After that, we navigated the Tokyo trains system (which proved less painful than we'd imagined, no thanks to my basic knowledge and understanding of the Japanese language) and made our way to Asakusa, the centre of Tokyo's "low-city", or shitamachi. Our main goal was to see for ourselves the Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dating back to the 7th century. The Nakamise shopping street leading up to this main tourist attraction was bustling with life and colour, as dozens of people had taken advantage of the renting service for a traditional yukata and were brandishing floral motives in every colour of the rainbow. I personally did not feel comfortable renting one myself, though I have come to sorely regret my choice and am determined to do it the next time I visit Japan.

Sensō-ji was a beautiful sight to behold, being the oldest temple in Tokyo. You reach it after passing beneath the imposing Kaminarimon, or "Thunder Gate", and between the statues of the Shinto kami, or gods, Fūjin and Raijin, respectfully of wind and thunder. Fujin is a wizard-like deity who carries a bag full of winds with him. Raijin is a demonic deity who beats drums to summon thunder. The rivalry between the two oft create thunderstorms and in such weather, parents will sometimes tell their children to hide their bellybuttons. It is rumoured that Raijin likes to eat children's abdomens and this way he could not spot them and take them away. Another one of the temple's distinguishing features is the giant red lantern hanging at the very entrance, which boasts the most delicate wood carving of a dragon on its bottom.

 Having seen the temple, we set out to explore the marketplace for its enticing food and souvenirs. We ended up coming across one of Japan's infamous owl cafés and, after much consideration, discussion over the animals' welfare with the owls' caretakers and a fair amount of money spent on mobile data for Googling, we decided that this particular place treated the animals ethically enough for us to go in. More on this visit will be coming up in a dedicated post!

 The rest of our day was spent in aimless wandering beneath the towering neon skyscrapers and traditional temples of Tokyo, a city which attracts almost 14 million people on a working day. Needless to say, we did not get very far, and the three days allotted to us for seeing it were not nearly enough to even scratch the surface. The third of these days, I did not record in photos, for we wanted to immerse ourselves in the moment before we set out on our travels. We did, however, visit an arcade for the first time in my life whilst exploring the Akihabara district, every otaku's heaven. Pictured below is my woefully undignified loss at Street Fighter. Oh, well. The highlight of our second day was visiting the teamLab Borderless modern art museum, which will, again, be detailed in writing and imagery in an upcoming post.

 What left an instant and lasting impression on us was the politeness with which we were greeted everywhere we went - a smile, a "Welcome", a traditional bow. The western world likes to refer to the British as the embodiment of politeness, but if that is the case, then the Japanese people are aggressively well-mannered. Everybody was ready and willing to help out a foreigner. Tokyo was also pristine clean, neater than any capital I had seen in my travels thus far. You could read about the Japanese lifestyle, their respect for nature and other people, their hardworking nature, their impeccable etiquette, and yet still be taken by surprise once you are actually immersed in this atmosphere. It is a culture shock of the most pleasant kind.

For now, I leave you with these photographs and tales of a city which somehow manages to combine nature and industrialisation in a way that seems not only beautiful, but also voids any argument that nature and technological advancements are juxtapositions, when really they are capable of peacefully coexisting and nurturing each other.

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