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Japan: Nippori

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Nippori | Japan | Asia

[Visited: March 2015]

The weather forecast suggested it would rain all day, but when I arrive at Tokyo Station, it is dry, and I even see a small patch of blue sky. I decide to go to Nippori, an old neighbourhood in Tokyo I had wanted to visit since a long time. Nippori station seems quite busy, but as soon as I take the north exit, I am the only one walking up a steep, narrow street. It brings me directly to the Tenno-ji, or Heaven King, Temple. Even though the temple is obviously not one of the big, impressive and famous temples of Tokyo, it belongs to the important Tendai sect of Buddhist tradition in Japan. On its premises, there is plenty to explore. Small Buddhist figures carved out of stone, flowers, carefully cut trees, wooden buildings, and a neatly shaped courtyard. The main draw is, however, the sitting Buddha, cast in bronze, after the much larger one in Kamakura, back in 1690. The prayer hall is locked, and I can only peek through a small window in the wooden sliding doors.

Picture of Nippori (Japan): Stone lanterns and tombs at Yanaka cemetery

Outside, teenagers are on their way to school with brightly coloured backpacks, chatting to each other while walking down the road. I am not on my way to school, but cross the road instead, and enter Yanaka cemetery. The Nippori neighbourhood has not been bombed during the Second World War, and as a consequence, not only its old houses are still standing, but so are the old tombs. The cemetery turns out to be surprisingly large, and I roam the lanes lined with mostly greyish graves, frequently adorned with fresh flowers. There are trees, but winter is coming to an end, and most of them are just brown, and do not add life to this place of the dead. There is a constant sound of running trains, and often, of black crows flying overhead. Yanaka cemetery is intersected by several roads, and on the northern side, I come across several larger tombs. One of them has circular tombs, and belongs to Tokugawa Toshinobu, the last shogun of the Edo shogunate who died in 1913. There are also stray cats around: this large, quiet open space must be paradise for them.

Picture of Nippori (Japan): Stone lantern in a neatly tended courtyard of Tennon-ji Temple

At the other side of Yanaka cemetery, I enter the neighbourhood itself. Bustling and crazy Tokyo seems to be far away: the streets are so narrow that in some of them, cars cannot even pass each other, the houses are often made of wood, and old, and instead of glitzy shopping malls, there are small stores, often selling stuff for a niche market. One of them is dedicated to cats, and roaming through it, I am amazed at how much you can make out of cats. The owner is a friendly guy, speaks some English, and points out that the cemetery behind is full of cats. Cruising through the neighbourhood, I come across many small Buddhist shrines, all of them very quiet, most of them with small cemeteries themselves. At times, one shrine sits right next to the other. At one of them, I am puzzled about what I see. Two brand new minivans are parked outside, and a kind of priest in a traditional Japanese dress seems to be blessing them with a wooden pole with metal pieces dangling from its top. Inside, three well-dressed men are seated, heads bowed. When the priest comes in, he performs all kinds of rituals: he plays the big drum, sings, swings the same metal pole device over the heads of the men who do not utter a word. At the end of it, the men walk up, laugh, and drive away, while the priest closes the temple, and retreats in a wooden shack at the side of the temple. I assume this to be a ceremony to bless the new vans, and am once again reminded that even though the objects may be new, Japan still is a country where traditions are very important. Just a few minutes walk away, I step on a train again, and am back from Traditional Tokyo to Metropole Tokyo.

Picture of Nippori (Japan): Six Buddhist statues with red caps at Kannon-ji Temple
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Stone carved Buddhist figures at Tenno-ji Temple
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Sitting Buddha carved in bronze, modeled after the one at Kamakura in 1690
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Statue on lotus flower at Tenno-ji Temple
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Female Buddha and baby cast out of bronze at Kannon-ji Temple
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Religious figures on lotus flowers carved out of moss-covered stone at Kannon-ji Temple
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Flowers and wooden sticks adorning a tomb at Yanaka cemetery
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Sculpture of female nude at a tomb of Yanaka cemetery
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Woman cycling one of the many small streets of the Nippori neighbourhood
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Yanaka cemetery, where apart from old graves, you can find trees, and stray cats
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shogun of the Edo shogunate, is buried in this grave in Yanaka cemetery
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Kannon-ji Temple seen from the small courtyard
Picture of Nippori (Japan): Tree-lined street running through Yanaka cemetery

Around the World in 80 Clicks

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