Time Travel on the Streets of Japan

Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Japan is a country that stays rooted in the past as well as the future. To walk the streets of a city like Tokyo is to feel culture and meaning of nearly everything around you from the neon glow of a “Blade Runner type of scenery belying images of a time gone by. Looking forward, while the past is at every turn in Japan. Time travel is alive on the streets of Japan.

The photo above was taken in the town of Asakusa, an older part of Tokyo in the eastern area of old Edo as the city was once called. It’s an important Buddhist temple called Senso-ji. The Senso-ji Kannon temple is dedicated to Kannon Bosatsu, the Bodhisattva of compassion. This temple is the most visited spiritual place in the world at over 30 million visitors a year. Though rebuilt after WW2 bombing, there has been a temple on these grounds since 645 AD.

As you walk in a present day environment, a bit of somber inward reflection seems to connect you with a feeling of those who walked this soil over 1000 years ago. Many of those around you give a momentary prayer or quiet thanks to those who came long ago, that led to the prayer’s existence today. Breaking your gaze, is to move forward in time to the current world around you. In essence, as if you were a time traveler.

Steps of the Killer

Torii (gates) for Hachimangu Shrine.
Torii (gates) for Hachimangu Shrine.

A little south of Tokyo and you see the big red gates in the town of Kamakura. A small city with a number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the area, there are a number of colorful festivals that draw folks to the area to feel a helping of the past and of the ancient culture that is kept alive today. These large gates are called Torii and this kind of gate is specific to the old Shinto worship. To see the torii says that there is a shrine near. This particular gate is for the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine, deifying Hachiman, the god of warriors, and protector of Japan and the people.

Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine.
Tsurugaoka Hachimangū Shrine.

The current location has housed this shrine since 1191 AD. In February 1219, a shogun (a military dictator) Minamoto no Sanetomo was assassinated on the tree shadowed steps by his nephew, who beheaded him in hopes of moving up the ranks. He himself was beheaded hours later. Imagine as you descend these steps that it is evening under snowfall almost 1000 years ago. Swordsmen moving like ninja with stealth and precision. As you descend the very steps that lead you to the present day awaiting taxis and traffic lights back into the real world, where the site of the happening of the past, though gone, is no less real.

Modern links to the Past

Girls in Kamakura, Japan
The past and the present in Kamakura.

The young girls above are called miko. they are the local maidens of the shrine who assist in ceremonial duties. At the time of the tale above, a miko would be more of a priestess, a female shaman, with abilities to communicate with the spirits of the dead, through ritual and dance and act as a type of medium as a go between this world and that of spirits having flown. They were very important in the days gone by in the world of animism and divinity.

During the warring times of the shogun up to the 1300’s, the miko’s importance dwindled as shines and temples struggled with less sponsors and financial means. As time went on shamanistic practices were eventually outlawed and today’s miko is likely to be a part time local student helping out around the facilities with small ceremonial duties. These girls are wearing the traditional Hakama garb.

Jinrikishafu with his clients.
Jinrikishafu with his clients.

Near tourist historical areas it is common to see a Jinrikishafu, the jinrikisha (Japanese for rickshaw) puller. This was a common site in the cities around Japan in the later 1800’s and a runner could easily go over 20 miles a day. These days they are part timers keeping old customs and cultures alive not just for foreigners, but mostly Japanese who like to stay connected to many things of yore. Pictured above is a lad outside of the Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa area of Tokyo. Notice the split toed shoes called jikatabi. They are still seen commonly by workers in Japan, especially outside workers in construction, and other hands on jobs such as the docks and farmers.

Decorated sake barrels at shrine.
Kazaridaru. The decoration and display of wooden sake barrels at a Shinto shrine.

At Shinto shrines you will see a display of barrels. These are decorated sake barrels called sakedaru. Many breweries donate sake (rice wine) to shrines for ceremonies and festivals. In return they get good blessings for the prosperity of their businesses. There is a long relationship between sake and the Shinto religion. Sake, invented around 300 BC is seen as a symbolic connection between humans and gods and is drank during auspicious times at a shrine.

In some of Japans oldest texts the word used for sake is miki (神酒),written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ Today o-miki is wine reserved for shrine use and people drink it to feel at one with the gods. At festivals in Japan, a cup of sake is just what is needed at a fun event!

Ancient Beliefs on Display

A female believer of a particular Zen sect in Yokosuka, Japan.
A female believer of a particular Zen sect in Yokosuka, Japan.

This shaved head woman belongs to a sect of Zen Buddhism I believe. I would see them chanting for donations from time to time but she was just out for a stroll in a town called Yokosuka. The robe she is wearing is a kesaya or a kesa (袈裟).

Monks chanting for alms, Yokohama, Japan.
Monks chanting for alms, Yokohama, Japan.

These monks are wearing the straw hat to block their eyes from the eyes of the giver during alms. or donations. The alms ritual is called takahatsu. Not seeing each others faces is the Buddhist  perfection of givingNo giver, no receiver.

These are just an example of what you can see in any place in japan. there is always something that goes beyond today…that takes you back momentarily to a place that doesn’t exist, yet it stands in front of you. Many places can say the same but in Japan it seems to be more than just the ruins or the tourists sites. It’s interwoven into the lives of children to adults. The past is today, yet in a highly technological country, the future is now.

Thanks for coming by and please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you!

8 Comments

  1. My son is taking Japanese in high school and our entire family has become enamored with visiting someday. There is so much history and cool things to see. I like how you said Japan is both past and future, I think that is a great way to look at it. I am really interested in testing the food, to experience real Japanese cuisine and not our American versions. We are thinking of taking a trip when he graduates from high school.

    1. Don’t think about it! Plan it! Let me know and I will throw some good resources and sites your way when you are ready to get going. Actually that sounds like a good article to research! Start putting to the side a little extra money now! Even $20 bucks a week is a 1000 in a year…even if it is in a real piggy bank it doesn’t get spent automatically when you swipe that debit card everyday! Not because of the expense but because you will hate yourself for not having extra because there is soooooo much to do! The food is incredible. I even had some of the best burgers I ever had in Tokyo! There are so many choices! It is the greatest city to visit in the world overall! I swear I could go on forever about Tokyo! Because you have time until your kid graduates…try to let your employers know early because you will find 2 weeks just enough and three awesome! from Tokyo you can take a few days down to Kyoto, and Mt. Fuji is pretty close to Tokyo. I have another article about Japan on my page if you want to see. Tell your son to find a pen pal or some language exchange friend in Tokyo. Their are many online sites. Japanese love to spend time with their online friends who visit the city and it is a great way to get a local guide!

  2. I’m a person who is into travelling and learning about foreign cultures, and I’m glad that you wrote this article.

    I definitely consider visiting Japan at some point, to see their historical sites, try their cuisine (I recently became into Asian cuisine in general; sometimes I just can’t help it), and just see how people live.

    I only saw this as a kid on TV, and I’m eager to see it live. But because Japan is a highly populated country, it will be kind of difficult to see the entire Japan; will need extra time 🙂

    1. Take it one step at a time! Japan is a place you can visit multiple times. Tokyo is a city that takes multiple visits if you want to get below the surface. There are levels to their cuisine that you may never see in your home country! I hope you get to go! thanks for stopping by!

  3. It sure made me feel that I went back in time. It’s amazing to see remnants of the past intertwined with the present day lives of locals who walk past them every day. Japan is a model for preserving its history. There are some countries that destroy century-old buildings in place of modern architecture to keep pace with the times.

    I love the pictures of the 2 young girls (miko). And its interesting to see a Jinrikishafu. I feel a little bad for this runner because its difficult pulling a carriage with people in them! It looks like abuse to me 🙂 although the runner looks happy with what he’s doing. How much does a ride with a Jinrikishafu cost for tourists?
    Thanks for your post.
    Gigi

    1. The rickshaw runners are just part time guys. Many times they are students. There is no abuse, as many do it because they want to run or because they are into the old ways. How much you pay just depends on how far you are going. Most people pay the equivalent of $20 just for a 10 minute ride and photo op. It goes up to $150 for an hour..for two people. It is just a fun thing but not really cheap. Hey, thanks for stopping by!!

  4. Hi,
    Thanks for taking me on a little Time Travel of my own. My wife and I lived for four years in Japan, one year in Uraga and the rest in Yokosuka in Navy housing. We did a lot of sightseeing and I agree that it is like being in the modern world and in the past at the same time. The streets and stores are up to date, then you step into a shrine or temple area and today seems to fade away. Great article and some beautiful pictures!
    Sanders

    1. Thanks! It is cool that you lived there! Maybe a return visit is in order. You can see all the changes that have happened. It is like a fraternity of people who have stepped outside of the norm for them and seen a place like Japan. So everyday to the Japanese but so unique to us! Thanks for stopping by!

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