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  • Writer's pictureNigel W. Ruddock

Notes from the Archipelago - a Japanese Autumn 秋 2019

I have never considered November as a time of year to take a break. It is generally a gloomy, cold month. Autumn has said goodbye, and the shops are already trying to get us excited about that huge consumer orgy known as Christmas. But this is a western perspective. What about another sort of November - a Japanese one? All the blurb tells me that November is a good time to visit. So taking them on their word (and following recommendations from friends who actually live there), I took the plunge and booked a flight with JAL direct to Tokyo for a two week stay. No grand plans this time, just catch up with friends in the city and see some of the countryside.

Friday 8th November 11月8日 (金曜日)

Thank heavens I did not pack a winter coat. Here I am, sitting on a bench in the Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens just next to the Tokyo Dome. It is 17°c. The sun is shining. It is calm. And I am sitting in the middle of the world's most populous metropolitan area with a population of 13.9 million. How ghastly, you could say. But to get to this park I have sat on an immaculately clean train from Yokohama, in which nobody was eating, drinking or yapping on their mobile phones.

And it was dead on time. How do they do it? one asks oneself. The answers are varied and complex, and I hope to provide some pointers in this blog.

At the park itself I was greeted with a friendly smile as I parted with the princely sum of 300 yen (2.50 €) to gain entrance.

This beautiful place was created in 1629 by one of the founders of the Tokugawa clan, Yorifusa. Inspired by Chinese ideals, the garden's name reflects the advice " set your worries behind you (there are enough in the world), and enjoy.....

Well it certainly gave me time to reflect on the last 24 hours. The 11plus hours JAL flight was the best flight I have ever had to Japan..

One member of the cabin crew seemed thrilled to discover that I was doing my Japanese homework (しゅくだい ) in flight, and had offered to help me if needed. Help which I indeed made use of. Later on I bumped into her at the train ticket machine at Narita airport. She immediately asked me if I needed any assistance with buying a ticket. These little things matter when you land in another country. Just before I had picked up my local wi-fi router at a funny little post office upstairs. Now I had ordered this weeks ago via the internet (as one does). Upon unpacking the device I had discovered a nice little hand written note welcoming me to Japan. Cut out by hand in the shape of a butterfly. Cynics might call this marketing, but it's more than that. It is heart-warming.

But back to Korakuen Garden. Fine details meet the eye - the paths, carefully paved with natural stone, have boulders which catch the light...

A scenic river landscape with a red delicate wooden bridge.....

The Engetsu-kyo (Full Moon Bridge), so called because when seen with its reflection, you have a full moon...

It is all very calming and peaceful.

Rather in contrast to Iidibashi station, where I found myself afterwards. I knew I needed this station to get my next destination...but where in heavens was the Yurakucho Line ? Oh, only around the corner, under a flyover, over a multi zebra crossing it seems, because it is a separate railway company from Japan Rail.....crazy. It's a bit like calling Leicester Square and Covent Garden tube stations by the same name, but actually....well, anyway, eventually I got sorted, and alighted at the Gokoku-ji metro station. I was to visit the eponymous temple complex later, but now I had an interesting appointment. I was to find Tokyo's only Flammkuchen restaurant, eat a Flammkuchen, choose a picture from the exhibition on the wall, tell the chef which picture I had chosen, then later meet up with the artist at Rikkyo University Chapel, where she would hand over the picture. Now I'm not talking about just any artist. Eri (pseudonym polkaerio : see or Instagram ) is an extremely original gifted visual artist whom I met in Frankfurt a few years back. Her pictures are quirky, beautiful, original and sometimes downright funny. Here is the Red Cat (Rote Katze), which is now in my flat in Germany....I love it...

....and here is yours truly, having just eaten a delicious Flammkuchen, and in the process of surveying Eri's pictures.....

To be honest, I was sceptical of the logistics of our arrangement, having often had communication hiccups with my dear Japanese friends...but more anon. Now it was time to investigate one of the few Edo era temples which has partially survived in its original state, despite Earthquake, fire and WWII bombing.

The Gogoku-ji temple - have a look at the website - in Otsuka, Bunkyo City, is in north west Tokyo, not far from Ikebukuro. The Tokugawa Shogun worshipped here at the beginning of the Edo period (we are talking here about the 17th c. in European terms). Here are some impressions......

Not on the tourist trail, this place wears the patina of constant devotion through the ages. It is a ancient witness to Buddhist traditions in the heart of the metropolis. But as the evening light began to fade, I had to turn my attention to one of the venerable traditions of Christianity - Choral Evensong is sung every week in Rikkyo University Chapel, which nestles in the attractive campus of the same name - To enter this chapel after having negotiated the glittery neon of Ikebukuro is well, at the very least odd, but a wonderful experience. The student choir, conducted by the Director of Music, Scott Shaw, shows admirable concentration and discipline. The sound is fresh, homogenous and warm - and of course the entire service is conducted in Japanese. So I picked up the hymnal and sang two of my favourite hymns - albeit hardly keeping up with the words, but which were thankfully printed in Hiragana - one of the simpler "alphabets".

And now back to my scepticism over logistical arrangements. This vanished happily in an eating house nearby - I provide photographic evidence. Eri the artist knew which beer to order.......!

End of Episode 1

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