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Monday, 24 November 2014

The ginkgos of Aoyama

Aoyama is not my natural habitat. It's très chichi, in other words, very fancy, but to say "very fancy" isn't fancy enough. Rather go for faux French.

Despite my discomfort in such refined surroundings, I was lured there by the twin temptations of gold and gods. You could even add sex, since I found myself walking through a fairly shady area in Shibuya later that same day, but that was happenstance rather than forethought. Money, religion and fornication. That covers all the bases, doesn't it?

The gods were at a temple and two shrines – more about that later – and the gold? Ah. That was to be found at what is allegedly Tokyo's most famous spot for ginkgos, Ichō Namiki, the ginkgo-lined avenue that runs from Aoyama 1-chōme to Meiji Jingu Gaien. I avoid it precisely because it's famous, jam-packed and in my arrogant opinion not the best spot at all, but since I was in that area anyway, well, why not?

Ichō Namiki in Aoyama 1-chōme

Beautiful but crowded

I went on Sunday, when it was fairly early in the season and not all the trees had turned gold, but it was still a breathtaking sight against a cobalt autumn sky. It was also crowded, with guards shouting cautions and directions, and mothers with prams colliding with my shins, and fashionistas irritating me with their yapping lapdogs' diamond-encrusted outfits. 

I saw one woman with a … what? Dog. "Dog." Tiny fluffy thingy dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, cap and all, sitting on top of a pole (it was that tiny), getting photographed by an army of coochie-coochie-cooing females. I scowled viciously, ignored the dog and crashed into another oblivious person holding up an iPad in front of her face.

"What's next?" I wondered. "Parasols?"

I panicked, and fled to this:

The ginkgo avenue at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Now isn't that a thousand times better than battling the hordes of Genghis Khan for a Kodak moment? It's within spitting distance of Ichō Namiki, yet it was deserted. 

This is on the campus of Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku, a Christian university near
Omotesandō, established in 1874 by missionaries from the Methodist Episcopal Church in the United States. It's 701+ on the QS World University Rankings and 201-250 on the QS Asian University Rankings. The University Brand Image Survey conducted by Nikkei BP Consulting in 2010 ranked it 7th in the Greater Tokyo Area and 4th out of the private universities after Keio, Waseda and Sophia.

It certainly has one of the most sophisticated, well-kept campuses in Tokyo, and you can see money dripping from its lintels. 

The Christian influence at Aoyama Gakuin Daigaku

Oopsie! TOEIC test time! :)

The contrast between this private Christian university and the public University of Tokyo is startling: the latter is old but run-down, genteel but shabby, a haphazard collection of styles and organic gardens.

Yet what struck me was how deserted Aoyama Gakuin was on a Sunday. I saw two photographers and not a single other soul. That smacked my gob. I guarantee you that on any Sunday there are students ánd staff on Tōdai's campus: in the labs, in the library, studying, researching, working. (The library is open every single day from 9 am till 7 pm except during the short New Year's Holiday and on the fourth Thursday of each month. Now do you understand my grumpiness once a month? It has nothing to do with womanly curses.)

So, all things in this world being very unequal, I'd rather amble around Tōdai. (Tōdai's rankings? A bit higher.)

This was supposed to be a photo post, and here I am, 580 words later.

The ginkgos will be at their most spectacular in the week ahead, and even a fortnight from now it will be beautiful, because you'll be walking on a yellow carpet.

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
– W. B. Yeats

Read more about my ginkgo recommendations here (but caution: Tachikawa is already past its prime), here and here.

That temple? That should be my next post. I've discovered a modern architectural masterpiece, a shrine for mathematics and another wolf shrine. Watch this space. Meantime, more Aoyama ginkgo photos:

Ichō Namiki


A smaller side street leading off from Ichō Namiki

I spotted this on my way to Shibuya via Omotesandō. "God jul" is
Norwegian, Swedish and/or Danish for "Merry Christmas". I can't explain
the shop's linguistic adventure, but the contents are the usual white fluff.

This is the United Nations University, almost exactly opposite Aoyama Gakuin.
The tents in front are a farmer's market.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Todai ginkgo report, 20 November

I don't want to repeat the whole spiel about the glorious ginkgos at the University of Tokyo (Tokyo Daigaku or Todai). Read more here and here, or simply click on the tag "Todai" on my blog. Let's just say, "It's showtime, folks!"

Lina, it's going to be utterly magnificent next Friday. Ready?

The most glorious ginkgo in the world is still mostly green. He usually changes relatively late.
He's an old-timer. He's not in a hurry.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The flowery, flying hare of Inaba

Africa time. I'm on Africa time. Chronically, permanently and indubitably. Chrysanthemum season is almost over, and here I am, finally, with this year's offering.

Quick recap of flower, festival and rationale for fascination. Wait. I need a synonym for "reason" that starts with an "f" to satisfy my fatal weakness for alliteration. Findication? No. Got it. Foundation. That works. We start again.

Quick recap of flower, festival and foundation of fascination.

It was first cultivated in China in the fifteenth century BC, and was regarded as one of the so-called four noble plants: orchid, bamboo, plum blossom, chrysanthemum. The flower eventually found its way to Japan, where it was called kiku () and revered so highly that it became a symbol of the imperial family. 

There are numerous chrysanthemum exhibitions all over Japan in autumn, often at shrines. The bigger ones display not only individual blooms, but also dolls called kiku–ningyō (菊人形), which are made of hundreds of chrysanthemums. 

The biggest festivals are at Shinjuku Gyoen and Tokyo's bigger shrines and temples, but this year I chose to go a tiny local festival in one of my favourite neighbourhoods, Sugamo.

It's held at a temple called Shinshō-ji, one of the locations of the six Jizō of Edo, and it’s best described as humble but charming. I would've said understated, but that hare!

That's the hare of Inaba. He's the chappie who …

Look, this is going to get very complicated very fast, but I'll do my best.
So there was this hare that enlisted the help of crocodiles to travel from an island to the mainland – he persuaded them to form a bridge so that he could step on their backs – but then he pissed them off and they ripped off his skin. A couple of gods happened to stroll by on their way to woo a lovely maiden, and instead of assisting him, they told him to bathe in salt water. Which is not a good idea if you've got no skin, but fortunately the youngest god, Ōkuninushi, took pity on the hare and told him to bathe in fresh water from the mouth of a river, and to roll in the pollen of cattails.

The hare recovered and helped the young lad to win the hand of the maiden.

Whereupon Ōkuninushi become the ruler of Izumo and the god of nation-building, farming, business, medicine and happy marriages. He's enshrined at Izumo Taisha, one of the oldest and most important shrines in Japan.

All due to that hare.

Here's the crocodile!

That’s my story, but if you prefer a more formal version, here's an excerpt from an ancient script called the Kojiki:
Hereupon, when they arrived at Cape Keta, [they found] a naked hare lying down. Then the eighty Deities spoke to the hare, saying: "What thou shouldest do is to bathe in the sea-water here, and lie on the slope of a high mountain exposed to the blowing of the wind." So the hare followed the instructions of the eighty Deities, and lay down. Then, as the sea-water dried, the skin of its body all split with the blowing of the wind, so that it lay weeping with pain. But the Deity Great-Name-Possessor, who came last of all, saw the hare, and said: "Why liest thou weeping?" 
Incidentally, although many English sources refer to the animal as a rabbit, it's not, if I may be pedantic for a while, and when am I not? It's Japanese hare (Lepus brachyurus). Same order, Lagomorpha, but different genera (link). As far as I can determine, there's only one indigenous rabbit species in Japan, the so-called Amami rabbit (Pentalagus furnessi), which is only found on two small islands between Kyūshū and Okinawa.
However, most English sources talk about rabbits in Japan, and it's undeniable that Japan has a bit of a thing about rabbits: if they're not saving the country and holy matrimony, they're fulfilling their role as one of the Zodiac signs, pounding rice in the moon and pretending to be birds.

I'm not joking. The counter for birds and rabbits in Japanese is wa ( ), and that's the kanji for feathers or wings.

The reason for this is ..

Oh, Japan, you sneaky minx. You truly are a master of hypocrisy when you're in the mood.

During the Tokugawa era, the eating of four-legged animals was forbidden (link), but dang, rabbits are delicious, plentiful and easy to catch. What's a carnivore to do? You reclassify rabbits as birds.

Problem solved.

This is supposed to be a story about flowers. How did it turn into flying rabbits? Where were we?

Most chrysanthemum festivals continue until 23 November. You'll find a list of venues in this previous post. My personal recommendation? Shinjuku Gyoen for the widest variety as well as gorgeous autumn colours in the rest of the park.

Small display just outside the temple's entrance

The temple's entrance

Flowers on the steps leading to the temple

Above and below, the Jizō statue

The Jizō statue is 300 years old.

This deocaration is so tiny that I initially thought I was looking at origami flowers. No. It's the real thing.

An advertisement for the festival in Jizō-dōri

Jizō sweets

This display is in Rikugien, which is just a short walk from Sugamo.

Another display in Rikugien.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Kiyosubashi in print and real life

This is a photo post that I just have to do after discovering a print made by Kawase Hasui. It depicts Kiyosubashi (清洲橋), which is – as far as I'm concerned – the most beautiful bridge across the Sumida River. It was completed in 1928, and has a length of 186.2 m and a width 22 m. It was modeled after a suspension bridge across the Rhine (at Cologne), and it's regarded as an Important Cultural Property.

Hat tip to Googleplusser Hirai Mamoru, who told me about the print.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Ginkgo watch 2014, Part 1

Here we go! We're halfway through November, and the golden ginkgo countdown has started. I took these photos on the Hongō campus of the University of Tokyo yesterday morning. The trees are usually at their best towards late November, early December, as you can see here and here.

The university buildings are undergoing massive renovations – they're old! – which means this year's photos also feature less attractive construction paraphernalia, but not to worry, it's easy enough to focus on the glory of the trees.

The most glorious ginkgo in the world is still mostly green.


Yasuda Auditorium


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