Japan: a teahouse in the sky

Japan: a teahouse in the sky

<A Dutch-language version of this story was published in Portfolio Magazine. For this English adaptation (my own) I am represented by The Cover Story. It includes images by award winning photographer Floris Leeuwenberg.  Image above courtesy Ritz-Carlton Tokyo>

When you think of Japan, chances are that one of the first images you conjure up is a tea house. Likely Mount Fuji will loom somewhere in the background. And then, of course, there would be kimono-clad ladies, soundlessly moving about, save for a muted giggle. You might smell the rice straw of the tatami mats covering the floors, and the delicate aroma of freshly made green matcha tea. What you wouldn’t imagine, however, is that all this would be happening 45 stories above ground level, that the view of Mount Fuji would sweep over an endless stretch of concrete and steel, even though the teahouse is some 200 years old. If that picture surprises you, perhaps you’ve never been to Japan. It’s about time.

Japan is a land of contrasts. Of course, every land is a land of contrasts, according to nearly every travel guide in the history of travel guides. But the cliché is more true in Japan than it is in, say, Greece or Mexico. The traditions of Japanese culture are endlessly rehearsed and repeated, meticulously perfected to the smallest – sometimes rather ridiculous – detail. Yet at the same time there is a constant interaction between ritual and innovation, the subtle and the outrageous, the serene and the bustling. A good example of this is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Tokyo. When this five-star luxury property opened its doors in March 2007, the press release read like a sheik’s shopping list. Rolls Royce, Rolex, tallest building this, fastest elevator that, and the most expensive suite this side of Dubai. But it also featured a 200-year-old, traditional teahouse.

The teahouse, you see, was scooped from its old environs in some far-flung corner of Japan, and dropped on the 45th floor of the tallest and most luxurious skyscraper Tokyo has ever seen. A bit like the Temple of Dendur, the ancient Egyptian holy house that was removed from the banks of the Nile, shipped to New York City and reassembled in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The fact that it doesn’t belong there, and that it is a rather outrageous anachronism, is precisely what makes it so attractive. At least, that is the sentiment the Ritz Carlton appears to be aiming for. It expects the teahouse will be very popular with its guests, who may book it for tea ceremonies and private dinner functions at Godzilla’s eye level.

In Tokyo, the unflustered atmosphere of a teahouse – be it up in the air or firmly on the ground – is never far removed from the utterly bizarre. Take the Akihabara district. Here, amidst the largest concentration of technology superstores in the world, the kimono has been replaced by a Victorian maid’s uniform, by logic only the Japanese can grasp. In the perception of the otaku, Japan’s latest tribe to rise out of barking mad anime obsession, it all makes perfect sense. The average otaku is a twenty- to fortysomething male, who relates a lot better to his laptop than to a date, and spends his few off-line hours engulfed in erotic manga. His subculture of gadgets and online role-playing games is the perfect test market for manufacturers of consumer electronics. This is where the latest gizmos hit the streets, up to two years before they appear in European stores – if at all. It is the only place in the world where vintage computers are revered as if they were rare antiques. Hence a boutique will not sell 18th-century pendulums, but original 1985 NEC computers, for an equally hefty sum. Even bar culture is aimed at otaku. In cosplay cafés (a Japanese conjunction of costume play) waitresses wear skimpy maid’s uniforms, inspired by the images of popular manga comics. It doesn’t stop there: Akihabara even features a maid megane (a maid optician).

The traditional opposite of the awe-inspiring mayhem of blinking neon, meowing robot cats, and twittering sales girls of Akihabara, is Asakusa. This increasingly rare remnant of the Tokyo of yore boasts a mayhem of its own, the matsuri. Each year, and often every season, each temple in the neighbourhood organizes one of these religious festivals of its own. Depending on the temple’s size and popularity, its matsuri will attract between hundreds and thousands of devout party goers. At the climax of things, these masses parade the streets carrying portable Shinto shrines, called mikoshi, that sometimes seem to drift like ships on a sea of human heads. Everyone joins in, from monks in grey robes to women with bleached haircuts wearing Prada-sunglasses. The greatest and most important matsuri of all is Sanja Matsuri, around Sens?-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Known as one of the city’s wildest festivals, it takes place at the end of spring and lasts four days. But Sens?-ji is also a year-round attraction. Western tourists are just a recent addition to a constant procession of pilgrims that have come to visit the holy site throughout the centuries. The commercial arcade of countless stalls and hawkers that crowd the way to the entrance has always been there. The only difference today is that the traditional assortment of sweet rice snacks, kimonos and wooden sandals has expanded to include all kinds of knickknackery for the embellishment of mobile phones, and plastic soba noodles. Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion to whom this temple is dedicated, now appears on key rings.

Asakusa is at the centre of shitamachi, the ‘low city’, right on the banks of the Sumida river. In a city where millions commute underground, this urban waterway offers an attractive and relaxing alternative: the sujio-water bus. From Asakusa it is a scenic ride of about half an hour to Hamarikyu gardens. Of course the journey on this water bus is considerably slower than it would be on a fast underground track, but nobody aboard really cares, and if anyone would, the lush and tranquil destination would cure any anxiety instantly. At the teahouse (firmly on the ground, at a quiet pond, where it belongs) it is hard to imagine you are smack in the middle of the largest metropolitan area in the world, where 35 million people live, work and play.

And those millions love their seafood. Not too far from Hamarikyu is Tsukiji, Tokyo's central fish market, the largest in the world, and the acknowledged birthplace of sushi. Every day, more than 2,000 tonnes of 450 different species of fish and other creatures of the sea are sold here. If it has fins, tentacles, or dwells in a clam, you’ll find it at Tsukiji. Many visitors to the city put their jetlagged biorhythms to good use by showing up before 5 a.m., just in time to witness the huge, otherworldly tuna auction. Though it is not officially open to the public, the merchants just pretend the camera-toting tourists don’t exist, as if they’re part of some invisible parallel universe. This works fine as long as nobody gets in the way of their fast moving trolleys. When the auction is over, everyone hurries to the tiny restaurants just outside the market, to enjoy a breakfast of the freshest sushi on the planet.

The only species that rivals the diversity of Tsukiji is the Japanese teenager. To be more precise, the teenager that hangs out in the painfully hip Harajuku neighborhood and the adjacent Yoyogi Park. Here, gothic lolita girls and young rockabillies with greased quiffs and curled lips mingle effortlessly with extravagantly bespectacled ‘Elton Johns’ and bemohawked punk rockers. Their habitat offers a stark contrast with the serene air of Meiji Jingu, the Shinto shrine on the other side of the park that was dedicated to the 19th century emperor Meiji and his wife. Again, one can choose between the spiritual, meditative atmosphere of a temple complex surrounded by a vast park, and the cosmopolitan buzz of Harajuku, Shibuya and Aoyama’s shopping streets, all within walking distance. Whether it is shinto or high fashion, the traditional or the überhip, in Tokyo they exist side by side.

Yet Tokyo is not the best place to get to know traditional Japan, if only for the fact that the city was largely destroyed – not once, but twice – in the last century. First there was the apocalyptic earthquake of 1923, then came the bombings of the Second World War. Kyoto, 380 kilometres and a two and a half hour bullet train ride to its south-west, has been spared those horrors. With more than two thousand temples and an astonishing seventeen Unesco world heritage listed sites, the former imperial capital of Japan is one of the richest cultural cities in the world. Kyoto relates to Tokyo as a stately galleon to a futuristic space ship.

In Gion, Kyoto’s age-old entertainment district, the air of Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha lingers. The streets, lined with machinya, the wooden houses characteristic of this part of town, are full of atmosphere, especially at night. Time seems to have stood still in the warm glow of the street lanterns, though geiko, as geisha are called in the local dialect, are much rarer today than a century ago. Even so, the odd geiko can still be spotted on her way to an appointment in one of the ochaya, the teahouses that aren’t so much about tea as they are about the refined entertainment these highly educated lady-companions have to offer. The most famous ochaya is the three centuries old Ichiriki Ochaya, an extremely exclusive establishment that hasn’t changed much since the time of the samurai, whose place has been taken by wealthy businessmen. Only the right connections will get you in, and very few foreigners have ever been granted the honour.

Much more accessible than the elusive geiko culture of the ochaya are the many gardens, temples and palaces of Kyoto. In fact, there is so much to see that it requires a bit of planning, given the short period of time most visitors have to spend. It’s an almost impossible task to grasp 1000 years of cultural history in a few days, but that shouldn’t – and doesn’t – stop anyone from trying. A good start is a visit to the zen gardens of Ryoanji, whose deceptive simplicity hides a complexity that subconsciously evokes a feeling of calm and well-being. It took a team of scientists specialised in pattern recognition to actually show how this works. In an article published by the science journal Nature, they analysed the rock garden and found that along a central line of sight the appealing shape of a branched tree emerges in relief. If one of the rocks is moved, the magic disappears. Less abstract is the beauty of the 1,001 statues of the Sanj?sangen-d? temple which, like Sens?-ji in Tokyo, is dedicated to Kannon, this time in a thousand-armed incarnation. Not to be missed are the splendid gardens of the imperial palace (the palace itself is not open to the public) and the Golden Pavilion, after which about 2,113 places of interest remain. Even the most dedicated garden and temple aficionado could spend years visiting the sights of Kyoto without seeing the same site twice.

Kyoto is only small in comparison to a megacity like Tokyo. With 1.5 million inhabitants, its small-town feel can be misleading. To properly unwind and process the many impressions of a hectic itinerary, it is best to escape city life and head for the spiritual mountain retreat of Koyasan. Nowhere else in Japan is the underestimated art of doing absolutely nothing practised with such avid devotion. It is only half a day trip away from the big-city buzz of Kyoto and many visitors come here to stay in one of the numerous monasteries. Here, Buddhist monks encourage them to join in on their daily meditation routines, in incense-filled sanctuaries. This is one experience of uneventful bliss that you will never forget. It is also an excellent occasion to reflect on the wondrous ease with which Japan allows you to jump between the future and the Middle Ages. Provided, of course, you manage to untangle yourself from that lotus position.

Special thanks to Japan National Tourist Organisation, www.jnto.go.jp

Grotere kaart weergeven


- 47 Ronin, 14 december. Ter nagedachtenis van de 47 samurai die in 1701 de dood van hun meester wreekten, zijn er in de Sengaku-ji tempel twee dagen lang ceremonies, dansen en een parade. Ook in Ginza is er een parade in samurai-kostuums.
- Sumo nieuwjaarstournooi. 2e tot en met de 4e zondag in januari. Hoewel het ereschavot de laatste jaren wordt gedomineerd door buitenlanders, blijft sumo in het Kokugikan stadium een uniek Japanse ervaring. Weekenden zijn lang tevoren uitverkocht; weekdagen niet.
- Bloesem. Het begint halverwege februari met pruimenbloesem en komt eind maart tot begin april op een hoogtepunt met kersenbloesem als horden mensen zich klemdrinken in de sneeuw van roze blaadjes in de parken.


- Tsukiji vismarkt. ’s Werelds grootste vismarkt. Maak gebruik van de jetlag om vóór 5 uur te arriveren voor de enorme tonijnveiling. Na afloop in de rij voor de verste, en lekkerste, sushi ter wereld, bij Daiwa Sushi.
- Cosplay kids. Buitennissig uitgedoste tieners: punk-meets-manga-meets-goth-meets-lolita. In het weekend te vinden in Harajuku, voornamelijk op de brug bij het metrostation maar ook in het Yoyogi-park, waar veel alternatieve bandjes optreden.
- Kabuki-theater. Onverstaanbare voorstellingen die kunnen oplopen tot 5 uur zijn wellicht teveel van het goede: het prachtige Kabuki-za theater in Ginza verkoopt ook kaartjes voor één bedrijf, met Engelstalige audio-guide.