Aka the day I walked around for four hours, soaking in sweat, somehow didn’t die, and it was worth it.
I cannot navigate Tokyo. I wish I could remember how I managed when I studied abroad, because I did, somehow. I also got lost, but maybe it was that I was usually in groups, and then usually with Japanese people, so I handed the reigns to other people.
Per my friend Charlie’s recommendation, I set out on Wednesday morning to find St. Mary’s Cathedral, a crazy 60s architecture Catholic church in Bunkyo, a neighborhood just south of where I live. On the way I was going to stop at Gokokuji, a Buddhist temple recommended in the invaluable guidebook Tokyo by Tokyo. Google Maps told me they were close together, and only about a half hour walk from my dorm.
I memorized some basic features of my route, the directions I should go, and set out. I found Gokokuji easily, but was a little puzzled by where to walk in. There are three gates on the main facade, and I found two of them: one was closed, and the other led into the courtyard of the elementary school on the temple grounds. I walked in, pretended I knew where I was going, passed the crowd of mothers and their children, got to a dead end… and turned around and walked out. Act like you know what you’re doing and no one will say anything.
Somehow I missed the third gate, and thinking the first, closed gate I found meant the temple was closed (I don’t know, do temples close during daylight hours? The Buddhist monk I met a few years ago in Kyoto got up at 5am) I decided to look for St. Mary’s. At that point it was getting toward noon and it was deathly hot and humid. I’d slathered on sunscreen and was carrying a hefty bottle of water, but I was sweating it all out fast.
What followed was an ultimately unremarkable but at the time epic-feeling journey in circles in the area around Gokokuji. I knew roughly which way the church was, but not which street to turn down, exactly, or if I’d gone too far, or not far enough. I did find out, in my random twists and turns, that the Bunkyo neighborhood immediately around Gokokuji Station is swanky. Really swanky. I saw some impressive houses and apartment buildings, and felt a twinge that I hadn’t gone for a newer dorm in the neighborhood instead of the older and dingier one I’m living in now. But then I remembered the long hot walk from where I lived to the area, and I thought, nevermind. I never would have been able to make it from here to the train station I needed every day.
Some highlights from my lost wanderings:
1: An octopus looking rather smarmy considering he’s selling “takoyaki,” fried dough balls with octopus bits inside.
4: The sign says “Beware of perverts.” “Chikan,” or perverts, can be a problem on the crowded Tokyo metro system, but I found this sign down a small neighborhood alley amidst a cluster of nice, walled and gardened houses.
5: Jonathan’s, “Neighborhood” Restaurant. As has come to light in many conversations with my Japanese friends, they don’t really do (or get) the air quotes thing, so I don’t think Jonathan’s knows it’s being sarcastic…
Finally, while venturing down another of the many neighborhood side streets, I came upon a map. My meager reading abilities were enough to parse out which little dot on the map was St. Mary’s, and my victory close at hand, I followed the route until… I found it! While I’d been circling in the heat I had many thoughts about giving up and going home, and many more mental pep talks saying no, dammit, you are finding this church.
I’m not usually a big church or architecture person, but it was worth it. St. Mary’s was beautiful. So beautiful even I could take good pictures without really trying:
4: A replica of the Pieta.
5: No idea.
7 & 8: A little grotto outside the church. I found it more relaxing out here than in the cathedral proper. The AC wasn’t on inside so it really evened the playing field.
I hung out for a while, drank and refilled my water, used the restroom (side note: Tokyo is the best for clean, numerous, free public toilets), read my book, then started out again. At the time I still thought Gokokuji had been “closed” when I went by, but if so surely it was open by now. I went back the way I’d come and ran smack into the front gate. It was on a busy street corner I’d passed several times in my wanderings. How did I miss it? It was a huge temple gate. Who knows. Heat stroke. Moving on to the temple itself:
It was gorgeous and empty and I wandered around the place with nary a tourist in sight to interfere with some lovely photo-taking. I also got my fortune at the temple, and will show photos of that and a translation once I… translate it myself. (A brief skim says it’s good, though.) Finally, exhausted, gross and stinky, I headed home.
And I got lost. Again. The last place one wants to be lost is close to home while also carrying heavy groceries (a bag of Asian pears for 400 yen? how could I say no?). But all is well, and they were the most delicious pears I’d ever eaten.