I woke up today bright and early, still not adapated to the 13 hour time change from home. I came down to the lobby of the ryokan and was served an elegant Japanese-style breakfast. While strange to Westerners, I had miso soup, lotus root, some white rice with bits of salmon, a giant slab of some sort of whitefish, and some green tea to drink. Since I missed dinner last night from being too tired, I did not think that would it would satisfy my enormous appetite, but I got along fine.
A few hours later, I met my guide, Charlie. He was a short, skinny guy of about forty who loved to chat. His English was extremely good for never having left Japan. He even knew Spanish fairly well, but he told me that throughout his ten years of studying it, he had never had any opportunity to practice with anyone. I was happy to oblige, and we had several conversations in Spanish throughout the day. The first stop on our tour was the Tsukiji Market (築地市場). Tsukiji is the largest fish market in the world selling over 700,000 tons of seafood every year. Since fresh ingredients are prized over everything else in Japanese cuisine, the market opens auctions at 5 AM every morning and they go until about 6:30 AM. Because of this, restaurant owners can come to the market to buy freshly caught seafood for the day. Charlie told me that the owner of my ryokan had come down this morning to buy the fish for my breakfast. Tsukiji is massive.
It is very similar to Pike’s Place Market in Seattle, except it is about eight times larger and completely made up of seafood vendors. When we got there at around 9 AM, the market was already starting to close up for the day. The fish are either sold at auction or packaged and shipped all around the world in the span of three hours.
Walking down the aisles and aisles of seafood on either side of me, I saw the most bizarre looking fish still swimming in tanks and people walking around with enormous live crabs in their hand as if they were just holding a rock. There were fish of all sizes, muscles, clams, crabs, urchins, and lobster just to name a few. The fish on sale took up every inch of the market, leaving just small aisle ways to walk down.
After we had toured the vast majority of the fish market, our next stop was my favorite of the day, Sengaku-ji Temple (泉岳寺). Sengaku-ji Temple is the burial grounds of the 47 ronin and their former master, Asano Naganori. The story is a very interesting one. In the Edo period, the Shogun, or feudal warlord, had accumulated all the power in Japan. The Imperial Emperor was nothing more than a figurehead. Underneath the Shogun, Lord Asano was the powerful daimyo of the Ako region, a little west of Kyoto. Every year in order to keep control of its daimyo, the Shogunate required each daimyo to make the pilgrimage from their home to Edo Castle in modern day Tokyo. In 1701, several of the most influential daimyo, including Asano, were appointed to be a part of a special reception for the Imperial Emperor in Edo Castle. In order to put this reception together, these daimyo needed to consult with the master of protocol, Kira Yoshinaka. However, Asano and Kira did not care for each other in the slightest. During the preparation for the reception, Kira decided to publicly humiliate Asano. Because of this Asano drew his sword in an attempt to kill Kira. Asano’s attack only succeeded in drawing blood from Kira’s forehead and shoulder and did not mortally wound him. To draw one’s sword inside Edo Castle was a grave offence, punishible by seppuku, a ritualistic suicide in which an offender attones for a shameful act. While traditionally both parties in a quarrel would be ordered to commit suicide if the quarrel warrented it, Asano was given the order to commit seppuku and Kira was not. Asano was buried in Sengaku-ji temple.
As a very important daimyo, Asano had 47 samurai underneath his command. As added punishment for Asano’s act, the Shogunate took control of the Ako region leaving these samurai masterless and with no land. They became ronin. Tradition dictated that a samurai whose master has been disgraced should immediately avenge his feudal lord. However, these ronin did not. They waited. Kira expected that the ronin would attack him and he increased his guard and kept a close eye on the ronin, particularly the chief retainer Oishi Kuranosuke. For nearly two years, the ronin acted as normal farmers and merchants until Kira relaxed his guard. Oishi Kuranosuke acted as a public drunkard to further fool Kira. However, at night in secret, the ronin met to plot their revenge. Finally, in December 1703, the ronin, posing as firemen, decended on Kira’s estate killing every man they found inside. After searching the entire estate, Kira was nowhere to be found, until, in a small coal shed behind the mansion, they found a man who would not identify himself. But the scar from their master on his forehead was all the proof they needed that it was in fact Kira. They executed him and brought his head to their former master’s grave in Sengaku-ji. The ronin were later sentanced to seppuku by the Shogunate for this act. They are now buried right next to their master in Sengaku-ji. In Japan, the 47 ronin are heralded as heroes for their adherence to the code of bushido, the way of the samurai.
After the Sengaku-ji Temple, we took the subway to Ueno park where I got off the magnet train yesterday. Ueno Park is famous as the last stand for the Shogitai, the forces still loyal to the Shogunate, during the Meiji Restoration. In 1867, the Shogunate had broken down and many daimyos had begun to turn their land over to the Imperial government until finally, the fifteenth and final shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, turned his claim to power over to the Imperials. The Emperor moved from Kyoto to Edo, renaming it Tokyo, and made his home Edo Castle. The Shogitai fled to the area around Ueno and held it as a last stand during the Boshin War. The Shogitai were defeated and pushed all the way back to Hakkodate in Hokkaido. It is there that they finally surrendered, making the Meiji Restoration complete and putting all power firmly back in the Emperor’s hands.
Finally, we went back to Asakusa which is where my ryokan is. Asakusa is known for its market and the Buddhist temple at the end of the strip. The Sensō-ji Temple is dedicated to the goddess of mercy. It was first built on that site in 645 A.D. making it the oldest temple in Tokyo.
After miles and miles of walking today, I gratefully retired to my room and passed out which is why I am awake at 1 AM writing this post. Tomorrow I go to Akihabara, a ward of Tokyo known for its high tech companies, and Harujuku which is famous for the people who like to dress up in costumes to mimic their favorite cartoon or fictional characters. Should be interesting. See you soon!