Japan–Tokyo especially–is known for its mass transportation. The subways are prompt and efficient (if a bit crowded, especially during rush hours). The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a national icon, and has its own cheery cartoon mascot featured on anything from clothing to toothbrushes. That being said, most first time visitors to Japan are cautioned to avoid the complicated and confusing bus system.
My friends and I defied this well meaning advice. High-spirited and enthusiastic after our amazing tour through the land of Ghibli, we determined our next destination as Jindai-ji, a water temple in Mitaka that could be reached via a three mile walk or a twenty minute bus ride. My own feet sore and covered with blisters, I voted with some trepidation on the bus ride and my friends consulted their tour book to determine the correct stops. We joined a small group of Japanese people waiting beneath a number-marked awning and it wasn’t five minutes before the bus pulled up and we all filed in. At the front of the bus was a large computerized screen displaying the required fare, and below it, a sensor that I slid my PASMO transit card across, while my friends counted out 200 Yen coins. The bus itself was clean and comfortable, with a scrolling display that announced the approaching stops in Japanese and then Western characters. We were easily able to prepare for our stop, and made it to the temple without trouble.
Like the Ghibli Museum which we had earlier departed, the visitors at Jindai-ji seemed to be mostly Japanese tourists and locals, making my friends and I stick out like sore, pale, American thumbs; however, the temple goers seemed to take no offense nor even notice us, so perhaps foreign tourists are a common sight. The temple was a complex of cobblestone streets, narrow bridges over countless streams leading to clusters of individual shrines. Paper lanterns hung outside wood and stone buildings, temples and restaurants and stalls selling tokens. The atmosphere was carnival-like, and my friends and I felt no shame in wandering the streets with childlike wonder, laughing and snapping photos.
Outside one temple building was a covered well that spilled into a narrow wooden trough lined with metal ladles. We watched in silence as someone would dip the ladle into the water and pour it over their hands and into their mouths, and finally over the ladle to cleanse it. Another covered structure held a large stone pot that gave forth thick, sweetly scented incense smoke which people wafted toward their faces (some still covered by medical face masks). Along the borders of the clearing were wooden fences with narrow strips of paper tied between the beams; wishes, blessings, prayers to the gods? I never knew. A pathway lined with purple flags led up to a small but crowded cluster of memorials surrounding a tall stone column crisscrossed with colorful ribbons. The shrines were small and adorned with flowers, with plaques etched with Japanese and English writing along with carved illustrations. My friends and I inspected these memorials with some puzzlement until I suddenly gave a hushed exclamation. “Oh! It’s a pet cemetery!” Not far from there we found a cemetery of the human kind, but at this point our moods turned solemn, for no longer were there banners or streamers. I tucked my camera away, and we wound our way among the gravestones in silent reflection.
There were other things in Mitaka that my friends and I would have liked to see– mainly the bath house that Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away was based upon– but the day was already growing late and my feet in particular couldn’t take anymore walking. It was once again a simple process to take the bus back to the train station, although accidentally departing from the wrong subway stop had us wandering in circles for what may have been hours, but that’s another story.