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  • Shelley Dark

16. Asakusa rickshaw riding

What a sight on waking! Our beautiful flowers from the Aoyama market, and that stunning view of Tokyo.

This morning at breakfast we were entertained by an otherwise very nicely behaved three-year-old stealth bomber who was ladling fruit juice on to a flat bread and butter plate. He carried it ever so proudly and carefully to his mother at their table without spilling a drop.

Our rickshaw ride was booked for 10am so we strolled the quite elegant streets to the train station from the Park Hyatt and caught the train to Asakusa, using our CityMapper app as usual which makes train travel so easy.

The white dogwoods are out along some of the streets now, the blossoms outlining the horizontal branches.

I never tire of the fresh lime green foliage of these Japanese maples - these leaves are much finer than most we've seen.

Many people on the subway close their eyes and appear to rest or sleep or listen to music. I'd be terrified of missing my stop wouldn't you?

Did you know that the word rickshaw comes from the Japanese word jinrikisha meaning human-powered vehicle? Neither did I! They were invented in Japan in the mid-1800's, and were used by the geishas and the rich and powerful as a quicker method of transport than litters or palanquins.

I had booked this ride because over a thousand people on Tripadvisor had given Ebisuya a 5-star rating. But I was a little worried it might be terribly touristy or corny. Worse still, would the rickshaw cyclist look overworked and underpaid?

It would have been mean to refuse the red blanket, wouldn't it?

There was no cyclist. We were to be pulled along by a runner. It was a shock really, and Ange and I immediately mutually agreed that we wouldn't be able to relax and really enjoy the ride with someone actually running to pull us. How wrong we were!

Masaya (pronounced mass-eye-uh) is one of the fittest people I have ever seen and good health shone out of his happy face. There is not one ounce of fat on his body, and what's more, he loves his job. Really loves it. Plus he's a thoroughly nice person. He makes pulling that rickshaw look effortless, with a wonderfully easy lope. He runs and walks, never raising a sweat. On his big days he covers about forty kilometres. About a marathon distance.

These are his tabi shoes - the style dates from the fifteenth century. He wears them out and needs a new pair every six weeks.

Our only request was that we avoid crowds if possible as we'd heard that Sensogi Buddhist Temple, built in the 7th century, is very popular, attracting thousands of tourists a day. Soon after we started, Masaya pointed out the buildings above: the giant daikon bottom right, Tokyo Tower on the left, and the Asahi Beer building in the middle. Can you see that it looks like a glass of amber beer with a froth on top?

We went past the Kaminarimon main gate to Sensoji Temple, the sando (street leading to the temple) lined with many tourist shops selling trinkets and food. You can see just how many people were out on the street already! Masaya loped past it, stopping now and then to point out the geisha area, the markets, an amusement park, restaurants, a comedy club, a crafts museum, a ninja shop featuring a statue of a ninja on the roof (the equivalent of our Robin Hood) and the night life street.

The wisteria is just beginning to come out. As we passed one shop, Masaya mentioned over his shoulder that it's well known for its dorayaki or pancakes with led-bean jam. Do you know what led-bean is? Ange asked me. It took me a second to work it out. RED bean. We had to laugh. It's very appealing the way Japanese people seem to interchange our sounds 'l' and 'r'. I loved hearing a shopkeeper say, sorry we're crozing. We've even seen 'please' spelled 'prease' on a sign.

What a beautiful peaceful clean playground, with cherry blossom branches overhanging. This was only a couple of blocks from the seething mass of tourists we had seen such a short time before.

Masaya took us to the beautifully quiet Matsuchyama Temple, visited mainly by local buddhists. I can't tell you how much we enjoyed being there with only two other people. In a city the size of Tokyo. Masaya lit these incense for us to cleanse our souls. I think it worked. -:) Spotless.

Its emblem is the daikon. If we'd had any deep anger, we could each have bought a daikon from that box of perfectly gleaming giant white radishes. When we lay them as an offering, they would have magically absorbed any angst, leaving us at peace in our hearts and minds. Or we could have bought flowers just as a gift for Buddha. Don't you love buddhism for its beautiful simplicity?

Of course we purified ourselves first, in just the right order as we learned the other day in Kyoto with Kana.

This man had chosen to buy incense and placed the smoking sticks in the sand in the beautiful bronze vessel. Can you imagine wearing toe sox like Masaya's?

The old stone steps have been beautifully carved with offerings to Buddha.

Back in the rickshaw, thoroughly clean in heart and mind, we crossed the Sumido River to visit the Ushujina Shinto Shrine, quite a large temple also visited only by locals. In the middle of this bustling city, only five people. Ushi means ox or bull and this is the emblem of this shrine which is dedicated to good health. We stood in front of the shrine itself, bowed twice, clapped twice, made a wish about good health, and then bowed once more.

We moved to the side of the shrine to see the ox himself for a bit of personal intervention. We had to concentrate our minds on the body part we most wanted healed, touch it (glad mine was in a respectable place) and wish it healed by transference. I wasn't sure if that seemed fair to the ox to give him a bung knee. But then again, he's a Shinto spirit, he can take it.

We touched the corresponding body part on the ox itself. He was actually sitting on his knee, so I followed Masaya's directions to the thigh and wished hard. I imagined my new supercharged knee would probably see me doing squats or pulling the rickshaw. I conserved my energy instead. -:)

This couple were having their wedding photos taken in the shrine garden. Such babies.

The handles of Masaya's rickshaw are carved wooden animals with brass feet.

Back on the street with a speed only known to those of pure heart and body, we zoomed past other rickshaws. These two girls were highly amused that we were taking their photo and waved madly.

We left Masaya with a little mascot from Australia with a promise to fill out a survey about his performance for his company, and a review on Tripadvisor. It will be a pleasure to do both. What a combination: intelligent, well-mannered, knowledgeable, kind; photographer, runner, fitness freak, historian and guide.

We wandered a little by ourselves on foot, planning our lunch. For a while we watched a girl making and painting these paper lanterns.

We were looking for Yadoroku, the oldest onigiri restaurant in Asakusa which Masaya had recommended. It's a humble little restaurant which has been in existence since 1954 when white rice was a luxury item. Onigiri is a traditional healthy fast food made from a rice ball shaped into a triangle or oval, with fillings inside. We had one salmon and one boiled shrimp with soy. It was wrapped in nori or seaweed.

And a glass of local beer each.

What we were most interested in, and determined to buy, was dessert - melon pan bread, or ice cream sweet bread. It's a jumbo 'cake', originally was made only of milk and butter, eaten straight from the oven. This is one of the happy cooks at the famous shop Kagetsudo, the most famous of all the melon bread bakeries. We could soon see why.

I know you're not supposed to eat anything bigger than your head, but in the interests of bringing the best of Japanese cuisine to you, I had to! Melon bread looks and tastes very much like choux pastry, except the outside is crisper and crunchy with crystallised sugar, the inside soft and fluffy. It's cut in half while still hot and filled with vanilla or green tea ice cream. The queue was quite long, but the wait was worth every second.

Loved the wooden floor with wooden pegs in one of the covered markets.

As we were walking along this dear man came out from his restaurant to speak to us. He grabbed a couple of lobsters and said ok, let's have photo! Don't you love his rope head band?

This made me smile. Women wearing a hijab and rented kimono. Fun doesn't know international boundaries either. I just love multiculturalism!

Do you remember that I told you about Japanese pepper the other day - sansho? This is the plant itself at a grocery store. It grows into a three-metre shrub, and the mature berries are crushed into a red powder for flavouring. We've had the immature green berry pepper powder with its intriguing taste. The leaves are edible too and make a pretty garnish. (mental note: find some at home)

At festivals and during golden Week starting at the end of next week, men carry portable shrines like this through the streets. Masaya said he is very much looking forward to joining in, although the aggressive competition to see who will do the carrying can become quite physical!

There's a Mario cart hire company here in Tokyo. If we were younger and braver, we'd do it. Doesn't it look fun? (and dangerous?)

Tonight for dinner Ange was keen to have gyoza. This popular restaurant in Harajuku had only two types: plain and with garlic and leek. We mixed our own sauce of soy, vinegar and chilli in our dipping bowls. Delicious!

We were back at the hotel just on dusk, with the last rays of the sun lighting our view. That's Shinjuku Gyoen Park in the middle of the photo.

There's a possibility of rain tomorrow, but not much. Keep your fingers crossed travelling buddies! It's going to be a huge day with dinner out at the famously formal Ukai Tei teppanyaki bar at Omotesando. We need to have some beauty sleep!

I love telling you my news each night! Until tomorrow, I wait you.

shelley dark, writer 

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