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On map reading, access and whiskey for the soul. / 6 September 2014


A last minute change saw me at Ichigaya station with a fallen through plan. Ten minutes away is the infamous Yasukuni Shrine and I decided to go there.
The shrine is a memorial to the two and half million people: both Japanese and foreigners, men, women and children, who, over more than a hundred years, have given their lives in the service of the Emperor. It gets about five million visitors a year.
I need to cross a river, it's banks are incredibly steep and it is the greenest river I've ever seen. It might be the river that supplies the moat around the Imperial Palace.
There are a lot of police and security guards around. The area seems full of universities and industry. The roads are steep and uneven and the ten minutes takes forever.
A steep dropped curb makes going in a challenge, this somehow seems appropriate. There is a war museum 'entrance building' on my left; I skip it. I can hear traditional Japanese drumming and head in that direction. Fenced off from public view, but with gaps in the screening, there is a small stage in a woodland clearing. It must be a permanent place, it looks weather worn; it has lighting and seating. On stage a troup of black-clad dancers make dramatic symbolic gestures with black flags of fabric. Suddenly two warriors waving swords leap into their midst. After some rather indecisive prancing one challenges the other, but he makes a mistake in the dance and there is a brief pause before the drumming and the action continues. At the end of the scene, the director makes a comment and suddenly everyone is giggling out loud. I am taken completely by surprise. It seems so unJapanese, and so out of character with the place and the performance.
Unlike other temples and shrines I have visited, this one has a very different, solemn atmosphere and is very uncommercial.
There is a queue at the actual shrine and such silence that the traditional hand claps ring out dramatically; a very serious, intense place.
I watch while a young man approaches the short flight of steps. He bows, alights, bows again, extracts what looks like a can of beer from his pack and places it ceremoniously on a table on one side of the central altar, bows and repeats the action on the other side with another can. I doubt my eyesight, but then he extracts what looks like a bottle of whiskey and places it ceremoniously with the first can; centres himself standing stiffly to attention before making the three customary hand claps, bowing and retreating.
I recall visiting a place that made card and paper necessities (cars, furniture and more), gifts for honouring dead souls.

I look around for the 'cleansing' facility, it's obvious by its apparent absence that I have approached the shrine from the wrong direction.
There is a very long avenue lined with large stone lanterns and following it I come across the place where hands and mouth are cleansed before approaching the shrine. Two young girls are busy washing both.
Midway down the avenue is a tall plinth with a statue of a traditionally dressed Japanese male. In English and Japanese a plaque explains that this deceased Minister of War was murdered by Samurai in the 19th century, as a protest against his efforts to westernise the Japanese military.
I come away with something to think about. There may indeed be Japanese war criminals tried, condemned by courts of law, 'buried' here, but I can also understand that this place itself is about so much more.

Looking at the map (there seem to be plenty of public maps in a Tokyo), it appears that my train journey might have been a mistake. It was complicated - with a change of trains and three or four ups and downs on platform lifts, plus elevators; I think I can roll back. I have the battery capacity, so it just depends on the state of the 'pavement'
I'm following main roads so there are pavements and tree-lined walkways. I am occasionally hindered by tree roots, steep slopes and cambers that twirl my chair in spirals towards the busy road or sharp drop to the river which is now on my left (well fenced).
I am reassured to catch glimpses of the granite boulders (high above the opposite riverbank) that line the moat of the Imperial Palace and I follow the river into Hibiya.
By the time I get to Ginza it's dusk and I'm hungry. I stop for food and a break.


Famous for its vegetables, the place
looks like somewhere in a back-street market,
but sits on the twelfth floor. The staff are not
typical, being oddly polite-yet-
familiar, but helpful; the sort of
service that disappears from Tsukiji. I
choose a fish dish and bowl of steamed veggies
after a long 'conversation' with a
waiter who kneels helpfully by my side.
A short wait later, another waiter
tells me the steamed veg come on a bed of
pork. I reselect; this time a salad
followed by minced raw fish and rice. I wait.
The salad, on ice, with anchovy and
miso dips, is good. Raw, minced fish better.
I roll home in the dark, enjoying the
warm evening and the Tokyo lights.
Thoughts of things past, of understanding;
bring to mind the Danish king who exhumed
his dead parents in order to baptise
them, give them the chance to join him in
eternity. Warm and well fed, I ponder
the deeds of the dead, and indeed,
of our former selves, of the concept
of reconciliation; the burden
of mistake.