Meiji Shrine and Harajuku

While unwinding in Tokyo, Jeff and I visited the Meiji Shrine and Gardens. The shrine was built in honor of a late empress, and it’s situated in a large forest park. According to the shrine’s informational signs, the park was built by volunteers, and the forest was planted with trees from all over the world. The shrine was a Shinto shrine, a native Japanese religion.

Before entering the shrine, there were several gigantic gates like this. Some had pillars that were perhaps three feet in diameter, made from single tree trunks!

Along the entrance path to the shrine were these barrels of sake, donated to the shrine.

Before entering the shrine, Shinto worshipers will wash from these fountains.

All over the grounds there were gigantic old trees. Under this tree, which was living in the central courtyard of the temple, were small prayers written by visitors and tied to the fence surrounding the tree.

One of my favorite things about old buildings in Japan is that the roofs were often made of copper, which has now turned a brilliant green.

Traditional Japanese architecture looks very similar to traditional Chinese architecture — at least to an unschooled observer like myself. The Chinese buildings tend to have much brighter and more complex color schemes, while the Japanese favor simpler designs and earth tones, however.

Even more enjoyable than the shrine itself was the forest park it was situated in. The park had many small paths through manicured gardens and coy ponds.

We spent quite a long time communing with the large coy and variety of gigantic turtles at the ponds. The coy were about two feet long, and some of the turtles rivaled them in size as well! All were very keen to be fed, but alas, we had nothing to offer but company.

I got to search for bugs and play with the macro setting — also known as the “flower setting” among us Kelly-Sneeds.

We discovered these weird flat worms. They’re about half a centimeter wide and twenty centimeters long, with flat bodies and hammerheads.

Everything was covered in moss and mushrooms, in the most pleasing way possible!

The Meiji Shrine is right next to Harajuku, which is home to the height of Japanese street fashion. One of the really neat things about Japan is that it seems to effortlessly blend tradition with innovation. There couldn’t be two places more different than Harajuku and the shrine, but it felt natural to go between the two. We didn’t see too many outfits — just the usual schoolgirls and petticoated dolls during the day — but we did do some window shopping at thrift stores.

Harajuku also has a strip of large malls and top brands, with H&M, Forever 21, Lacoste…etc.

The deserted city

In the run up to the Olympics, the Beijing government did a whole lot of “restoration” of historic tourist sites. In the case of Qianmen (前门), this meant razing a large swath of historic hutong, building a large, historic-looking shopping street, and raking in large sums of tourist money.

Except that the money never rolled in.

Saturday I visited Qianmen for the first time since I was in the area visiting a museum. Of over 100 large, beautifully built shops and restaurant spaces, eight were open. Of course, there were still crowds of tourists, because if the government deems something a tourist spot, the tours companies are pretty much obligated to go. The result: hundreds of tourists wandering down a completely desolate street, all wondering “why am I here?”

Although some businesses had signed on to open up in Qianmen, almost all have pulled out and moved to other areas.

So, what was once a vibrant neighborhood with local homes, shops and historically significant buildings, is now a no-businessman’s land of empty buildings. Though these buildings are quite pretty, it doesn’t really justify the incredible waste and reckless prospecting by the government.

The only exception to the lack of notable businesses is the newly opened H&M store. H&M is pretty much my favorite store, but it doesn’t redeem Qianmen.

As I said earlier, the question on everyone’s minds was “why am I here?” A few years ago, the answer would have been that Qianmen is the historic business district of imperial times. Because it was located just south of the gates to the Forbidden City, it was the place where members of the court went to unwind, do some shopping, visit bars and frequent brothels. In later years, it housed some of the oldest stores in Beijing.

These days, the answer to that ever-pressing question: To witness yet another prospecting failure of Beijing. Cheers!

Valentine’s Day flowers

When I was in high school, I used to get cut roses with some regularity. They were, of course, lovely, but they always wilted and then started to smell weird, since I never learned how to properly dry them. Actually, I wouldn’t want to dry and save flowers much anyway, since I hate having clutter around. At any rate, I’ve since tipped boyfriends off that I’m not a fan of cut flowers, being as they’re already dead.

So. Valentine’s Day.

Not actually my favorite holiday, even when I’m not single.

Anyway, Jeff and I didn’t really plan much for the big V day, but we ended up having a pretty good one. We decided to go to one of the expansive flower markets in Beijing, the Zhongshu Grand Forest Flower Market (中蔬大森林花卉市场), which is part of the Beijing Agricultural University.

The entire market was about the size of a Costco, and was divided into three sections. The front-most section has cut flowers to one side and potted plants to the other. Since it was Valentine’s Day, which the Chinese do celebrate, the cut flowers area was complete pandemonium. Like many things in China, the rose bouquets were super-sized, each about 18 to 20 inches across at the top, bursting with roses, baby’s breath and stuff animals. Of course, they also had other kinds of flowers, indeed almost any kind you could ask for.

Behind the plants is a furniture, decorative arts and paintings area. It had some nice wood carved benches, lots of household decorations in the Asian style and other things that were expensive and not to my taste.

Behind that is the exotic fish and pets section. I saw a lot of really weird fish — most of which I can only describe. Some were recognizable —black mollies, angel fish, eels, sun fish, various iridescent fish, clown fish — but many were bizarre, Discovery Channel-worthy specimens. I also saw snapping turtles, several kinds of tortoises, rabbits, chinchillas and birds. My favorite pet was a store cat in a fish store who apparently just doesn’t like fish. In my opinion that store owner’s just asking for trouble. I was also really tempted by the tortoises I saw, but I don’t even want to know the illegalities of importing one of those into the U.S.

The potted plant section, which is the largest section, contains house plants, garden supplies and even fruit trees. There are woven bamboo plants of all sizes, various kinds of orchids, floating lilies, bonsai trees, flowering trees, green house plants of all kinds, herbs, lemon trees, rose bushes, towering tropical plants and of course tons of decorated planter pots and gardening tools.

I ended up getting a mint plant (pot, dish and potting soil 11 kuai; mint plant 8 kuai). I’m still deciding where to put it. The kitchen seems most natural, but I have so little counter space that I’m often wrestling with my dish rack for space when preparing a meal.

I also got this adorable little tree (pot, soil 20 kuai; tree 7 kuai). I’m not sure what kind it is, but I love the bright colors right on my nightstand.

And I couldn’t help but also get this hanging basket (basket, pot and plant package 35 kuai). It’s hanging in my front hall, next to my kitchen.

I love the flowers on this vine!

I think these are the best Valentine’s present I’ve ever gotten, even if I did pay for them myself. Jeff did help me schlep them home, and I wouldn’t have gone without him. I really hope I don’t kill them off by accident. I don’t have the most stellar history of keeping plants alive. I used to have a pet cactus — it died.

I’m hoping to visit some more flower markets now that I know how cheap they are. Zhongshu was really worth the trip, and so far the plants seem like good quality. After all, it is part of the agricultural university. Definitely a must for the plant-crazy headed to Beijing — but you may want to bring a car along. I was pretty sore that I couldn’t drag a lemon tree home on the bus.