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Navigating the Tokyo Labyrinth Through its Robots and Giant Spiders


article-imageTokyo from above (photograph by LuxTonnerre, via Flickr)

Tokyo, as a city, can be intimidating to new explorers, even those who speak a passing semblance of Japanese. Only the largest streets are named, and the smaller streets run like warrens behind them (the idea actually is to deny strangers easy access to neighborhoods.) If you don't know someone in the area — you're not supposed to be there.

The Japanese themselves avoid this problem by visiting the ever-present koban, or police-box, where the officer will not only be too happy to render some assistance, but will also therefore know of any strangers in the area. A side-effect is that it becomes incredibly difficult to see anything but the most obvious of tourist locations. The statues of Tokyo — although often scattered around tourist landmarks, such as Shibuya Station (which at peak-hour hosts an overwhelming sea of traveling "salary-men," the Japanese term for office workers) — offer an insight into Japan that avoids Tokyo Tower and Disneyland, instead showing what the Japanese think of themselves, and what they think are the important attributes of their country's psyche. 

photograph by Antonio Tajuelo

First stop would have to be Hachikō(ハチ公) — renowned as “Japan's most loyal dog” — at Shibuya Station. The statue stands as a memorial for a dog who waited nine years for his owner, and is a popular meeting spot in the area. Hidesaburō Ueno was a professor of agriculture at the University of Tokyo, and his Akita always waited for him at Shibuya Station.

He suffered a brain hemorrhage while at work in 1925, and never returned to where Hachikō was waiting. Each day, for the next nine years, Hachikō would wait for his master's train, arriving at the station just before it was scheduled to arrive. He died, in 1935, on a street in Shibuya, on his way to meet his master's train. His story became a symbol of the legendary Japanese sense of loyalty, and he became a national icon.

article-imagephotograph by Aisyah Hifni

He was stuffed and mounted, and his remains are kept at the National Science Museum in Ueno; a monument was erected to him at the side of Professor Ueno's grave in Aoyama Cemetery, in Minato-ku. Another monument was set up at Shibuya Station in 1934 prior to Hachikō's death, although it was melted down during the Second World War, the bronze going toward the military effort. The son of the original artist was then commissioned in 1948 to cast a second statue, and this is the statue that stands today at  Hachikō-guchi, or Hachikō's Gate, at Shibuya Station. The exact location where Hachikō would wait is also marked, with bronze paw-prints in the ground.

Each year, on the 8th of April, a ceremony is held at Hachikō-guchi in memory of Hachikō; dog lovers in their hundreds turn out to honor him.

photograph by Metro Centric 

The next stop on our tour is at Ebisu Station, also in Shibuya-ku. Here stands the portly, delightful statue of Ebisu (恵比須), the Japanese god of fishermen and the only one of the Seven Gods of Fortune (the main deities of Shinto, Japan's native religion) believed to have originated in Japan.

article-imagephotograph by Taichiro Ueki

The station was built in 1901, to help supply the Yebisu Brewery (and to supply Tokyo with the beer.) Ebisu is known as the Laughing God, and is now famous worldwide as the face of Yebisu Beer, first brewed in 1890. The suburb was named for the beer, not the other way around — and although the suburb and the beer's names are spelled differently, they are pronounced the same way, as the beer uses an anachronistic hiragana character in its name.

Even though Yebisu Beer is no longer brewed in Ebisu, the brewer (Sapporo Holdings) opened a museum dedicated to the beer in the nearby Yebisu Garden Place, which, for my fellow beer drinkers, is definitely worth a visit. 

article-imagephotograph by Taliesin/Wikimedia

Kappabashi, also known as "Kitchen Town," is squeezed in between Ueno and Asakusa, and is becoming a bit of an off-beat tourist destination. The district is the home to shops dedicated almost entirely to the restaurant trade, from excellent quality kitchen knives to sampuru, the ultra-real plastic foods that sit on display outside Japanese restaurants.

At first glance it might seem that the statue I'm recommending is the giant chef's head at the southern end of the street — but in fact there also stands a statue of the Japanese mythical creature, the kappa. The street is named for the kappa, although not the water-dwelling yokai of the statue, but after a homophone, the traditional straw raincoats that were worn in this area of Tokyo in the Edo period. Still, he's a cool golden dude.

article-imagevia Wikimedia

If you do encounter a kappa on Kappabashi, the secret to escaping is to simply bow in greeting. The kappa, not wanting to be rude before it drags you to your death by drowning, will return the gesture. In doing so it will spill the water that sits in the reservoir atop its head, and will be severely weakened, allowing you to make good your escape. Grab yourself a kappamaki roll (sushi filled with cucumber, the favorite vegetable of the kappa) and enjoy the weirdness of hyper-realistic plastic food in Kitchen Town.

article-imagephotograph by Dan DeChiaro

Maman-san is a monster — although her sculptor Louise Bourgeois never intended her to be one. Bourgeois chose the form of the spider in homage to her mother, and saw spiders in their natural roles as helpful and intelligent. Standing at more than 30 feet high, Maman (the intimate French word for "mother") is like a bronze kaiju, her spindly legs touching down on the paving stones and neatly manicured garden beds surrounding Mori Tower, the home of the Mori Art Museum.

When seen from the right angle, this intimidating arachnid looms over the Tokyo skyline, looking set to crush the orange needle of Tokyo Tower in the distance which — given Japan's status as the home of kaiju, and the number of times Tokyo has been destroyed (in film) by radioactive mutants and alien invaders (again, only in film!) — "Maman-san" stands as the perfect piece of sculpture, highly representative of the Japanese obsession with kaiju and set in the perfect location. 

article-imagephotograph by Shuichi Aizawa

But the Battle of Tokyo is not entirely lost to a giant bronze spider! Intended to be an only temporary installation, a giant Gundam stands watch over Tokyo from the Odaiba, a manmade island in Tokyo Bay. It was once an archipelago of forts built to protect the city from the American Navy under Commodore Perry in the 19th century. More than 20 meters tall — making it a 1:1 scale model of the fictional robot protectors of Earth — the Gundam would probably find Maman-san an easy threat to deal with.

photograph by Kazu Letokyoite

Although not strictly in Tokyo, the city of Kamakura to Tokyo's south is a destination well worth the hour-or-so long train ride it takes to get there. Once the home of Japan's Shoguns (the warlords who ruled the country for nearly 700 years, until 1867), Kamakura is the home to a series of temples erected in imitation of Kyoto, the then-capital of Imperial Japan, although the oldest is Sugimoto-dera. It is more than 1,200 years old and has two statues of the goddess Kannon, which are seen in Japan as important cultural relics.

At Kamakura resides a giant statue of the Buddha (dai-butsu) at Kotoku-in, which is the subject of a Rudyard Kipling poem in the opening chapters of the novel Kim. The dai-butsu is made of bronze, although it was originally gilded with gold-leaf (some of which can apparently still been seen near the statue's ears) and dates from 1252. It stands (well, sits) at 13.35 meters, and is hollow inside. In 1498, a tsunami washed away the temple hall that surrounded the statue, and the decision was made to leave the sculpture exposed to the open air.

article-imagephotograph by John Gillespie

Discover more of the world's strange statues on Atlas Obscura >

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