Sunday, August 20, 2017

Surprised by Unexpected Joy*

-- Susan, every other Sunday.

*Given the state of the world, we need all the unexpected joy we can find, anywhere we can find it.

I woke up on the morning of July 10, 2017 -- the last full day of my research-and-graduation-celebration trip to Japan with my son -- with plans to shoot some last-minute research photos at Sensoji, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple.

Incense burning before a memorial stone at Sensoji.

I'd already visited the temple once, on the first full day of our trip, but it had rained:

Rain on Nakamise Street - with the temple gate in the background.

Which made shooting research images (both at Sensoji and at neighboring Asakusa Shrine) challenging:

Shrine guardian in the rain.

Since my son had plans with friends, I hopped the Ginza Line subway and emerged in the shopping street near Sensoji. People thronged the streets, packed even more tightly than I anticipated. Sensoji is a popular tourist spot, as well as a functioning Buddhist temple, but I hadn't expected such a crowd.

The reason for all the people became apparent as I reached the gate: unbeknownst to me, I'd arrived on a festival day:

Since I'd never experienced a Japanese shrine or temple festival, I was beyond thrilled. (For this, I was even willing to overcome my usual distaste for crowds.)

Food vendors lined the pathways all around the temple grounds, selling a variety of festival treats.

Slushy drinks, Fried Chicken, and CHOCO BANANA on a stick.

He's selling giant crab legs. Seriously. I'm not kidding.

Other stalls sold beautiful ground cherry pod plants and stalks, as well as hand-painted glass lanterns.

Ground cherry pod, aka "Chinese Lantern Plant"
The scent of plants and the tinkling of lanterns filled the air, along with a pleasantly cooling mist from spritzers hanging above the stalls.

Plants or pods, the choice is up to you.

Asakusa Jinja, a Shinto shrine that sits adjacent to the worship hall at Sensoji, was also celebrating.

Entrance to Asakusa Jinja
Tanabata trees lined the approach to the shrine, in recognition of the July festival commemorating the once-a-year heavenly meeting of the weaver and the cowherd.

People write wishes on colored paper and tie them to the tanabata tree.

A vendor just inside the shrine was selling one of the coolest festival drinks in Tokyo right now: a flavored slush composed of shaved ice, sparkling water and flavored syrup, served in a plastic lightbulb and adorned with a smaller, LED light-up lightbulb toy.

Japanese slushy drink! (Not too sweet.)

The day was hot, and I was thirsty, so I bought one--in the name of research.

The grape one was so tasty I went back for a lemon one later on.

While I sat in the shade, enjoying my treat, a Japanese woman approached me and said, "You're so lucky! You're here today!"

"Thank you!" I said, "It was a surprise - I didn't realize today was a festival."

Her grin got even bigger. "You didn't know! So lucky! Today is the day of 46,000 prayers. Do you know this festival?"

When I admitted ignorance, she explained:

"We believe that if you pray at Sensoji on July 10, it's the same as saying 46,000 prayers. Also, today is also the ground cherry plant festival, so you get two matsuri (festivals) in one! You really didn't know?"

I shook my head. "I didn't. This is my last day in Japan, and I wanted to spend it at Sensoji."

She clapped her hands in delight. "You are so lucky. Make sure to say a prayer today. It will count 46,000 times."

I promised I would, and thanked her, and she headed off to the worship hall.

Although I'd only planned to spend a couple of hours at the shrine, I scratched the rest of my plans and spent the entire day enjoying festival food, shooting photos, watching people, and reveling in the presence of hundreds of happy people enjoying a day at the festival.

The hozomon gate, as seen from the worship hall veranda.

Children laughed and ran around. Teenagers ate iced sodas, fries, and takoyaki (deep-fried octopus balls - a festival favorite). Adults of all ages strolled the grounds, bought ground cherry plants, and admired the tinkling lanterns that hung everywhere.

Ground cherry pods on display.

I saw people of many races (though admittedly, most were Japanese), both tourists and natives, Buddhists and people who doubtless belonged to other religions yet had come to see this lovely and important holy place.

Everyone loves a matsuri.

I didn't see a single unhappy face the entire day, and I don't know when I last saw such a large group of people enjoying themselves so much.

Festival booths with the Tokyo Skytree in the background.

Eventually I had to leave to meet my son for our final dinner in Tokyo and a trip to the Owl Cafe, but before I did, I said a prayer, as the Japanese woman suggested.

More accurately, I said 46,000 prayers, all the same: that everyone in the world could experience the kind of unexpected, unadulterated joy I had that day.


  1. When I saw the "ground cherry pods," just the description made me think of tomatillos, and a quick search confirmed that they ARE closely related.

    As of "deep-fried octopus balls"... I'm not even going close to that one. Jeff?

    I received joy just reading your story of unexpected, unadulterated joy. Thank you!

    1. Thank you Everett! It's good to know that ground cherries are related to tomatillos - I wondered, myself, when I saw them.

      As for takoyaki....just do what I do, and don't ask what became of the rest of the octopus.


  2. How beautiful, Susan! Here's to JOY! Misery abounds. I understand that quite well. But we need to seek out what joy we can. I love it that you went back to find sunshine in a place that had been gloomy before. There is poetry in your doing so and finding, not only sunshine, but joy in the process. You have brought joy and sunshine to me today!

    1. I'm so glad I could share this joy - it was such a special surprise. I love Sensoji (I will take you there someday!!) and now I've seen it at night, in the rain, and in sunshine. My final desire is to see it in the snow. Someday!

    2. And my only desire is to see it with you!

  3. Susan, I was going to compliment you on your uncanny ability at finding the essence of a place, when I saw your mention of "deep fried octopus balls" and EvKa's goading (no "n") suggestion for a comment from me on the subject.

    It just so happens I am well versed on the precise sort of octopus balls you're talking about. Twenty years or so ago I was at a Mykonian friend's house and his mother-in-law was visiting from the island of Kalymnos, which is known for its octopus balls (stop tittering EvKa.) They were delicious. So delicious in fact that I ate a my supposed friends egged me on with smiles. What I didn't know was that the digestive track considers deep fried octopus balls the equivalent of golf balls. It took nearly ten days before they'd "played through the course" --so to speak. Therefore I issue this warning to would be octopus balls fanatics...go for one, maybe two, but never (for you golfers out there) for more than a sleeve.

    1. Jeff, maybe you can answer this for EvKa and me ...

      I'm willing to take everyone's word for it that octopus balls are tasty (my allergy to fish means I have to take this particular gastronomic delight on faith), but ... what on earth do they do with the rest of the octopus?