Konnichiwa! (That means “hello!” in Japanese.) I am Noriko, a local guide with Tokyo Urban Adventures. I am originally from Tokyo but moved overseas for a bit, and now that I am back in my home city, I have even more appreciation for Japanese culture and history.
I love being a guide for Urban Adventures because I get to show travellers the real, local Tokyo. One of my favorite places to visit is a back ally where geishas once walked through and served customers. I also like taking travellers to old stores that have been passed from generation to generation, and that are quietly hidden behind the towering modern buildings, or to a small, secret shrine along a high-end shopping street.
In the photo below, I am at one of the shrines near my house. There are over 88,000 shrines in Japan. These shrines are for practicing Shintoism, which is Japan’s original religion, as old as our culture. We visit shrines to pay respect to the gods, to celebrate happiness and to pray for help during hardship, such as right now, when we pray for recovery and good health around the world.
This time of year is normally a busy tourism season for us in Japan, as the very last cherry flowers started to bloom in Hokkaido a few days ago. Cherry blossoms are a large part of Japanese culture, and we normally dedicate 10 days to appreciating the beauty of the blossoms and spending time with our friends and family. But this year, the parks stayed closed and the streets were empty. It never occurred to us that this lockdown would continue into May, and now the week-long holiday of Golden Week, when we celebrate four different holidays in one week, has ended quietly. Unlike in other years, hotels were closed, the bullet trains had very few passengers, and the gates to theme parks were closed.
But despite all this, there are good stories of people coming together, even when we have to be apart. With schools in Tokyo closed, that means school lunches are on pause. One school lunch provider, Dragon Dining, is trying to keep business alive by asking students and families to purchase meals that will be donated to neighborhood organizations that feed the less fortunate. They’re also selling lunches for families that live nearby, which they can take away to enjoy in their homes.
Japan has extended the state of emergency in some areas, including Tokyo. But, thanks to everyone’s patience and co-operation, we’re seeing the number of cases start to decrease, and people are adjusting well to this unusual lifestyle.
One of our Urban Adventures tours visits an izakaya, a traditional place where businessmen go after work to enjoy drinks and snacks. As summer approaches, normally you see many izakayas setting up in the street with tables and chairs – a nice place to sit down for a cold drink and skewers of meat and vegetables.
Right now, all of these restaurants are either closed or open for just a few hours to serve neighborhood customers. In some areas of Japan where the state of emergency has been lifted, izakayas are now open, so there is hope it will be the same soon in Tokyo. I look forward to seeing my own favorite restaurants and shops re-open, so I can enjoy meeting with travellers like you, over traditional food, Japanese beer and sake, and a walk around the neighborhood.
I hope the time comes soon when people can travel freely and we can welcome visitors to Japan. As a tour guide, I cannot wait for the day when I can meet you here again.