Zoji-ji and the Statues for Aborted Foetuses

Jizo Statue at Zoji-ji

During one of our Tokyo strolls we came across Zoji-ji, a Buddhist temple complex belonging to the Jodo Shu denomination, one of the most widely practiced branches of Buddhism in Japan.

Jodo Shu was founded in 1175 by Honen Shonin, inspired by the teachings of a Chinese master, Shan-tao, who perfected Pure Land Buddhism. I’m no expert on Buddhism but as I understand it, Jodo-Shu followers believe that by reciting the Nembutsu Prayer devotees can receive Buddha’s salvation and be reborn into the Pure Land of Bliss after death.  This somewhat optimistic philosophy contrasts with some other Buddhist schools of thought wherein salvation is nigh on impossible for ordinary mortals, even after countless births and rebirths, due to the fact that we are flawed, sinful and pathetic – we’re only human after all!


We entered the temple complex through the 391 year old Sangedatsumon which I have since learnt can be translated as ‘The Gate For Getting Delivered From The 3 Earthly Vices’ (greed, anger and stupidity). If I had known that at the time, I would passed under the gate half a dozen times as I could use a bit of stupidity removal.


The main temple building is the Daiden which was rebuilt in 1974. (Although Zoji-ji has been on this site since 1598, most of the buildings are recent since the area was flattened during the War). Inside this temple is a statue of Amida (Pure Land) Buddha, flanked by statues of Shan-tao and Honen Shonin.


Adjacent to the main hall is the Ankokuden containing the Black Image of Amida Buddha which was worshipped by Ieyasu Tokugawa, 1st Tokugawa Shogun. This image is said to bring victory and ward off evil. It is only shown to the public three times a year.

Tokyo Tower behind Zoji-ji

As you can see, Tokyo Tower overshadows the Zoji-ji temple.

Services for aborted and miscarried foetuses and still-born babies (collectively known as mizuko or ‘water babies’) are performed in the Ankokuden hall, for a fee. In Japan, abortion is not the taboo or controversial topic it is in many countries. It is entirely legal to abort within the first 5 months of pregnancy and abortion is reasonably common but its ready availability does not make the decision any easier for the would-be mothers.  One of the five precepts of Buddhism is to abstain from taking life and some pregnant Buddhists (and their partners) might feel that having an abortion will lead to bad karma in the future.

Jizo statues

To offset this risk, mothers of the mizuko select an available stone doll statue (jizo statue) at the temple to represent their lost child and decorate it with artificial flowers, plastic windmill toys and red woollen bonnets. They perform prayers here to shorten the suffering of the child in the afterlife and, in the case of abortions, to atone for any guilty feelings of the parents.

It’s all rather sad but perhaps this practice is more compassionate than in many other countries where such unborn children have no memorial at all.

Lanterns at Zoji-ji

Hachiko Statue at Shibuya Station

Hachiko statue at Shibuya

On a stone plinth facing Tokyo’s Shibuya station sits a bronze statue of a dog. It commemorates a loyal dog called Hachiko who was born in 1923. Hachiko was an Akita, a large breed of dog originating from the mountainous areas of northern Japan.

Hachiko was acquired as a puppy by Dr. Hidesaburo Ueno, a professor at the Japanese Imperial University. A close bond between master and dog developed and over the next year Hachiko used to accompany Dr Ueno to Shibuya station every morning and when he returned each evening, Hachiko would be waiting for him at the station entrance.

Professor Uenohachiko

On 21st May 1925, when the dog was 18 months old, he waited for his master’s arrival on the six o’clock train as usual but Professor Ueno never returned as he had suffered a fatal stroke at work.

For the next nine years Hachiko returned to the station every day to meet the 6 o’clock train and await his master’s return. He allowed passers-by to pet and feed him scraps but he never gave up the vigil at the station for his master, until his death in 1935.

hachiko's deathShibuya station in the early 20th century

The story of Hachiko has become well known and at least two films have been based on his life; a Japanese film called Hachiko Monogatari (1987) and a Hollywood remake starring Richard Gere, Hachiko A Dog’s Story (2009).

Hachiko A Dog's Story

Akita puppies like this one are very cute but they grow into large, strong dogs which can be aggressive and require careful training and handling.

We saw a cuddly Akita puppy in a Shibuya pet shop. ‘Let’s buy it’ said my daughter. Even if we wanted to we couldn’t bring it to Malaysia where Akitas are a banned breed.

Shibuya Station 2013Busy Shibuya intersection

Dr Ueno would scarcely recognise Shibuya station today but no doubt would be delighted that his faithful pet not only has a statue but also a mural on the station wall.

Hachiko mural at Shibuya station.

The station entrance used by Dr Ueno is now called the Hachiko Entrance.

Hachiko Entrance, Shibuya Station

An old railway carriage has been positioned in front of the entrance and serves as a tourist information office and is a popular meeting point for the young crowd which frequents this part of Tokyo.

In front of Shibuya Station, Tokyo

Hamarikyu Gardens & Pokémon Center Tokyo

My sons grew up in the 1990’s when the Pokémon craze was at its height. Over the years they amassed a sizeable collection of Pokémon trading cards and Nintendo games and my daughter has since developed an interest in Pikachu and all the other Pocket Monsters.

When I told her we were going to Japan for a holiday, the Pokémon Center in Shiodome Shibarikyu Building, Minato-ku, Tokyo was promptly added to the itinerary, along with Disneyland and all the other child-centric attractions that I have been writing about recently.

Pokémon Center, Tokyo

I could never really understand Pokémon. All I know is the characters seem to spend a lot of time battling and evolving. Still, judging by the crowd at the store, it seems to remain very popular in Japan.

I thought the Pokémon Center might be a kind of theme park but it’s really just a shop selling stacks of plastic and plush toys and other Pokémon collectables.

Hamarikyu Gardens

More my cup of tea is the Hamarikyu Garden, a very attractive park located across the road from the Shiodome. The very first stone-built western style building in Japan once stood here in the early Meiji era. It was used to entertain visiting foreign guests, among them General Ulysses S. Grant.

This building once stood at Hamarikyu Gardens 

This building was demolished in 1889 and its replacement was reduced to ashes in the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. The garden was further damaged by bombing during WWII.

Hamarikyu Gardens

Hamarikyu has been a public park since 1946. Today it is overlooked by towering glass office blocks but it serves as a momentary escape from the hustle and bustle of modern Tokyo. In traditional Japanese fashion it is planted to look splendid all year round with maples and gingkos providing autumn foliage and cherry and plum blossoms to give colour in the spring.

Here some young ladies are showing off their summer kimonos.

Kimonos in Hamarikyu Gardens

Totoro at Tokyo Sky Tree

Tokyo Sky Tree

Tokyo Sky Tree is a fairly new addition to Tokyo’s skyline, having opened to the public in May 2012.

The Guinness World Records (GWR) book ranks it as the tallest tower in the world with a height of 634m, which makes it about twice as high as the Eiffel Tower but it is still dwarfed by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (828m), the world’s tallest building.

If you are wondering what is the difference between a tower and a building, GWR defines a tower as a building in which usable floor space occupies less than 50% of its height.



This CNN graphic below compares heights of the tallest structures, including Sky City, a mega tower scheduled to be completed next year in Changsha, Hunan, China.tallest-buildings

When Tokyo Sky Tree first opened, tickets to the observation decks were sold out months in advance. When we went last month there was not much queuing at all but it was still fairly busy.

As you might be able to make out from my photo, there is a lower observation deck level around 350m up and a higher deck at 450m. You pay more for the higher level. We only went up as far as the lower deck where it was already too high up to get a decent photo with my limited skills and lack of tripod.

View of Tokyo from Sky Tree Floor 350.They have some clever touch-panel displays which can zoom in on particular districts, switch from night view to daytime view, provide information on points of interest and show speeded up time-lapse shots of a 24 hour cycle.

There is also a glass floor section for thrill seekers.Cool gadgets at Tokyo Sky Tree

While we enjoyed the Sky Tree, my kids preferred the Studio Ghibli shop which is located in the Solamachi shopping complex at the foot of the tower.

Studio Ghibli merch

Studio Ghibli are the creators of Totoro, Spirited Away and other classic Japanese animated films.

Totoro at Tokyo Sky TreeNo Face at Tokyo Sky Tree

Cat Bus at Tokyo Sky TreeMei chan at Tokyo Sky Tree

The shop sells stacks of official merchandise and Mums and Dads have little chance of exiting the shop with wallets intact.

For Totoro Fans

A good place for Totoro fans!

The shopping centre also has a food court and an excellent supermarket where we spotted this cuboid watermelon selling for a cool Yen 20,000 (USD200).

Square Melons at Tokyo Solamachi

This rather risqué sign looked a little out of place in the supermarket’s bakery section.

I would definitely recommend a trip to the Sky Tree while in Tokyo.

Tintin in Tokyo

The Tintin Shop in Tokyo

While in Tokyo recently we took the opportunity to visit the Tintin Shop near Harajuku.

There are a number of these official Tintin merchandise retailers around the world but this is the first one I have been to.


I have been a keen Tintin fan since the age of 10 when my parents bought me a copy of On A Marché Sur La Lune. On A Marché Sur La Lune We were living in Beirut at the time where only French language Tintin books were available. I was new to French but this book, together with Astérix Aux Jeux Olympiques, motivated me to get up to speed on my vocabulaire.

Tintin, the fictional young reporter and adventurer, never made it to Japan in any of his travels. The closest he came was China in Le Lotus Bleu, which many consider to be one of Hergé’s finest works (Hergé was the pen name of the Belgian author Georges Remi 1907–1983). Indeed the French newspaper Le Monde ranked Le Lotus Bleu as the 18th best book of the 20th Century on their list which is dominated by French language works.

Figurines from Le Lotus Bleu in the Tokyo Tinitin shop.

Le Lotus Bleu was written in 1934 and revised in 1946. The story is set against the historical backdrop of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria which was triggered by the Japanese blowing up a railway and blaming it on Chinese forces – the infamous Mukden incident. The book is very anti-Japanese in its tone and Hergé’s sympathy for the plight of the Chinese would have been influenced by his friendship with a young Chinese artist called Chang Chong-jen. And let’s face it, the Japanese were not doing a lot to make themselves popular in the eyes of the West or the Chinese during these war years!

Despite the book’s very unflattering portrayal of Japan it seems that Tintin has quite a following among the Japanese and enough local fans to sustain six Tintin stores in the country.

Le Lotus Bleu - Japanese version.

Tintin’s popularity in Japan may be due to Japan’s strong comic book culture (manga) and their shared love of travelling to exotic countries. Many Japanese salarymen can probably identify with the whisky-swilling Captain Haddock and of course the cute Snowy is kawai in any language.

Captain HaddockSnowy / MilouTintin in Tokyo

I would have liked to purchase one of these figurines but they were a bit expensive so we bought a few t-shirts instead.

Tintin in Tokyo

Arima Onsen & Toy and Automata Museum

I have just returned from a family holiday in Japan (Kobe and Tokyo). We are quite familiar with Japan, having lived in Kobe from 1993-1996. This was our first time back since those days and we wanted to show our sons where they spent their early childhood years and to take our daughter to visit Japan’s many child friendly attractions, including Tokyo Disneyland.

Summer foliage in Arima OnsenArima Onsen

One of our first stops was Arima Onsen, a popular hot spring resort just beyond the Mt. Rokko hills which overlook the city of Kobe. One of our sons was born in Arima just over 20 years ago at the Adventist Hospital, one of the few hospitals with fluent English speaking doctors at the time.

7 Eleven Van in ArimaGift Shops at Arima

For over 1500 years Arima’s natural hot springs have been attracting Emperors, monks and the health conscious seeking the curative and restorative benefits of their mineral rich waters. Most of the private spas are contained within hotels and require an overnight stay to enjoy the full experience but there are a couple of public bath houses catering for day trippers.

Hot Spring Footbath, Arima OnsenHot spring water collection tank

Not wishing to bother ourselves with the formality and strict rules of Japanese bathhouse etiquette we made do with the free and scalding hot footbath located in the street in front of the Arima Toy & Automata Museum. After feeling suitably invigorated we took a look around the museum which is in a 6 storey modern building.

Arima Toy MuseumArima Toy MuseumArima Toy Museum

Arima Toy Museum

Arima Toy MuseumArima Toy Museum

It has a good selection of wooden and metal toys, mostly from Europe, and play areas have been set aside for children to play with some of the wooden games and puzzles. The model train layout is attractive but serious modellers would probably complain that they have mixed up some of the scales. 

Temple in Arima

Elsewhere in Arima’s quaint narrow streets there are a number of temples, cosy restaurants and curious gift shops worth exploring.

Quaint Arima street

Arima Toy Museum

O Tsukimi 2012

A few months ago I wrote about the Tsukimi Moon Viewing Festival, an ancient custom in Japan where families would traditionally sit next to an open window to view the full moon on a mid-autumn night when the moon is said to be looking its most resplendent.

Noticing that the moon tonight seems bigger and brighter than normal I wondered whether today is the Tsukimi festival (it depends on the lunar calendar and the date varies every year). Let me search on the internet, I thought.

Please excuse poor photography.

I am a big fan of Google search but on this occasion it excluded the most reliable sources of information, i.e. all websites in Japanese. I had to make do with the US websites that came up in the search results and they were not unanimous in their opinions:

  • Denver Botanic Garden and Seattle Japanese Garden are holding their Tsukimi events tonight, 1st September.
  • Portland Japanese Garden is planning its event for the next full moon, 28th-30th September. So is the Imiloa Astronomy Centre and Subaru Telescope in Hawaii.
  • Philadelphia’s Shifuso Japanese House and Garden is holding its tsukimi festivities on 29th September between 11am and 5pm when it is not even dark!

Since Japanese are usually so thorough, accurate and punctual in these matters I find these discrepancies surprising.

Does anyone know when is the real o-tsukimi this year?

Full moon in Putrajaya.