Walking around Tokyo one of the first days of January, I decided to veer away from the crowds. Instead of spending more money on sales, sake or noodles (the holy triumvirate of the new year in Tokyo), I thought I’d store up some karma by restfully escaping to one of Tokyo’s greatest shrines, Kanda Myojin.
I thought the shrine would be a quiet respite from the shopping and indulging going on throughout the rest of the city. I figured I’d waltz through the food stalls, bow to the Shinto gods, take a photo or two and then train home, nice and quiet. Those Shinto gods, hidden away behind hanging screens and latticed doors, know how to bring in a crowd, it turns out. A short stop turned into a two and a half hour expedition.
The line into the shrine, several hundred meters of humanity, stretched along a major road down a slope not far from Ochanomizu station. The line, exactly six people across, was formed, and re-formed, by police and shrine attendants using a bullhorn, guide ropes, two-meter tall signs and sharp glances of menace and disquiet. A long line of people is not easy to control.
Or wouldn’t be, except Tokyoites are well trained in lining up, waiting patiently, and crowding together. For two and a half hours, no one complained. I kept my irritation to myself. It was amazing to be in the longest, widest line of my life. Six people wide, it was more of a moving mass than a line. Not even airport security lines could compete with this.
The line moved slowly in between long pauses at checkpoints until room ahead opened up. Everyone inside was, after all, praying for good wishes for the New Year, and it would be impolite to hurry them. No one, I guess, was particularly religious, but believing or not believing in the Shinto gods was not the point. The point was being in the line.
The pleasure was soaking in the buzz of everyone talking at once outside together and gazing, rather carefully and repeatedly given the slow pace, at the line of people ahead and behind, at the bright-lit food stalls, and breathing in the mingled smells of sizzling food. Once we got closer, bright red shrine buildings surrounded a huge open area into which the line spilled like a river into a lake.
On one side, a lion dance pranced and twisted to traditional Japanese music. On the other, female shrine attendants sold omamori (magic charms), the greatest variety I’d ever seen, over one hundred different kinds, and price levels. You need variety when you have that many people.
An hour into the approach and everyone still waited patiently. A few people edged out of the crowd when a toilet came into view on the left hand side. How many lines do you need to take a toilet break? One or two people had to use their cellphones to find their friends and family again in the forward rolling tide.
Tokyoites, I realized, love being together in a huge group. There is comfort and security in a massive group like that. It’s so amazingly, intensely human.
And it’s exciting. Whether it is a rush hour train, a shrine at new year, a busy train station exit, or a bargain sale, the constant, close presence of lots and lots of people makes going anywhere in Tokyo a reassurance and reward, especially when they are neatly lined up.
I joined the line when it was still light, but by the time I got to the open square in front of the shrine, the sun had set and the moon was up. Alone in that same huge space on some non-holiday, it would have felt otherworldly, but with the thousands of other people crammed in there, it felt very worldly, powerfully human and down-on-earth.
The excuse was to toss a few coins to gods most people scarcely believed in and offer a hopeful prayer for the New Year. But really, that is not what everyone was doing at all.
We were all immersing ourselves in the power and energy of a huge group of people, standing together, looking up at the moon, looking around at the shrine, and at each other, creating a massive hum of conversation and wrapping ourselves in anticipation. The main purpose of that open square is to be filled up with people at New Year. This was hardly ethereal, invisible religion; it was humanism, and lots of it.
Part of the thrill of Tokyo is that repeated merging into a group, being part of it, but also apart from it. Living in Tokyo is a constant dipping into throngs of people, to come out reenergized by the special beauty and intense humanity a crowd creates. In Tokyo, being alone is its own special pleasure, too, but one that is heightened by the crowds all the rest of the time. Tokyoites love a crowd, and maybe for all the right reasons.