“Ohayōgozaimasu!” says the man stretching beside his portable radio. Its tinny sound reminds me of hanging around my grandparent’s garage, except I can’t quite make out what’s being said. The man is decked out completely in white, from his floppy hat down to his orthopaedic sneakers. I nod and return the greeting, thinking he looks a bit like a lawn bowls player. Perhaps it’s the unusually early morning that’s got my brain on a delay but I suddenly clock about ten more senior citizens milling about the shrine, rubbing their hands together, making small talk and stretching.
It’s just after 6:00 a.m. in Tokyo’s Nezu Jinja. I’m here guiding photographer Lauren Bath around on a photo assignment and we’re joined by my Japanese counterpart Taka san. As we wait for the best light to hit the shrine’s gorgeous torii gate tunnel, we’re just as surprised to see these other early birds as they are to see us. Well, Taka is not surprised; he checks his watch and explains that in 20 minutes, they will all be partaking in a synchronised callisthenics routine.
Radio Taiso, he explains, is broadcast every day at 6:30am on NHK radio. This gentle ten minute guided workout was developed for the soldiers in the 1920s, but has been running for the public since 1951. As 6:30 approaches and more trickle in, it’s clear how important it has become in many morning routines. Without doubt, millions more are assembling in parks or shuffling around their homes getting ready to participate from there, too. And for those who have slept in, there’s a chance they’ll be doing it later at school or work.
Before long, the volume is turned up and a tinkling piano tune echoes through the clearing. The broadcaster’s booming voice counts aloud and people begin circling their arms in unicen and rocking on their feet. I look to my right and see that Taka has joined in, the movements seeming to come as second nature. I shrug, ditch my bag and join in, too.
Joining in the exercise
Coordination has never been my strong suit, but I think I do OK. As the Waltzing Matildaesque melody changes and we begin flailing our arms and jumping, I’m laughing and having a great time. Just when I think I’m done, the second song plays and we start again. From just a few minutes, I’m noticeably more energised.
It’s over as quickly as it began and most people hurry off to continue their days. However, there is a small group who lingers behind for a little singing session. Not having warmed up our vocal cords, we decide to finish exploring Nezu Shrine.
A bit about Nezu Shrine
This little backstreet gem dates back to 1705 and is somewhat overlooked by many visitors. In the main clearing, head to the left of this big gate and you’ll find the beginning of the torii gate tunnel. This photogenic path leads up to Otome Inari Shrine, a place for maidens to pray for marriage. As cool as this is, Nezu Shrine is also quite well known for its colourful Azalea Festival (tsutsuji matsuri) between early April and early May. Flower fans, definitely check it out.
The Surrounding Neighbourhood
The streets surrounding Nezu Shrine are quiet and residential. Soft sunlight kisses our faces as we wind through the backstreets, nodding to the locals putting out their garbage. Schoolchildren and office workers make their way to the station. We, however, are heading for Yanaka. Even though we know things won’t open up for another few hours, we’re in the mood for a little more old-school Tokyo.
The main shopping street of Yanaka Ginza is sleepy at this time. Water runs from the fishmongers and a woman sweeps the front of her cat-ware store.
For a city that comes alive at night, it sure is nice to see Tokyo waking up. Even if you’re not a morning person, I’d recommend heading out to experience early morning Tokyo at least once. Head for a park and you might just experience the Radio Taiso for yourself.
You can reach Nezu Shrine in 5 minutes from either Nezu station or Sendagi station (both on the Chiyoda line) or from Todaimae station (Nanboku line). Yanaka is about a 10 to 15 minute walk from the shrine.
Post by Japan Journeys.