2014
05.26

UENO

SYNOPSIS:  What happens when you don’t know what you are doing.  Exploring one of the cultural hot spots in Tokyo.  From Museums to Temples and Shrines.  A few contemplations on oddities, people’s behaviour, and unexpected sites.

Despite my ear plugs and my utter exhaustion, it seemed like I hardly slept a wink.  The bus stopping right below my window, ongoing traffic all night and my body clock which was off still by half a day, did not help.   To get me going, I gulped down a big glass of multi-vitamin juice which I had bought the night before.  I thought it was strange that it was sparkling juice which had a slight fermented taste to it, but it was delicious.  Only when my legs felt heavy and weird five minutes later did it dawned on me that all was not well.  Upon closer inspection of the “juice bottle” it turned out that it was actually a multi-fruit wine concoction…  Upon an empty stomach and a sleepless night I had just heaped “a drink”.  And so I had to start my first day in Japan rather compromised…

If your time in Tokyo is limited — so every guide book and my friend Jose advises — then go to UENO PARK:   http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3019.html   If you want some of the illustrious details of the park’s history, this link will be helpful.

Of particular interest for me was the National Museum.  Indeed, with its five mammoth buildings filled with art, it must rank among the world’s finest museums.  The museum holds so much art that most areas display works on a rotating basis; one masterpiece after another.  It is simply breathtaking.

Thankfully, all displays were marked in both Japanese and English and even for a novice visitor, after going through the highlights of Japanese art displayed in two floors of the Honkan (main gallery)  one gets a good idea of the progression of Japanese history through art.

At 10 AM, the park was already beaming with hundreds of visitors, but most of them seemed to head for the National Zoo.  I hear they have Panda bears there.  So, the National Museum was filled with few enough people to allow for contemplation and quietude.

But that was just the beginning of the park.  It contains an active Buddhist Stupa, at least two Shinto Shrines, various monuments of historic figures, and at least three more major museums which I did not even come close to.   It is situated next to a pond which allows you to see the Tokyo skyline across lotus flowers and reeds.  It is stunningly picturesque.

But as this was my first full day on the streets of Tokyo, I could not help but notice a few things which surprised me:  Did you know that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road?  I am sure you did — but I did not.  Even if you are not driving it really matters as it impacts the way you cross a street.  I almost ran into a bus today…  I will be more mindful from here on out.  I thought the British are typically responsible for this oddity, but then I can’t seem to see the connection between Japan, Britain and driving.  Japan certainly was not a colonized power.  Did they come up with this on their own?   And as there is an answer for everything these days, the British did have something to do with this after all.  Surprise, surprise:  http://www.tofugu.com/2013/02/22/why-does-japan-drive-on-the-left-side-of-the-road/  And as always, things are much more complicated than one would imagine.  And the way we drive influences the way we walk, of course.  Japanese walk on the left side and pass on the right.  For crowd control on stairs, it’s up on the left and down on the right.  You would not believe how often today I caught myself on the wrong side of the matter.  I was grateful to the frequent signs which have been posted just for ignorant foreigners like me…

A large number of Japanese, old and young, wear face masks.  It does not seem to be a fashion poo-poo as even teenagers are doing it and they surely would not go for this if it were considered uncool.  Are they trying to limit breathing in anything bad or are they so considerate trying to limit the spread of what they are breathing out?  This article seems to suggest the latter:  http://www.tofugu.com/2012/06/14/why-do-japanese-people-wear-surgical-masks/

The best picture I got on that front today was a guy smoking a cigarette with his face mask pulled down for the occasion.  I guess, he was not too sick to smoke.  And to top this off, he had positioned himself in front of a pole sporting a sign to ban smoking!  But speaking of smoking — Japanese smoke in restaurants, in parks, and on the streets no matter what the signs are saying.  It has not been overbearing yet, but definitely noticeable for anyone coming from a practically smoke-free country like the USA.

Curiously, some women like to walk around with their umbrellas open even when the weather is nice.  I see the point for an umbrella on a sweltering hot day as cover from the sun, fear of too much UV, etc, but today was not one of those.  Is it fashionable to wear your umbrella?  Woodcuts from the Edo period feature umbrellas and rain more than one is used to from Western art.  But perhaps, there is again more to this than meets the eye?   This article seems to try to relate it to radioactive rain, but there is little to no substance to it:  http://www.japanprobe.com/2012/10/25/alastair-wanklyn-of-the-telegraph-claims-that-japanese-umbrella-use-is-due-to-radiation-fears/

It certainly is amazing to see that when it rained twice during the day today and at night a tornado-like storm broke out, instantly everyone out there was ready with an umbrella, a pretty substantial one, too.  I have one packed myself, of course, but it’s a “mini”.  When in Rome…  Due to this “umbrella culture” you have something I have never seen anywhere in the world:  an umbrella rack.  Just like you park your bike next to the metro, or stow away your backpack in a locker at the museum, you have to park your umbrella in certain areas.  Very funny.

And so, bit by bit, I am diving into the Japanese culture and the Japanese psyche.  My lack of even the most basic Japanese will not make this easy.  But I will try.  Today I learned one word:  Thank you.  So, domo arigato for reading.

Good (hopefully) night.