Ueno Revisited

by Stefan Chiarantano, Jun 20, 2006 | Destinations: Japan / Tokyo

I spent another lovely afternoon with my charming friend taking in the sights of Ueno. This time however, we decided to have lunch at Ueno Station. There are so many restaurants to choose from that offer a variety of foods. We decided to have sushi and went to a sushiya (a sushi restaurant) on the upper level ordering the special of the day. It was delicious. Ueno station reminds me of Union Station back home minus the shops, restaurants, conveniences, and the unrelenting hustle and bustle that seems to characterize large urban train stations in Japan. I loved the airy feeling its high ceilings conveyed and admired too the plaster relief of flowers and vines on the walls.

Following lunch, we made our way to the Shitamachi museum, which is a short hop, skip and jump from the station. The museum is adjacent to Ueno pond. The lovely thing about Shitamachi museum is that you are allowed to touch and handle objects. It's a very tactile experience.

We were asked if we would like the services of an English-speaking guide and gladly, accepted. My questions regarding the kimono rickshaw likely prompted the offer. This was a specially made rickshaw, which instead of having a seating area had a wooden cabinet, its drawers filled with silk kimono. The attendant encouraged me to pull open the drawers to have a look inside. Suddenly, an elderly gentleman miraculously appeared wearing a yukata speaking excellent English. Following self-introductions, he took us on a whirlwind tour of the ground floor. We started off with the craft demonstration. How fortuitous it was for us to catch a craft demonstration of an artisan, it doesn't happen very often our guide told us, making the straps (hana o) for Japanese wooden clogs (geta). There's a life size version of a merchant's shop on the ground floor that specialized in the manufacture and wholesale of geta straps. We then entered a replica of a tiny tenement house that doubled as a sweet/toy shop. On display in the tiny abode on a shelf was a miniature jinja shrine hung with a shimenawa (braids of rice straw rope). I remarked that I had seen the shimenawa tied around an ancient cedar tree and asked whether one wasn't also wrapped around the girth of a champion sumo wrestler. Our guide told me I was correct and was surprised at my knowledge. He said that it indicated a sacred or pure space. Our next stop was the small jinja shrine, which our guide explained was an actual replica, and would be found in most tenements. He let us have a go at Omikuji (a sacred lottery). I was given a box containing numbered sticks to shake, which corresponded to a fortune. The stick falls out of a small hole in the box. My fortune was not bad but friend's was the best you could hope for. She gave me a squeeze and flashed me a big, warm smile.

We then had a quick peak at an old fashion toilet, the communal cooking area for cooking rice and the common drinking well. We were escorted to the second floor at which time our guide/interpreter left us to ourselves. We gratefully thanked him and made our way through the many exhibits. I loved the life-size façade of the sento (public path) on display and the huge weight scale on hand. My friend teased me and asked me, "Wouldn't you like to weigh yourself?" I politely declined mentioning that I already knew I was overweight and couldn't see the point in doing so. She gave a laugh. I loved looking at the toiletries housed in the glass displays. I was so glad that I didn't have to shave using old fashion razor blades. What a relief! But what drew my fascination were the black and white photographs on display. They allowed me to travel back in time to a pre-WWII Tokyo. The black and white photograph of the two young smiling Japanese women dressed in the fashion of the twenties taken in Ginza with a tram in the background was charming.

Outside the doors of the museum, the sad eyes of a homeless man prostrated on the dirty wet concrete floor greeted me. I reached into my pockets, pooled my change, and handed it to him, which he accepted. He said, "Thank you" in English, which surprised my friend.

Ueno pond looked ethereal covered in mist on this rainy afternoon. Very few people were out. The pond was covered in a sea of lotus plants and here and there we spied a bird or two. Walking along the perimeter, we passed a few oden shops, and came upon a yanagi tree, a willow tree, which my friend told me was home to ghosts. "Did you say ghosts?" I echoed. I had a sudden premonition of being re-visited by ghosts and quickly punished the thought. I said, "Let's me on."

We had a lovely time and ended our outing with the cake and all you can drink set at the Hardrock Café in Ueno Station. Shitamachi museum is worth a visit. I can't wait to visit Ueno again with my lovely friend and discover more of its delights.

A few days later I was inspired to write this haiku. Here it is:

Ueno pond silent
a homeless man lost in thoughts
shrouded in a mist

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