Posts Tagged ‘Tokyo’

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.

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Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.

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The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.

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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!

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There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.

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There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.

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We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).

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We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.

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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.

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Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.

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On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.

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On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.

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Tokyo Sky Tree (東京スカイツリー)

On our autumn trip to Japan in October 2010, we arrived at Narita airport and took the train to Kyoto via Tokyo. On our train journey, we noticed a half formed tower being built on the east of Tokyo. We stayed in Asakusa for the second half of our trip that year, and saw the incomplete tower in the distance as we wandered around Nakamise market.

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In 2012, we noticed that the tower was complete. We discovered that it is called the Sky Tree and was due to open the following month. Built mainly as a broadcasting tower to replace Tokyo Tower, Sky Tree also has two observation decks and a restaurant. At its foot is Sky Tree Town, a shopping complex and entertainment district.

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At 634m high, it is the tallest tower in the world, and only the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is a taller structure. Ever with the eye for detail, the reason the tower is 634m tall is because the number can be pronounced “musashi”. Musashi is the old name for the historic province within which Tokyo falls, and it is that expanse of land that can be seen from the observation decks.

We took the chance to visit the Sky Tree on our May 2014 trip. We were staying in Akihabara, and I decided it would be a great idea to walk to Asakusa and then on to the Sky Tree. That’s a lot of walking. I find translating distances from how they appear on Japanese maps into how they actually are on planet Earth difficult. I pretty much always get it wrong.

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When we arrived, we went straight up to the 4th floor to buy our tickets for the Tembo Deck, but were advised that there was a half hour wait. After all the walking we’d done, I was too hungry to hang around in a ticket queue, so we headed back down to the restaurants and tried to find the Moomin themed café that I’d read about. I was keen to sit at a table with a giant Moomin stuffed toy, so it was disappointing to discover that there was no vegetarian food on offer. There were three dishes on the menu – beef curry, salmon, or chicken cutlet. No Moomin repast for us, then.

Across the way was an Italian restaurant. I asked for (thought I’d asked for) the tomato and mozarella spaghetti, but what arrived was the spaghetti pomodoro with egg and bacon. Ah, the joys of trying to find vegetarian food in a touristy part of Tokyo! At least it was easy to pick the bacon off the top of the pasta, and there wasn’t much. If I’d done a bit more research before heading over there, instead of being fixated on Moomin cuteness, I would have known that there are restaurants on the upper floors of Solamachi that have vegetarian options. D’oh!

After eating, we headed back to the 4th floor of the Sky Tree, where we had only a 20 minute wait for tickets. We travelled up to the Tembo Deck in a space-age lift that travelled at 10m per second. We only felt it as the lift slowed back down and our ears popped. Otherwise, it didn’t feel like we were moving at all. It was a strange sensation.

Tembo Deck is 350m from the ground and the views across Tokyo are spectacular.

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Tokyo really is a huge city. At ground level, you don’t really get a sense of how immense it is. Seeing it stretch away from you in all directions from 350m above ground really brings it home to you.

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We spent about an hour wandering around the observation deck, taking pictures from every angle, including down through a section of glass floor that my husband was happy to stand on but that my vertigo wouldn’t let me try!

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We found the café on our photo tour of the observation deck and made sure we fitted in a portion of Sky Tree ice cream with fruit vinegar. I had the apple vinegar on mine, which was pleasingly sweet and then pleasingly sour. At the bottom of the ice cream was a sprinkling of cornflakes, as well. Yum!

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It was great up the Sky Tree looking out over Tokyo and worth the 2,060円 entry fee. If you speak good enough Japanese, it’s possible to book timed tickets online in advance of your visit, so that you can avoid the queues, but we had no problems buying day tickets. The waiting time was fine for us. We went on a Thursday, though. I’d imagine it gets a lot busier at the weekend.

We decided not to buy the second ticket up to the Tembo Gallery, which is the observation deck at 450m. The additional ticket can only be bought on the day while you are on the Tembo Deck. It costs an extra 1,030円.

We visited the shop on the Tembo Deck, but weren’t grabbed by any of the souvenirs. We like a bit of tat, but the gifts were too kitsch even for our taste!

We were tired from me forcing us to march around east Tokyo, so couldn’t find the energy to mooch around the four floors of shops at the base of the tower. Not even for the Medicom store.

Kanda Myojin (神田明神)

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I recently read Marcus Jansen’s history of modern Japan and learned that Kanda used to be a mountain, but it was levelled by Ieyasu in order to provide the earth needed to infill Tokyo Bay to create the modern port. We’ve wandered around Kanda and Jimbocho a couple of times on previous visits to Tokyo, and in 2014 our Akihabara apartment was a short walk from Kanda Myojin. The hill that the shrine stands on is still pretty steep.

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We visited the shrine on a sunny Sunday during Golden Week. Before we headed up the steps in the photo above, we watched two lads race each other to the top. We walked up after them, and I think we were more out of breath when we got to the top than they were!

Kanda Shrine started its existence in the Otemachi area of Tokyo. It was originally built in 730AD, but ended up in the path of Ieyasu’s planned expansion of Edo Castle. So, in 1603, the shrine was moved to the Kanda ward. It moved again 13 years later to the top of the hill where it still resides. The current structures on the site aren’t original. It suffered extensive fire damage in the aftermath of the Great Kanto Earthquake and was reconstructed in 1934.

I thought the shrine was beautiful, with its bright vermillion woodwork and its lion dogs, nestling on the hilltop amidst the urban sprawl.

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The frieze pictured above is on the Zuishin Mon, the copper-roofed main gate to the shrine. It depicts a blue dragon and a black turtle-snake, which are two of the four Shijin (Taoist gods) alongside the red phoenix and white tiger.

The shrine is home to three kami – Daikokuten and Ebisu, who are both members of the 7 Lucky Gods crew and considered to be particularly lucky for business people, and Taira no Masakado, a Heian-era samurai who led a rebellion against the government in Kyoto and whose head was brought to Tokyo. Local residents in the Shibaraki area, the destination for Masakado’s head, respected his defiance so much that they enshrined him at Kanda Myojin.

There is an incredible statue of Ebisu at the shrine.

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Instead of Ebisu being depicted in his usual form as a fisherman, this statue refers to Ebisu’s childhood. Ebisu was the son of the gods Izanagi and Izanami, who gave birth to the many islands that make up Japan. He was born without bones and, unable to walk, he was put into a boat of reeds and cast adrift on the sea. The statue shows Ebisu in his boat riding on the crest of a wave, surrounded by turtles and fish. He washed ashore in Hokkaido and was adopted by an Ainu fisherman. His bones grew and, aged three years old, he became a god. I didn’t know that story before I visited Kanda Myojin.

The shrine, perhaps because of its proximity to Akihabara, is also associated with IT and with manga. We saw a couple of lucky charms in sticker form on sale that you could affix to the back of your tech to ward off system failures, data loss and identity theft.

More spectacularly, though, the shrine is full of ema plaques decorated with manga.

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In 2012, an anime/manga/idol project started, called Love Live! which is set around Akihabara and features Kanda Myojin as one of the key locations. It’s quite something to walk through the stands of ema and see the creativity of visitors to the shrine. Some of the ema are pre-printed, but the vast majority look hand drawn and coloured. It was one of my favourite things about the shrine.

My most favourite thing, though, was the miniature pony.

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Because we love Parks and Recreation, we named this pony L’il Sebastian. It turns out she’s a girl pony called Akari, and she is the shrine’s sacred horse. She’s there to carry the gods if they want a trot out. I expect that Baby Ebisu is fine riding a miniature pony, but I’m concerned about Daikokuten. Let’s not even think about how the severed head of Taira no Masakado gets on the back of a miniature pony. Akari can’t be expected to carry him in a mikoshi, surely?

I bet she takes part in the Kanda Matsuri every May, though. We were in the wrong year for the big festival and also too early in the month. The big festival, which is one of the biggest shrine festivals in Japan, takes place in odd years, with a smaller festival in the even years. In the big festival, 100 mikoshi and 300 people parade through the streets of Tokyo, around Kanda, Nihonbashi, Otemachi, and Marunouchi.

I would love to see it. Maybe one day!

Taikokan (太鼓館) the Drum Museum in Asakusa

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On our second trip to Japan, in October 2010, we spent the second week of the holiday in Tokyo. The week was a pretty wet one. One day in particular, it was raining pretty hard when we got up, so we decided to swap our day-trip to Kawaguchiko to see Fuji-san for a day of popping in and out of museums.

We were staying in Asakusa, and not far from Ryokan Toukaisou there was a drum museum. The Taikokan is located on an upper floor of the Miyamoto Unosuke Shoten Co headquarters in Asakusa. The building isn’t very obvious, but we knew from the local map that it was on a street corner two blocks down the main street from where we were staying.

We went into the building. It was very confusing. The ground floor is a souvenir shop and salesroom for drums and drumming accessories. There were all kinds of things on display, from hachimaki and happi coats worn by the mikoshi teams during the Sanja Matsuri, to drumsticks and all shapes and sizes of drum.

We went to the sales counter and negotiated ourselves a ticket to the museum. We were directed towards the lift and told to get off at the third floor, where someone would meet us and we could look around the collection of over 300 drums from around the world.

On exiting the lift, we found ourselves alone. We gazed around, reading the various signs telling us which drums we could hit, and that we couldn’t take photographs, and then a very flustered woman appeared (as if from nowhere, but in exactly the opposite state of composure to Mr Ben’s shopkeeper). She apologised profusely, and then launched into a bossy run through of all the things we’d just read on the signs. Then she said, “You have a camera? I can take one picture – ONE PICTURE!” We nodded, and she said something half in English and half in Japanese, neither of which was comprehensible to either of us, so we just said, “あー、そうです。” This seemed to satisfy her, and she left us to wander around at our leisure.

The first thing we noted was that there were a LOT of drums. The museum occupies a single floor, and the drums are crammed in, arranged in a higgledy piggledy fashion. It was hard to take it all in, and we wandered around in a sort of a daze. We were a bit tentative about hitting any of the drums at first, but once we’d done a few and the tiny woman hadn’t rematerialised to scold us, we grew bolder.

There was some interesting information on the labels about the rituals associated with the drums from African and Asian countries, where drums have more meaning in social events than they do in Europe. I liked the water drums, which are hollow tubes taken into rivers and pounded through the water so that they make a glooping sound. There was also a drum carved to look like an alligator, which was used in a coming of age ritual where 17 year old boys receive tattoos and carvings all over their bodies to show that they have become men. Ouch!

After a good long while wandering around, having a go on some drums, learning about others, we prepared to leave. At the door, the tiny woman pounced on us again. In spite of what she had said earlier, she insisted on us having TWO photographs taken of us pretending to play the largest Japanese taiko drums. At the top of this post is the best of her two efforts. And that one has been run through Photoshop to try to take some of the grain out and reduce the motion blur.

We thanked her for taking the photos and tried to leave again, but she stopped us with a display of postcards and told us to pick ONLY ONE each as a souvenir. It was a lot of pressure. Then she told us to go downstairs in the elevator and then back up to the second floor by the stairs, so that we could look at the drums shown on our postcards in the showroom. We tried to, but somehow we ended up in a storage area rather than the showroom, so we scuttled back downstairs to the ground floor and bought some souvenirs instead.

It was definitely an experience. If you’re interested in drums, it’s worth a visit, and if you are on holiday with young children it’s a definite. The entry fee was 300円 for an adult when we visited, although a comment from a couple of years ago on Trip Advisor suggests that it has gone up to 500円 now. I’d say it was worth the money. The tiny scolding woman was good entertainment, too!

More Japanese Literature

Since I last wrote about Japanese literature that I’ve been reading, I’ve added a few more authors to the list.

I catalogue my books using Library Thing, so all links to book titles will go to that website. I don’t want to recommend any one book seller above another, but you will find links to online retailers from each book page.

I borrowed a book that my husband picked up in a small independent book store. It’s called A Riot of Goldfish and it’s by Kanoko Otamoto.

Carp in the moat at Hiroshima Castle

The book holds two poignant stories that explore frustration, self-worth and trying to make your mark in the world. Set in Japan in the years between the two 20th century world wars, they show a nation caught between the old feudal way of life and the thrusting modernity brought in by the Meiji era. The men are largely frustrated and unsettled by their inability to grasp the opportunities modernity seems to offer them, while the women float serenely above them. I found them an interesting pair of stories.

My husband bought me my next selection, The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura. This novel, about a pickpocket in Tokyo who becomes embroiled with a gang that is manipulating the political process, had my heart racing. It’s quite short, 210 pages, but it packs a lot in. Tightly written, believable in its exploration of a thief’s psychology, sympathetic to its main character, I wanted it to go on for longer. I wanted to know what happened next.

I can’t recall why I decided to pick up Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, whether it was because we were planning to visit Ningyocho in Tokyo, where Tanizaki lived, or for some other reason. I’m glad I did, because I discovered another author whose style I like.

Shadows in the temple garden Tenryuji, Arashiyama

On the surface, the extended essay is an inconsequential set of ramblings about how Japan’s pursuit of Western illumination has ruined certain aesthetic traditions. I had to remind myself that it was written in the 1930s, at a time when Western-style “progress” was eating away at centuries of tradition in Japan. Tanizaki posits some interesting theories about why Japanese architecture and notions of beauty developed the way they did, embracing shadows and focusing on single aspects of beauty to be highlighted by the existence of the surrounding shade. I’m one of the Westerners he’s perplexed by – I love light, and often throw open curtains, doors and windows to let it into a gloomy room. But I also understand his love of muted light, natural light, preferring it to the harsh glare of electric light as he does. Japan has changed too much over the past 80 years for me to ever experience the aesthetics Tanuzaki appreciated and mourned, so I won’t ever be able to fully understand this essay, but I enjoyed it all the same. Having read that book, I then also read The Makioka Sisters and Some Prefer Nettles.

I found The Makioka Sisters to be an absorbing insight into the social niceties of early 20th century Japan. I enjoyed the humour and the tensions between the three sisters as they tried to navigate their way through society’s expectations and the changing times they lived in. The characterisations are beautiful, and I was immersed in the story completely. When we visited Aizen Kobo in Kyoto in May 2015, I was glad to have read this book so that I could converse about it with the lady of the shop. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki was a member of the same artistic group as the father of the current craftsman owner and gave Aizen Kobo its name.

Aizen Kobo

I didn’t enjoy Some Prefer Nettles quite as much. It lacked the spark of The Makioka Sisters, but some of the passages have remained with me, particularly the descriptions of attending a Bunraku performance.

I gave Banana Yoshimoto’s The Lake a try. The book is a good character study of two people struggling with the extraordinary and the mundane, working out a way to fit together. It’s moody but satisfying. I’ll read some more of hers.

Another new author to me was Yoko Ogawa. I started with The Housekeeper and the Professor, which I found deeply moving. I recommended it to so many people after I finished it. I also read Ogawa’s Hotel Iris, which is a very different book but no less compelling.

I chose Shuichi Yoshida’s Villain from the search results for Japanese authors on Amazon. This was a little depressing, but only because it was so well written. I felt a certain empathy for the central character and felt that Shūichi Yoshida made him a believable person. The book was an interesting exploration of alienation and the need to feel loved by someone, to feel that you belong. It wasn’t just a clichéd tale of an introverted loner turning out to be a serial killer. It was more an exploration of how life events mould us and can take us to extremes. I’ve now got Parade on my To Read pile.

After looking at the pictures Jacquie Hadel took on her visit to the titular dunes of Kobo Abe’s The Woman In The Dunes, I decided to read the book. It is a very strange book. The protagonist isn’t a pleasant character – dismissive of others, cold, aloof – and yet I found myself on his side. The book is quite dreamlike, with things happening off to the side of where you think you are. A simple trip to look for beetles turns into a living nightmare, full of frustration and anger. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop reading it, and I had to unpack what I had read in conversation with my husband to stop it circling around my brain. It put me in mind of the Terry Gilliam film, Brazil, in its surreal gentle horror.

My best friend bought me The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide.

An opportunist proclaiming hunger to any passerby who would listen

This is a thoughtful, philosophical tale about the impact an animal can have on people, even when they don’t own the animal. It captures the aloof exploitative nature of a cat who charms a couple with its independence and seeming unavailability. When the cat disappears from their lives, it leaves them bereft and causes friction between them and their neighbour, the cat’s true owner. Set on the cusp of change, from Shōwa to Heisei, from economic bubble to slump, it inhabits a calm space bound by feline comings and goings. It also delivers a punch to the emotional solar plexus right in the middle of the story.

I saw a review of Strange Weather In Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami which intrigued me, so I read it. It was a poignant, surreal and oddly touching book, about unrequited love changing to mutual love. The main character is adrift, moving through life aimlessly. A chance encounter with an old school teacher in a bar changes everything. At first, nobody knows where things are going, but then Tsukiko takes charge of a sort. The emotional remove between the two protagonists is at once frustrating and endearing. It made me think of Botchan at times, with the formality and hidden meanings and the way nobody seems to get to the point, of Murakami’s appreciation of loneliness at others.

A friend from Japanese class recommended that I try some Yasunari Kawabata, so I started with Snow Country. I absolutely loved this book. On the surface, nothing much seems to be going on. The two main characters lack energy, drifting along, reacting to events rather than controlling them, or controlling them through inaction. Beneath the surface is the potential for passion, but neither possesses the motivation to act. The book is dreamlike in the way it jumps around and seems to have meaning without saying anything clearly. The dysfunctional relationships across the piece intrigue and frustrate equally. The prose is beautiful, with rich descriptions of time and place, like an extended haiku. I found it quite cinematic. Kawabata is another author whose works I’m going to investigate further.

I also read a beautiful manga called The Walking Man by Jiro Taniguchi. The observations in the drawings are lovely, taking in the minutiae of Japanese suburban life. It made me think of times we have gone off the tourist trail to explore residential areas or visit small towns on the outskirts of big cities in Japan.

Arashiyama side street

Kanae Minato’s Confessions was made into a film which I saw at the cinema a couple of years ago. I decided to read the book because I wanted to see how it compared to the film, which I found a little inconsistent. The book is better, and the narration by the key characters is an interesting technique that was lost in the film version. There are inconsistencies in the story, contradictions that don’t boil down to different points of view, but it was an engaging read.

I was intrigued by the bizarrely named Edogawa Rampo (say it out loud, and it kind of sounds like the name of the American author he was trying to emulate), so I read a book of his short stories, Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination. I enjoyed this collection of mystery stories. They made me think of Tales of the Unexpected, but less salacious. There are some grim bits in a couple of the stories, but as a whole the collection is more about mystery and human nature than it is about horror or spookiness.

Finally for new reading experiences, I read The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I enjoyed The Tale of Genji and the Diary of Lady Murasaki so much that I wanted to see what another writer from the same era had to say. What a mistake. Sei Shōnagon was a terrible snob! I enjoyed the passages describing events at court, conversations, and love affairs. The lists of what is and isn’t good were dull. Shōnagon’s attitude to those of lower rank grated on me. She seems to embody all that is worst in the rich and vacuous. Perhaps something was lost in translation, but I didn’t see how she came to have a reputation as a wit. I preferred the Diary of Lady Murasaki for its observations on court life and for its intelligence.

Dressed in Heian Era costume in the Jidai Matsuri

And in among all of these new writers, I read more by some of my existing favourites. I loved Haruki Murakami’s new novel, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I also read the whole Sea of Fertility Tetralogy spread over a six month period in 2015. Mishima is a hard writer to digest, but I love the clarity of his prose, even when I don’t like or agree with what he’s saying. Spring Snow was my favourite of the four. I also read Sanshiro and The Gate by Sōseki. The Gate is now one of my favourite books of all time. I need to read And Then to complete that trilogy. I also read I Am A Cat, which I didn’t enjoy as much as I expected to. I expanded my experience of Ryu Murakami’s oeuvre by reading two more of his books. Audition was fairly graphic but, after my husband played up its content, not as graphic as I was expecting. Sixty Nine was an interesting read in that I started out hating the main character for his immature obnoxious character but ended up warming to him as the story unfolded.

And a book by a non-Japanese author but set in Japan that I enjoyed is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It’s not a completely happy read, but it is a good story. Part of it is set in Tokyo, where one of the characters spends time in a Maid Café.

There are a few non-fiction books that I’ve read, as well. I’ve reviewed Deep Kyoto Walks and In Search of Japan’s Hidden Christians separately. I’ll probably do separate reviews of the others I’ve read, too. Eventually!

Kagurazaka (神楽坂)

While checking out things to see and do for our trip to Tokyo last year, I read about an area in the northern part of Tokyo that sounded interesting.

 

Kagurazaka is a pretty authentic bit of old Tokyo, having survived the Second World War relatively unscathed. Now a shopping district, its Edo era life was as one of the entertainment districts of the city. Allegedly, it is possible to see the geisha who still work in this area heading to their appointments late in the evening.

I miscalculated how long we were staying in our Akihabara apartment, and we ended up with a bonus day at the end of our Tokyo week. We decided on a couple of things to do, one of which was visiting the Japanese Sword Museum near Yoyogi Park, the other was to head to Shibuya for some record shopping. Having done both these things, we decided to head up to Kagurazaka for an evening stroll and a bite to eat.

We caught the Sobu line from Shibuya to Iidabashi. Using Google maps and our pocket wifi, we tried to navigate our way from Iidabashi station to the bottom of Kagurazaka-dori. Of course we went in the wrong direction! We headed into a different part of town where we spotted a tiny wooden house tucked in among the modern concrete buildings.

Righting ourselves again, we headed back down the hill past Iidabashi station, down to an intersection and then up onto Kagurazaka. The area is full of interesting shops and winding alleyways and side streets. As promised on one of the websites I’d visited while planning the trip, French music played from speakers suspended on lamp posts the length of the street. It was quite surreal. It didn’t surprise me, as we peered down side streets, that the area is still navigable using an Edo era map.

 

We popped into a shop that sold traditional Japanese hand fans. I had spied a gorgeous green and gold fan in the window, depicting a cedar tree, but on closer investigation it was more expensive than I wanted to pay. We went inside the shop to see what other wares they had, and came out with a hand fan printed with a Hokkusai ukiyo-e style red Fuji-san and a small paddle fan with another ukiyo-e picture of a geisha looking into a mirror. The best part of the shop was the ancient till made from wood that involved intricate pressing of keys to register the correct sales amount. The young woman who was serving me had to call her obaasan from the back of the shop to work it for her! I wish I’d had the courage to take a picture.

For our bite to eat, we had looked on Happy Cow and chosen a Japanese-Italian vegan restaurant called Buona Tsuba Tsuba. In keeping with the general theme of not planning things properly while in Tokyo, I hadn’t checked the website properly and failed to notice that the restaurant was closed on Tuesdays. *sigh* Fortunately, we checked the directions before we started on the 10 minute walk from Kagurazaka to the restaurant and I spotted that it was closed before we set off.

Instead of vegan pizza or vegan pasta, we ended up calling into a small supermarket to buy tofu and vegetables to take back to the apartment with us. We cooked up a feast when we got back, so all was well.

A lot of the shops were closing up while we were there, so on reflection I think it would have been better to head there slightly earlier so we could have more of a look around the shops. Next time we’re in Tokyo, I’m sure we’ll head back there to see what other treats we can find. Maybe not on a Tuesday, either!

Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Sengakuji (泉岳寺)

In November this year, I went to a conference organised by one of the other museums in the group of museums I work for. It was all about preserving the visual record. One of the speakers was the curator of the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, Keishi Mitsui, who spoke about a volunteer project to salvage and document photographs from Rikuzentakata, which were badly damaged in the 2011 tsunami.

I spoke to Mitsui-san after he gave his paper, and told him that I had been to his museum in 2012, where I had seen an exhibition about the British photographer Felice Beato. Turns out that Mitsui-san curated that exhibition. Small world!

So today I thought I would write about our visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and, because I wasn’t able to take any photographs at the museum, about the visit we made later the same day to Sengakuji.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography is in Ebisu. We caught the train from Asakusa and, because we had set off late in the morning, bought some snacks at a combini near Ebisu station. We ate these in a paved public area close to Yebisu Garden Place. It was lovely to sit out in the sunshine, watching the world go by, eating onigiri.

Yebisu Garden Place is a shopping/dining/cultural complex built on the site of the original Yebisu Brewery and consists of the Museum of Yebisu Beer, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, a 3-star Michelin restaurant and a bunch of other eating places and hotels.

SONY DSC

Despite the range of attractions, we only had time to head for the photography museum, which is behind the main plaza. We bought a ticket that gave us entry to all three of the exhibitions on display at the time – a touring exhibition of Robert Doisneau’s photographs that are part of the J Paul Getty Collection, the aforementioned Felice Beato exhibition, and an exhibition of photography by the Japanese photographer Horino Masao.

We headed for the basement first, to see the Doisneau exhibition, which was a retrospective to commemorate the centenary of his birth. The images ranged from his very first photograph, through the 1930s and 1940s, including his famous images of wartime France, and ending with a selection of colour photographs taken in the 1980s. It was really interesting to see such a full range of his work and the playfulness in his images, because I am only really familiar with his black and white wartime photography.

Next we headed for the second floor and the Felice Beato exhibition. Beato was an important chronicler of the British Empire during the 19th century, particularly images of conflict, and the exhibition included images taken in India, Burma and the Middle East, as well as his famous photographs of Edo-era Japan. As well as having a significant influence on how war is photographed, Beato was one of the first Western photographers to systematically record images of Japan at the time it began to open up to the outside world again and into the early years of the Meiji Restoration. His panorama photographs, including an image of Yokohama and one of Tokyo (then called Edo) are incredibly precise – remarkable because they were taken in an era before panoramic cameras existed, and he positioned his tripod precisely to capture individual shots across a view, which he then joined together. As well as documenting the geography of Japan, Beato photographed local clothing and customs, and was responsible for popularising hand tinted photographs in Japan, using local artists to carry out the work. It was a stunning exhibition.

The last of the trio was the Horino Masao exhibition. I had never heard of him before, but learned that he was a modern, experimental photographer, active in the 1920s and 1930s. He saw photography as a way to capture form and social change, from the way the human body works to the construction of modern Japan. Most of his work appeared in photomontage magazines on particular themes, and there were copies of the publications alongside his photographic prints in the exhibition. He stopped taking photographs after the Second World War, because the images he had taken of Japanese-occupied Korea and Manchuria were used by the government for propaganda, and he became disillusioned.

I really enjoyed the visit and would recommend the museum to anyone who is interested in photography. The museum is currently closed until 2016, though, so don’t rush there just yet!

After looking round the museum, we headed back to Ebisu station and caught a train to Shinagawa for our next tourist adventure. My husband had read about the 47 Ronin in his book about Samurai history. Close to Shinagawa station is Sengakuji (泉岳寺), a Buddhist temple where the 47 Ronin are buried. The tale is a sad one. Asano Takumi was a samurai leader who quarrelled with his mentor Kira Yoshinaka. Following a fight at Edo Castle, during which he injured Kira Yoshinaka but didn’t kill him, Asano Takumi was ordered to commit ritual suicide (seppuku). His 47 men, led by Oishi Kuranosuke, vowed to avenge his death and killed Kira Yoshinaka in retaliation. This displeased the Shogun, who ordered that the 47 men be executed. Before his order could be carried out, however, the 47 committed seppuku.

Statue of Oishi Kuranosuke

For such a violent episode, the temple is a remarkably tranquil and serene place, with an impressive entrance gate, a group of cherry trees and then the graves on the hillside alongside the temple.

There are also two museum buildings that provide context to the story, but we arrived too late in the day to have a look around them properly, managing only to peep inside the building that contains weapons, letters and other items connected to the story. The curator on duty was literally closing up as we arrived.

Asano Takumi’s grave is separate to those of his 47 men. Outside the museum buildings you can also see the stone on which he committed seppuku. The graves of the 47 Ronin are in a separate area. I didn’t feel it was right to take photographs of the graves. It is a sobering sight, 47 grave markers, all with incense sticks burning in front of them. Visitors can buy incense from one of the museum buildings and make their own offering at the graves if they wish.

As we looked around, we overheard another visitor in conversation with the curator. The visitor really couldn’t get his head around the fact that the 47 men had chosen to commit suicide, rather than try to negotiate with the Shogun. The curator was trying his hardest to explain the concept behind ritual suicide in Japanese culture, but to no avail.

Our visit to Sengakuji was a reflective end to the last day of our holiday in 2012. I’m glad that we went. Even if we hadn’t been interested in the story of Asano Takumi and his 47 Ronin, it was a peaceful place to spend time in the evening sunshine, a place to pause and reflect, tucked away from the bustle of the metropolis.