Tuesday, September 14, 2010

8 Days in Japan Day 3: Ueno Park and Shop

Throat's feeling better after a good night's sleep but I've somehow managed to misplace my iPod in the process of turning the alarm off this morning. I'll find it when it starts blaring Arcade Fire tomorrow morning - or else a ninja managed to sneak into my room and lift it, and only it, while leaving the Laptop and Camera behind when I was in the shower. They must've really wanted my collection of CBC Radio 3 podcasts if that's the case. Applying lessons learned yesterday, today I head out with just a tiny notebook to write down things that amuse me and my camera.

Stop at a little subway cafe called "Vie De France" where the air is full of "french" elevator music and the smell of baked bread. Grab a surprisingly good pastrami sub for breakfast. One thing I have to get used to is the "automatic" doors here - many stores, such as this one, have installed pressure pads in place of handles and instead of movement sensors to trigger them which is rather unique and makes sense for the high traffic areas they're used.

Hop the JR Line and take the train to Ueno Park - a large site in north Tokyo with a Zoo, multiple museums, and shrines/temples galore - and hit the National Museum of Western Art to start. They've an exhibition of art on loan from the Museum of Capodimonte in Naples which is largely Italian in nature and, thus, alternates between Christian and Roman themes. The one thing you really note from it is how, in all the depictions of Venus, Goddess of Beauty, she's kinda... full figured and flat chested; which stands out in contrast to how she'd likely be depicted today. The remainder of the collection - including a large selection of Rodin's work - suffers from it's apparent origination as someone's private hoard. There's a certain sameness to themes and craftsmanship of the work that runs throughout until you get into some of the smaller or newer collections driven by recent purchases - like the Monets and the modern art collection where this one piece by Albert Gleizes stands out for being the largest Mad Magazine fold in ever. It's a really impressive piece of work to see how he's managed to fit farmers into the painting while also making it look like one giant overhead view of farmland.

Outside the building is also where I first come across, or at least notice, umbrella lockers; a place to chain up your umbrella so you don't bring it dripping into the building and a common sense development for a country where it can be either rainy or sunny in spades.

From there, we hop next door to the National Museum of Nature and Science. It's exactly what you'd expect it to be, only subdivided into a Japan specific building and a "Global" building. The Global building is the newer of the two and the thing that really stands out about it is how they don't waste any time on the whole creationism/evolution debate in the nature sections: it's simply "here's a shit ton of evidence for the later, deal with it" which is kinda refreshing. While pretty much all of the text descriptions here are in Japanese, there's a good percentage of it available translated on touch screen machines near the displays so you won't be completely lost as to what's in front of you or why it's important. One thing I didn't like was how stale the air within the building was and it was frequently almost as muggy inside as out. Over in the Japan building - which is the original Museum Building - you get the feeling someone was drawing inspiration for it's construction from the same place as the ROM was. While definitely having local touches to it's design, the building itself is very much laid out like the original ROM building - wings to right and left, central atrium open to all floors in the the middle, stairs to the back of the atrium opposite the main entrance, stairs at the end of each wing - and the stonework construction feels very familiar.

Finishing up there, I head out and start Wandering Ueno Park proper looking for lunch - new rule: since I'm not going to lug the book, write some of the restaurant suggestion addresses from the guide out onto the notepad for the area's you'll be visiting dummy. In the process of doing this, I stumble upon Toshogu Shrine... which is covered entirely by construction scaffolding draped in white cloth and has a picture of the Shrine itself hanging from the front facing.

Moving on, I wander the park until I come across a small pizza place outside the Zoo entrance proper and decide: "What the hell, let's see what Japanese Pizza tastes like." This theme will continue later, but for the moment the answer is: "Kinda like Pizza Hut pizza, only on really thin crust (save the ends), and with better toppings." Having enough of museums, and you could really spend the whole day here seeing just that 'cause there's another 4 or so on site, I pop into the Zoo 'cause I want to see the polar bears. Murphy's law wins out and it's the only part of the zoo that's under the construction but the other bears range from "are you sure those aren't cubs?" too "yeah, now that's a real bear". To be honest though, the one downside to this zoo is that, being cramped into a section of the park, it doesn't have large pastures or fields you're used to seeing lavished on the bigger animals at the Toronto Zoo. So, the Elephant Pen is literally a pen; big enough to let them get around a bit and have some personal space but not much more.

By now it's getting late in the day so I wander out though the south side of the park - finding one of the only vending machines in Tokyo with Canada Dry in stock in the process - and loop around the Pond surrounding the Benzaitan Temple to see the Yushima Tenmangu Shrine. It's a really nice piece of woodwork.

From here we hop the metro and kick over to Asakusa where there's a huge open air shopping district - apparently the original merchant's quarter in Tokyo and Sensoji Temple.

Wandering through the vendors, I grab an "Italian Leather" belt for ~1900 yen, 'cause my jeans are getting loose over here and do some browsing for a small tote bag to throw my notepad in so I don't have to hold it in my hand all the time. While not finding exactly what I want there, I do stumble upon an Arcade with Gundam Combat pods set up with a VR sphere and controls straight out of Virtual ON you can play multiplayer Mech battles in against players from across Japan. I'll have to try that later this week while I'm here but move on 'cause I don't want to take the time to set it up at the moment. Also worth noting - the arcade is mostly filled with older people chain smoking and playing gambling machines.

Heading on, I find my way to Sensoji temple which is another really nice piece of craftsmanship, though perhaps too crowded/touristy/now within the city for it's own good. There's also a goldfish/koi pond on site.

I move on from there to do a bit more browsing through the district - there's a really large section here depicted to cooking tools but bringing a nice set of knives back when I've only got carry-on baggage would be... problematic. I wander through a couple department stores: the Rox where I find Greenday's latest CD - for ~2600 yen, obscene when you also see Harry Potter DVD's for 870 - and Matsuya Asakusa where the department store depression you see in North America has throughly set in - it's 8 above ground floors now a mere three, one of which a train station, and the basement filled with a grocery store. Speaking of which, where in Canada the grocery stores going 24 hours basically ran off the major Convenience store chains, franchises like 7/11 are vibrant and plentiful here. Also: your best chance for an ATM that will talk to your credit/debit card.

Time for dinner, I stumble across two places. First, a doughnut shop called Mister Donut where I get one of my favourite kinds: double chocolate with whipped cream filling which is really good and hard to find since Timmies ran off all competition back home. I'm also given what I hope is my final reminder that ordering unflavoured ice tea means ordering exactly that: cold tea. Not recommended. Moving on, I bypass all the McDonalds and the like and run into a local Hamburger place to see what that's like. From the taste of it, they take the Ham part of Hamburger a bit literally and make their patties from pork but it's pretty good and they have excellent potato cut fries that are really nice.

Feeling less tired than yesterday, I shoot down to south Tokyo and get an... underwhelming picture of the Rainbow Bridge after dark.

Giving up on trying to get closer or make my camera take a picture it just doesn't want to, I wind my way back to Daikon station; stumbling across Pokemon Central Tokyo - the Pokemon Store - in the process. Filled with toys, various Pokemon branded paraphernalia, stuffed animals, and a "Customer Service" desk for fixing your game/providing help, I know at least one person whose bank card would jump screaming from their wallet and run for the hills if they got within spitting distance of the place.

There you go, day down, train to Kyoto in the morning. From the looks of the weather forecast, I've fluked into the perfect trip- when it's been raining in Kyoto, it's been dry in Tokyo. As I head into Kyoto tomorrow, it's about to get sunny there and the rain is coming to Tokyo...


  1. And that person would be me. Hey guy, the food talk is good and all, BUT HAVE SOME JAPANESE FOOD. Do it before I hit you really hard with a rock

  2. LOL. I do as the week goes on - I'm actually recapping last week - but other than Sushi I probably won't detail much. Mainly 'cause menus there are split between "yes, we have an english one" and "point at what looks good on the pictures and I'll bring it to you" and half the time I was ordering on appearance.