Field Report: Tōkyō (16 April 2013) – Part 1/2

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Where Diego sees a man walking his dog, admires a marble staircase, and says farewell to one of his favourite cities in the world.

First part of two.

My final day in Japan (for this year’s trip, at any rate). I’ve said farewell to this country three times before, and much as I would have wanted to stay longer, the hour approaches for Goodbye #4.

After breakfast, I hopped onto the urban JR network and made my way north towards Ueno Station. Another old friend of mine, I might add: on my very first visit to Tōkyō (back in 2009) I was based in a small hotel east of here, and as the nearest major railway station in the area, Ueno saw me pass through its cavernous interior many times.

From here, I crossed the road over to the station’s western neighbour – a living, breathing splash of green in a vast grey sea of glass and concrete.

Ueno Park is famous for many reasons: for its history, as the site of a battle of the Boshin War; for the major museums clustered in and around it; for the nearby zoo that houses two giant pandas. At the height of the spring sakura season, however, most people probably flock to the park with only one thing in mind: hanami.

Unfortunately, the cherry blossom wave has come and gone, at least for Tōkyō – and along with it the festive groups partying under the trees. All we have left is bright green foliage, and the remnants of the temporary scaffolding used to hold dustbins in place.

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Back in 2009, my timing was better – check out my posts here and here to see Ueno Park in all its springtime glory.

Not that it matters all that much. The vast spaces and lush greenery of the park make for excellent leisure walking conditions, whatever the season.

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I strolled deep into the park and saw a few elements I didn’t notice (or didn’t pay much attention to) on my previous visits.

Not far from the southern end is the small temple complex of Kiyomizu Kannon-dō.

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Parks are great for a lot of invigorating activities: strolling, bicycle riding, napping in the shade of the trees . . . and of course, walking your dog. Take this gentleman, for example.

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I say, good sir – we all know mugging can be a problem in this day and age, but isn’t the sword a bit much? (^_^)

This chap’s another old acquaintance: Saigō Takamori, the famous warrior of the late 19th century, veteran of the Satsuma Rebellion and held by some to be the last true samurai.

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Saigō’s statue is a popular meeting place, and one of the first well-known landmarks I saw on my first trip to Japan. Great to see the old hero still looking in the pink – er, green – of health.

I also saw the grave of the Shōgitai warriors who fought on the side of the shōgunate and fell in the 1868 Battle of Ueno.

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In 1874, survivors of that unit – led by Ogawa Okisato – obtained the permission of the victorious imperial government to set up a funerary monument commemorating their fallen comrades. The Ogawa clan maintained this tomb for more than a century before the metropolitan government of Tōkyō assumed the responsibility just a decade ago.

Walking along the park’s eastern edge, I glanced to the right and caught sight of the Tōkyō Skytree (which I visited the day before).

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Another ancient landmark in the deep corners of the park is this small monument, said to house a lock of hair from the high priest Tenkai.

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It was Tenkai who (in 1625) founded the temple of Kan’ei-ji in what is now Ueno Park, at the behest of the Tokugawa shōgunate. Much of the vast temple complex was destroyed in the Battle of Ueno, although some portions of it remain (including its 5-storey pagoda).

Walking back towards the park’s northern end, I noticed a number of changes here and there. For one thing, I don’t remember seeing these buildings before (although I suppose it was inevitable that the global cafe pandemic would invade this corner of the city as well).

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At the end of the park’s main promenade, opposite from me across the reflecting pool – itself looking newly renovated with fresh paving and seats – stands the Tōkyō National Museum.

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But before going there, I paced around the reflecting pool to observe the locals (and quite a few visitors) enjoying the park in various ways.

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As I was standing right about where I took the preceding picture, I noticed small groups of uniformed high school students walking around with large envelopes in hand. From the snatches of conversation that I heard, it appears they were students from one of the prefectures affected by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, more specifically from the city of Ishinomaki (unless my hearing failed me then and my memory fails me now). One of them approached a man sitting not far from me and engaged him in conversation, encouraging him (as probably did his classmates with other park visitors around the reflecting pool) to visit their city and proffering a flyer from the envelope he carried; the man delightedly exclaimed that he’d been there before. It was a rather touching encounter, and a reminder that even now – more than 2 years after the event – people in the region are still making their way along the road to recovery.

Now for the museum. Founded in 1872, the Tōkyō National Museum is the oldest institution of its kind in Japan and one of the most richly endowed, with over one hundred thousand items in its vast collection – including 87 National Treasures and 631 Important Cultural Properties (as of December 2012). The museum consists of five exhibition halls spread out in a gardened compound, the centrepiece of which is the austere-looking Honkan (opened in 1938).

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Interesting piece of architecture, this – an odd mix (not in a bad way though) of Eastern and Western elements.

Inside, visitors are greeted with the sight of the grand staircase.

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If you’re an anime fan, this will all probably look quite familiar – particularly if you’ve seen Toki o Kakeru Shōjo.

I spent a fair amount of time here, making my way through the building’s seemingly endless range of exhibits – sculpture, swords, lacquerware, ceramics . . . the list goes on – and browsing through the large gift shop. In fact, I lingered for so long that there wasn’t much time left for the other buildings in the museum complex, though this wasn’t much of an issue as I’d already been here before. (Mind you, even repeat visitors like me will always find something new due to display rotations and special exhibits.)

Before I knew it, my time was up. Off to the airport now, and thence onto the flight that will take me home.

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