Monday, 24 March 2014

Adventures in Tokyo, Day Four

Ueno Park lies in northern Tokyo and contains the Tokyo Science Museum, the Tokyo National Museum, a zoo, a theme park and lots of shrines. By this point in the week, we were as much at home on the train lines as we were in the hotel so we happily spent the journey there watching Tokyo fly by.

The entrance to Ueno park is almost immediately next to the exit of the train station and so making our way through groups of children on school trips we found ourselves in a beautiful, open, sunny square at the heart of the park. This is the area that people flock to in cherry blossom season; nearly every single tree was a sakura tree. A rare few were already in blossom but the way that the bare trees’ branches hung over the pathways showed clearly that in season, this place would be magical.

Following a map of the park, we found our first shrine; the home of the Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The story goes that Tatsuo Yamamoto went to Hiroshima in search of his uncle after the atomic blast in 1945 and found instead a flame from the bomb burning in the ruins of his uncle’s house. Lighting a torch from the flame, he kept it burning in memory of his Uncle. It now stands as a symbol for peace and is kept at this little shrine in Ueno park, surrounded by colourful origami cranes.

Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Like many other shrines, this shrine also had an area where people could leave their prayers and, thinking of the Flame just across the pathway, I felt that I should leave a prayer here. It’s terribly corny but I meant every word of it.

We left the shrine and had a little sit down on a bench to take in the sunshine and the freshness of the park. It’s funny how even though the park was busy, it was still quiet and that made for a very relaxed atmosphere.

The next shrine we came to had the famous red gates to get to it; very exciting for me! I don’t know what they mean but walking through them, down through woodland, felt very spiritual. The shrine at the end of the path also had some blooming sakura trees, adding to that sense of spirituality. In the sunshine the colours were very vivid; the square we stood in was made from very white stones, the red gates glared, the pink flowers glowed and the blue sky covered it all.

Above the shrine was a small hill, manmade or natural I don’t know. Atop it was a statue of Buddha and standing next to him you could look out and see the sprawling expanse of Tokyo. It was a funny sight because in the park it is very easy to forget that you’re in the largest metropolis in the world; you are just there, in the moment, breathing in the fresh air.

Returning to the first square we watched a man playing the bagpipes (of all things!) and a street magician whilst deciding what to do next. A group wanted to go to the zoo, another group wanted to go to the Science Museum and I wanted to visit the Tokyo National Museum. Deciding to split up and meet back later, we went our separate ways.

Tokyo National Museum

The Tokyo National Museum was fantastic. It holds items from all ages of Japanese history; some national treasures too, and told the story of Japan. Some of my favourite items were scrolls covered in calligraphy, ink paintings, lacquerware, clothing (kimonos and armour), samurai swords and ornamental hair decorations.

The first two national treasures as you make your way around the exhibition are two ink paintings by the Zen Buddhist Priest-Painter Sesshu Toyo (1420-1506?) depicting autumn and winter views. The thing that struck me most about the paintings was their sense of balance and space. It was beautiful.

Moving through to the next room, one entire wall was taken up by an enormous scroll. I can’t imagine it was anything less than 30ft long. The paper was dyed a beautiful midnight blue and the calligraphy was written in alternating gold and silver columns with golden grids to mark out spaces for each character. At the beginning of the scroll (the right hand edge) was an illustration of the Buddha done in gold ink. Walking along the wall to the beginning of the scroll made the entire colonnade of characters glint in the light, creating a lovely light-ripple effect. The information next to the scroll explained that it was volume eight of the record of the Chinese Monk Xuanzang’s journey to India.

Beginning two lines of calligraphy from the
record of Xuanzang's journey to India.
The next two ink paintings that caught my eye were portraits of Xuyon and Chaofu from the Muromachi Period (16th century). The use of inks to create such subtle gradients and shading was just astounding.

Kimonos in glass display cases were folded so that you could see both sides and experience the full beauty of the garments. Flowers, koi fish, peacocks and fans were some of the many motifs masterfully sewn into these robes, each with a story behind them. The silk threads, like the silver and gold calligraphy earlier, reflected the light so that it looked like the kimonos were shimmering.

Leaving the museum, I sat by the enormous pond outside and just took it all in. This, day four, was the first time that we had spend a day just in Tokyo and it was the first day that I really felt like I was there. Sitting quietly, watching the world go by, I spent a lovely hour waiting for the other groups to meet back.

Cultured-out for the day apparently, as a group we went to the Pokémon Centre. For me it was a little disappointing; I had expected an enormous, four-storey-at-least building filled with Pokémon, but all that was there was a little shop, not much bigger than an average Sainsbury’s Local, stocked with key-rings, some plushies and some assorted merchandise. The others were much more impressed however and so I contented myself to watch the Tokyo Tower light up in the distance as the sun set.

Concious that this was our penultimate full day in Tokyo, we agreed that it was fairly desperate souvenir shopping time and so we headed back to the hotel and thus the mall.

Exhausted from another day of trekking across Tokyo, parks, shrines and shops, we gratefully guzzled down some sushi and headed to bed.

Next week I will post about the final day; day five, and hopefully the article I wrote about the Ghibli Museum will be up on Skwigly.  I hope you've been enjoying hearing about my adventures in Tokyo!