I should have known I was jet lagged from the moment I woke up, full of enthusiasm and joie de vivre (i.e. absolutely unlike how I usually am in the morning) around 7am. I was far too awake and excited to get back to sleep, so I quickly washed and went down for breakfast. The breakfast option here is a hotdog (!), so I ate a rather tasty cake I’d bought the day before along with a coffee, and enjoyed the view over busy Ginza.
I was enjoying the peace and quiet when an extremely annoying older American chap came along and decided to strike up a conversation with me, possibly hoping for a ‘Lost in Translation’ style situation, only with me as a very poor substitute for Scarlett Johansson. Or maybe he was just bored? Who knows (he was no Bill Murray either). I decided I’d better head off before he decided to join me on my day’s excursions, so I went for a little Sunday morning stroll around the area, before heading to Ginza station and taking the Ginza Line to Ueno. I’m finding the Tokyo metro system and it myriad lines surprisingly easy to navigate*. The way finding is excellent, and I love the way everyone queues in a nice line to board the train. Oh, and the vending machines take passmo cards (like your Oyster card) so no need to scramble for change when you want a snack!
*If you’ve navigated Bank/Monument and come out alive you’ll probably be fine in Tokyo.
I hopped off at Ueno and made my way towards the park, stopping off at a toy shop on the way. I hadn’t heard of this particular one (Yamashiroya) but there were people waiting outside for it to open, and loads of gachapon machines out, including this one vending what looks like a secret microphone:
I was so glad I went. It was a multi-story shop selling everything from collectible models, every type of stress-squishy imaginable, socks to make your baby’s feet look like sushi and these awesome suitcase stickers with fantasy destinations on them. The downstairs had a huge Studio Ghibli section, and loads of awesome Sanrio merch. I restricted myself to one treat only, and opted for this super cute Jiji headband (to keep your hair out of your face when applying makeup). Jiji is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli characters, and if I make it out of Tokyo without a plush version it’s going to be a miracle.
Feeling suitable pleased with my self-restraint I headed to a Family Mart for a bit more breakfast. Two lovely, big, greasy hash browns. Mmm. I waited until I was in the park before I ate them, where I discovered the best invention ever – solo person benches! As someone who travels and explores by herself at least 80% of time I sometimes feel bad for sitting on a big bench when it’s busy, in case a family or a couple sit next to me and make me feel awkward (I’m so frightfully British like that, I need to get over it). With the solo person benches you don’t have to worry about random people striking up a conversation – they’re spaced far enough apart that you can be alone in peace! Perfect for when you’re feeling antisocial, want to have a cry or want to scoff two huge hash browns without judgement.
The park itself is pretty, but it was quite bare when I visited, as the cherry and plum blossom seasons haven’t yet arrived. It was a lovely mild day though, and there were people everywhere, painting and sketching, picnicking and visiting the temples, museums and other attractions. There was also a little cultural festival with souvenir stalls and lots of food options. I think it was a temporary thing but it would be great for anyone who eats meat and fish and wanted to try some delicacies from different regions around Japan. It was just opposite the Tokyo National Museum, which was my first stop.
Annoyingly the museum wouldn’t accept my ICOM pass, as it didn’t have a sticker with this year’s date on it, which is odd because it’s never been refused before. Anyway, the entry to the permanent collections wasn’t expensive, so I begrudgingly paid up. There are handy lockers everywhere for your bags and coats, so I ditched myself and explored the Japan collections, housed in the Honkan Building. There are English language guide maps and labels, and most of the staff and volunteers also spoke English. There was an audio guide available too, but I find the quality of audio guides varies from ‘1. Excruciatingly boring and old-fashioned’ to ’10. Utterly engaging, bringing the collections to life’ with not many falling in the middle of the spectrum. Not being sure which end of the spectrum this particular guide would fall I opted to explore on my own. The Honkan Building is a great overview of Japanese Art & Design from ancient times, up to today (not contemporary art as such, but modern day pieces made using traditional techniques and materials).
My top ten highlights:
- Kimono quilts, designed with lucky imagery to protect the wearer in their sleep.
- Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, selected to represent the current season, including some by masters Hokusai and Hiroshige
- A collection of contemporary netsuke, collected by Prince Takamado (made in the 20th Century, using traditional methods and techniques)
- A display on the Ainu people, an indigenous people of Russia and Japan who live in the far Eastern part of Russia nearest to Japan (Kamchatka, Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands) and the Northern Japanese Islands of Hokkaido and Honshu. I really want to learn more about this people, especially as I’m keen one day to visit the Sakhalin and Kamchatka areas.
- The architecture and interior design of the building, opened in 1938 after the original building was destroyed in the Great Kanto Earthquake. The rooms are large, light and airy, with beautiful detailing based on traditional Japanese architecture, all designed in a muted palate of golds and greys.
- A display about the museum’s annual reproduction project, in which an item from the museum is reproduced using traditional materials and techniques, allowing staff and visitors to understand the methods that would have been used in the object’s creation. This focus on materials and techniques is so important, as it really brings to life for the visitor the complexity of manufacturing such items, in this case a kimono dyed using a complicated technique called bingata. You can find out more about it here
- This tactile map of the museum, designed for blind and partially sighted people, featuring different materials and textures to represent the different galleries.
- These 6th century dancing tomb guardians, on which one of the children’s museum mascots is based, and which you can buy endless merchandise of in the shop.
- Buddhist figures, including this one with an intricate filigree design, the shadow of which is projected beautifully behind it.
- Scrolls of family rules in beautifully neat calligraphy. I’m glad our family doesn’t have a scroll like this. I’d love to know what some of the rules were!
I also explored some of the Chinese tomb guardians in the Toyokan Building (dedicated to art and design from other parts of Asia), as I’m very fond of the ones in our collections at work. I learnt that tomb goods sometimes included ceramic model toilets, which I hadn’t known before, although there weren’t any examples in their collections (maybe I’ll be able to track some down when I’m in China, later this year).
After the museum my jet lag was really starting to kick in, but rather than rest I impulsively decided on a visit to Ueno Zoo, partly because wanted to see the recently born Giant Panda Cub, Xiang Xiang. What I hadn’t realised was that everyone in Tokyo also wanted to see her, and you had to have a timed ticket, which had all run out. She was the first Giant Panda Cub to be born their in 29 years (apparently pandas are pretty lazy when it comes to mating), and you could say that Tokyo had been gripped by Panda-monium, including special panda food in cafes around Ueno. I did get to see Ri Ri, the baby’s Dad, who looked pretty bored, perhaps a bit fed up of the absolute frenzy of excitement surrounding his daughter. He had his own zoo security guards too, which I thought was pretty cool, like a top celebrity might do.
The zoo was pretty chaotic and I wouldn’t recommend going on a weekend – it was full of unruly children and parents doing all the things you’re not supposed to, such as tapping on the glass to get the animals attention, and shoving people out of the way to get a glimpse at some of the star attractions (the big cats were very popular). I had myself a bit of lunch, some yakisoba noodles and a melon flavour Fanta (so good!) and decided to focus on some of my favourite animals, the small and fluffy ones. The slow loris and the leopard cats in the nocturnal rooms were adorable, and the the Japanese macaques amused me no end. The sun had come out and they were having a great time sunbathing and grooming each other. My all time favourite zoo creatures are lemurs, so before I left I headed over to the the awesomely designed lemur forest area, to check out my little long-tailed, leaping buddies. So cute!
I left the zoo to make my way back to the station (by this time jet lag had really started to kick in), and spotted a concert going on in the park stadium. The band were a group of young, possibly teenage girls, in short school-style skirts, being watched by an almost entirely male audience. There was also a huge queue to get in, again every single person in the queue was a man. Creepy much?
I wandered through the Ameya Yochoko market area on my way back, and spotted this incredible art shop selling loose pigments. It’s a really crowded place, with vendors shouting and goods piled everywhere – much like a market at home really, only with more dried fish and less knock-off perfume.
That’s pretty much where the day ends I’m afraid. I was too sleepy to do anything but go back and snooze, and I managed about 12 hours of sleep. Needless to say, I’m feeling a lot more lively today, ready to explore Odaiba, and soak in some nice warm onset water.