Japan 2010: 21 - Where I Philosophise with an Urban Poet

My last full day in Japan. I had left this day pretty unscheduled in my plans, because it was not clear what I would still have left on the to-do list by this point. The only thing that had stood out to me was on the plane in, the kindly souls of Virgin Atlantic - in between 'amusing' safety videos with Vic Reeves - had made some travel guides for the destination, with Hakone taking centre stage in their recommended sightseeing list.

Hakone is a small town that acts as a magnet for tourists during the summer months, although the route the tourists typically take is a convoluted one. Taking the JR trains out of Tokyo and heading to Odawara, then taking a mixture of private train lines, ropeways, cable cars, ferry boats or even the odd pirate ship, you eventually end up at Hakone. Though there seems to be plenty at the town for people to do, most of the enjoyment it seems comes from the journey there; the aerial sections giving beautiful views of Lake Ashi deep in the valley below, and often a good view of Mt. Fuji in the distance, perched atop a cushion of cloud. Needless to say, you would have to take a full day out to make the trip.

As I stood bleary-eyed at the hotel PC at the reception, trying to use google maps to work out the best route (a 4-hour journey minimum), the final nail in the coffin that contained my optimism that I could go appeared in the corner of my eye. A huge rumble came from outside as I turned to see the street outside become quickly drenched with a thunderous downpour. The early morning commuters scuttled briefly in and out of view as they headed generally towards the station.

I waited a little while back in the room, viewing through the grey windows the continuing downpour outside, in the hope that it would abate. 9am came and went, and so did 9.30, and still it rained. It was miserable.

This was ridiculous. I was not going to spend my final day moping around a dusty grey room, but my enthusiasm for the day was draining fast. I flipped through some flyers I had got from the lobby and came up with some sort of plan; Ueno Zoo was pretty close to where I had stopped on my first day there, and even though Ueno didn't exactly set my hair alight back then it wasn't really like I had given it a chance. Plus there were the nearby parks and gardens to enjoy. Maybe the weather would calm down a bit and it would be a pleasant relaxing jaunt. After that, I could circle around a couple more stops and head to Asakusa, home of the iconic Sensoji temple, known for it's large Kaminarimon gate, and the push-fest of tourist-shops on the way to the shrine. I could kill two birds with one stone and get my remaining souvenir pressies there too.

OK, so I had a plan that wasn't particularly daring - a bit of an anti-climax given the distance I had travelled to get back here; but it was at least a plan, and I had to make a decision soon or there would be no day left.
I took my small bag and my brolly and went on the train around the loop to Ueno. I paddled through the puddles in the opposite direction to where I'd been before, and cut through the outer paved areas of Ueno Park until a curious temple emerged out of a gap through the tree canopy.

The Ueno Benzaiten Shrine is sat on a man-made island in the middle of the Shinobazu Pond, a large stretch of water filled to bursting with umbrella-leaved lotus plants standing five or so feet out of the water. Benzaiten shrines and others like them are the result of Hindu religious influences that seeped into Japanese spiritual practices via a bit of renaming and reshuffling as the myths and legends passed through China. Benzaiten is the goddess of 'everything that flows', which thanks to a most basic interpretation, explains why an effigy of her was plonked in a huge pond.

The rain was beating down and had enlisted the help of the wind so as to make the use of umbrellas pretty much useless. I passed through quickly, and as I looked around to find shelter I heard a voice beckon me over. A man stood calmly, propped up against the side of a building with a generous overhanging roof. He looked dishevelled but dry, and seemed to have been stood there since the rain started. I went over and joined him in the shelter.

My head was dry, but my feet and the bottom of my jeans were being lashed by the rain, and there was little I could do about it. I looked over at the guy, who was looking back at me with an expectant face.

'What is your nationality?', he said with good English, breaking through the dripping noise of the rain off the roof.

I told him I was British, and that made him happy, it seemed. 'You are not American, at least', he said with a chuckle.

There followed an unusual conversation, the gist of it is all I have left now. He asked me how London was these days, although he had never been. Liverpool and Manchester too. I got the feeling they were just places he had heard of once.

'Why is the UK not doing anything any more?', he said to my surprise.

It was true to a degree; the industries of old had gone or were being challenged by foreign competitors - and we seemed to be topping the lists of 'worst places to be for..' pieces. And then I took heart as I recalled the British spirit..

'We brits like to take pride in being rubbish at things', I said sardonically. 'When we learn we are the bottom of the class at something, we give a cheer..' He smiled, but I got the feeling he was disappointed at my response.

'You have to have a sense of humour', he said. 'People will survive so long as they have something'.

He began what seemed like a well-rehearsed enumeration of the things going wrong in the world, 'the rise and fall of nations', and the harm caused by the west in the name of 'freedom'. There was little room for interjection.

When he came to the end of his speech, he rattled the handle of the trolley he had at his side, so as to catch it in my attention. 'I am a poor man, I have lived on the streets for a long time. I carry my possessions around with me'.

The man had lines on his face that misrepresented his years on the earth. He was dressed in care-worn clothes, but looked strong-willed and worldly-wise, and had a relaxed demeanour that suggested he had seen it all before as it walked past him. He wore a smile as he talked. But his voice changed from poor but contented, to adopt a more scornful edge; 'Why does my government bring in foreigners, giving them grants to live here, but there is nothing for me?'

I wasn't really sure what to say; on the one hand this sounded worryingly familiar talk, like that expressed by the average racist idiot on a typical British street, stepping dutifully out of the way as one of 'them forriners' comes by and sweeps the place clean of his discarded beer cans. But I could also hear a gentle sense of defeat in his voice, rather than the subdued anger and passive-aggressiveness whenever you encounter a sentence containing such words as '..our asian friends..' over here.

I tried to be diplomatic. 'Attracting talent from overseas is an investment for your countries' future,' I said with as much confidence in my words as I could. To be honest I had not come to Ueno tooled up for a debate on the relative effects of immigration.

'Well, it does me little good..',
We stood silent for a bit watching the lotus leaves drooping in the pond.

'I am a poet', he said after a moment, 'I write Haiku'. He fumbled around in his pocket and took something out.

'Would you like to buy some of my work?'. He passed to me a small, crudely made booklet. On the front, in Japanese and English, was the words 'Haiku by Hideo Asano'. Inside were a dozen haiku, each on their own page. I read the first one:

It is raining hard
The deaf wet selling flowers

Can anyone hear?

It gave me a smile as the rain continued to pour down just beyond my soaked feet. Unsure of how much he wanted, I fumbled through my pockets and took out a couple of hundred yen. He seemed happy with that amount.

'I come here to see the people that go by. It is one of my favourite spots. I travel all around Tokyo and see many things as I go.'

I smiled. At about that moment, the rain eased, and I took my cue to leave. It was 11am and I was losing the day. I thanked Mr Asano for his time and headed briskly through the rest of the gardens. (little did I know I had just conversed with a respected Japanese poet who has his own blog and several books.)

The park ended at Shinobazu-dori, and following it for a little while took me to the back entrance of Ueno zoo, the Ikenohata gate. From the outside, Ueno Zoo certainly wasn't trying to look very appealing, resembling the outer grounds of a large factory more than a place to house animals and take the kids for a day. The entrance stood open but devoid of tourists, the lashing rain beating most of them away for another day, but I was determined and almost out of days.

The entrance fee was 600yen, and it came with a decent English map detailing the area and where all the animal enclosures were. The zoo is split into two areas, and I had entered the west side; a monorail linked the two sections which were separated by a large wall.

I began my trek; the first few enclosures were covered, and I was happy for some shelter as the rain began to beat down heavily on the corrugated roofs above me and the giraffes and rhinos who were regarding me as they munched on straw.
Across the way was a reptile house, which sounded like a nice retreat. Inside, the subdued light of the reception area hid a large circular tank of water, inside of which were a couple of rare Japanese giant salamanders. They were sat on the bottom, or posing upright against a rock and looked pretty contented, not that they were wearing noticeable smiles.
Through the plastic curtains, the main area opened out to a giant tropical greenhouse, with a handful of high glass-walled tanks surrounded by exotic plant life and pretend rock formations.
Turtles, eels and large fish swam about in some, and snakes and toothy crocs basked in some of the others. Small tanks built into the walls held immobile iguanas and multicoloured frogs.
A turtle munched on leaves of some sort in a sandpit, and birds flew overhead through the vines and trees. It reminded me of some of the poor animals in Okinawa world, who were treated much worse by comparison.

In a gradual shift between sea-life and hot-house amphibians and reptiles, the tour ended with some details (in Japanese) about fossil histories, including rather impressively a copy of the Berlin archaeopteryx fossil find (although it seemed to be a mirror image of what it should be).
Outside it was still raining hard, so I quickly said hello to the flamingo herds and the slightly creepy-looking shoebill storks, the zebras and the elephants and hippos, a few of the smaller primates, plus a selection of penguins and other seabirds who looked a lot happier in the rain than many of the others. Most of the other tourists had holed up in the cafe, getting some green teas and watching the skies as their children ran amok between the seats.
The monorail had a single carriage, and it had just left when I got there, so I took the east garden path instead; I had no patience for waiting in the rain. Over the other side, a large section of the zoo had been closed off for some reconstruction work, which included the main bird houses (boo). This section of the zoo seemed a little older and bedded in than the west side, and the trail past the elephants disappeared downhill under a large canopy of mature trees. The first floor of the bird house was closed off, but there was a second floor around the back. At the top of the hill a pair of cockatoos sat miserably as they waited for the heavy rain to stop. They weren't in cages, just sat on some tree stumps in a fenced off area, their wings I am guessing, were clipped. This also had a closed sign, but the door was ajar. I took a risk and headed in.
From what I could see there was no work going on inside. An elliptical room with enclosures around the outside and in the middle. Each enclosure had wire netting as a ceiling, so it was letting in a certain amount of rain, and disappeared down past my feet into the first floor room below, so there was plenty of space to fly. Every now and then strong netting was used to partition the enclosures off so birds that didn't get on with each other so well could play nicely.
Beautiful birds of many colours, seemingly from tropical climates abound. An area full of pygmy parrots squeaking away to each other and darting around to each other as they hung like bats from the ceiling were funny, and next door to them were a whole slew of green lori chattering to each other and generally huddling up in pairs on every tree branch they could find.
The rain still hadn't stopped but I had to move on. I ran through to the big cat enclosures which had some covered areas for the tourists to see them up close on wall-high glass viewing areas. One tiger sat in the shelter from the rain, right up against the glass, and reacted with mild disinterest at me sitting right down next to him, he must have got used to the attention.
A female lion looked at me with considerably more interest in the next cage and so I moved on. The unending rain continued as I walked through the high cages of the birds of prey. Beady eyes of eagles, hawks and vultures watched me from beneath a tuft of large (and sometimes unexpectedly colourful) feathers, until I emerged out onto the square, a large 5-story pagoda in the middle of a pond staring back at me.
A raven sat shivering trying to get some shelter in a stone lantern at it's base. I took a little look in at the Japanese birds to the side (mostly Jays, but also a beautiful white grouse), and then made my escape as I had come to the main entrance gate (but not before I managed by luck to get a single picture of a red crowned crane before it disappeared inside.

I headed out of the park and to my relief it put me right back at the station. Inside the Ginza subway had signs for heading straight to Asakusa, so I took the tube for 160yen each way.

Three stops and I emerged back into the open air, unfortunately it still included water. Compared to Ueno which was fairly light with foot traffic, Asakusa residents were more resilient and were going about their lives in quickly flowing 2-way lines of people, or slowly shuffling caterpillars of umbrellas where the bottlenecks were.
The weird gold cloud shape marked out the Asahi beer hall just across the road, but I didn't have much time or stomach for a tour. Instead, the steady trail of shops led me to the entrance to the Senso-ji temple.
You can't really miss Senso-ji. For one thing, it's got a perpetually large crowd of people gathered around it, and for another, there is this dirty great lantern at the Kaminarimon entrance gate. Located under a sturdy sheltering roof, it was fortunately spared the indignity of going soggy that day.

People flocked around the gate, waiting their turn, before bundling up a few friends into the shot and taking a picture with the lantern as backdrop. As soon as I saw an opening, I took a quick pic or two and went through.
On the opposite side is the short Nakamise-Dōri. This street is a few hundred yards and stretches between the outer gate and inner gates. Unusually for the grounds of a temple, where this space would usually be filled with tasteful statues and gravel gardens, this one contains a line of shops down each side with aisles every so often down which are the more usual covered market. The main street was tastefully decorated according to the time of year. Since we were well into autumn, branches of golden-leaved Japanese maple hung over the massive pulsating outer skin of umbrellas, under which a thousand or so tourists moved as one between each storefront.

The shops sold everything under the sun and made a good excuse for darting between to get out of the rain; several eateries steamed with the output of fresh tempura or yakitori, while others sold a selection of traditional Japanese sweets, which I got a few bags of for back home. Between the food bars were clothes shops selling fans, T-shirts and kimonos, and many cheesy trinket places as well, although the things they sold were a little less mass-produced than what you might find down the average street. One place in particular (whose owner didn't approve of cameras) caught my eye - an art shop that sold wool-block prints of various traditional and more modern pieces of Japanese art in various sizes. Some were postcard sized and were quite reasonable, and the larger ones (about A3 size) were going for several thousand yen. You could get a standard print for about 3000ish yen of, say the great wave, with a cardboard frame, or you could go for a deluxe option - the same print but using much more vibrant colours and a proper frame, for about 13000yen. They made the standard ones look quite drab when you compared them, and anyway the chances of me getting it home without folding it or getting it spoiled by a thousand raindrops was frankly zero. Maybe next time.
The street eventually ran out of shops after what seemed like an eternity thanks to the slow shuffling of a thousand pairs of feet, and there was a short area just before the gate where two frames either side of the street sagged under the weight of hundreds of pure white lanterns. The large lantern in the beautiful Hōzōmon gate matched the other, but were joined by a pair of copper Tōrō on either side, each concealing a suitably angry-looking Niō statue behind them, recessed into the structure of the gate.
Finally, (past a couple more shops) the weakened tourist arrives at the temple. An absurdly huge roof slopes steeply down, channelling a final rush of water off onto the heads of the faithful.
To one side was a shop selling traditional items for temple worship, including a thousand types of incense sticks to burn in the nearby Censer, round which were gathered a dozen or so people trying to waft the good fortune over themselves whilst trying not to pass out or catch fire. At the opposite side was another impressive-looking five storey pagoda, it's decorative metal spire finial seducing the lightening out of the rumbling skies above.
In front of me, a half-dozen steps took me up to a set of beautiful jet black lacquered doors, beyond which was the temple shrine.

The inside was - as always - beautifully crafted. The ceiling was covered with large pictures, depictions of wars and demons, dragons and swordsmen. Every surface was smooth and precisely crafted wood of highest quality, and the areas at the side were occupied by life-size stone statues of great men of the past.

Curiously, within the temple the shrine where everyone worshipped was usurped by a large bank of tiny drawers containing Omikuji papers. Related to fortune cookies, Omikuji contain good or bad luck messages; the idea being that you receive one randomly, and if you don't like what it says, tie it to one of the frame stands nearby, or take it home with you if you do. (That's why you'll often see thousands of little pieces of paper tied to frames, trees or anything else near a Shinto shrine.

Senso-ji's way of bestowing their Omikuji was via a variation of a straw poll. You paid your 100yen and picked up a metal tube about the size of a spaghetti jar, and shook it - 'politely', as the notice requested. A little hole in the side dispensed a chopstick-sized strip of wood, on which would be the symbol for one of the Omikuji, and you took the paper out of the appropriate drawer. Fortunately for the tourist they were written in several languages including English. Many people apparently try to collect the lot, but I suspect like football stickers it'd be pretty difficult to get the last few, so some sort of swapsies system must surely be in operation.

I headed back out down the side streets behind the main one, taking a look at some of the less attention-grabbing shops. Many were actually the quiet back entrances to the main fronts but others were quiet clothes stores and antique shops which were nice to browse through without the large crowds, although because of the perpetual rain soaking me to the skin and a general lack of shelter, I moved through them quickly as they had little suitable for my remaining souvenir-less friends and family.

I browsed through a dozen or so shops within the covered market and came up empty, although my rumbling stomach found me a tidy little cafe where inside I partook in some unexpectedly continental tea with jam on super-thick toast, with some slightly less continental egg and lettuce side salad to go with it.

Emerging onto the main street once more, a curious tea shop caught my eye. Stalls containing terracotta teapots and bulk bags of tea intrigued me. A mature-ish lady stood patiently looking at me awaiting eye contact, and when I inevitably cast them in her direction, she used her well-tuned wiles to lead me in and introduce me to a hundred different packets of green tea. She was clearly expecting a foreign contingent as each one came with a photocopied English green tea guide. I was reminded of my grandad's like of Chinese food, maybe he might appreciate a bit of proper quality authentic green tea.

Their main product was stacked up on the cashiers desk - green foil packets stood on their ends in lines, identical but for the small labels on their fronts and the increasing price card in front of them - ranging from about 500yen for the cheap stuff up to several thousand for the choicest leaves of the best plants. I fancied some myself to bring back home (green tea in the UK is just not the same). I got a couple of the 1000yen Sencha blends, one for me, one for granddad. The teapots were tempting, but they were plain and ugly, and too bulky to consider given my already bulging bag.

Yoyogi Park was on my list as a final stop, because it was the location of a minor disappointment on my first day in 2008, where I blearily headed off on the Yamanote line in a random direction and just went for a walk, saw a Michael Jackson impersonator, some people giving out free hugs, and a locked gate. The park had a reputation as a massive, vibrant coming together of people after a hard day, a green paradise in the middle of the metropolis. But it was still raining - as hard as ever - and it was half past four, and as I recalled it closed about five so I got the subway back with the intention of heading 'home'. To be honest, my enthusiasm had pretty much drained away.

Of all places to go, I decided that my final hours would be spent in Akihabara again. My third time of going this trip because (a) I didn't want to risk going somewhere I didn't know at such a late stage, (b) there would be plenty of places to shelter, and (c) plenty of stuff is open well into the evening.

It turned out to be a good idea, souvenir-speaking. Videogame-themed sweet selections will always go down well with friends, especially if they are Megaman shaped, and the friend in question is an old git. Clothes shops selling overpriced t-shirts, knockoff Ghibli goods and an unhealthy selection of the usual dodgy stuff later, and I somehow found myself back at Super Potato once again, gah.

They were pretty quiet, but still open, so I spent some considerable time flicking through their obscure videogame music CDs, and then the thousands of unboxed Super Famicom carts, an action that takes up lots of time, in the hope of finding some bargain games that didn't contain too much Japanese text. In the end, my hands spilled over with what I reckoned were some rare or bargain items - some of which I'd be keeping for myself:
I could have kept going, but I was pushing my luck and my yen was running out. I had a few hundred spare, so went up to the top floor for a final play in their arcade. It had changed round a bit again, and some of the games I'd recognised from before had gone, but in their place were some 2000-in-one machines where you could choose from all sorts of classics for a hundred yen a pop. Good times.

At last, as the night drew in and Super Potato kicked me out, the rain had washed itself out. I looked through a couple more shops that were still open as I made my way back in the general direction of the station, and then went back to Otsuka.

At a quarter past ten, a small restaurant under the Royal Host called Pronto was still just about open, so I headed in and ordered some pork dumplings with some layered cream cake for desert. They cleared out my final 1500yen in return for a good feed, and then I reluctantly headed back to the hotel. The last day, though I had filled it seemed very much an anticlimax. Washed out with a perpetual downpour, and limited in excitement and exploration. I wrote my diary and munched on some miso noodles, and looked back on the better days of Okinawa and Aso. It had been a good holiday, if only the weather had held a little longer.

The next morning would be the beginning of a very long journey home - starting at 7am - so I squeezed all my things into my combined luggage (all three were now full to bursting) and went to sleep.

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