the low city

The vague pencilled-in itinerary we’d developed suggested Ueno Park, with its attendant zoo and National Museum, on Monday. That morning the internet reminded us the zoo was closed on Mondays, and also for the rest of that week, but since the internet also told us that this was the last day the museum would be open we saddled up for an amble through the park anyway. Our wandering found a shrine sat out on a lake causeway, with various food stalls unlimbering and setting up (we resolved to come back for lunch), and a very Chinese-style temple with a pagoda and an avenue of stone lanterns. Shortly after that, we came to the gates of the zoo, which to our surprise was… actually open.

Don’t believe everything you read on the internet, kids.

You can find zoos anywhere, and I’m generally more of a sucker for good wildlife photography than actual wildlife, but the unique draw of Ueno was that it reportedly had Pallas cats, little housecat-sized Mongolian things which look like grumpy wizards and which have been a staple of Fran and I’s online interaction. But it was also a big, well-established menagerie, with a really surprisingly impressive collection: lions, tigers, the third component of the inevitable “oh my” joke, gorillas, elephants, giraffes, an enormous hippo (next to a pygmy hippo born on the exact same day as Fran), giant tortoises and anteaters, heavily-merchandised pandas, and a polar bear. Space was at a premium, and most of the animals really looked as though they needed larger enclosures, but caged animals always look like they need larger enclosures. Or no enclosures. They did at least look well-looked-after.
The rumoured pallas cats were there, and exactly as good as advertised, prowling around judgmentally and perching on the side of their enclosure like balls of rancorous fuzz. It was wonderful.

We strolled back to the lake shrine, which was very picturesque in the clear cold sunlight, and tried out an assortment of stall food – two kinds of dumplingy things (oden?), which were nice but not really worth the 800 yen they cost me; grilled chicken balls on sticks (yakitori), mini-okonomiyaki-things drizzled with superb Japanese mayonnaise, yaki soba, and a rather fatty but quite nice beef kebab thing. I considered a “hurricane potato” – a potato somehow cut into a single unbroken helix and grilled – but I was stuffed by that point, and 300 yen seemed steep for what was really just a (very, very) glorified packet of crisps. Fran had a chocolate banana.

I noticed quite a few homeless dudes around, mostly pushing trolleys (not shopping trolleys, the low-floor flatbed kind) piled with blankets and the components of makeshift cardboard homes. I’d already heard stories about salarymen unable to afford rent just sleeping in manga cafes, and seen the carefully constructed cardboard shelters at the roadside, lined with tatty quilts and attended by tea-billies over tiny gas stoves. Tokyo has been feeling the pinch like everywhere else.

We wandered on to the National Museum, pausing for a while to watch a very cheerful, earnest street entertainer performing a selection of impressive diabolo tricks while a member of the public cranked his barrel organ (his little daughter jumping up and down excitedly behind the skipping-rope-delineated health’n’safety boundary). It was really nice not feeling in any hurry, no strong obligation to be anywhere or do anything; we had the whole day, and we could spend it as we chose.

The lobby of the museum’s main building had a grandiose, monolithic, intensely Thirties look to it, and at my request Fran asked a uniformed guard when it dated from (we already knew the museum had been established in the 1870s, under the Meiji emperor). He explained happily that the original building had been wrecked in the 1923 earthquake, and had indeed been rebuilt in 1938; so I was vindicated, the guard seemed to enjoy being able to explain to an interested customer, and Fran enjoyed being able to understand what he was getting at. Everybody won.

The building was vast, but the collection actually on display was a study in calculated minimalism, opening with an captivating piece of Jomon pottery perhaps five thousand years old. (The prehistoric Jomon culture apparently never learned to work metal, or farm – but their corded pottery was advanced and fascinatingly intricate, and quite unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, leagues ahead of Single Grave Culture corded pottery.) Everything had been picked out for impact, and rather having a building cluttered with stunning artifacts (no matter how many they had), they gave you the space to contemplate each piece on its own. There were theatre masks, swords and armour, beautifully patterned garments, scrolls of paintings and calligraphy, sculptures, tea sets. Lots of the middle-history stuff felt very Chinese, and some of the earlier Buddhist iconography very subcontinental, with that smooth, languid style of male beauty I remember best from Sinhalese art in Sri Lanka – but the more recent late-Shogunate items, and the very oldest artifacts, had a quite uniquely Japanese feel to them. We definitely got our money’s worth.

It was dark when we got out, and getting quite chilly in the exposed thoroughfares of the park, so we went briskly back to Ueno station, past loud, obnoxious, unexpected Christian preachers. A short Ginza line ride to Tawaramachi had us sipping Freshness Burger raspberry cream chais and plotting our next move; we pondered just eating there, but the evening was young and Fran remembered a particularly fantastic donburi place in Shimokitazawa (we hadn’t seen it the previous night, but hadn’t been looking), so we hopped back on the train to look for it. Sadly, though we scoured Google Maps and the narrow Shimokitazawa streets for some time, the place seemed to have shut down in the three and a half years since she last ate there – so we spent Christmas Eve at a MOS burger, and I chomped down a burger accompanied by proper English tea, to slight ridicule from Fran but complete, honest enjoyment from my tastebuds.

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