Old Tokyo / New Tokyo
day 4 – wednesday may 18th
Ueno – Yanaka – Roppongi – Markets and Temples
In 1868 Japan goes through the Meiji restoration – the transition of power from the decentralized shogunate to the Meiji empire. Another big transition took place at this time. when the Shoguns ran Japan, they sort of kept to themselves – didn’t try to engage with other countries, especially the West. Let’s say, for story’s sake, that Japan was a bit of a nerd. By keeping to themselves, like all good nerds, Japan developed its own rich ways of doing things… Very cool to Japan, but sort of weird to others.
But the Meijis wanted to be technologically advanced, and an international power – particularly recognized by the current cool kids in school, the west. Thus began a period of East/West Mean Girlsing – in order to get in with the in crowd, Japan began to adopt some western practices and artistic styles, because mimmickery is endearing to the powerful and self-important. At home though, Japan continued to embrace its old, eastern arts and culture until the day the world realizes what makes them different makes them awesome (probably in your early 30s).
Historical context complete. Without planning it, we traveled through the history and current articulation of this East/West tension on our last day in Tokyo.
The morning started with a trip to Ueno Park. Ueno is the cultural heart of Tokyo – home to many museums, temples, historical sites, and even their Zoo. It was huge, clean, and beautiful. We kicked things off at Keneiji Temple – a beautiful ancient temple surrounded by a Lilly-filled pond. I bought a blank temple book, which you can fill up with calligraphy and stamps from the temples you visit. We learn that during the Shogunate rule, the temple was HUGE. When the Meiji beat them in a battle that essentially took place at Ueno, they allowed the Shogunate to keep their main temple buildings, and turned the rest of that land and the surrounding land into a western-style park BECAUSE PROGRESS.
We hit up the National Museum of Tokyo, and, true to the stride we’ve hit, discover that it’s National Museum Day in Japan and admission is free! It’s shockingly uncrowded – the visitors are mainly other tourists, the first old Japanese people we’ve seen in Tokyo, and adorable well behaved Japanese school children that I resisted pocketing and bringing home. The museum highlighted both historical and artistic works, including a gorgeous Samurai sword exhibit and a history of Japanese pottery making. Pre-Meiji, Japanese focused on turning everyday objects – bowls, pens, vases, screens – into works of art. Coming from a Crate and Barrel world, I found these small, thoughtful and useful pieces fascinating and moving. But, they didn’t fit the 17th century Western definition of art. So, following he Meiji restoration, Japanese artists began incorporating western style (like individualism and canvases) into their works. Progress?
We then took a long and lovely walk through Yanaka – a neighborhood of Tokyo that time forgot. In between residential apartments and graveyards are tons of beautiful, intricate shrines and temples. We stopped at a dozen or so, including a shrine dedicated to the God of strong legs, so I could pray to continue to keep up with Michael’s unforgiving stride. We also saw the rest of Tokyo’s elderly, apparently living out their remaining years clustered near the graveyards. Disturbing.
Our stroll ended at Yanaka Ginza, a beautiful mid-20th century shopping street that felt much more local and laid back than any other Tokyo experience thus far. We ate some Takoyaki, (delicious squid balls) and I finally discovered a bakery that specializes in a particular sweet I was hunting for – fish shaped pastries filled with sweet bean curd. delicious!
After an amazing Ramen dinner, We ended our night at Roppongi – Tokyo’s hip clubbing district that could not be more different from Ueno. Tall buildings filled with themed restaurants and bars claiming to replicate the feel of apparently every other country but Japan – “Experience a real LA Bar!” No, thank you. There were also a lot of high end karaoke places that had lobbies that looked like expensive hotels. I don’t get karaoke, and I have made peace with the consequences of that choice. We ended up getting drinks at a British Beer Pub – you know, and playing their free Nintendo video games and thinking about how Japan is cool just the way it is.