In Tokyo, day 3: Tsukiji, Ueno, Ameyayokocho, and Shinjukku
NOTE: For some reason WordPress does not show all the pictures from that day (September 6), but you can access more photos from that day here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jcortell/sets/72157647279455961/
I really meant to make it to Tsukiji fish market early. Not that I am that interested in the fish auction, but I want to see all the fish before it is cut and packaged or sold. That means getting there before 8am. So I set the alarm at 5am. More than enough to check emails, videoconference with my wife, shower, get dressed and get there, right? Wrong. Hours of non-stop emails had me glued to the futon until I just closed the lid of my laptop and said “enough”. At least I made it there before 9am.
The market is right behind the subway station. A cute billboard with cartoon characters explains the rules. Basically “get out of the way and don’t bother the people who are trying to work there”. Got it.
That’s another one of those places where I would enjoy even better with a real camera. But I also had a blast with my phone. It’s quite picturesque. Of course all that fresh fish makes you hungry (unless you see “fish corpses”, in which case it may make you want to go vegan). Since I’m a hesitant pescatarian – I want to be vegan but I can’t help enjoying fish, a lot –, I went into one of the multiple joints that serve sashimi right there, and waited in line for a good half an hour. Damn morning emails and lazy tourists. But was it worth it? Oh, yes.
What can I say? Of course, the most delicious and freshest sashimi I have had in my life, prepared right in front of me. One suggestion: don’t spoil the taste by ordering sushi, or adding soy sauce or even washabi. Trust me: in Tsukiji you want sashimi, as raw, fresh, and pure as it gets.
I felt like not having anything after that. Could I hold the flavor in my mouth for hours, please? But then I saw a stall selling wagashi, and another one selling tamago on a stick (yes, sweet omelette, on a stick), and I couldn’t resist.
After that I headed to Ueno, another area that I had not manage to cover in my previous trips.
How did anyone let me miss visiting Ueno? It is awesome.
The park is quite large, although not as gigantic like Central Park. Still, it’s beautiful, full of paths, shrines, temples, and museums.
Starting from the Frog Fountain in the South, and heading North, if you keep left, soon you find Shinobazu pond and Benten-do temple. It was covered with lotus plants about to bloom. I saw what seemed to be the first lotus flower of the season. Then a string of beautiful and peaceful shrines and temples led me to the impressive Kiyomizu Kannon-do, then the Zoo area (with their major attraction: the pandas), and then to the Metropolitan Art Museum. I’ll admit it is hard to visit a Metropolitan Museum when we have the MET in NY. It’s still worth a visit, but in my humble opinion it pales in comparison to the Tokyo National Museum a few meters away.
Those meters, though, were filled with local artists, including Agata Yamaguchi, and artisans. It was a pleasure to see their creations, and even better to recognize illustrator Chiho sitting in the park, and begging her to make a character sketch out of my wife’s picture. Awesome!
Once inside the Tokyo National Museum, I could not stop marveling at the vast selection of Asian art they have, divided in several buildings so large each of them could easily be an independent museum on their own. I visited Honkan, the Japanese art gallery; Toyokan, the Asian art gallery; and the Gallery of Horyuji Treasures. Plus I also enjoyed the garden and tea house.
From sculpture to painting, ukiyo-e, drawing, garment design, weapons (yes, some of those Katana actually have names and are famous!), archeological findings, pottery, photography, masks, fans, calligraphy, tea utensils… you name it. Of course perfectly selected and displayed, completely clean, beautiful, informative, and easy to follow. The ideal museum.
My next stop was the Tokyo Museum of Western Art, but again a “closed” sign sabotaged my plans to see more art. Perhaps to force me to see and enjoy the park. Which I did. In particular the Shogi-tai soldiers grave-yard.
Little did I know that the Ueno War (May 15, 1868) delimited Edo era and Meiji Restoration. In this war a group of old government Tokugawa soldiers named Shogi-tai fought against the army of the new government. Does it ring a bell? Was I standing in front of the tombs of “The last samurai” (they do not even mention it)? That was quite an unexpected highlight. I feel an enormous respect for that group, so I did bow and paid my respect to those who faced certain deaths for a way of understanding life. You may see them as suicidal stubborn extremist. I see them as determined brave followers of the bushi-do, a philosophy (or rather a way of understanding life) that has influenced me ever since I read about it decades ago.
To try to get back to the present, and to lighten up a very deep day, I walked down “Ameyayokocho”, one of the very few Tokyo open markets, where I saw the crazy prices for perfect white peaches: from ¥600 to ¥3,500 (a durian will set you back ¥5,000, and it will make your whole house stink for days), and dried-everything, from whole squids to all kinds of fish.
From a street vendor I got some cheese-filled puffy-pastry and tofu to go, and then from a store up the street a small chestnut-cream filled cake.
I love Japanese food!
Before calling it a day I made a final stop in Shinjukku, not my favorite neighborhood by any means, whose streets were packed full of people going in all directions. I was there to check out the Shinjukku Creators Festa (not that impressive if you ask me), and walk the isles of the Tokyo Hands department store.
The pachinko around the corner from my hotel had become a familiar sight that almost induced sleep in me. It was either that or I was so exhausted that I almost fell to sleep before making it to my room.