Looking to Ueno

Although it is at the height of popularity during the Sakura Matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, Ueno Park is also a site for weekly events that many visitors may miss out on.  I, however, revel in the local goings-on that surround every nook in Tokyo and aim to delve into every experience that I can.  It is for this reason that I decided to take a short trip to the area on an otherwise uneventful Saturday.


As I walked from the Akihabara station, (since taking a short ten minute walk saved me a few yen that I would have otherwise spent using the train) I am always apt to notice that there is a strange transition that occurs when walking to Ueno. The clamor that surrounds every area of Akihabara dissipates and suddenly one is transported into a world of silent elegance. It is noticeable from the change in storefronts; from blaring music tempting you into electronic stores, to a suited gentleman waiting outside of a beauty shops. With quick steps, I passed the high end clothing stores, the beauty salons, the expensive restaurants to wait at the crosswalk adjacent to the park. Walking in brisk silence, I was careful not to bump into the hundreds of other people rushing across the street or riding their bicycles into my general direction. I breathed a sigh of relief when I was released into the open area on the other side.

Though the cherry blossoms have since bloomed and faded, there is a lush green that has since replaced it. The cool morning breeze sifted through the newly sprouted leaves–sounding like rattles in my ear–and there was a penetrating perfume of blooming flowers. I stepped lightly into the park where, every few feet or so, there sat a homeless man or woman lounging in the shade of the trees. I took a surreptitious glance over to see a man toss a few bread crumbs to a sparrow that happened upon him. It graciously hopped forward and remained there next to him. He smiled kindly at the gesture of the bird and I found myself curling my lips into a small smile. After a few shorts steps, I found the stone steps that led to the Benzaiten Shrine. The decline down the stairs is always one that requires constant attention, as a misstep would certainly cause a disastrous fall. So, I (and every other person with me) always take care to look to my feet, but it is obvious when one is doing it correctly, for there is a very noticeable musical beat that occurs that, with the others in step with me, creates a soft rhythm that I can’t help but think was deliberate in design. Once I approached the bottom of the stairs, I looked up and was bombarded with a thousand indecipherable smells emanating from the permanent food stalls lining the walkway to the shrine. As I walked by each, glancing at the multitude of local food presented to me, I heard voices shout “Irrashai, Irrashai!” in order to coax me to their delectable treats.

But the stronger scent of incense called me forward to the crimson façade of the shrine and, rather than merely stepping up to the shrine immediately, I was careful to respect the polite custom of purifying myself before stepping any farther. I approached the stone basin where a fountain trickles water into the overflowing pool. Taking a brass cup in hand, I dipped it into the icy water and let the contents spill over each of my hands. With the small amount left, I poured it into my palm to drink from it, and then replaced the brass cup in the proper downward position for the next person.

Careful to take a few hundred yen in hand, I dropped a coin in the offering box to retrieve a bundle of incense and dip the top into the open flame that resided next to it. Once I saw the brown tips turn to grey, I removed it from the flame and blew on the embers. Stepping before the iron cask, and careful to ensure that I would not burn my fingertips, I plunged my stick of incense into the layer of caked ash that lined the bottom. I, along with a few others, stood before the fog of the newly burnt incense and allowed the fumes to soak into our skin. Together, we climbed the steep steps up to the shrine where I could hear the scattered claps of prayer and the clinking of coins descending into the offering box. I stood in the line where before me were students, mothers, children, the sick and the elderly, all waiting their turn in the hopes that, if they offered a penance, the goddess of luck would grant them a few moments of respite. Each slow step brought me closer to the inside of the shrine where the man ahead of me dropped his coins into the vetted box and clapped as if he put every emotion of his life into the two claps that rang throughout the wooden shrine. He bowed low, remained there for several long seconds before rising and moving to the left. It was my turn, and I approached the shrine with a quiet resolution. I toss my coins into the offering, clapped as loudly as my small hands could muster, bowed, and muttered silently to myself.

As I stepped down from the shrine, I witnessed a young man open his arms and waft a cloud of incense towards him as his friends looked on and laughed. He rubbed it in his hair, and patted his skin. I couldn’t help but smile at this gesture, thinking, as I’m sure his friends did, how unlucky he must have believed himself to be.  I walked back through the way I entered, glancing at the food stalls as I did so and recalled a past experience when my husband  bought a mysterious mix of seared meats from one of them. It was only after close examination that we came to understand that what he had purchased (and proceeded to eat quite happily) was the sliced penis and whole testicles of some small animal.

I ascended the rhythmic steps once more and came face to face with a sea of students in black and white uniforms. In separate groups, they marched towards the zoo; a field trip and, I’m sure, a welcome retreat from their daily lessons. I made my way towards white tents where I could hear the sizzling of fish being cooked on gas stoves. Immediately before the tents stood a horizontal log  with a kanji seal on the end. A mother and son vigorously sawed the log with all the strength they had while a small crowd urged them on. Though it was barely noon, the temperature was well over seventy degrees Fahrenheit and I notice that plastic fans were being handed out to everyone from a Styrofoam box. I graciously took one only to see ads plastered all over it for an even bigger festival in August with Taiko drummers, fireworks, and , of course, food. I have already marked it on my calendar. As I perused the small affair, I was drawn to the  unmistakable smell of steamed buns.

My eyes widened at the scent and I found myself subconsciously removing coins from my wallet to pay for a freshly steamed portion. To be honest, I barely recollect the taste, but it must have been delicious, for I ate it within three sumptuous bites.

I made my way back through the park, stopping once to purchase ice cream from a small cart off of the main road. I feel it worth mentioning that this particular ice cream is the most naturally flavorful I have ever tasted. During the Sakura Matsuri, this vendor sells a seasonal Sakura flavored ice cream that has a slightly lighter flavor than a traditional cherry. This time, I settle on sweet potato. After handing him my 300 yen, I stood in the shade of the tree and listened to a band playing across the way. When I brought the cone to my lips, I could detect the smallest hint of incense still on my skin. The coolness of the ice cream was welcome in the thick heat, and the upbeat violinist imbued a seemingly effortless sense of calm. As I gazed on, utterly content in the moment, I felt reassured of the never-ending enjoyment that I, and others, could achieve by taking time to enjoy the local atmosphere.

May 16, 2011