Armed with window seat reservations for the 9 a.m. shinkansen, I headed from Niigata to Ueno Park. The park is literally across the street from Ueno station (though navigating the station itself was a pain), so I reasoned that it would be fairly easy to get around. That turned out to be true, after leaving the station.
Kaneiji (?) Temple, in Ueno Park.
I went to two museums- a natural history museum and the national art museum. The former was larger than expected, and the latter smaller (though one of the buildings was closed for repairs related to last year’s Sendai quake). In a somewhat ironic gesture, the National Museum of Nature and Science has a giant whale sculpture in front of it (which, of course, I did not take a photo of). Though I suppose it’s fitting with the reasoning that Japanese whale hunting is conducted for supposedly scientific purposes…
The museum itself has two buildings: the entry (which is older) has exhibits on Japanese flora, fauna, and ecology, Japanese contributions to science, and a special exhibit on photography of skeletons of Ainu and Yayoi (indigenous and prehistoric peoples of Japan, respectively). While the signage in English was very limited, the arrangement of many of these things was standard, and knowing some scientific names also helped (yay, use of Latin!).
Hydrosera micrograph, in the algae display. Yes, unicellular algae had their own display. Go diatoms!
The Japanese science exhibit had quite a few telescopes, maps (including celestial maps and globes), globes, and microscopes, but signage was really mostly in Japanese. Dates were also given according to the Japanese calendar, which is based on imperial dynasties – which made interpretation harder for me.
Various schemes for organizing life into kingdoms and domains.
The other, newer building had more general exhibits: one big area highlighting ecological diversity, another emphasizing evolution, fossils and geological time (with a display on human evolution that had a signed photo from the Hokule’a crew!) This section was much easier for me to appreciate, because the focus here was on a familiar topic. There was also a floor that had an interactive kids’ area, and another that focused on physical sciences – chemistry, astronomy, and physics. There was no English signage on this floor, so I basically just walked through it. I did make out a big see-through lucite H-R diagram, and a display on SI units (how much volume does one mole of oxygen take up, that sort of thing).
There seemed to be quite a few middle-school kids around, on field trips, but few unattached adults. Until I got to the gift shop. That had lots of people. They did have some stuffed Cambrian-era critters which I was really temped to buy, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with one of them. There also were vending machines – the kind you put a coin into and then take a chance on what trinket you’ll get out – with a really cute toki statuette. But I reasoned that my chances of getting the toki were only 5:1, and I’d probably wind up getting something lame like a model of the museum, so I passed.
I also passed on the cafeteria, reasoning that there would be something to eat at the art museum for lunch that was better (I was also really trying to avoid curry rice), but that turned out to be a mistake. Both art museum cafeterias were sit-down, and there was a long line of retirees with their names on a list outside each one. So no lunch there. But I did not know this yet, so headed over there.
Landscaping at the art museum.
So the Tokyo National Museum was smaller than I expected, but did give a good introduction to a variety of Japanese arts. Unfortunately, I was hungry and a bit footsore at this point. There were various statues and temple bronzes (a bit anticlimactic after being in Kyoto, where these things were still being venerated in their traditional contexts), paintings and scrolls, pottery, woodblock prints, and kimono. One of the giant folding screen paintings – several yards long and perhaps 2 yards high- was quite impressive, of Mt. Fuji, surrounded by clouds, with a gold leaf background.
I finally broke down and bought a mystery item from one of the vending machines. It turned out to be a pot with a face on it from the Yayoi period. One of the things I was most excited about seeing at the museum was the exhibit with prehistoric (to historic) artifacts. This included pottery from the Jomon and Yayoi periods, as well as more recent stuff. There were some terra-cotta statues from burial tumuli from the Nara region, which was cool, though I didn’t remember the name of the tomb we saw and whether any of the artifacts were from it. After having seen these things, I decided to go back to the gift shop and buy a set of mini prehistoric terra-cotta figurines. These included two haniwa dancers, as well as a bell, and a few human figures, etc. Though there wasn’t a pot, so I felt a bit better about spending 400 yen on the plastic vending machine figurine of chance.
Ueno Park souvenirs, back at home. The black figurines are terra-cotta with wood ash- they smell pleasantly woody.
At this point, I think it was about 2:00, and I was really quite hungry. I looked around the park for cafes, and again most of what was there was sit-down, with long lines. I eventually wandered downhill toward the pond, and found a place to buy food – you paid first at a vending machine, then got a ticket to take to the counter and order. But as at Fukushimagata, I was approached by a somewhat weird guy who decided to try to chat with me (though in English) as I was contemplating what to get from the vending machine. His girlfriend also showed up, and I told them to order first, and pretended to be indecisive. I wonder how many of these interactions Yan and I missed as a couple, compared to as solo travelers…
Pond in Ueno Park.
So I ended up getting fried saimin (complete with dried fish flakes) and sitting by the pond for a while. At this point, it was only about 3, and my train wasn’t till 4:30. I did a bit more wandering, and then went to the Hanazono-Inari shrine. I wanted to buy a little charm, but through miscommunication the priestess ran up to their other office to get two of the little fox figurines. They were 3000 yen, but at that point I sort of wanted them, so I bought them. My bag was getting pretty heavy…
Other sights in Ueno Park included quite a few homeless people (this seems to be where they congregate), some Peruvians selling Andean music, and a baseball game being played. Pretty footsore, I caught the train back to Niigata. A long day, but some interesting sights.