Apr 03: Tokyo National Museum, Ueno Park, and Chinese Food

We arrived at the museum shortly before it opened. It was raining a little bit at the time so we waited in the covered area in front of the ticket vending machines. Once we were inside we were approached by a young attendant who noticed us gazing around trying to figure out where we might ask to borrow a wheelchair for Tracie. She didn’t seem to speak much English but Tracie resourcefully pantomimed using a wheelchair and the young woman quite literally ran to get one once she understood what we were looking for.

The museum had a lovely collection of scrolls, woodblock prints, painted screens, ceramics, lacquerware, and so on. It also hd several suits of samurai armor and a dozen or so gleaming swords. I was particularly taken with a katana with a gleaming black scabbard bearing a dragon made of mother-of-pearl inlays. Also bearing special mention was the exhibition of Lady Murasaki’s diary. (Lady Murasaki was the author of Tales of Genji. Look her up in wikipedia for more info.)

After wandering through the exhibition halls we stopped in the museum gift shop. This turned out to be a somewhat expensive decision. We ended up with several little tea-towel-like things printed with designs familiar from origami paper, a paper model kit of a samurai helmet, and a silk scarf. (You can guess who got the kit and who got the scarf.)

When we emerged from the museum it was raining with some earnest. We lingered under the cover of the front entrance while I photographed this tree:

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While I was doing that, Tracie observed about half a dozen people simultaneously leaping to assist an elderly woman who stumbled and fell while climbing the front steps of the museum. She was apparently uninjured, but what was remarkable was how many people–both museum employees and visitors–almost instinctively dashed to this woman’s aid. Tracie recalled falling on the University of Oregon campus many years ago while her arms were full of file folders. She fell face-first onto the pavement and cut her chin badly enough that it bled freely. Nobody even paused to ask her whether she needed help.

We set off in the rain towards the west side of the park in search of the Yanaka district, an area has several several temples and shrines and the second oldest chiyogami store in Tokyo. This area survived both WWII and the 1923 earthquake and hence has some of the oldest buildings in the city, preserving the diminiutive and tightly packed architecture of old Tokyo. Because we were slogging along through somewhat cold rain, somewhat distracted by the wide walkway arched with cherry blossoms, we managed to miss a critical right turn and ended up in the south section of the park, a good ways away from our intended destination. This brought about a few moments of confusion, disorientation, and even a touch of consternation. It didn’t help any that the large YOU ARE HERE map we found didn’t entirely match the map that we were using to navigate. However, after a brief pause in the covered entrance of a posh restaurant, we rallied our spirits and headed off in the direction collectively thought most likely to be the correct one. The detour did prove to have a benefit: we found a trinket vendor selling umbrellas just outside of the entrance of the zoo.

Eventually we found our way into the Yanaka district. The streets are tiny–barely wide enough to fit a person and an automobile side-by-side. (A little car at that, mind you; nothing absurdly large like an SUV.) While making our way towards the paper shop (or rather, making our way towards the point thought most likely to be the location of the paper shop) we passed a temple with this charming assemblage of icons:

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I didn’t take as many photos in this neighborhood as I might have because my hands were so cold and cramped that I couldn’t easily operate the camera while carrying the umbrella and our bag of museum loot. Here’s a photo of one temple:

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Several blocks later, at last, nearly by accident, we found the shop. It was about the size of our dining room and staffed by one middle-aged woman who I suspect spoke no English. Odds are that she lived at the top of the flight of tiny stairs along one side of the shop. A half-dozen or so other customers came and went while we were there, including several businessmen and a possibly American English-speaker accompanied by a Japanese woman. The shop had several dozen patterns printed on roughly A4-sized sheets of paper, an array of things made from printed cloth (coasters, bags, purses, napkin-sized things, etc.), some enchanting little boxes of 7.5cm paper assortments, lots of little envelopes with things printed on them, paper mobiles, and so on. Tracie decided that we should replace our faded napkins with chiyogami napkins, and I decided that I couldn’t leave without a small package of origami paper. Also, at the risk of hubris: if that paper store is noteworthy enough to be mentioned in guidebooks, Paper Jade has a truly outstanding selection of paper and remarkably reasonable prices, all things considered.

By this time it was around 2:30PM and somewhat to our consternation it was observed that we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. We had been eyeing various small eateries along the street and decided to try the next one that presented itself. It turned out to be a tiny place with the traditional display of plastic food replicas in a case beside the front door. The seating area was half again as large as the paper store, and the elderly woman who greeted, seated, and waited upon us was half again as large as Tracie. She seemed quite delighted that we had decided to dine in her establishment. However, it rapidly became apparent that she didn’t speak a word of English. This wouldn’t particularly be an issue except that we were trying to obtain a bowl of plain white rice for Tracie, who is allergic to more things than one can easily enumerate to even a native English speaker. We started by gesturing at the models, which was enough to establish what it was that I wanted (gyoza and something which looked good and ultimately proved to be sweet & sour pork; eventually I arrived at the conclusion that this might have been a Chinese restaurant) but we still weren’t really sure that we had made the point about plain, white rice for Tracie. In slight desparation I pointed to the faux bowl of stir-fried rice while Tracie pointed to the white smock worn by the earnestly interested but increasingly perplexed proprietress. I think that finally clicked, but we still hauled out a travel guide and found a picture of a bowl of rice. The poor woman looked even more puzzled, said something apologetic, disappeared into the back, but reappeared with her glasses in her hand and gestured toward them. Much laughter ensued. Once she got a good look at the photo of the rice it seemed that all was clear, but there was considerable relief and merriment for both her and Tracie when she emerged a few minutes later with a plate of steaming plain, white rice. (Why didn’t we learn the Japanese words for “plain white rice” before embarking upon this vacation trip, you ask? We asked ourselves and each other the same thing several times.)

Soon after that came my food, and then a bowl of fried rice which I somewhat inadvertently ordered while we were attempting to communicate what Tracie wanted. It was all good in the end, though, and I ended up eating more than enough for both lunch and dinner.

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After we finished I found the phrase for “The meal was very good, thank you” [or something like that] in the guide book, along with “may we please have the check?” Reading these passages to the woman delighted her no end, and we settled the bill and left with much thanking, bowing, and smiling. We also spotted a couple of modular origami objects and a pair of faded kusadama balls near the ceiling of the tiny seating area.

Our good traveling luck returned while we were eating. The rain stopped and we found a taxi after walking less than a block away from the restaurant.

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