[Soshi] Taking it easy in Ueno

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More specifically, in the Tokyo National Museum. The following was originally written for my private blog (no, not In Your Basement), but this is a more raw and uncut version because my private blog is less private than this.

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It seems that going to Ueno Park every Saturday has become a weekly affair. I was here last Saturday, and I’m here again. Two weeks before, I was at another part of the shitamachi, but still very much smaller buildings and wide open spaces clustered together.

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When I’m tired of life, tired of not having people listen to me when I’m not speaking, tired of the constant parade of decisions that dance before me, the old Taito-ku of Tokyo is where I can sit on a bench, by myself and just watch the world go by. I never saw the need in moving about in cumbersome pairs, triplets, quadruplets and it’s afternoons (and bleary mornings) like this that make it true. How else can I go chasing after stray cats in the bushes, or spend fifteen minutes sitting in front of a barricaded entrance to the Zoo. There is no other way I can sit, by the yatai and talk to the old man and his spatula freely. It’s always easier to approach someone if said person is alone, not surrounded by others or worse still, monopolized by unfriendly faces.

Today, after being turned away by the apologetic staff at the Tea House, I stood in front of the Honkan building of the Tokyo National Museum. The rain had stopped, it had rained all morning. As I snapped some shots of the imposing building, a pair of ladies asked me, in halting English, if I wanted to have my picture taken. I brought down the viewfinder from my face and hesitated. In the end I agreed and the enthusiastic pair made me teach them (or rather, one of them) how to use my camera. We fired a few test shots.

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It’s when I’m alone with my shadow, that people come to me and share bits of their lives with me. Built upon hand gestures and slow sentences, I take a bite of real Japan and give back some illusionary, doused with exchange-student happiness to them.

Strangely enough, or perhaps even coincidentally enough, they are from a Buddhist organization. By now, I’m not surprised when I find out that the people who approach me the most are religiously guided. Still, they make for the best conversations and the friendliest smiles. One of them, the more forthcoming lady, has e-mailed me already.

After taking my picture (a few unsuccessful shots, because the Canon is unwieldy), they ask me the standard how-do-you-do-where-are-you-from; then, to my greatest surprise, they ask me if I’m studying photography. I chuckle and say no, it’s a hobby. The conversation then takes a pretty sharp turn where they ask “Do you watch anime?” and not sure how to reply, I say that I sometimes do. What if they find out that I’m an otaku and beat me with a stick? Japan does it again as they whip out a pamphlet (I am a pamphlet magnet!) which has the Buddhist anime I’ve been seeing everytime I walk to Egg Farms. The world is that small.

“Please, come and watch!”, passing me a complimentary ticket. I express my utmost gratitude and tell them that I’m writing a paper on Buddhism — and this makes them deliriously happy. I mean, they gasped — loudly — in visible joy and immediately ruffled through their bags for some brochures about their organization.

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Seriously kids, I have a face that says “Come talk to me about your religion”. Two days ago I had a group of girls come up to me and try to convince me to join them in their lunch-time bible study class.

Back to the story; they tell me that I can go over to their organization’s office any time I want if I need to use materials for my paper (wheeee!) and that if I have any questions to contact them.

In the museum, I talk to a lady around my mum’s age, and she tries to explain to me the giant folding screen before us. It’s a Japanese ink painting, influenced heavily by the old Chinese masters. I ask her the significance of the third panel and she replies, haltingly in English, that it’s hard for young people to understand Zen. I agree and ask her to explain in Japanese. The other docents, most of them fairly old, are equally knowledgeable and warm.

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Embarrassingly enough, I fall asleep during one of the talks at the side wing. I drift in and out as the speaker introduces to the small audience — half of them leave within 10 minutes because they realize that everything is in Japanese — the different periods and styles of Japanese art. For some odd reason, I understand nearly everything that’s being said, and come out feeling a lot more informed than before. It makes sense, when you’ve walked through the exhibits and then have a talk like this that tells you more.

The thing I love the most about the people in the shitamachi is that they take the time to speak to you, to tell you things, to slow down their pace of understanding so that you too understand. I like how Japan leaves me alone with enough space to walk alone, to feel utterly comfortable eating by myself, and most importantly, that it’s fine to leave your cellphone behind and go off on a weekend trip to nowhere. I don’t owe anyone a living here, and I’m not obliged to anyone here. It’s a refreshing sense of freedom that doesn’t tie me down to hefty words and heavy feelings and a certain cloying sense of pretentiousness and desperation that seems to permeate people around me.

So really, is it so bad to want to be alone in a place like this?

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4 Responses to “[Soshi] Taking it easy in Ueno”  

  1. 1 tj_han 1442 comments

    You got flamed in real life eh? Nice post though, I really appreciate you!

  2. 2 Owen S 144 comments

    So do all of us.

  3. 3 Soshi 93 comments

    @TJ: Naw, not really flamed. Just misunderstood! If I was flamed it would have been all over Facebook!

    @Owen: :)

  4. 4 MrMayat 50 comments

    The joys of traveling alone.

    I agree that to approach/ be approached by people is easier when you’re alone. I do feel kinda bad when people ask me in Japanese and I can only understand part of it. It does cheer me up though. :)

Do not use any < and > for your own sake. It will end the comment there and then. Also, there is an automatic IQ filter which weeds out comments made by those who accidentally got transported from the stone age.

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