Ueno Park, Japan

Face of Japan UENO PARK (Part 1)

I sit uncomfortably upon a cold hard concrete step, flanked to my left by a young family. The two young sons slurp feverishly at orange ice-sticks as their mother waits patiently armed with a KFC refresher towel. To my right, a young couple, possibly in their late 20’s huddle together, not in warmth but affection. The late September sun struggles to generate sufficient warmth as the early evening chill closes in. I sit in silence, pensively observing the antics and actions of thousands enjoying Tokyo’s most active park, Ueno Park.

My chosen location is a prime vantage point, adjacent the large fountain at the park’s main junction. Tomorrow is the Autumnal Equinox public holiday, so today citizens of Tokyo and tourists flock to the park en masse. Unsure of my seating position and with a sore back imminent, I stand and reposition myself upon the metal railing. Now basking in the sun’s rays, I take my pad and pen in readiness for a possible literary onslaught. Following a momentary mental block I decide to allow my senses to write for me.

My sunglass-covered eyes quickly inspect the surroundings and park-goers. My first discovery is the concrete and the shoes walking across it. Footwear of all sizes, styles and colors are worn by people of various races, heights and frames.

Tomorrow’s holiday brings many families to the park, several generations in certain instances. I see prams being pushed by parents, siblings, grandparents and even toddlers. Children’s faces sparkle with happiness and excitement as they comprehend and chart new surroundings. They chase butterflies, pigeons and some even follow the park’s stray cats. I hear the laughter and squeals of older children playing in a small playground while parents stand at arms-length, cautiously watching over proceedings. That instantly forges images of my childhood spent playing in numerous parks throughout Melbourne. I recall the fun, the mishaps, the fights, the bumps and bruises I shared with my four sisters. How lucky Australian children are – graced with endless personal space and greenery?

Suddenly, the sweet strumming of a guitar forces my attention back to the junction. Next to me, a young man cuts his favorite tune, his fingers voraciously attacking the six strings. Unperturbed, even spurred on by this melodic noise, I continue to focus. Turning to examine the surroundings behind me, I observe hiding in the distance the Tokyo National Museum. A majestic building, it stands proudly behind two large elk, like a child behind its mother’s legs. People enter frequently, just like at a Tokyo subway station.

About-facing, my focus returns to the junction, my eyes spanning once more its width. My eyes locate a sign post, a stop and think point for tourists and locals alike. Many paths lead through the park to shrines, museums and other various attractions. Such varied entertainment options bring people of all persuasions; from art lovers, to families bringing their children to the farmyard exhibit at Ueno Zoo. From science buffs visiting the National Science Museum, to foreigners hoping to experience the architectural beauty and simplicity of a historic Shinto shrine first hand.

Peacefully sitting, one sense springs into action. The sun fades behind the tall trees, the sky however still blue and clear. I move again into the sun’s warmth, instantly lessening my goose bumps. The wind rustles the trees’ leaves, although I’m unsure of their genus or species. Soon the park will unleash a new beauty. The leaves will alter colour, then fall to the ground during autumn.

A Red Cross bus parks just a stone throw away. A steady flow of people seeking information from volunteers move to and from the bus. Many step inside, possibly to donate blood, a most valuable community service. Armed with poor Japanese reading skills I attempt to decipher the adjacent signage. It reads – Please donate blood (400 ml) today, you never know when you may need it. From my vantage point the donors re-emerge pale-faced as expected. I consider volunteering but decide against it. Another day perhaps.

Thirdly, the birds. Hundreds of pigeons, feed frantically on popcorn and breadcrumbs. I hear high-pitched screams of children thoroughly enjoying the birds, some even attempt to trap them, but to no avail. I recall Trafalgar Square in London, Piazza San Marco in Venice, other examples of bird-feeding extravaganzas. I watch the children closely, for most fear doesn’t exist, even if birds climb atop their shoulders. Alternatively, these birds merely intent on gaining their daily feast frighten many older people.

Now standing on my half-asleep legs, I stretch and then walk toward the National Museum. Looking back on the junction I feel the peace and tranquility today’s visitors must also feel. Escaping the concrete jungle that is Tokyo and relaxing briefly in the sunshine at an enjoyable venue. Before returning to my original seat I stroll across to the baseball diamond where a graying gentleman, obviously their coach are teaches kids fielding skills. As young as 5 I think, the enthusiasm of these children is astounding. The endeavor of becoming a good player just like their hero’s is obvious.

Two more things become clear. The number of people riding bikes or running is refreshing. I am glad that the exercise regime has reached Japan. I know such culture exists in Australia, however not enough people are active in my opinion. The average Japanese body appears healthier than those at home do. Secondly, a man with a battery-operated replica motorbike fascinates passers-by. Grasping the remote control, he maneuvers the toy between the swelling audiences. In a land of technology it was funny to watch people viewing so intensively a product that was so popular in the 80’s. Obviously many had forgotten what they looked like. Alternatively, maybe many had not seen one before, after all Japan isn’t really blessed with a huge amount of space, for which that children’s product needed plenty.

Senses still attune to the sights and sounds I can’t help but notice an unashamed feeling of togetherness. Hand holding, snuggling next to a loved one, father’s carrying little children exhausted from the day’s activities, couples young and old walking arms locked. This surprises me somewhat; it is the first time I witness such displays of public affection in Japan. I remember previous journeys; Italy springs to mind immediately when thinking of public affection. Rome, Florence and Venice, such romantic cities in their own rights, offer such displays of public affection from all ages, some a little too saucy. I appreciate this other side, not for a second thinking Japanese lack affection toward each other.

Unfortunately the fading sun and hunger pains deep from the reaches of my stomach cut short this visit. A final loop of the junction, I see thousands making for the JR station near the National Science Museum. Again it strikes me. Repeatedly my eyes witness the amazing collections of Tokyo’s sublime fashion culture. The hoards of people show off their wares; high heeled walkers with short skirts, ageing men in their Sunday best, children draped from head to toe in designer labels, this month’s new fashions amidst those of last month, season and year. However Tokyo’s fashion is another tale in itself…