It could have been worse

Diane and I went to the Legion of Honor today to see their current exhibition, Japanese Prints in Transition.

There was a pickup truck overloaded with stuff ahead of me on the Highway 17 on-ramp. I stayed far behind it on the ramp, and wasn’t surprised when pieces of cardboard and other junk started blowing off it when it accelerated at the end of the ramp. I was able to stop without anything hitting me (including the cars behind me!); the truck pulled off to the side, and I drove on; all was well. Or so I thought.

We’d been to the Hagi Uragami Museum last month in Japan; it has a room devoted to ukiyo-e (floating world woodblock) prints, but it was closed on the day we visited. We made up for it today at the Legion; there were six rooms of woodblock prints. There was even one room of woodblock erotica!

We wanted to get out of the city before rush hour, so we skipped the rest of the museum and headed to the car to drive home.

We didn’t get very far, though, before the dashboard went “beep” and said that my front left tire was dangerously low – 19psi. I guess I hadn’t completely avoided the debris from the truck after all!

I found a nearby gas station with, wonder of wonders, a free air pump, and filled the tire. But I could only get it up to 30psi and it started to go down again, so we got off the highway and went to Wheel Works in Daly City. They were too busy to fix or replace the tire, but they did pump it up to 45psi so I could get back to Los Gatos even with the leak. By the time I got to Wheel Works in Los Gatos, the pressure was down to about 35psi. They said they’d be able to take care of the tire in the morning, so I left the car with them and we walked the mile-and-a-half home.

I guess I should have given that truck even more room!

Tokyo in the Morning, Los Gatos at Night

The view from our room at the Mesm Hotel was dominated by skyscrapers at night – but during the day, Hamiriku Gardens was the center of attention.

There was an entrance only fifteen minutes’ walk from the hotel, so we decided to explore the gardens this morning before leaving for Narita Airport and home. It was surprisingly rich in history; it was a feudal lord’s residence and later, a palace for the Tokugawa shoguns and then the Imperial Family, who donated it to the City of Tokyo right after WWII.

There weren’t many flowers in bloom today, but the park is overwhelmingly beautiful in its greenness. It’s well-maintained, and it looks like they do it the old-fashioned way, without power tools.

There are some statues in the park, like this one – it’s not a Minuteman, though that was my first thought when I saw it from a distance. It was installed to commemorate the Meiji Emperor’s 25th wedding anniversary.

The park has four teahouses, a sluice (still used to control the flow of water between Tokyo Bay and Shioiri-no-ike, the tidal pond in the center of the park), several bridges, and even a couple of old duck hunting areas, complete with blinds.

You can’t ignore the city that surrounds the park, but the two are surprisingly complementary if you find the right view.

The park also has a 300-year-old pine which is a must-see – unfortunately, we had to leave before we found it because it was time to go home.

We returned to the hotel, checked out, walked about 10 minutes to the Daimon Station, and hopped onto the Asakusa Line which took us directly to Narita in just over an hour for 1414 yen (about $9) each – much faster and cheaper than the Limousine Bus or a taxi would have been.

We left Tokyo with 171 yen in our pockets, empty Suica cards in our wallets, and many great memories. It’s good to be home, but I wish I’d had more time to explore!

The Imperial Palace

The Imperial Palace offers a guided tour to the public; you can line up on the day of the tour and hope to get in, or you can apply for a place a month in advance and be sure of a spot. We took the second route, and today was our day; we showed up right on time and were ushered into the tour waiting room with no delay.

The official documentation says that the tour is conducted “mostly in Japanese”, but they broke us up into several language groups (Japanese, English, Spanish, and French for sure; probably others), each with a guide fluent in the appropriate language. We were also accompanied by several functionaries who were there to make sure nobody left the tour route.

The tour took us past several notable buildings, including the Imperial Palace itself, which is used for official events like State Dinners and the presentation of new ambassadors to Japan. The Emperor lives elsewhere on the grounds and was too busy to greet our tour today.

Imperial Household Agency Headquarters
Mt. Fuji viewing tower and modern Tokyo
Pine Tree outside the Imperial Palace, representing virtue and long-life
Fushimi-yagura Keep

The tour lasted about an hour, and then it was sayonara!

Kikyo-Mon Gate from the inside

As long as we were at the Palace, we decided to visit the Museum of the Imperial Collections, containing treasures garnered by the Imperial Family over many generations. The museum is still being built, but they’ve opened up two rooms on an interim basis, with rotating exhibitions. The current one is “Artwork which Adorned the Early Modern Imperial Palaces”, and there was a lot of artwork on display. Here’s a small sample.

Utensils for the Incense Identifying Game
Cup for Hairdressing Water and Stand with Chrysanthemums
Four-paneled screen

It was raining pretty hard by now, so we dashed into a subway station to look for lunch. Subway stations here are often connected to office buildings with many restaurants, and that was the case this time. We decided to try Marugo because the pictures on its menu looked good. It’s a yakiniku restaurant, which meant we were served thin slices of beef to cook on a barbecue at our table – it was fun, tasty, and pretty inexpensive.

We thought it would be a good idea to stay inside for a while, so we took the train to the Takashimaya flagship store and wandered through about one-third of the store. We visited the food halls ($100 melons, anyone?), the art gallery, bought a scarf and a postcard, and even dared to visit the Pokemon Center, which occupies most of a floor of the East Building of the store.

I’d heard a lot about a very different store, Don Quijote, so we made that our next stop. It’s loaded with a huge variety of merchandise, much of it pretty schlocky. There were tons of suitcases (apparently tourists often go there to buy a suitcase to bring home their purchases), electronics, toys, “adult toys”, candy, Halloween costumes, clothing, liquor, and much much more. I bought a bag of matcha Kit-Kats and we called it a day.

Ueno Park

We had a slow start this morning waiting for the weather to settle down; eventually, we hopped on the JK train to Ueno Park, as suggested by our guide yesterday. The park is loaded with museums, shrines, greenery, and other attractions; I’d been there briefly in 2004, mostly to admire the cherry blossoms and the thousands of people enjoying them.

There were no cherry blossoms today, and the park was far emptier than it had been twenty years ago, but it was still a fine way to spend the day, beginning with a visit to the 45th Anniversary Spring Peony Exhibition in the Ueno Toshogu Peony Garden; the garden isn’t entirely taken up by peonies, but they certainly caught my eye!

I like the garden’s moment of Zen better than I do Jon Stewart’s version.

The garden exit put us into the grounds of the Toshogu Shrine.

We were ready for lunch, but made a few stops along the way, one at the statue of Imperial Prince Komatsunomiya Akihito, and the other in the Tokyo Bunka Kaikan recital hall.

There are many restaurants in and around the park; we eventually had a delicious lunch at a sushi restaurant in the Ueno3153 building. I couldn’t figure out the restaurant’s name; they gave me a business card, but both Google and Apple translate the name on the card to “I’m so happy”, which seems unlikely!

I’d found a blog post from Mad Hatters NYC offering suggestions for things to see in the park; we decided to use it as a guide for our wanderings. Its first suggestion was a visit to the statue of Takamori Saigo, a leader of the Meiji Restoration who disagreed with the route it was taking, tried to fight it, and eventually committed seppuku to avoid capture. He was the inspiration for the movie The Last Samurai (which I haven’t seen).

The next suggestion was Kiyomizu Kannon-do, which was built to mimic Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto, which we’d visited a week-and-a-half ago. It was much smaller, but still enjoyable.

There were lots of performances going on in the park today under the umbrella title of “Heaven Artists“; we stopped to enjoy a couple of pantomime comedians playing a fatal game of tennis.

There were more shrines ahead – Hanazono Inari Shrine with its red torii gates and Gojo-ten Shrine, immediately adjacent to it.

We crossed the street to Shinobazu Pond; Shinobazu-no-ike Bentendo, dedicated to the goddess Benzaiten, is on an island in the pond; there’s also a temple there dedicated to Daikokuten, the god of fortune and wealth.

The last stop on the tour from the Mad Hatters was the Big Buddha, all that remains of a giant statue of Buddha which was partially melted down to make armaments during World War II.

But we weren’t finished – there was a President to visit: U. S. Grant. He and his wife had visited Japan after his term and had planted trees in the park at the invitation of the Meiji Emperor; those trees are still alive, and there’s a plaque honoring his visit.

We returned to the hotel on a nearly-empty Yamanote Line train (a true Golden Week miracle!) and rested for a bit before heading out for the last adventure of the day: laundry!

Doing laundry here was pretty easy once we found the laundromat – the washer has a built-in supply of detergent and there was only ohe cycle to choose from. The machines were fast and cheap, too – 40 minutes to wash, 24 minutes to dry, at a total cost of 800 yen (five bucks). And the place was quiet and had great wifi. What a way to end the day!


We took the train to Kamakura today with our guide Toshi; on the way to the JR station, we passed a Really Big Clock.

Ni-Tele Really Big Clock

We visited four main sites in Kamakura, starting with Engaku-ji Temple, the head temple of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.

Buddha in Butsuden
In the Butsuden
Gate Carvings
Gate Carvings
Zen Garden
Ogane (Great Bell)

Next, we visited Hōkokuji Temple, otherwise known as the Bamboo Temple. It, too, is in the Rinzai Zen sect.

Tombs of Ashikagas
Bamboo Forest
Bamboo Forest
Hohokuji Temple Bell
Still in the garden

Our next stop was the main Shinto shrine in Kamakura, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. Photography wasn’t permitted in the shrine itself, but there was a lot going on elsewhere on the grounds, including a wedding.

Pond at Hachimangu
Shinto Wedding
Wedding party

After lunch, we continued on to the Great Buddha of Kamakura.

Gate to the Great Buddha
The Great Buddha of Kamakura
Perspective is everything
Gate Guardian at the Great Buddha

And our final visit was to Hasedera, which was built in 736 CE (the other sites we visited were relative youngsters, having been built between the 11th and 14th centuries). It is dedicated to Kannon, the deity who grants wishes in this life.

Amida-do Hall
Sho-Kannon Bosatsu
Turning the Mani-Guruma
In Benten Cave
Benzaiten (dedicated)

Speaking of wishes, we were very fortunate not to have to take a crowded train back to Tokyo – we all got seats for the entire ride!