Saturday morning then and I wake up to the unmistakable sound of alley-cats endlessly howling at each other just outside my window. They never actually fight each other of course, they just scream at each other for hours as part of some primeval ritual that evolved, I suspect, for the sole purpose of pissing off humans, who predictably open the window and hiss at the offending animal using their best vampire imitation. When this doesn’t work (nearly always) they will pick up the nearest available stone/stick/bucket of ice water and throw it at the creature, gently so as not to hurt it, but hard enough that they know you are Lord of the Alley, and if they don’t shut up then you’ll go out there and hiss doubly loud. That will strike the fear of God into them.
Turns out I threw the stone just right and knocked him dead.
I’m joking of course… He was only unconscious. If I’d done it when he started to howl that would have made more sense from my point of view but since I was up anyway, I felt the creature should be punished for it’s insolence with a good stone-throw to the head.
Put the phone down I’m joking, I’m joking. The cat was fine, it ran off after my elite Dracula impression skillz. Who wouldn’t eh?
I had a little chat with Mal, another member of staff there, who informed me of a good cafe where I could pick up some breakfast and a coffee, and I used the time in there to have a good look over the guide book to see what I actually wanted to do. In the end I decided on Ueno because it contains a huge park, the Tokyo National Museum, a few shrines/temples and a couple more museums. Since August, apart from a couple of festivals I’ve been to, I’ve done very little in the way of cultural enlightenment and the guidebook said that the National Museum was nothing short of spectacular so I made it my first port of call.
I should probably mention now that museums and I don’t have a good track record. Most of my memories of them come from when I was a prepubescent boy who just wanted to go and climb trees and fire cap guns, but was instead forced to walk into an old, dark building and stare at incomprehensible clumps of old brown rust through a glass screen. This pain was usually intensified by the presence of a questionnaire that the school would make us fill in, probably to prove that we’d taken notice of the artefacts but which had precisely the opposite effect; we would be so busy trying to find the things with the answers to the questions that we never had time to look at/become inspired by the things that we might have actually found interesting. Namely swords, bombs, planes and medieval torture equipment.
The Tokyo National Museum and I got off on the right foot since they had plenty of swords, and not just boring old broadswords, but some very cool, very Japanesey curved ones. The blades themselves were fairly plain; some had the occasional kanji engraved on them but in general they were just very shiny, refined and sharp-looking objects of death. The hilts and scabbards however were very elaborate, and nearly all of them had a cherry blossom design of some sort engraved on them. I found it a little ironic that something often regarded as a great symbol for peace and tranquillity in Japan would be carefully and beautifully carved onto something designed purely for death and destruction. This theme continued onto the armour, which was incredibly impressive. Everyone has seen medieval European armour before – big, thick plates of metal often designed to stop all but the most deadly of blows. Functional, but not particularly pretty. Samurai armour is a work of art by comparison. Hundreds of separate pieces of leather and plate all sewn together with a flourish and embroidered with cherry blossoms. It reminds me of Major Jean Villeneuve in The Patriot when he announces that if he dies, he will die well-dressed. Priorities are important.
There were two more things I found particularly interesting. Firstly, since I began learning Japanese I considered the language to be pretty ugly to look at. The Roman alphabet generally makes for some nice looking words, whether in print or written by someone with a good knack for it. Japanese on the other hand makes use of Chinese characters and mixes them with two other alphabets; when you first see something written in Japanese it just looks like a jumble of pictures, but when you start to understand it and differentiate between all the characters it just looks a bit, well, messy. That is until you see an old manuscript sitting in the museum. Obviously the level of care and dexterity that went into writing it was beyond what anyone writing their shopping lists would be prepared to imitate, but it gave me a new level of appreciation for the language.
The other thing was that I was able to officially confirm to myself that I made the right decision in not becoming an archaeologist. Not that I ever really thought of it as an option, but if I ever wanted a career change I could be sure that it’s one area I don’t really need to look into. These people spend their lives in muddy pits, looking for things that look exactly like bits of mud but are in fact of apparent historical value. These things often turn out to be bits of pottery. Now don’t get me wrong; I would be suitably excited if someone gave me a Le Creuset casserole because I like cooking, and I’d be excited about all the amazing food I’d be able to make and eat with it. However I simply, no matter how hard I try, cannot get excited about old bits of broken pottery. I don’t care if it’s 2000 years old and if it tells you that people would boil their yams instead of pan-frying them. I don’t care if it has patterned swirls on it, or some of the first uses of dye in human history, or mother of pearl on the side; to me this just seems like a massive waste of time seeing as we all eventually evolved to desire plain white plates/bowls from Ikea anyway. The only time cooking is interesting is when you are doing it, watching someone with skill doing it, or eating whatever it produced. Looking at a bit of shaped clay through a piece of glass and imagining one of our ancestors in rags and stirring some boiled turnips over a log fire is far from my idea of a good time; I’m just not wired that way. Give me a good story about historical battles, treachery, myths and legends any time, but there’s a reason why you never read about someone boiling potatoes in a fantasy epic.
After the museum I’d decided that I’d already seen enough temples in Kyoto to last a lifetime, so I jumped back on the train to Shibuya to do a bit of clothes shopping and some people-watching in the Starbucks above the busiest road crossing in the world. I also spent a good amount of time in the nearby park doing some reading, and watching everyone frolic about in the sun just before dusk began to fall. There’s an extreme lack of parkland in Shizuoka so I instinctively found myself drawn to the nearest bit of greenery whenever there was some nearby.
After a couple of hours I decided to make my way back to the hostel for the takuyaki (octopus balls) party for more beer and chats and then, after a long sleep, made my way back to Shizuoka for a long week off work.