Why Ueno? (pronounced way-no)
Traveling by plane from the Midwestern USA to Japan can be rough on the constitution. It is a 13 hour flight and when we land in Tokyo it is tomorrow afternoon, 14 time zones ahead of Chicago. I know we’ll be disoriented and probably cranky, real cranky. Where in this city of 14 million will we find a place to recharge our batteries and adjust to the “Land of the Rising Sun”? We pick an area of the city called Ueno.
It’s easy to get to Ueno. Right outside of the Narita (Tokyo) Airport arrival gate is the ticket office for the Keisei Skyliner. For $25 you can grab this fast train for a smooth 45 minute ride right to Keisei Uneo Station. No transfers, no traffic, no hassles. From the station our hotel, The Mitsui Garden Ueno, is a 10 minute walk. At less than $200 per night the room is small but that’s status quo for Tokyo. This place has every amenity we need and then some. Hotel vending machines sell beer so it’s have a beer, beddy-bye and dreams.
The first full day in country should allow for a little adventure but we’re not up for much of anything that requires an attention span. We opt for a walk. Nearby Ueno Park is the cultural heart of Tokyo. Lots of museums nestle in this vast woods including; Tokyo National, National Science and the National Museum of Western Art. The park itself has a pond where you can rent a boat or just stroll and watch the lotus leaves sway in the breeze. Large tourist-friendly maps keep you from getting lost.
Just north of Ueno Park, the Yanaka Neighborhood is a peek at old Tokyo. Many of its buildings escaped earthquakes and Allied bombs so, unlike much of rest of the city, it has a traditional feel. We pass through a huge cemetery, Yanaka-Reien, where the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, is buried. It’s quiet here. Pretty much no one home but the stray cats. We make a long stop at Tennoji, a Buddhist Temple. Nothing like the exquisite lines and curves of temple design for meditating and taking the edge off after a long journey.
The quiet walk and a little Zen give us a lift and the courage to wade into the shopping district outside Ueno Station. This is the anti-Zen. Loud, bright at night, and crowded, it is a tangle of shops, Pachinko (gambling) Parlors, and restaurants. We’re getting hungry so aim to find a place that serves yakitori or mini kebabs. There’s not a lot of English signage around here, but the menus posted outside restaurants have pictures. These are small specialty spots. Yakitori is yakitori and ramen is ramen, and here in Japan, the twain don’t meet. Cooks specialize and locals reason that a restaurant can’t do two things well. Our live’s thus simplified, we choose a little joint that has two open stools and sit. I didn’t know there was such a thing as a tachi-kui or “stand & eat” restaurant but the cook dug up an English menu and there is a clause. Sitting is an extra 300 yen ($3) per. Ok, after walking all day we stay on the stools.
Joanne played it safe and ordered spare ribs. I get assorted yakitori. The cook/bartender grills the skewers right on the bar on an open bed of coals. After they were delivered I figured out mine included chicken gizzards and a skewer of tiny “Pope’s noses” or chicken asses. A little greasy but tasty. Steak and lean pork rounded out my repast. Japan has good inexpensive food. Our tab including drinks and sitting comes to about $20.
The first time Joanne and I visited Japan together was 34 years ago and I remember diving right in after arriving. We went driving with a Japanese friend and it was fun until 4:00pm. Then the jet lag hit and I went down hard. I remember summoning all my concentration to prop one eye open as we drove past towering waterfalls and an active volcano belching steam. It is a distant and very hazy memory.
Now we pick a spot for the first day of travel that gentles us into our new surroundings. That’s why Ueno works. Easy access, comfortable digs, the option for some not-too-heavy-duty cultural appreciation and some not-too fancy but delicious Japanese food. A good first day should underachieve; I think we achieved that.