Wandering the Veins of the Heart of Shitamachi

by Dan Asenlund

The famous Japan-observer Lafcadio Hearn said in the early 1890s that there is no such Japan as Tokyo. By that he meant, half-sarcastically, that the values and prescriptions that were once labeled Japanese no longer existed in this city, then already polluted by foreign influences. Today, over a hundred years later, metropolitans all over the world can testify that at least for a second – Tokyo’s intrinsic quirkiness aside – they have felt just like at home.

But there is an exception, a place that at least partly has remained Japanese throughout modernization, earthquake-restoration and bomb raids – Shitamachi (old town, or low town), in which heart lies Asakusa and Ueno. Asakusa, once the capital site for Tokyo’s entertainment district (not unlike New York’s Times Square or Montmartre in Paris) and favorite place to stroll for award-winning novelists Yasunari Kawabata and Kafu Nagai, is not what it once was, even though it retains a certain historical charm and serves as a nice contrast to the high town futurism of Shinjuku and Shibuya.

Ueno, however, still looks the same. And it is here my friend Shuhei and I are headed in the bus we boarded at the Ryogoku sumo arena. Toward the park, Tokyo’s oldest and richest in content, and toward the museums. Here stands a statue of Saigo Takamori, the man who helped overthrow the feudal Tokugawa regime and modernize Japan, only to later completely change course and revolt against the modernization. I try to read the look under Saigo’s thick eyebrows as we walk by on our way to the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, but I fail.

One hour later, after a thousand-year odyssey through the art of Japan and East Asia, Shuhei’s cell phone rings and he dashes out to find his roommate and friend since high school, Miho, who is here to meet me. I choose, however, to view Katsushika Hokusai’s ghostly ukiyo-e collection one final time before meeting up with them in a nearby pasta restaurant. Miho, who works for ANA and is bound for Hiroshima the next day and Okinawa the day after that, smiles and asks what I think about the pasta, which is actually remarkably good for being prepared in Japan.

Shuhei has a job interview later at night and leaves me and Miho to further explore Ueno by ourselves, the first stop being the Shitamachi museum. Here time stands more still than the lotus leaves floating in the Shinobazu pond outside, and the experience feels somehow nostalgic. Inspired, we walk around the park to the wooden houses of Yanaka, the only ones of their sort remaining in Tokyo. Here once lived Japan oracle Donald Richie, whom I talk about with Miho. She laughs and suggests we visit him (he now lives a few blocks away, windows toward the pond). But we content ourselves with a cup of coffee instead.

After a last walk through the park, past Benten as she looks over lovers’ silhouettes reflected off the lotus leaves of the pond, we board a bus back to reality.

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