I decide to hire a bicycle. A friend from England, Damien, decides to join me. We grab two ¥300 bicycles for the day and cycle in the direction of Ueno. On the way we pass a random stage on Kappabashi ‘kitchen’ Street. Men and women dressed in traditional taiko clothing hit massive taiko drums. A security guard stands watch, eyeing me up as I take a photograph.
We cycle around Ueno Station and toward Ueno Park. Today and tomorrow there is a festival here, the Philippine Festival. The festival is sponsored by international money transfer company, Western Union. The space for the festival hasn’t been very well utilised. There are two rows of small stalls on both sides, and a third row through the middle which completely obstructs the view of the small stage.
I promised a friend I would bring her a souvenir from the festival. To my dismay, all of the stalls appear to be for financial institutions or property letting companies. There is a stall offering ‘tax refund’, there are stalls for various banks, there are stalls selling insurance. There is not one stand that seems to offer anything remotely souvenir.
We take a seat near an ice cream shop opposite the festival. I rant to Damien about how much the festival has annoyed me, he is in agreement. A woman starts to sing from the stage that you can’t even see. The song from Frozen, Let It Go. I almost go on another angry rant, but decide to just let it go.
Back on the bikes we head to Nippori Station, cycling through Textile Town and Fabric Town on the way. We cross the railway tracks and head to a big area of green on my map, thinking it will be some kind of park or temple.
Yanaka Reien is massive. Over seven thousand tombstones are here. The cemetery is so big that it contains a police station and a children’s swing park. The Tokugawa Family Graveyard is here too. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, rests here alongside fourteen other Tokugawa shoguns. There is one area that slightly confuses me, it is marked on the map as ‘The First Three-dimensional Deposit Facility’. We have no idea what this means.
We head back toward Ueno Park, stopping off at the Daimyo Clock Museum to kill some time, before returning to Asakusa. Outside the Don Quixote store there is the Rokku Hanamichi Flower Festival taking place. Music is being performed on a small stage, but the flowers are notable by their absence.
Our next stop is over the Sumida River, to a place I visited when filming a cycle tour; Mukojima-Hyakkaen Gardens. The entrance fee is still ¥150. Today is Mushi-Kiki-no-Kai, which I am told means, “Enjoying the sound of insects.” The event today describes itself as, “An exhibition of various kinds of chirping insects, their chirping sounds, and the fantastic garden scenery.” The insects aren’t quite as attractive as the description of the event, but the sounds they make are.
A Japanese lady in a Kimono approaches us as we stare at the crickets. “Where are you from?” … “Ah, England! Do you like tea ceremony?” Both Damien and I are yet to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, so we go along with it and are invited into a tatami mat room, shoes off, kneel down, join the others. The other thirteen people attending are Japanese.
We wait a while before the process begins. When it finally does, we pass around a tray containing sweets filled with a red bean filling. I thank the person to my right for passing me the tray, I bow, I thank Damien to my left for letting me take a sweet before him, I bow, I take a sweet, I eat it. It is all very methodical. Next it is tea time. Young women in Kimonos kneel one at a time in front of people, bow, and place a bowl of green tea in front of them. They move in a clockwise order.
Before drinking, I ask the woman to my right if she would like any more tea, and politely, she refuses. No one ever says, “Yes,” at this stage, it is purely a formality. I lift the bowl of tea, place it on my my left hand, turn it clockwise twice, then drink it all in one go. Then when the bowl is collected, I bow once again.
The sweet was delicious, the tea was cold. I always preferred hot tea. The woman that invited us to the ceremony said that they would usually offer hot tea, but because it is a hot day, they decided to serve it cold. After the ceremony we are allowed to inspect the beautifully crafted bowls and the container that contains the green tea powder.
The tea ceremony, I later find out, should have cost us ¥2000 each, but we were never asked to pay anything.
Read the next part of my Journey in Japan, where I explore a very unusual bridge, get a little lost, visit an exhibition of art pertaining to the use of animal skulls, and introduce the famous legend of Hachikō by clicking here.
Or alternatively, click here to begin the journey from part one.