We’d thought it was cold the previous day, but now it was freezing, with snow forecast – definitely a day for an indoor activity! But first we had to take our maiden voyage on the subway system. Public transport in Tokyo is excellent but a little confusing to the uninitiated – for a start, there are two subway networks which are run by different companies. Then there is a plethora of suburban railways (again, run by different companies). And a monorail. It all took a while to figure out, so it seemed best to acquire a prepaid card which would at least make it easier to switch between the two subway networks.
Armed with our Pasmo cards (dispensed from a machine with an English language option) we set out from Higashishinjuku to Ueno. With colour coded lines, numbered stations, and all signs in English as well as Japanese, it was a piece of cake. The only think I found challenging was remembering the station names, some of which seemed to be very similar – until I realised that parts of the names often had meanings (east, west, disctrict, bridge, one, two etc). Somehow it was easier when I knew that Nishishinjuku Gochome meant West Shinjuku 5 District while Shinjuku Nishiguchi meant Shinjuku West Gate.
We were heading for the National Museum, but rather than switch lines for just one stop we decided to get out at Ueno Okachimachi so that we could swing through Ueno park, on the off-chance that there was any cherry blossom left – a warm spell in late March meant the season was a little early this year, so we had missed the peak. En route, we were lured into a pickle shop by the sight of free tasters (on our budget, free food was always welcome!). I’m not normally a fan of pickles since I dislike vinegar, but I quickly realised that Japanese pickles are made sweeter than your average English pickled onion, and rice wine vinegar is less acidic and milder than Sarson’s malt. There was also some frozen cooked mackerel that was especially nice, so we decided to pick some up for dinner on our way back to the subway.
As expected, there was very little cherry blossom in the park – just one late blooming variety, but in the driving rain it didn’t look its best. All around were the signs of the blossom-viewing crowds that had been in the park only a few days earlier – temporary rubbish bins, crowd control barriers, and a few empty market stalls awaiting removal. But the avenue of trees leading to the museum was still picturesque, the wet branches stark black between the pinkish sepals that were the only remnants of the flowers whose white petals now scattered the ground.
We bought our museum tickets from a machine – at around £3.50 each they were cheaper than museums in many of the world’s capital cities. An attendant handed us plastic bags for our wet collapsible umbrellas, but for the full sized pointy ones that the Japanese favour there were banks of special umbrella lockers – tiny cages with locks and keys. Genius.
The collection kept us occupied for several hours – Japanese paintings, ceramics, armour etc. In the main building, exhibits from other Asian countries and Egypt in another, and a collection of small bronze bodhisattvas in a third. We could have stayed longer but hunger drove us out (we had skipped lunch) and home, stopping to pick up some of the frozen mackerel, and from our local supermarket some frozen chips (cheaper than fresh potatoes), vegetables and something that we correctly guessed was pickled daikon.