Although I’d had unexpectedly beautiful weather for the first two days of my Japan visit, the third day dawned cold and rainy. I hadn’t made up an itinerary for my trip so much as a list of places I’d like to visit, grouped by location. Keeping in mind the weather, I decided to make it a museum day, and after a quick stop at the 99 Yen store for breakfast, hopped a train to Meguro.
Meguro is one of the more suburban places I visited in Tokyo, in the sense that there wasn’t so much flash and lights, and the shops seemed oriented more to residents than to tourists. When I emerged from the station at around 9:30am the streets were nearly deserted. The few people out so early in the morning were hunched over against the wind and rain. I hadn’t thought to bring an umbrella, so I zipped up my coat and bowed my head and started walking.
The thing that had frustrated me when researching my trip to Japan was that all the guidebooks and websites seemed to recommend the same things. Temples. Museums. Tokyo Tower. The fish market. All worthy in their own right, but not at all what I was looking for. I wanted something different, unusual, quirky, fun. I found it in Meguro.
Touting itself as “The World’s Only Parasitological Museum!”, the Meguro Parasitological Museum is located in a tall, narrow building identified only by “MGM” in tall letters on the side. The minimalist design of the first floor, starkly lit and dominated by display cases, is reminiscent of a high end jewelry store, except that rather than glitz and glamor trapped behind the glass, you’ll find instead things that might make your stomach turn. The usual suspects– maggots, tapeworms, ticks– are suspended serenely in jars of preservatives, along with other things I wouldn’t have considered parasites, including an abundance of fish and crabs. The second floor has several diagrams of parasite life cycles, along with a delightfully disturbing 8-meter long tapeworm framed on the wall like a treasured relic. Most people come back from Japan with photos of themselves at Tokyo Tower or Mt. Fuji. I posed with a tapeworm.
Possibly my favorite area of the museum was the gift shop. (As a former museum gift shop worker, I see it as my duty to examine the gift shop of every museum I visit.) Like the museum itself, the selection was small but satisfyingly quirky. Just like downstairs, another glass display case held books and buttons and postcards and keychains, while hanging on the wall above was a selection of shirts. I’m not sure which souvenir I enjoy more; the 2500 Yen sleek black t-shirt with specimen jars printed in raised white, or the “Wonderful World of Parasites” bag that it came in.
Although I managed to navigate most of Tokyo with limited difficulty, I ran into trouble when trying to find Tako-No-Hakubutsukan, the Japanese Kite Museum. Perhaps it was exhaustion, the dreariness of the rain, trying to navigate the mammoth maze of tunnels that make up the Tokyo Subway Station. I must have spent nearly an hour wandering the streets of Nihombashi, constantly consulting my map, comparing it to my printed out directions, back-tracking and wandering up and down streets and alleyways. I actually passed the building two times before I recognized it as my destination, and at first I was put off by the long line snaking down the street, which turned out not to be for the museum but rather a restaurant on the ground floor. The Kite Museum is on the 5th floor. Weaving through the crowd of people (all Japanese, for this was beyond the tourist area), I made my way to the elevator and pressed the button. Nothing happened.
The most frequent questions I received, both before and after traveling to Japan, had to do with the difficulty of getting around when I didn’t speak the native language. Truth be told, it wasn’t as hard as it might seem. We spend so much of our lives talking when, really, so much can be said through gestures, body language, pointing and waving. By my second day in Japan, a peculiar change had overcome me. I stopped relying on language. I’d learned a few useful phrases in Japanese before departing, and had been told that many Japanese spoke passable English, but despite this knowledge I still defaulted to wordless communication. And for the most part that seemed to suffice.
Standing in the lobby of the building that housed the Kite Museum, staring in befuddlement at an elevator that wouldn’t work, I was suddenly surprised by a voice behind me speaking in perfect (albeit accented) English. The Japanese woman was speaking quite fluently, asking me where I was trying to go, and yet for some reason I still found myself replying with silence. My brain, expecting Japanese, wasn’t able to handle being spoken to in English. It’s like biting into an ice cream cone expecting vanilla only to discover that it’s actually peppermint. She must have thought me strange as I pointed to my map and mumbled a short-phrased reply, and perhaps that was what made her take pity on me. Disappearing into the restaurant next door, she emerged moments later with the news that the museum had been closed on account of the National Holiday. (Travel Tip: Look up National Holidays and plan accordingly!) I never did get a chance to go back to the Kite Museum, but next time I’ll be prepared.
My biggest advice for any traveler is this; tell yourself there’s always next time. Trying to cram everything into a single trip results in stress and exhaustion, with no time to just relax and let things happen. Some of my best experiences came from wandering without purpose or letting myself get lost. Tell yourself there’s always next time and you won’t be disappointed when plans go awry or you run out of time. Tell yourself there’s always next time and the flight home isn’t nearly as sad.