The day before I was set to fly out of Tokyo, a FedEx plane crashed at Narita International Airport, killing both pilots and closing the main runway. It’s hard to stay current with news when you’re on vacation; I didn’t find out until Monday night, and even then the information I had was fragmented and worrying. A delayed or canceled flight is stressful enough; but what about when you’re on vacation in a foreign country where you don’t even speak the language, where you can’t even call anyone because your cellphone isn’t compatible with the networks in that country? After a quick appearance online to assure everyone that I was fine and would keep them informed, I went to bed, uncertain of my plans for the following day.
The runway reopened the next morning, but the situation was still one of confusion as airlines struggled to pick up from being nearly a day behind schedule. The man at the front desk of my hotel was very considerate and called my airline for me to see what the situation would be. I was informed that since my flight was in the evening there shouldn’t be any delays; that things should be sorted out by then. I thanked him and checked out.
Burdened with backpack and dufflebag, I made my way to the Ueno train station. I’d be taking the Keisei Skyliner back to Narita airport, but not until 5pm, so I rented a locker to store my bags in. The rental procedure, like many things in Tokyo, was automated, and when I chose the English option it was a breeze to select my locker size and insert my money. I can’t remember the rates, but for all-day rental they were very reasonable.
I had the entire afternoon to explore Ueno and the weather was nearly perfect for it; although still chilly to a Hawaii girl, the rain had retired and left the sky crisp and clear. It was a perfect day for Hanami, or cherry-blossom viewing, which Ueno Park (just across the street from the train station) is noted for. I wasn’t the only one in the park at such an early hour. The sakura weren’t in full bloom yet, not the cloud of blossoms they would be in a few days’ time, but that didn’t distract from the marvel of seeing delicate pink and white flowers stretching for miles. Everyone had out their cameras, taking shots far and near, panoramics and close-ups and portraits with the blooms. It was one of those times where I didn’t feel self conscious of my camera, because everyone else was as trigger-happy as I was.
The previous night’s bath had eased my foot pain to a degree, and so I walked through the park, taking in the large pond with its array of colorfully painted rowboats, sakura trees swooping low over the water. I delighted at the discovery of colorful tents beneath which food vendors sold a tempting array of meats and vegetables on skewers or in bowls.
Across the bridge, on the opposite side from the train station, was the entrance to the zoo. I paid my 800 Yen and took a map (written only in Japanese, but the pictures were fairly self explanatory). Here I encountered gaggles of school children shepherded by adults, each group wearing a different colored hat. The zoo was the sort that children adore but adults might find saddening; the small cages kept the animals always in view but didn’t offer much in the way of living space.
On the opposite side of the zoo was another entrance, this one leading out to a collection of carnival-esque rides; in reflection I would have liked to ride the merry-go-round, but I’d been too timid to try it alone. The park continued on, with fountains, museums, temples and rows and rows of cherry blossom trees. I took photos at the Hiroshima Memorial, thousands of colorful cranes draped across a block of stone, a dove in the center guarding a flame. It was a strange sensation to be standing there, American girl at such a memorial, and I wondered if Japanese tourists ever feel awkward when they visit Pearl Harbor.
The park continued on but my painful feet and frozen body could not. I’d already taken lunch in the zoo’s cafeteria; I just wanted a place to rest. I headed back toward the train station, back toward civilization. It was at this point that I found and rested in an internet cafe. After an hour of web surfing and melon drink sipping in the warmth, I felt able to head out once again, but this time not into nature. Following the train tracks, I found myself in Ameyoko, a shopping area similar to the one I’d visited in Asakusa, rows and rows of stores crammed with anything and everything you could imagine at a bargain price. I picked up a cute panda purse for only $5 and an even cuter Le Sportsac bag, festooned with rats, and at half the price one might see in America. (Is it a knockoff? Possibly, but frankly I don’t care.)
And one point I noticed a cluster of young men, probably college age, staring at me and giggling (yes, giggling). When they saw me looking they giggled even more, and one boy gave a shy hello. I smiled and said hello back, then continued on my way. The boys continued to follow me, giggling, as far as the intersection, where we parted ways, but not before one gave a cheerful “See you!” It was an experience similar to my previous encounter with schoolchildren in the Asakusa market, and it left me grinning.