Having spent a preposterous amount of (my parents') money getting myself one o' them high-quality type educations, I occasionally suffer from these odd compulsions to do something... cultural, or intellectual. On top of that, being a fairly self-absorbed person, I suffer from an inclination to inflict my impressions of these cultural and intellectual pursuits off on other people. The combination of the two, in hindsight, makes it screamingly obvious why I'm heading into academia [1]...

A side effect of all this is that, on those rare occasions when I find myself in a foreign country, I feel compelled to take in the occasional museum, or visit significant historical sights, or what-have-you. It's not all bars and clubs, booze and fast women [2], y'know.

My third weekend in Tokyo was just cold enough to be annoying, and pissy rain fell intermittently throughout the day. Making it the perfect opportunity to get through my cultural compulsion (as it were), and go visit museums[3] and so on.

So, on a cold and rainy Saturday, I set off for Ueno Park in Tokyo, about an hour away from me by train, and home of the Tokyo National Museum, which looked from my collection of guidebooks[4] to be big enough to kill most of the afternoon doing something nominally intellectual. Whereupon I could go somewhere and get a beer with a clear conscience.

The ride was the usual mix of boredom (common to travel on commuter rail in any culture) and spasms of paranoid panic that comes of travelling by train in a country where you can't read any of the signs identifying the stations (and Japanese through drive-through-lane quality PA speakers takes incomprehensibility to all new heights). I made it to Ueno safely, though, to be greeted (on leaving the station) by the expected pissy rain, and a sodden crowd of people huddling disconsolately under umbrellas near the entrance to the park, listening to the rantings of what appeared to be the local breed of political kook.

I have no idea what he was talking about, but as he sounded angry[5], and as every sentence seemed to begin with "Amerika," and as I was the only gaijin in the station, I didn't hang around to find out. I hustled into the park, stopping briefly to look at a helpful and informative map of the place, which was helpfully and informatively labelled- exclusively in kanjihich looks to me rather like the characters used to indicate cursing in, say, Beetle Bailey comics, and was about as helpful and informative.

This, unfortunately, set a pattern for the day. All of the helpful and informative maps were exclusively in kanji. Fortunately, the National Museum is pretty hard to miss, squatting as it does across the whole northern edge of the park. For 830 Yen ($7.25 or so), I got an admission ticket to both the main collection and the Special Exhibit on auspicious motifs in Chinese art.

The museum did have a helpful little pamphlet telling you which rooms were which (and explaining which parts of the museum were under construction, and thus closed to visitors), which was in English, but all the detailed guidebooks were in Japanese. Which seemed a bit redundant, as every case contained extensive labels in kanji, presumably providing useful historical contexts for the items so displayed, like:

This knife is the knife which Tokugawa Ieyasu used when he personally castrated his arch-rival Katori Hidetoshi upon completing his bloody and violent rise to power in 1609.[6]

The English labels, on the other hand, were more along the lines of:

Knife. Early Tokugawa Period. 1600.

which is significantly less interesting and informative...

As a result, I have very little to say about the museum itself. The collection is very impressive, and while I don't much care for the somewhat cartoonish style of the traditional ukiyo-e prints, particularly when depicting people[7], they have some damn impressive paintings. And there are some very nice statues of bizarre demons and mythological monsters, and, of course, the knives and swords are Very Cool Indeed. Especially when you realize that, when the gleaming, deadly, and beautiful swords on display were being made, my ancestors in Europe were whacking each other on the head with crudely shaped lumps of metal bearing more similarity to concrete rebar than the finely honed and deadly weapons in use in the East...

(To be fair, it wasn't all great. Some of the painting displays were cleverly set up in dimly-lit display cases which were then put in brightly-lit rooms, so that all you could see in the case was the reflection of a dozen or so puzzled people trying to see into the case. The calligraphy displays were also largely lost on me, as hand-written hiragana and kanji texts tend to look like someone has wasted a whole scroll of parchment testing their pen...)

Therefore, rather than going on for another dozen pages making half-assed pronouncements about Japanese art in museums, I'll move right on to the anecdote (well, anecdotes) from which this piece takes its provocative title.[8] Both of which occurred after I left the museum.

Besides the museum, Ueno Park contains a number of other attractions- a couple more museums, a zoo, some statues of famous people, a fabulously expensive restaurant (tempura shrimp are not worth $75...), and a shrine. The Tosho-gu (which ought to have long marks over all the vowels), to be precise, which is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu[9], the first of the Tokugawa shoguns, who had their way with Japan for something like two centuries, and were also immortalized in a book and miniseries...

Of course, well prior to having irreparable harm done to his memory by James Clavell and a bunch of Hollywood types, he was enshrined in what is now Ueno Park, in the early 1600's. Yes, "enshrined." As in "deified" and worshipped as a minor deity.

(When you come right down to it, Americans are absolute pikers when it comes to glorifying past political heroes. I mean, sure, it's cool that Washington has a city, a state, a bridge, several dozen schools and universities, and a gigantic marble phallic symbol named in his honor- but Tokugawa Ieyasu gets to be a god...)

The present shrine in Ueno dates from 1651, when it was built by the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Iemitsu. (There's also a much larger shrine to the elder Tokugawa off in Nikko (many miles away), as well as a shrine to the younger Tokugawa, whose energetic shrine-building got him deified as well...) And, as the rain had stopped (for the moment), I decided to go have a look at it.

The shrine follows a pretty standard pattern for these things, with a long walkway leading into the shrine complex, lined with minor religious artifacts (in this case, huge copper lanterns which were extorted from donated by the petty nobility when the shrine was constructed) and subsidiary shrines (in this case, one containing a large burned log left over from the Allied (read: American) firebombing of Tokyo in 1942. Whoops.). The main shrine building is set in a courtyard of its own, with a large fence blocking the faithful from approaching too closely (they stand at a little pavilion along the fence, and worship from afar), and a couple of small kiosks selling specially blessed keepsakes.

There were a couple of people leaving when I wandered in (this shrine not being really important enough to draw a big crowd on a cold and rainy Saturday), but basically, I had the place to myself. The pavilion is nicely constructed, and the shrine looks impressive, but that's about it. Until I noticed a little gate next to one of the kiosks, with a sign saying "Entrance. 200 Yen."

This looked like it went off into the garden surrounding the shrine. These gardens are generally pretty nice- though two bucks to get in seemed a bit steep (I hadn't quite acclimated to Japanese pricing)- and it wasn't raining, so I said "what the hell," paid my 200, and went in.

The path wound through the garden, which was, indeed, pretty nice, and around the back of the shrine (past another, smaller shrine- maybe a cherished Tokugawa pet, I don't know...), but seemed more or less like a rip-off, at 200 Yen.

Until the path reached the other side, where a little gate led through the fence into the main courtyard[10]. With a sign indicating that I should go that way. So I went in, and found myself at the bottom of the steps leading up into the main shrine building (or at least onto the walkway that runs around it at about shoulder height) where there was another sign indicating that I should head up the stairs, but damnit, remove my shoes first...

Which is, of course, where the title comes in. Maybe it's just a matter of lingering Catholic indoctrination, but this sort of thing gives me the creeps. I mean, this was an active (barely active, but evidently active as there had been people praying when I came in) place of worship for a faith I don't believe in. But it's sacred to them, and the last thing they need to see when they show up to pay their respects is an enormous gaijin clambering all over their holy ground, gawking at the woodwork. It seems vaguely sacrilegious, and rude, to boot- I know I'd be pissed if a bunch of Japanese tourists came into St. Pat's back home and climbed up on the altar in the middle of Sunday Mass[11].

Then again, the sign did say to go up the stairs. And I did pay two bucks for the privilege of climbing all over the shrine and gawking at the woodwork...

So, long story short[12], off came the sneakers, and I went up onto the walkway. Feeling more than a little guilty- especially when I reached the other side of the building, and a little sign directed me to walk right through the shrine itself (and past the little old lady mopping the floor. On the bright side, this probably indicates that they're comfortable with people tromping all over the place, but it did little to alleviate my embarrassment).

And, all in all, it's a bargain at two bucks to enter. The woodwork is pretty impressive, and it's not every day you get to shuffle apologetically through the family room of an actual deity...

An additional odd spin was put on this religious guilt by an earlier incident, on the way to the shrine. Walking out of the museum, I wandered into a large open plaza, where there is one of those huge signpost things with numerous arms indicating to the confused tourist that some attraction or another is vaguely off in that direction over there. No, no- more to the left... left... that way, yeah.

Despite the fact that these things are almost always completely unhelpful (my early childhood having been spent in the Seventies, I always expect them to steer me towards Sesame Street), this was the only point in the park in which the locations of major attractions were indicated in English. I spent a few moments savoring the novelty of being able to read public signs again, then headed toward the shrine.

Halfway out of the plaza, I heard someone calling behind me.

"Excuse me! Excuse me, sir!" I turned around, and saw a young Japanese woman running towards me. Thinking I must've dropped my wallet or something, I stopped. She caught up.

"Excuse me, but where are you from?" she asked. Evidently, I hadn't dropped my wallet, and was being stopped randomly. No doubt to be harangued by a follower of the ranting gentleman mentioned earlier, or perhaps asked my opinion of Bill Clinton's sex life. (The odd spectacle of Slick Willie's impeachment was beginning to unfold back home, and I had actually been approached by a stranger at the Meiji Shrine, who wanted to ask me how I felt about the President's behavior.)

"America," I replied. "New York, but not The City."[13]

"Ah. New York State," she said (scoring big points right off). She then proceeded to tell me about how she'd been to America many times.

We chatted pleasantly for a few minutes, exchanged names (both immediately forgotten, I'm sure), and explain what we do for a living (she was a PoliSci PhD student). All the while, I'm wondering "What in Hell does this woman want?" while the more reptilian portions of my brain scream "She wants you, dude!"

Finally, we get to the punchline.

"I am Christian," she said. "Are you?"

I shrugged. "Catholic."[14]

"Well, my church is neither Catholic nor Protestant[15], but we believe in Jesus..." Blah, blah, blah. She eventually worked her way around to offering to have me baptized- "A very special thing today"- apparently in the fishpond in Ueno Park...

I flew ten thousand miles from home, and it wasn't enough to escape the same proselytizing weirdos I used to have to dodge on the Mall.

Sometimes, the world is just too damn small...


[1] The tendency to include footnotes in documents which manifestly should not contain footnotes is not, in fact, part of this effect. I blame that on David Foster Wallace. [back]

[2] Leaving aside for the moment the fact that I'm about as far from a "clubbing" sort of person as you could hope to meet, unless you're using the word in the sense of "bludgeoning" (in which case, no comment). It's a rhetorical device, just roll with it. [back]

[3] I feel slightly guilty about doing that sort of thing on nice days, preferring to at least try to do something outdoors. We'll deal with that neurosis elsewhere... [back]

[4] Both of them. It's a small value of "collection." [back]

[5] To be fair, any public speaker addressing a crowd in Japanese sounds angry. It's one of the world's more pissed-off-sounding languages, coming up just shy of Arabic and German. For all I know, he was enthusiastically praising American economic policy in Asia, but I don't think it's very likely. Those sorts of speakers tend not to draw big crowds in public parks. [back]

[6] Which looks to my eyes rather like:

Rassa frassa fricka rabbit mudda guffa varmint hossa frissa fossa fricka mussa mossa rassa frassa varmint frossa fricka rassa frassa goldarn rabbit frassa 1609.

Sort of Art History 101 by Yosemite Sam. While this is occasionally amusing, I've found it better not to stand in front of display cases giggling to oneself, so I generally dispensed with the kanji labels entirely... [back]

[7] This probably goes a long way towards explaining the whole "anime" thing, though... [back]

[8] You were wondering when I'd get to that, weren't you? [back]

[9] Providing me with an example of a famous person with the initials "T. I." Which would've won Valuable Prizes in a party game, six months earlier. [back]

[10] And I mean a little gate. This sucker was designed to force Japanese people to duck, three hundred years ago, so I had to bend over about double to get in... [back]

[11] Actually, I'd be astonished, as much as irritated. St. Pat's isn't that impressive. But you know what I mean... [back]

[12] Yeah, right. [back]

[13] A crucial, though futile, distinction. Most Americans have a tough time wrapping their brains around the idea that there are parts of New York where Rudy Giuliani does not hold sway, and the locals are more likely to tip a cow than a cabbie. The chances of Japanese people grasping the subtle distinction between "New York State" and "New York City" were vanishingly small. Eventually, I switched to telling people I was from Washington, D.C.(technically more accurate, as that's where I was in grad school, but, to paraphrase a friend, while I may have been in D.C., I was never of D.C.), which caused less confusion. [back]

[14] I've spent enough time on the fringes of the South to know that there are denominations which consider "Christian" and "Catholic" mutually exclusive. [back]

[14] "So... you're Jewish?" I didn't say. [back]

Last modified: 14 February, 2000