Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Et in Ueno, Ego.*

Tokyo is being overrun by a pack of impetuous warm winds: Typhoons are the Indian Summer`s gift to Japan, it seems. I know this not merely by watching the weather channel but by personal experience -- namely by having my tent rolled over in the middle of the night by gusts strong enough to actually tear the seam of one of the tent flaps. At 2:00a.m. I finally gave up and watched quiet Chiba and moderately quiet Tokyo steaming under my balcony. As a result, I was a wee bit tired today, which turned out to be an appropriate frame of mind for spending a day in Ueno.

Ueno is the historio-cultural part of Tokyo -- a little spot of green in the midst of the city that boasts the highest concentration of museums anywhere in Japan. It could also, in my opinion, boast the tamest and best-fed "wild" birds this side of Venice, a life-sized blue-whale statue doing an inexplicable nose-dive into the ground, and the best shaved ice, anywhere, period (... as well as a 2:1 homeless:visitor ration for the park, but that`s another story.) It has all the trappings of a last strong-hold of nature and culture against the encroaching shogunate of the city -- and if you`re familiar with Ueno`s history as stronghold against enemy forces, that`s not a hopeful prognosis.

Nevertheless, Ueno is rather interestingly located: To the East, the district is girded by no fewer than 12 sets of traintracks running parallel to one another, with a minimum of one of them being occupied by a train at any given point in time; to the West, its boundary is marked by another set of traintracks, as well as a heavily frequented highway. And between these two pincers -- an oasis brimming with recreational and relax-ational opportunities, and brimming with people either frantic to get to where they have to go or frantic to find a place to go (and a reason to go there.)

Sitting in a shady spot, it occurred to me that Ueno is very much a reflection of the present state of my life`s journey: Sandwiched between the business of life (... or rather: of a life I chose ...), there is an oasis of quiet and opportunity carved out purely for my refreshment and enjoyment -- and, much like the people I observed today, I haven`t been sitting and resting for long enough to enjoy this blessing.

Travelling solo, of course, has something to do with it -- with no one to watch my back, I`m always busy looking over my shoulder. The nature of travel itself, with its rare, not-to-be-wasted qualities, is another consideration -- when will I next have the opportunity to enjoy the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum ... and shouldn`t I better do so *now* rather than waste an afternoon lazing about?

More importantly than either of these, however, is the driven spirit that clings to the coat-tails of most people I know, whether they are ministers, corporate lawyers, homemakers or students. Un-productivity, as Thomas Merton notes with reference to the monastic calling, is profoundly counter-cultural -- it threatens the idol of business we`ve created, and dares to strike at our society`s golden calf: our jobs (... and -- dare I add? -- our "purposedrivenness.") There is value in seeing as much of a country as possible; there is value in spending much of one`s time reading, writing, walking and "experiencing." Greater than either of those, though --the value of reflection and meditation, perhaps to give guidance when setting out to cross the tracks on the other side of the oasis, perhaps to direct one`s steps into a different, unrealized, entirely less hurried direction entirely.

In other news, speaking as the ill-cultured Westerner I am, kabuki is probably an acquired taste. For my money, it feels more like a cross between opera and an(impressively budgeted) rustic play I remember from the days of my youth, where men dressed up as women and lots of practical jokes kept the beer (or in this case: sake) flowing.

* This brutal rip-off brought to you courtesy of the original (and far more melodious) "Et in Arcadia, ego" about which you can read more here ... or you can just see the great play by Tom Stoppard titled "Arcadia".

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