June 29, 2004 – Ueno Park, Homelessness, and Museums

My sister feeding pigeons in Ueno Park

My sister feeding pigeons in Ueno Park

Today I took my visiting family out to Ueno Park. We got moving after breakfast and took the Odakyu line from Noborito to Shinjuku, then the Yamanote line to Ueno station. My family was impressed that all of the trains arrived exactly when they were supposed to. Mass transit in Canada is nowhere near as punctual.

We explored Ueno Park, enjoying the trees, duck pond, and the people. In one of the large open areas there was an older man feeding pigeons. Pigeons are a very common sight in parks and temples in Japan. The man was standing in the middle of hundreds of pigeons, distributing bread crumbs. My sister walked into the middle of the pigeons for a picture. The man approached her and offered her some bread crumbs. The pigeons were so used to being fed that they literally ate right out of my sister’s hand!

After feeding the pigeons, we headed towards the Tokyo National Museum. Just before we got to the museum we saw something that I hadn’t seen before – a huge group of homeless people. A local mission was distributing sandwiches and was also providing free haircuts.

Japan overall is a wealthy and successful country, so many visitors to the country are surprised that there are any homeless people at all. Officially there are about 25,000 homeless people in Japan. You can easily find makeshift shelters built from cardboard boxes and tarps in Ueno Park, Yoyogi Park, and in various areas around Shinjuku. Most of the homeless people are older men.

We continued walking towards the Tokyo National Museum. I had been to the museum with my friends less than a month earlier, but it was still incredibly interesting. I could probably spend a few days in the museum and not get bored. We spent a few hours exploring the extensive Japanese collection, with much of our time devoted to the popular attractions – swords and armor. Like my friend previously, my family tried to take a lot of pictures, and most of them came out blurry.

When we finished with the museum, we started the journey back to Noborito. Since my dad does not like crowds, we got reserved seats on the limited express from Shinjuku to Noborito. This allowed us to have our own seats and avoid all of the usual pushing and shoving. The cost was about 600 yen each, but I think my dad would have paid more to avoid the packed commuter rush.

It was a good day out in Tokyo, and we are looking forward to exploring in Yokohama tomorrow.

(2014 Update) I think it’s interesting that we saw both pigeons and homeless people lined up in Ueno Park looking for some food. People were happy to see the pigeons, but many people were uncomfortable by the presence of the homeless people.

Sanyukai is one of Japan’s largest homeless charities. Check out their English website here. There are other organizations as well, and they are all doing very important work. If you aren’t in Japan, see what you can do in your own community. Shelters and food banks rely on their volunteers to survive. Your donation of time, money, or clothing can make a huge difference to someone who really needs it.

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