En route to IUJ

Getting to my summer school, the International University of Japan, requires a lot of moving parts. First, I head to the airport in Portland, Maine. From there I hub through Chicago before climbing on the long flight to Narita Airport, where I overnight. Then, it’s time to navigate the  50 miles (nearly 80 km) to the Tokyo city center to catch the shinkansen (bullet train) – imagine, if you will, that  the Boston airport was in Providence, Rhode Island, for example. There are numerous ways to get to downtown Tokyo from the airport, but so far I have opted for the quickest (and most expensive) method *because the kind folks at IUJ cover our round-trip transport costs.* Then it’s onto the shinkansen and about an hour and a half later, 140 miles at bullet speed (although other lines go faster, I’m told), out we pop into a waiting car or van and over to school. Today I’m going to share a little of that journey with you, together with toe-dipping side visit to Ueno Park in Tokyo.

One can catch the shinkansen in “downtown” Tokyo, but I opt for a more northern station, Ueno, because it is easy to reach from Narita and the prices/distances are slightly less. When one leaves the Skyliner at Ueno station, one is greeted by the following typical Tokyo street scene:

Ueno station

Always on the move

Ueno, an inner district of Tokyo, used to be a modest agricultural region but its main claim to fame is as home to the Kaneiji Temple, a Buddhist complex established in 1625 to rival the great temples of Kyoto. The surrounding area has been turned into a huge city park, filled with temples, museums, statues, a zoo, and even a couple lakes, all located immediately behind me in the above picture, reached by climbing a long broad stairway. At the top, one sees a map of what’s available to explore:

Ueno park map

Red marks the spot

You can see the huge railroad presence immediately below the park – happy placement for me. Here’s a shot of what the park might have looked like back in its glory days:

Ueno good old days

All hail the Tokugawa shogunate

Today it looks less like imperial tournament grounds and more like, well, a park, which is because it was one of the first in Japan to try and emulate the traditioal European park layouts. After paying my respects to the Peruvian musicians who were strumming away in the entrance (!!), I strolled around to pick up some of the local vib. Here’s one of the most famous temples in the park, the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple (if I am correct), dating from 1631. It is surrounded by cherry trees, this park being famous for one of the best places to view those national treasures during the blossom season:

Ueno Kiyomizu Kannon Temple

Not far from this temple stands a statue of Saigo Takamore, a famous general in the Battle of Ueno (1868?) and his faithful companion:

Ueno General Saigo Takamori

Always a sucker for dogs on statues

About that moment, I walked by a small museum (there are several much larger and more comprehensive) featuring an exhibit from…Bhutan! What had I ever seen from Bhutan, I asked myself, and when the answer was “Absolutely nothing ever,” of course I had to go.

Bhutan exhibit poster

Leaving no stone unturned

Bhutan and Japan have warm ties of long standing, and this exhibit is capitalizing on that good relationship by this traveling exhibit which contains a lot of handicraft (baskets, swords, cloth), religious items (Buddhist figurines, prayer wheels, scrolls) and a couple videos about the country, featuring individual people talking (translated into Japanese) and information about the monarchy. More about that in a moment. Overall, it was a very gentle, insightful, and charming view into this most fascinating country. I was quite touched.

You know you won’t escape without a little schoolin’ here. A landlocked Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayan range, Bhutan was on the Silk Road between China and India. It developed friendly ties with Britain in the early 20th century, at a time when the monarchy was reconstituted in 1907 after centuries of warlord-ism. The five kings since then have worked extremely hard to bring the better bits of civilization to the country but to maintain its deep rich cultural and religious traditions at the same time. Bhutan originated the concept of “gross national happiness,” and currently sustains its citizens through carefully monitored hydro power exports and limited tourism, in addition to agriculture.

Here’s an example of typical upper-class women’s dress from Bhutan:

Bhutan woman

Her consort might look like this:

Bhutan man

A closer look at the cloth reveals an interesting repeated motif:

Bhutan cloth

Have I been reading too much about WWII or is that…?

The clothing is held together with beautiful brooches, set with local stones:

Bhutan brooch

…and pulling it all together, a lovely shot of the King and Queen, shown with their new son, born this year. Known as the “Will and Kate of the Himalaya,” they did indeed host the photogenic British pair on their recent trip (April 2016) to the country:

Bhutan royal couple

All too soon I had to leave the lovely space of this exhibit and make my way over to the Ueno Station. Here’s a shot of that multi-level, multi-purpose space:

Ueno station interior

Know where you’re going?

Since this is my second year teaching at IUJ, navigating all these venues was a slightly less daunting task than it was last year. Out this door, in this door, down this passage, through these double gates, down the LONG escalator to the platform, find the spot for my car, stand in the right lane, catch the right train (they come every four minutes on each side of the platform; every two minutes a train pulls up), climb aboard, find my seat. Whew.

Once moving, one is treated to three main sets of scenery on the way to IUJ. First is the seemingly endless Tokyo urban sprawl:

Tokyo urban

Miles and miles of this

Then, after about 45 minutes and maybe 60 miles, it morphs into this:

Japan suburban

Miles and miles of this as well

Suddenly, one WHOOSHES through a series of long tunnels and before too long, one has left the gray flatland behind for the rolling and mist-covered series of “Japanese Alps” that signal the arrival into Niigata Prefecture:

Niigata prefecture

(Relative) peace and tranquility

So I’ve arrived back in Urasa, we’re nearly done with faculty orientation (three full days *and we’re all veterans of this program; can’t be too thorough.*) As a parting shot, here are my digs for the summer – the venerable Married Students Apartment building. While it looks as if it could use a good power wash, it is actually quite pleasant inside:


Home sweet home on the range

Well, I’ve brought you safely to the end of this journey – stay tuned as the adventures unfold. As always, thanks for reading.

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5 Responses to En route to IUJ

  1. John says:


  2. Janet Stebbins says:

    Wow. So great to picture it through your eyes. Were there supposed to be traveling companions also going to IUJ?

  3. arleebug54 says:

    Yes, they were on the train, but I didn’t see them until we reached Urasa. We didn’t manage a meet-up.

  4. Rachel says:

    “Gross National Happiness”. I cannot love this enough! It always feels like a real trip to Japan when a walk through anywhere in Ueno is involved!

  5. Anne says:

    Loved reading this….having been on the bullet train to Narita me own self some years ago when Dick and I traveled to Japan for OES. Also, did you know that the current king of Bhutan is a Cushing grad? And Bhutan is where my mother played elephant polo once. Ahhh, connections, however faint.

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