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Japan, Part II

Apart from the fact that its name reminded me of Judge Dredd’s hometown of Mega-City One, there was no earthly reason to visit Meguro. No reason, that is, apart from its most famous museum, which I hadn’t even heard of until the day before.

Jane and I had visited only one museum in Tokyo so far. We’d spent our first day seeing the sights of Marunouchi (the Imperial Palace), Ginza (the ritzy shopping district) and Shinjuku (neon lights, and the world’s tidiest cardboard city underneath a rail bridge—they even had tiny brooms to sweep up). We went looking for the Idemitsu Museum of Art to see ancient pottery, only to find it was closed for the day, and instead ended up in a stationery store buying elaborate pop-up birthday cards. Neither of us wanted to visit the big museums much; Japan’s National Museum of Western Art in Ueno no doubt has a fine collection, but we came to Japan to see Japan.

So the next day we headed to Shibuya to see a proper museum: possibly the world’s only museum devoted to Tobacco and Salt. It was raining, and finding things in Tokyo is a challenge at the best of times thanks to addresses located by district and arbitrary building numbers rather than streets, but we found it. It was closed for renovations, and reopening the morning we were due to leave. Instead of a one-tonne block of Polish salt and a model of the Cutty Sark made from salt crystals, we had to make do with our salty tears of disappointment.

Instead we walked up to Harajuku to see the Ukiyo-e Ota Memorial Museum of Art, a small space with a rotating collection of Japanese woodcuts. The current exhibition featured the “Beautiful Ladies” with their kimonos and blackened teeth, including a whole series on the “pastimes of the beautiful ladies”, which by the looks of it consisted of making tea and giggling behind a politely raised hand. All very pleasant, but I was too busy practicing my own beautiful-lady walk to notice, thanks to the footbinding size 6 sandals I’d squeezed my size 11 feet into out the front.

The real attraction of Harajuku was outside, anyway. Nearby Takeshita Street is patrolled by flocks of teenagers competing to buy and show off the punkiest, flirtiest, flounciest, spikiest, craziest clothes. If you’ve seen Shoichi Aoki’s FRUiTS you’ll know what to expect, and we weren’t disappointed. It’s a futuristic fashion show throughout this entire district of Tokyo, even at the nearby Meiji Jingu Shrine (home to the world’s largest model of pi—or, as the Japanese call it, an 11-metre-high torii).

After Harajuku we wanted more strangeness, more, more... Unfortunately, Jane had to go to her trade fair the next day, but her brother Kim had arrived and he was more than up for it. That night, after escaping from the titty-bar touts in Roppongi (who strangely enough only started approaching us after Jane had gone back to the hotel early), we scoured the Time Out guide for suitable targets. Which was where I read about the Meguro Parasite Museum: the world’s only museum devoted only to parasites.

Next morning, Kim and I emerged from the JR Yamanote Line station to look for the “8.8m tapeworm taken from the body of a 40-year-old man”. The book said it was at 4-1-1 Shimo-Meguro, Meguro-ku, near the west exit of Meguro station. Sure enough, there were signs for district 4 nearby—4-3—so, with the sprightly step of two men who knew that they would soon be witness to scenes of unspeakable epidemiology, we started walking.

Several blocks later—4-4, 4-5, 4-6—it was clear that we were heading away from our target, not towards it, so we doubled back and forked off down another road. This took us past 2-18, 2-17, which was no help at all, so back we went. Another street took us along the railway line past the back of an apartment block numbered 3-something. Yet another took us all the way down to a river and past an eel restaurant, but still no closer to their wriggly counterparts.

Time was ticking by, and we were getting tired from walking around in the heat and humidity of Tokyo in May. We went back to the first area, where at least the signs read 4-something. I considered stopping one of the locals who were walking past, but my attempts to learn Japanese in the weeks leading up to our trip had got no further than “eigo o hanashi masu ka” for “do you speak English?”, and I shuddered to think what the international sign-language might be for “8.8m tapeworm”.

Back at the station we studied the signposted map of the area closely. Gradually, we were drawn to the inescapable conclusion that the only possible place that building 4-1 could be was next to 4-2, which was right next to... the fenced-off building site opposite the station with workmen crawling all over it.

Fifty years, that museum had been there, and we turn up a few months after it had been knocked down. Sure, the museum itself might have moved somewhere else, but we had no chance of finding it today. With heavy hearts—hopefully not heavy with heartworm—we went off to see other things.

I wasn’t having much luck with quirky Tokyo museums, so we decided to head for one that wouldn’t be demolished without a fight: the Sword Museum. Turn up to that one with a bulldozer on a rainy day and you’ll be reenacting The Seven Samurai before you know it.

Luckily, this one was marked on the Welcome to Tokyo Handy Map, which was handy (and welcome), so we didn’t have any trouble finding it. Like the Ota Museum, it was basically a single room, this one with nothing but beautifully-lit blades in displays a metre apart around the walls. Only the blades, although a few handles and scabbards were featured separately. Every blade looked like the sharpest, straightest (or most perfectly curved, depending on its era) product of modern manufacture, but these were all made hundreds of years ago—in some cases several hundred. Exquisite. Decapitate your mortal foes with one of these and they wouldn’t even notice until they sneezed.

The next day we tagged along with Jane to Odaiba, riding a monorail for the last couple of miles and gliding past science-fiction architecture the whole way. Her trade fair was being held in Tokyo Big Sight, a giant conference centre designed by an architect who clearly had visited Egypt and wondered if, instead of starting wide at the bottom and tapering to a point somewhere up in the air, it might not be better to start wide at the top so that your pyramids nail themselves into the ground.

At the opposite end of Odaiba, after a leisurely 40-minute walk along a deserted promenade in the rain, we reached Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. This turned out to be a bit too much like any other hands-on science museum on a weekday: packed with high school students hogging all the cool interactive displays. But it did have an extensive exhibition of brains, ranging from slug to sperm whale (your scientific whaling taxes at work!), an interactive model of the Internet (which I’d never realised was made out of Meccano and ping-pong balls), an 8-wheeler electric car that looked like a cross between a Honda Civic and a centipede, and a fully-functional Asimo (who was entertaining the kids with his twice-daily performance when we entered the room, but was parked in his display case by the time we went to see what was happening; I had to make do with waving at him and watching his eyes follow my hand).

Miraikan’s best feature was a giant globe covered in display panels showing real-time satellite maps of heat distribution and clouds moving across the continents. It hung high above the ground floor, where the high school students lounged about on couches, staring up at it.

Near Miraikan was the Museum of Maritime Science, conveniently shaped for ease of identification like a bloody great ship. Its logo of a bluff sea-dog was one step removed from Captain Birds Eye and that one from The Simpsons, which should have warned us what we would find inside: not high school students this time, but hordes of screaming six-year-olds belting around the foyer in identical red baseball caps. Entertaining in and of themselves, but not a good sign, and nor were all those buses lined up in the carpark. We decided to give Cap’n Day Care a miss.

I’m glad we did, because otherwise we might not have had time for my favourite museum of all. Hidden away in Ginza, but not too hard to find, is a private museum founded by the owner of a restaurant on its building’s ground floor: the Kite Museum. Jammed into one modest-sized room are more kites in more shapes and sizes than you’ve ever seen: boxes, hexagons, birds, insects, dragons, carp, samurai, wizards, all as beautiful as the prints of beautiful ladies, but bolder, brighter, better. It was my favourite room in Tokyo. They even had kites of various sizes for sale at very reasonable prices, so now the corner of our study—behind this very iMac—is a tiny re-creation of it.

We had to leave too soon, because we wanted to cross all the way back to Meguro to try again where we’d failed the previous day. Back in the hotel that night I’d looked up the Parasite Museum online, and discovered that for the first time a Time Out guide had failed me. It wasn’t next to the station as their brief entry implied: it was two stops away by bus, past the Otorijinja shrine. It wasn’t even that much further a walk than our furthest attempt, but we’d never have found it ourselves.

So, we made it. The museum was free—you just walked right into the first room off the street—and lined with maps of Japan, blue glass jars full of pale white worms, and plastic models of monster ticks. Upstairs was the 8.8 metre tapeworm, which I must admit was an anticlimax. It was all concertina’d into a flat rectangular case for compactness. After the Kite Museum, I was hoping it would be strung around the room like streamers.

But it was more than enough to give nightmares to anyone who’s grown up in a hydatids area and eaten in the Third World. They had a shop, too. I bought a liver-fluke keyring, and Kim got a black T-shirt with the tapeworm on the front.

The Parasite Museum was worth visiting—after wasting half a morning looking for it, we had to—but the kites were my favourite. Still, if we’d found the parasites on the first try I’d never have found this page, and never would have known about the Kite Museum. It was all an enormous fluke, but now we can tick both boxes.

Kites and Parasites

(And after that disturbing image and even more disturbing pun, it’s time to put this entry—and myself—to bed. More tomorrow, along with a lot more photos—guaranteed parasite-free.)

8 July 2006 · Travel

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