Back when I was 15 I skipped school for the day and went to Ueno Zoo. I was living in Tawaramachi at the time, not too far from Kappabashi. I remember waking up and just not wanting to go. There was no real reason for it, I guess I was just being lazy. My parents had just started making me go to juku, which meant that once my regular school finished I had to go all the way to Suidobashi to another building and study until 9pm.
Skipping school was always easy. My father left the house very early and came back late, so he was more tired than me. Sometimes he’d fall asleep in his chair listening to old swing records and not even go to bed. He’d just wake up in the morning wearing the same clothes, put his coat on again and go back to work. I always wondered how he did it. My mother was a bit more of a problem. Not because she suspected anything, more just because I hated lying to her. She’d get up at 4am to make my bento, along with my father’s. She always made sure we had full stomachs, even if it meant she had to get up before the birds sang. Strangely, I very rarely saw her eat anything herself. But that was always the way it was: my father hardly sleeping and my mother barely eating.
On the day in question I got up as usual and went down for breakfast. My father had already left and my mother, still in her robe and slippers, poured me a cup of green tea the way she did every morning. It was a nice ritual, and that’s why I didn’t like lying to her. She would cook me my breakfast (grilled fish, rice and miso) and ask me about the day ahead. That day I told her what I was supposed to be doing, so technically I wasn’t lying. That’s what I kept saying to myself any way. She expertly packed my bento and handed me my satchel which was always heavier than it looked. Those things are bottomless, I swear. You can put book after book in them and then just when you think you can’t fit any more in you always find a way.
Once I was out of the house I felt better. I knew my mother would be busy cleaning and tidying up, and that my father would be at work. I hadn’t been ill that year at all actually, so this would be my first sick day. I was pretty sure no one would suspect anything. I walked down Kappabashi-dori, zig-zagging my way past the shopkeepers who were opening up for the day. At this time of the day the streets were always busy, but sometimes I felt people were just trying to look busy, you know? Like they were rushing around trying to look important, as if they had some place real special to go. I started thinking about this and started walking slowly on purpose. But then I thought people might start noticing I was walking weird so I tried my best to walk normally again. Walking normally is hard when you over think it, seriously. Try it sometime.
I hopped down the stairs to Tawaramachi Station on the Ginza line and got changed in the toilet. It smelled of industrial strength toilet cleaner, which I always thought smelled worse than the stench it was trying to cover up. In the Metro stations there are always lots of lockers, but on this day all the big ones were full so I spent about ten minutes trying to stuff my school clothes and satchel into a tiny one.
I’d only ever been to Ueno Zoo once before, and ironically enough it was on a school field trip back when I was a shogakusei. It was kind of a big deal: a panda had just arrived from China and everyone was crowded round the enclosure trying to catch a glimpse of the animal who didn’t seem to be in the least bit interested. I got a keyring from the shop at the end of the day, and I still have it hanging in my room. Apart from the panda, the only thing I really remember is that we all had to walk around the zoo in single file and not talk. It felt weird, and I wondered what the animals thought of us.
This time around I arrived at the zoo just as it was opening and there weren’t many people around. All the big animals were either sleeping or hiding. I couldn’t see any tigers, and the gorillas were just sitting there doing nothing. I looked at my watch and it was only 10am. I still had all day to kill. So what I did was I went to the reptile house and just sat there. I must have sat there for about three hours looking at the snakes and lizards, trying to sit as still as possible. After a while one of the zoo staff came up to me and asked if I was OK. I told him that I was trying to sit as still as possible, and he walked away content as if this was an answer he had heard a million times before.
I ate my lunch in the reptile house and spent the rest of the day there, wondering what my classmates were doing. But mostly, I just sat there not thinking about anything. Sometime, if you get a chance, you should do the same. It was one of the happiest days I can remember.