The scorching noon sun made it a brilliant day to be out in Tokyo's Ueno Park.
All around, children were romping happily with their families, soaking up the first rays of summer. Some, like me, were making their way to Ueno Zoo, Japan’s oldest and most famous zoo, at the end of the park.
But I wasn’t heading there to admire the pandas or gawk at the giraffes. Instead of going through the zoo gates, I took a sharp right down a parallel path.
It was shadier here, under the generous canopy of trees surrounding the animal enclosures. But the unmistakable stench of dung clung to the humid air and invaded my nostrils – and those of the men waiting in a long but unobtrusive queue next to me.
I was looking for a large tent, and the line meant I was going in the right direction. I followed it as it meandered around the park, observing the men’s tired expressions, their shabby but clean clothes, their assorted belongings neatly tied up in plastic bags and cloth bundles.
Near the head of the line, demarcated by an orange plastic road cone, was the tent I had been searching for. It was empty; I was, rather uncharacteristically, early.
It was, after all, my first time volunteering at the soup kitchen and I had wanted to make sure I was punctual.
After about 15 minutes – although it felt longer – a big truck pulled up at the end of the road and people filed out of it, carrying foldable metal tables that they would set up underneath the tent.
I went to help them carry in the supplies, staggering slightly under the weight of bulk-cooked food and its assorted implements.
More volunteers arrived to help, until the full lunch spread – rice bowls, croquettes, eggs, vegetables, salad, assorted snacks, scalding broth in two tureens large enough to each fit a human being – was neatly laid out on the tables, along with cutlery.
As I looked at the other volunteers, it was clear that I had failed the soup kitchen dress code. Next to the frills-free bandanas and threadbare aprons, my straw hat was positively jaunty and my cat-patterned apron still bore the smell of its plastic packaging, which I had removed just that morning.
At least I didn’t stick out as much as the soup kitchen coordinator – a muscular American who wouldn’t look out of place as captain of a school rugby team – or so I thought, until he spoke.
“Hello everyone,” he said in perfect Japanese. “Thank you for coming today. As always, let’s do a good job.”
Within seconds, he had assigned the 30 or so volunteers to various tasks: adding dishes to the rice bowls, dividing the salad, distributing snacks.
Rookies like me ended up at the soup station, where someone thrust at me a ladle longer than my arm.
For the next half-hour, I would use it to dredge the bottom of the soup tureen to scoop up the sliced cabbages, carrots and leeks that had settled there, while three other girls used smaller ladles to scoop the soup and floating vegetables into big plastic cups.
It wasn’t rocket science but it was surprisingly challenging. Vegetable bits slopped over the sides of the cups and, no matter how quickly we scooped, the volunteers in charge of handing the cups to the men in line were always asking us to speed up.
After a while, we switched positions. I gave out the soup and got a better look at those taking it from me.
Hanging on to their dignity
Nearly all of them were men and, judging from their weather-beaten faces and life-roughened hands, mostly manual labourers. They were all polite and restrained; some asked for less soup, saying they wouldn’t be able to finish it in the hot weather.
They stood or squatted by the road, eating in silence. After the meal, they put their dirty dishes in the trays we had set out and left as discreetly as they had come.
Poverty in Japan, like in Singapore, is not overtly visible the way it is in some developing countries or even rich Western ones.
The homeless here don’t beg on the streets – many have jobs, just no roof over their heads – and they seldom sleep out in the open.
But that doesn’t mean they don’t need help. It can be surprising how much poverty lurks beneath the shining surfaces of highly developed nations such as Japan and Singapore.
Last week, a report showed that Japan’s child poverty rate hit a record high: One in six Japanese children live in households with an annual net income below the poverty line of 1.22 million yen (Bt380,740) a person.
Singapore doesn’t have an official poverty line, but some recent statistics have shown that more than 100,000 households here earn less than S$1,500 (Bt38,600) a month.
In some ways, poor people in wealthy countries have it harder. Improving their lot is not often a key priority on the national agenda, while the homeless communities may be smaller and the cost of living much higher than in developing nations.
That day, we fed more than 300 men in under an hour. The food ran out before the line did, but we had enough soup – filled to the brim with vegetables – for everyone.