A Travellerspoint blog

Cherry Blossom Time in Tokyo

sunny 25 °C

Saigyo Hoshi, a 12th century Buddhist monk, wrote of the bittersweet transience of all things and the heartache he felt when cherry blossoms bloomed, knowing that they would soon wither and die…
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Perhaps we had similar thoughts to Hoshi in 2016 when we wrote an ode to the Sakura in Kanazawa that began, “Now that our blossoming youth has faded into memory and our cheeks are rosy with age…” But, unlike Hoshi who died under a flowering cherry tree, we have lived to witness the magic of yet another Japanese spring….
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However, Hoshi could never have imagined that one poem he wrote more than 800 years ago would be so very true today. He wrote, “The cherries only fault, the crowds that gather when they bloom.”…
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Japan is a country where ancient traditions are revered: none more so than that of picnicking under the cherries on the day of the mankai – the moment of blooming perfection before the first petals fall. It’s a thousand-year-old tradition, but spring had thumbed her nose at el niño and global warming this year and left thousands out in the cold in Koganei park on Saturday as they waited in vain for the mankai…
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We had a splendid day in the park and the adjacent museum of Edo buildings together with niece, Heather, who just happens to live here…
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Then came Sunday, our last day in Japan – the final day of our ten-week voyage around the Pacific Ring of Fire. Maybe Mother Nature is one of our blog readers? No sooner had we written that she had rather let us down in Japan than she turned on the sun and spun the surly clouds into a canopy of sweet blossoms…
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We were warned that the eight-hundred someiyoshino cherry trees in Ueno Park in Tokyo would be outnumbered a thousand to one by visitors on Sunday afternoon, so we went early Sunday morning. We were not alone…
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Ueno Park opens at 5am during hanami, the cherry blossom viewing season, and prime spots are immediately snagged by the most ardent picnickers whose blue tarps cover every inch of available space. The day-long event can stretch until the park closes at 11pm so, along with the picnic food and plenty of drinks, comes all manner of toys and games to keep the kids amused…
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But picnickers beware. Any unattended tarp will be immediately disposed of – as per the signs…
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We didn’t have a tarp. We didn’t need a tarp. We were happy just to wander under the cherry blossoms and thank Mother Nature for once again allowing us to witness this magical sight – the mankai in Japan.

Posted by Hawkson 02:08 Archived in Japan Comments (7)

Tokyo - Timing is all

overcast 18 °C

A few weeks ago we joined thousands of tourists in Hualien, Taiwan, to visit the famous Taroko Gorge. Now, the places we visited lie in ruins with many people dead and trapped by an earthquake. While many buildings in the small seaside city were badly damaged, the roads, bridges and tunnels perched precariously alongside the steep sided gorge have collapsed entirely. It took many years to construct this roadway and it will be years before any tourists have this view again…
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Dozens of buses usually ferry thousands of people a day into the gorge, and many hundreds would have died had the quake struck later in the day. Such disasters constantly remind us that timing is all. Timing always plays a role in our travel plans as we attempt to avoid inclement weather, dangerous places, and tumultuous crowds. However, we are sometimes beaten by both Mother Nature and the throngs of sightseers…
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Spring came late to Japan this year, but now it has arrived the multitudes are flocking to see the blossoms alongside the moat of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo...
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This is the first spring that Japan has been fully open to visitors since Covid, and the crowds are so thick that dozens of security guards with megaphones desperately try to keep people moving…
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We still have many blossoms to see in the next few days, so, as promised, a look at Japanese food. There are restaurants catering to every taste, (including McDonalds’s), but we generally stick to the traditional Japanese places where we can eat well for twenty or thirty dollars. This is okonomiyaki, a form of pancake stuffed with bacon, octopus and cabbage, being cooked in front of us…
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At the top end of Japanese dining are places like Sezanne where the dinner menu starts at about five-hundred dollars a head, while it’s perfectly possible to get a meal for under ten bucks if you’re not particularly fussy. However, we have been very surprised at the price of fruit and vegetables in the supermarkets. While some major department stores cater to the wealthy, here are a few examples from a regular supermarket in Kamakura…
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A hundred Japanese yen is almost exactly one Canadian dollar, so a single banana costs $2.38, two mangoes cost $37.80, a very small punnet of cherries costs $25, a single grapefruit costs $5.50, one Fuji apple costs $7.50, and this plastic wrapped small pomegranate costs $17.00...
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Perfect melons are particularly prized in Japan and this cantaloupe was priced at $110.00…
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Vegetables are equally expensive with tomatoes selling for two to three dollars each, and small cauliflowers going for ten to twelve dollars. Markets are usually the cheapest place to buy local produce, but at the fish market in the coastal city of Kanazawa crabs were selling for two hundred dollars each – Ouch!
Even the local oranges and satsumas are double or triple what we pay in Canada, so we will be raiding the produce department at our local supermarket as soon as we get home next week. In the meantime – a slice of strawberry flan for $13.00 seems like a snip…
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Posted by Hawkson 08:08 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

Kamakura Ponderings

sunny 16 °C

Mount Fuji, the unmistakeable symbol of Japan, glistened in the afternoon sun as we sped by on the Nozomi super-express shinkansen from Nagoya to Yokohama…
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It takes under an hour and a half to cover the 325 kilometres between cities non-stop, and there are at least six trains every hour throughout the day. From Yokohama we took a local train to Kamakura – once a political capital but now a touristy seaside city jammed with visitors hoping to see the blossoms and the Buddhas…
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Kamakura has fifteen large temples and shrines so it’s difficult to avoid them altogether. This is a lantern amid the bamboos in the grounds of the relatively peaceful Hokokuji Temple on the outskirts of the city…
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While the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine in the heart of the city is a must for every visitor…
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And, finally, we hit the ecclesiastical jackpot at the Kotokuin Temple with yet another Buddha for the record books…
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The 45-foot high Daibutso Buddha was cast in 1252 and has survived several typhoons and tsunamis. Unfortunately, the hall in which it was housed was less robust. However, the nearby Hasedera complex has numerous shrines and temples along with thousands of jizo bodhisattva statues helping the souls of deceased children to reach paradise…
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We are now going ‘commando’, but that doesn’t mean an absence of underwear. We are simply travelling without luggage by using the fast and reliable courier that shuttles suitcases from hotel to hotel, saving us from lugging them on and off trains…
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We just carry a few necessities and rely on the hotels to provide us with almost everything while our stuff leapfrogs ahead and awaits us in Tokyo. But such convenience comes at a cost - and we don’t mean the price. It’s the plastic…
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It is the completely unnecessary packaging that we find distressing: from throwaway plastic slippers to single-use plastic toothbrushes, razors, eyeshades, hairnets, combs, and a half dozen other toiletries. Not only are they hermetically sealed in plastic, but they come in a cardboard box and a plastic bag. The Japanese are so proud of their water supply that they have signs on hotel taps saying it’s safe to drink – but they still insist on giving us plastic water bottles along with all the other plastics.
While many countries are clamping down on plastic packaging and bags, Japan seems to be going the other way. Although stores now charge three cents for a plastic bag, almost everything we buy is already double or triple wrapped…
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Every biscuit in this packet was in its own plastic pouch, and the store clerk would have put the whole packet in a plastic bag if we hadn’t stopped him. And these three croissants would have been quite happy together in a paper bag at home – but not here where they were individually swathed in plastic…
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The baker's girl would have put them in another plastic bag if we hadn't stopped her, and single onions, carrots, grapefruits and even bananas, are often individually wrapped in the supermarkets. More about grocery shopping next time when we head to our final stop in Tokyo..

Posted by Hawkson 08:26 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

The Japanese Alps

sunny 25 °C

We are racing against the clock now as we jam a fortnight’s worth of sightseeing into a week. Spring has finally arrived, and we have a long way to go from Kanazawa on Japan’s west coast to Tokyo on the east. The coastal plains of Japan are so densely populated that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that most of Japan is sparsely inhabited forested mountains. A 90-minute bus ride from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-go took us under the Japanese Alps through numerous lengthy tunnels until we emerged into the alpine village renowned for its ancient thatched houses…
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The snow was still on the ground, but was being quickly melted by the warm spring sun…
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Another bus, and yet more long tunnels, took us south into the heart of the alps at Takayama where we visited the museum of Yatai…
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Twelve of these highly decorated Yatai floats weighing several tons have been paraded through the streets twice a year in celebration of spring and autumn since the 17th century. Only four floats are on display in the museum at any one time, but we caught a glimpse of another in its garage as it was being prepared for the festival…
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We couldn’t wait for the festival, but we found time to visit a nearby Shinto shrine where the priest and his assistant were blessing someone’s new car. While we are beginning to reach a point of saturation with Japanese temples and shrines, we found several very attractive small ones in the grounds of the main building…
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And the temple’s pond was teeming with colourful fish…
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Takayama is a bustling tourist hub with alpine walks, various annual festivals and events, and many streets of Edo period shophouses which could easily fill a tourist’s week...
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But the promise of cherry blossoms called us back to the warmth of the coast and we took a scenic two-hour train ride alongside the Hida River and through the forested alpine passes in a journey that reminded us of our home in British Columbia. And when we arrived in Higashi-Okazaki we found the cherry blossom festival in full swing with many manga characters hamming it up for their followers…
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However, although some of the vaunted riverside cherries were in bloom, they have yet to reach their full potential…
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So, the blossoms can wait until we reach Tokyo. In the meantime, we had a quick look at Okazaki Castle - famous as the birthplace of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1542. Ieyasu is revered as the man who established the Edo shogunate in 1603 that was responsible for uniting and pacifying Japan...
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With Higashi-Okazaki behind us we have just one more stop before Tokyo – the resort town of Kamakura close to Yokohama. It’s Easter weekend and there isn’t an Easter egg to be seen, so we will have to make do with some Japanese Kit-Kats. But should we have the strawberry, apple, matcha or maple Kit-Kats – or one of the dozen other varieties found only in Japan?

Posted by Hawkson 11:58 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

In a Japanese Garden

sunny 18 °C

The clock is ticking towards the end of our circumnavigation of Pacific Islands and the cherry blossoms of Japan have just one more week to burst if we are to enjoy this Japanese rite of spring . However, we have seen the odd tree in bloom and there are some early flowering varieties like this one at Matsuyama Castle…
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An ancient Japanese saying is, “The cherry is first among flowers as the samurai is among men,” and in the 17th. century, during the Edo Period, local samurai leaders planted cherry trees in Tokyo during their annual pilgrimage to show allegiance to the shogun. One of those samurai warriors would have come from the castle of Kanazawa.
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While most of this castle is a reconstruction that is barely twenty years old, the accompanying 25 acre Kenroku-en garden has been a public garden since 1821 and is renowned as one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan. We saw the cherry blossoms here eight years ago, but they are late this year. However, the plum blossoms typically emerge earlier, and we were lucky to see them…
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The Japanese populace as a whole is aging rapidly, and it seems that their cherry trees are aging with them. However, while we are quick to fell old and diseased trees, the Japanese treat them with the same respect they give to their elderly and infirm citizens. Wounds are bandaged with care and fragile limbs are supported with canes and crutches…
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Trees that are naturally deformed almost from birth are particularly cared for…
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Even the moss is carefully trimmed and then brushed in segments marked by strings to make sure that nothing is missed…
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A traditional tea house is a necessity in a classical garden along with a torii gate and pagoda lantern…
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And running water is a key element, both for its visual effect and its soothing sounds…
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Couples in traditional costumes get engaged under the blossoming trees in order to bring good fortune to their union, and young women in kimonos pose for graduation photos as this one was doing in Kyoto…
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Nowhere is a picture worth a thousand words more than in a garden, so here's another picture of the Kenroku-en Garden in Kanazawa…
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While we eagerly anticipate the moment when the cherries will be in full bloom, (the mankai), we are consoled with the beautiful azalea in the Hikoso Ryokuchi Garden in Kanazawa…
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Posted by Hawkson 11:09 Archived in Japan Comments (7)

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