Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossom (sakura) season has been and gone for another year. There’s a reason it’s a thing. Those people you meet at parties who drawl “oh, you simply must go and see the cherry blossoms!” are irritating (Moon Tan and I may be part of this club now), but they’ve got a point.

In Adelaide, winter turns to summer with a few weeks of not-quite-so-cold-but-not-yet-boiling weather in between. But in Japan, spring is a real season, and the cherry blossoms announce its arrival.

During winter, it’s easy to forget how many people there are in Tokyo (answer: a lot). But as soon as the first sakura blooms arrive, it’s almost impossible to go anywhere or do anything. You’d think this would be annoying, and it is in a way, but it’s also really exciting. Everyone’s in a good mood, there’s picnics and drinking, and you don’t need to put on two jackets to leave the house.

We had an Australian guest staying with us — code name “Two Humps.” I took Two Humps to Meiji Park (as distinct from Meiji Shrine) because we heard that there might be some cherry blossoms there. Indeed there were — along with a sqillion people. We had to line up for about 45 minutes just to get into the park. Totally worth it, though.

Pictures!

(click for a larger version)

 

 

The cherry blossoms are really only at their best for one, maybe two weekends, so everyone really does drop what they’re doing to go and see them before they fall.

Thanks for visiting, Two Humps!

Sunday afternoon in Yoyogi Park

Is insane.

Imagine a music festival, the post-Christmas sales at David Jones, a Wiggles concert, the Clipsal and Australia Day at the beach all rolled into one and you will begin to approach a slight understanding of what Yoyogi Park on any given Sunday from April to October is like.

The crowd is just as diverse and it is just as insane.

Tamago and I unwittingly and delightfully stumbled across this phenomenon only recently. Up until now, it has been the dead of winter in Tokyo (see earlier blog post) so we haven’t been venturing out much. But at long last the weather has finally turned and we have had some days where the top has been in the double figures! We decided to take advantage of the sunshine and have a relaxing picnic in Yoyogi Park.

Or so we thought.

We emerged from the packed train and were immediately gobsmacked by the sheer amount of bodies in such a small space. Harajuku station was a zoo and Takeshita Street (the main drag) was ridiculous. We shoved our way through to Tamago’s favourite takoyaki shop (if you want to know what takoyaki is click here) and spent a fascinating 15 minutes standing in line watching the deft hands of the shop owners make hundreds of takoyaki. Of course when we started waiting in line, we only wanted four, but by the time we got to the front of the line we ordered 16. I’m sure there’s some kind of exponential maths equation that could explain this. Something like time spent waiting multiplied by original number desired to the power of the deliciousness of the smell.

 

Anyway, that mission completed, we clutched our takoyaki like a trophy and slowly made our way to Yoyogi Park. The first thing we saw was this:

Yes. Rock and rollers in the park. They didn’t seem terribly organised. There was no performance per se and no routine to speak of. They were just dressed up and boogieing down. Completely assured that they were contributing to the general happiness of everyone else. And they sure were.

We made our way into the park and found a patch of lawn to sit on. Being gaijin, we hadn’t got the memo about bringing a picnic blanket. But also being gaijin, that didn’t really phase us. We plonked down amongst hundreds of groups of people sitting on blankets, eating, playing games and just revelling in the sunshine.

Oh and:

Women in incredible outfits that I would only wear to job interviews were slipping off their stilettos and plonking themselves onto blue tarps. Young men were skipping with giant skipping ropes. Mothers and sons were playing badminton. It was awesome chaos.

Tamago with his takoyaki!

After we finished our takoyaki, Tamago and I took a stroll through the park and soaked up the atmosphere.

Space is at a hugely high premium in Tokyo so people tend to get together with recreational groups to practice in the park because it’s free! We saw girls doing baton twirling routines on a bike path, old men practicing kendo under the cherry blossoms and even a bunch of people dancing in a thick clump of trees in strange Rocky Horror-esque costumes and filming the whole proceedings.

Japan is weird. This is not news.

We wandered past some stunning flowerbeds:

Plus a couple of dog parks. We spent a good 20 minutes gawking at the dogs and deciding which one we would most like to dognap. The highlight for me was the man with two Saint Bernards. To state the obvious: these are freaking enormous dogs. Like, you need a small farm to have one in Australia. So the million dollar question is: WHERE IS HE KEEPING THE SAINT BERNARDS WHEN THEY’RE NOT AT THE PARK??

Possibly the coolest part of our afternoon in Yoyogi Park was this:

That’s right. He’s holding a giant bubble wand. Kids and adults alike were going nuts. As far as we could tell, the bubble man was not getting paid for this service. He was just in the park making bubbles for the masses. What a champ.

Kyoto

Hello loyal readers!

Our sincere apologies for being so absent recently! In the last month or so Tamago and I have both gotten new jobs so it’s been really busy here in the land of the rising sun.

However, I have finally found a spare afternoon to compose a long overdue blog post on our March trip to Kyoto!

Kyoto is the ‘old capital’ of Japan and is generally acknowledged to still be the cultural capital. Unlike Tokyo, which was bombed to smithereens during the war (which we don’t mention), Kyoto was spared by the allied forces, probably because it is so rich in history. This means that Kyoto is filled with beautiful old buildings and shrines that are hundreds of years old and when you wander the streets there, you get a sense of what old Japan would have been like.

Tamago and I had three and a half days in Kyoto which was enough time to do a whirlwind tour.  We hit up all the major tourist spots including the Fushimi Inari Shrine which is famous for these red gates called torii:

 

 

 

 

Needless to say they make for some pretty special photos. The shrine is located on a small mountain and you can either do a short walk up and back or you can choose to walk around the mountain which takes maybe and hour and a half total if you don’t detour (which Tamago usually insists upon). As you can guess we elected for the scenic route which was well worth the extra time.

 

Tamago and I stayed two nights in a hotel in the main part of Kyoto which was really conveniently located and had very helpful staff. I would definitely stay there again, however the true highlight of our trip to Kyoto was staying in a Japanese ryokan (guesthouse). We booked our stay at Uronza with a small amount of trepidation, probably because there is a list of rules for guests a mile long. Notably if you are ‘weak to cold’ it is recommended that you don’t stay there as the heater has to be switched off at night, seeing as it’s a wooden house and all. When we got there we had a modest but beautifully kept traditional Japanese room complete with tatami mat floor, surprisingly comfortable futons and funky Japanese windows. The building is over a hundred years old and is looked after by the English speaking proprietor who I really wouldn’t want to cross but who was very helpful and lovely to Tamago and I. It did have shared bathroom facilities but these were really nice and very clean so it wasn’t a problem at all. Especially for under $60 a night!

At the entrance to Kiyomizu Dera.

While in Kyoto we also visited Kiyomizu Dera (or Kiyomizu Shrine), another hugely famous shrine in Kyoto which dates back almost a thousand years. The present structure was built in the 1600s. Here’s the kicker about Kiyomizu – there is not a single nail used in the entire building. And it’s a 13m high wooden structure. Fairly impressive. I recently discovered that there used to be a practice of jumping from the main temple stage and if the jumper survived they would supposedly have their wish granted. Apparently this practice is now banned. Go figure.

Kiyomizu has a natural spring nearby from which it gets it’s name and the streets nearby are bursting with pottery shops (some good and some not so good) selling some exquisite pottery. Tamago and I did some serious shopping here and bought a tea set and a sake set. It’s worth noting that most shops will post your purchases home for you or you can take them to the main post office in Kyoto where they will be wrapped unbelievably carefully and posted home for you.

Girls dressed up as geisha near Kiyomizu. We’re pretty sure they weren’t ‘real’ geisha as it’s incredibly rare to see proper geisha. We did however go to Gion one night, a district in Kyoto famous for geisha spotting and we saw a Maiko, or geisha apprentice, on her way to an appointment!

 

Unfortunately we were a couple of weeks too early for cherry blossom season in Kyoto however we did catch some plum blossoms which were just beautiful. Blossom viewing is an extremely popular activity in Japan, particularly cherry blossoms which are called sakura. The sakura is the national flower of Japan and for the two weeks when the flowers are in full bloom, hanami or cherry blossom parties rage in parks and shrines around the clock. People get together to have picnics and drink sake under the beautiful flowers. Tamago tells me that the junior employees of companies are often sent out in the mornings to stake out a good spot and they have to sit there all day saving the space for the senior employees. All I can say is that I can think of worse ways to spend a Friday!

 

Tamago and I also went to the Golden Temple or Kinkakuji and we’re sad to report that we didn’t think it was worth the trip out there. Even though the original temple dates back to the 1300s, it burned down in the 1950s so the current temple isn’t especially old and it seemed pretty gaudy to us. However, it’s still one of the most visited temples in Japan so maybe we’re just Philistines.

We also spent a really nice day visiting some museums in central Kyoto including the International Manga Museum (for the uninitiated, Manga is Japanese comic books) and the Museum of Kyoto which were both excellent. A highlight was seeing an exhibit of works from Manga artists from around the world done in response to the March 3 earthquake and tsunami last year. Some of the pieces were just stunning.

This is a photo of the new Kyoto train station. If you catch the shinkansen from Tokyo (like Tamago and I did) this is where you’ll end up. It’s pretty bloody impressive and HUGE. Tamago was particularly enamored of ‘Ramen Alley’, a collection of about 12 ramen shops selling ramen from all over Japan. Yum!

In terms of logistics, Tamago and I booked our shinkansen through japanican.com, a website specifically for non-Japanese people which often has special deals on accommodation and transport to places all over Japan. Included in our ticket was a ‘one day pass’ which allowed us to take unlimited rides on subways and buses for one day. These can also be purchased from the Tourist Information Centre located near Kyoto Station (see above). We took buses to Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu but to get to Fushimi Inari Shrine you need to take an above ground train. The museums we went to were in central Kyoto so they were either walking distance or subway rides.

Trip to Kyoto: very highly recommended!