Brunch at Stall Nakameguro

It really is true what they say about spring. It brings the best changes!

In the past few days, we’ve started feeling the first signs of spring in Tokyo. After a colder than usual winter that brought some very snowy days, we had our first ‘warm’ day of the year last week. It feels so good to be outside when it’s sunny and 20 degrees! Continue reading “Brunch at Stall Nakameguro”

A Shrine of Pink

I’ve been living in Setagaya ward for 3 years, but only found out about this little gem down the road this week. Seriously – it baffles me how much of my area, let alone the whole of Tokyo, I’m still yet to discover. This is one of the reasons I love living in Tokyo – you could never get bored!

Sakura Jingu is a small Shinto shrine that was built in 1882. Every shrine has a different purpose, and this one’s originally was to protect people against sicknesses. Because the shrine escaped damage from the Great Kanto Earthquake and WWII when the rest of the city was flattened, it came to be known as a protector against fire and natural disasters, too.

During spring, the shrine grounds are painted pink as the kawazu-zakura and then somei-yoshino bloom. These beautiful trees gave the shrine its name: sakura jingu (cherry blossom shrine). Usually, visitors write their wishes on plaques called Ema and hang them up in hopes the gods listen. But at Sakura Jingu, they do things a little differently. People write their wishes on pink ribbons and tie them to the sakura trees! They were so well camouflaged I only realised they were there after standing right in front of the tree. Cuteness overload!

Right now, the kawazu-zakura have just passed their peak and green leaves are shooting out in all directions. In a few weeks the somei-yoshino will be in full bloom so we’ll have another chance to see this gorgeous sight!

Tokyo’s Best Sakura Locations

What an incredible week! In the last weekend of March, the cherry blossoms were just beginning to bloom, and everyone was excited and ready to welcome spring’s annual masterpiece. The sunshine only lasted for a few days before the rain clouds took over. And now, the green leaves have sprouted, marking the beginning of the end of the cherry blossoms’ short but very sweet life.

Rather than travel outside of the city, this year I made it my mission to stay in Tokyo and see as many famous as well as not so well-known sakura spots as I could. The result? One very intense, fun, amazing week of adventures! I was afraid I’d go into sakura depression after the season had finished, but actually I just feel very fulfilled! I can’t believe how much these flowers transform the city. It’s truly one of the most beautiful natural phenomena.

Here are 10 of my favourite cherry blossom spots in Tokyo city…

#1 – Sengawa River in Setagaya

I happened upon this river a few weeks ago and noticed all of these bare cherry blossom tree branches overhanging the canal. I could just imagine how it would look in spring and knew I had to come back once the sakura season started. I’m very glad I did! The mirror reflection of the sakura in the water against the blue sky was so picturesque! It reminded me of the famous canal at Naka-Meguro, but without any of the crowds! Definitely one of the best kept secrets in Tokyo.


#2 – Harimazaka, Bunkyo

This street is also not one of the most well-known of spots for sakura viewing, but it deserves a lot of attention. The two sides of the street as well as the median strip is lined with trees, making three rows of sakura! Traffic was not so bad, so it was actually quite a nice spot to sit down for a picnic.


#3 – Sumida Park, near Tokyo Sky tree

Sumida Park actually spreads across both sides of the Sumida River. Half of the park lies near Asakusa, while the other half is close to Tokyo Sky tree. There’s a small garden on the Sky tree side that really blew me away with its gorgeous sakura trees, which perfectly framed the giant 634 metre tower!

#4 – Ark Hills, near Roppongi Itchome

I was actually on my way to Roppongi Hills when this area caught my eye. Although it was raining, these rows of trees were beautiful against the night sky and city lights.


#5 – Ueno Park

Ueno is notorious for its crowds. I was going to skip this park but thought I have to go at least once! And it was a good choice! At dusk, the lake was really beautiful. It was fun to weave through the crowd, but I wouldn’t want to be one of the picnic parties that have to get there at a ridiculously early time to reserve their spot!

#6 – Chidorigafuchi, the Imperial Palace moat

This area of the Imperial Palace is one of the most iconic sakura spots in Tokyo. It actually felt more congested than Ueno Park since the pathways here are narrower and people (myself included!) want to stop every 5 metres to take a photo. The garden designers for the Emperor definitely knew what they were doing when they planned this spectacular sight!

#7 – Nakameguro

The Meguro River has been voted the most popular sakura viewing spot in recent years. And for good reason. The canal near Naka-meguro is lined with cherry blossoms. From the bridges that connect the two sides, you get an incredible ‘tunnel’ view of the sakura. The crowds here are intense and you have to be very patient if you want that perfect shot! Luckily, there are plenty of bars and restaurants nearby where you can unwind in after having battled the masses.

#8 – Senzoku Pond

A friend introduced me to this very family-friendly and beautiful area. We had a lot of fun taking a row boat around the lake and soaking up the warm spring weather. This lake is rich with history and was featured as a ukiyo-e print in the One Hundred Famous View of Edo in the 1800s.

#9 – Rikugien

Rikugien is one of Tokyo’s top 9 strolling gardens. In spring, the giant weeping cherry blossoms are the star attractions. I didn’t even bother seeing the rest of the garden – this monster of a tree was incredible on its own. I arrived late afternoon and was able to see the colours on the tree change numerous times as the sun went down. It was mesmerising!

#10 – Koishikawa Korakuen

This is another of the top strolling gardens in the city. It’s surrounded by modern skyscrapers, but still manages to keep a very peaceful feel to it. I love how there are so many hidden areas of this garden – it’s a great place to explore!

The season is not finished just yet. I still hope to get to some of the lakes around Mt. Fuji in the coming weeks, where the sakura bloom a little later. But for now, spring holidays are over, and it’s back to work!

Serious about Sakura

Can you feel the change in the air? Spring has returned!! The mercury has hit the 20s and the cherry blossoms have started to show their pretty faces!

It’s a great time to be in Japan. The whole country seems to be buzzing with excitement. In Tokyo, the sakura (cherry blossom tree) season officially began on March 23rd, and the flowers should be in full bloom in a couple of days time. I’ve already been to 3 sakura viewing spots in Tokyo, and will hit up lots more places over the next week! It’s a good thing I’m on spring holidays right now – no work, all play!

As you can imagine, the sakura are kind of a big deal in Japan. Of course, there are many people who actually take the time to appreciate their beauty and delicate nature, but I feel like the flowers are becoming increasingly over-commercialised (as much as is possible for a flower, anyway!). Businesses sure know how to capitalise on the popularity of something. From sakura-flavoured ice cream, to special sakura packaging, to whole station entrances being covered in images of sakura, for about 2 months of the year it is pink pink pink everywhere! It reminds me of Christmas time when everything turns red and green, the department stores become packed with Christmas trees and decorations, and Christmas jingles are played 24/7. The novelty factor can be a bit too much sometimes, but I think it’s fun to change things up with these limited edition products. It definitely keeps things interesting!

While the nation becomes sakura-ized, meteorologists have the very serious and extremely high-pressure job of predicting when the sakura will actually bloom. The whole country relies on the information they give! The sakura forecast maps start to appear around early to mid-March, and people immediately start planning their hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties! This year, the predicted season start date (when the buds begin to open) was March 24th, with the best viewing period happening between April 1st-8th. It’s literally a show that lasts less than 3 weeks. Is there any other flower that has this short of a lifespan??

Sakura

If you thought that was insanely precise, wait to you see what happens next. In the week before the forecasted season, things get even more serious. We start to see live maps that show what stage of blooming the flowers are at. At my favourite event website, Walkerplus, we can see the progress through 7 stages. It starts with つぼみ (buds), then comes 咲き始め (starting to bloom), 5分咲き (50% bloomed), 7分咲き (70% bloomed), 満開 (full bloom), 散り始め (starting to fall), and lastly 青葉 (green leaves).

SakuraSpring is a fun time to be in Japan. I will never get sick of it! If you want to visit Japan and see the cherry blossoms, it’s really a gamble as to when they’ll be fully bloomed, but being here before/after April 1st is usually a safe bet. There are early and late blooming varieties anyway, so even if you miss the peak period you’ll still be able to enjoy this spectacle!

 

Cool Japan!

Recently, I taught a unit on “Cool Japan” to my Year 11 students. Cool Japan is this ongoing campaign to promote Japanese culture to the world and basically tell them why this country is ‘cool’. If you ask me, it’s a bit of an ego-boost for the Japanese! They are quietly proud people. But actually, the goal is to increase business and trade overseas. The brand ‘Cool Japan’ was used in the successful bid for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And there’s a TV program of the same name on NHK, where they get a bunch of foreigners to give their opinions about certain topics like Mt Fuji, cosplay, gift wrapping, castles, expressing gratitude, advertisements, etc etc.

I got my students to think of their top 10 favourite things about living in Japan. The most common? Safety. You don’t need to worry about things getting stolen or getting mugged in a dark alley. Japan is a safe country. Not that most of these teenagers have even been outside of Japan to experience an ‘unsafe’ country, but they are not wrong! It’s definitely a major plus point for Japan. Their other ideas were things like manga (comic books), food, J-pop music, tea ceremonies, and flower arranging. It’s nice to see they still appreciate traditional culture too.

So what do I think is coolest about Japan? The FOUR SEASONS! And specifically, how Japanese people have made the seasons such an important part of their lives.

Spring is a warm and happy time. The fleeting cherry blossoms come around March and April and everyone rushes out to enjoy a hanami picnic under the pink and white petaled trees.

After a brief rainy season, hot and humid summer descends. July and August is when all of the major fireworks festivals happen. Literally millions of people get dressed up in summer yukata and drink beer and eat yakitori under the spectacular night shows.

Autumn is always a welcome relief after the exhausting heat. In November the momiji maple trees turn from green to red to yellow to brown before gracefully falling to earth. People flock to places like the ancient temples of Kyoto to witness this gorgeous natural display of colours.

As the momiji leaves drop, so does the temperature. Winter is long and gloomy. But it’s not all bad. Japan has some of the best snow in the world, like Hokkaido, famous for its dry powder snow. For skiers and snowboarders, and strange people who like the cold, this is the best time of the year.

Then, the snow melts, scarves and gloves are put away, and spring returns once again.

I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that is quite like Japan.

Changes in Nature
Summer sunflowers at Shirakawago, Gifu; Spring cherry blossoms in Tokyo;
Autumn maple trees at Tofukuji temple, Kyoto; Winter snow monkeys at Jigokudani, Nagano.

Nature

One scene, Four seasons

shunkashuto

Making the most of every season

Spring: Hanami under the cherry blossoms at Kinuta Park, Tokyo

Spring: Hanami (cherry blossom viewing)Summer: Edogawa Fireworks Festival, Tokyo [attendance about 1.5 million people!]

Summer: Edogawa Fireworks Festival

Autumn: Koyo (maple leaves viewing) at Tofukuji, Kyoto

Autumn: Koyo (maple leaves viewing)

Winter: snow sports at Kiroro Resort, Hokkaido

Winter: snow sports

What are some of the popular seasonal events where you live?

If you’ve visited Japan, what did you think was ‘cool’?  I want to know!! :-)