A Sea of Blue in Hitachi

Last autumn I went to Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki to check out the bright red kochia shrubs. I’d never seen anything like it! The shrubs were a stunning colour and made for a brilliant contrast to the blue sky. It looked just like a painting.

Hitachi Seaside Park in Autumn

Same view, different season. Which do you find more impressive?

Hitachi in spring

But ever since then, all I’ve been hearing about is the blanket of baby blue flowers that covers the same hills during spring. I guess the nemophila are much more well-known than the kochia. I knew I had to go see it for myself!

So, on Greenery Day (a public holiday in Japan), a friend and I headed north to Ibaraki prefecture. I was up early and out the door at 8am. 3 trains and 1 bus later, we finally got to our destination at about 11am. The trains and bus were all packed and we had to stand almost the entire way. It’s not uncommon to be forced to stand or sit at the ends of the cars in express trains or the shinkansen if you can’t get a seat. The JR Limited Express Hitachi from Ueno Station runs non-stop for 1 1/4 hours, flying past 9 stations, so at least we didn’t have to worry about moving over for people getting on or off!

Standing at the entrance to the park, my jaw instantly dropped and my eyes bulged. It wasn’t the beautiful flowers that shocked me, but the throngs of people! I know it was a national holiday, but I couldn’t believe what we were seeing. Literally thousands of people crowded the footpaths, open grass areas and food trucks! It was like seeing an army of ants crawling over the hills! On the same day (May 4th) in 2014, the park apparently had a record 71,000 visitors. At least people in Japan are courteous – you’ll never see anyone pushing their way through a crowd or jumping the queue.

We made our way around the huge park, getting a little lost along the way but enjoying ourselves regardless! It was a very warm day but thankfully the intense sun kept ducking behind the clouds to give us some relief. Kids were playing in the massive outdoor adventure course, teenagers were doing jumps around the BMX track, families were cooking lunch in the BBQ area, pet dogs were enjoying the open space. The park was buzzing with activity.

We eventually came to the famous sea of blue!

The pale blue flowers reached up to the blue sky. Behind us, the sky was met by the deep blue ocean. Mother Nature was really turning on her best. We joined the masses and followed the zig zag path up and around Miharashi Hill. The petals are tiny and their stems are so short, but when combined with 4.5 million others, nemophila are an attention-grabbing force! Every time the sea breeze swept over the hill, the flowers would suddenly come to life, whirling round and round.

Hitachi Seaside Park is a bit of a mission to get to – let’s face it, it’s kind of in the middle of nowhere – but it’s well worth the effort! Spring is definitely most popular season here among the Japanese, but I think the Kochia (in October) and Nemophila are both something you have to see at least once in your life!

 

 

Top 10 Trips around Japan in 2014

I can’t believe it’s already the final day of 2014! It has been an incredible year, full of adventures, making new friends, and just enjoying life as much as possible! It was my second year living in Tokyo and I’m feeling more and more like a “Tokyoite”. Living on the west side of the city means I’ve gotten to know Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku pretty well. Seeing the famous Shibuya Scramble no longer gives me that rush of excitement – it’s now kind of amusing seeing tourists running out to take their pictures of the masses crossing the intersection! These days, I like to think I’ve got Shinjuku Station down pat. And by that I mean I only sometimes get lost there – in my defence there are more than 200 exits, okay?! And in Harajuku, I’ve discovered some pretty cool little cafes.

2014 was also a year of many many ‘firsts’. I visited the United States for the first time, I finally got my Japanese Drivers Licence and drove for the first time in Japan, I watched a Japanese musical (The Little Mermaid), attended a sports match, and joined in on the Japanese custom of sending nengajo (New Year postcards)!

I also squeezed in a lot of travel within Japan – on holidays, weekends, and days off – so much so that this post is going to be based on these trips. I had a lot on my travel to-do list this year, and it’s an awesome feeling to say that I’ve ticked off most of them. It’s all about determination and organisation!

Without further ado, I give you my Top 10 most memorable trips around Japan this year (in chronological order).

Tokamachi Snow Festival (February)

Tokamachi is serious snow country in winter. It lies in the middle of Niigata prefecture, about a 2-hour train ride north of Tokyo. I went to the Snow Festival there with my mum who was visiting back in February. Of all weekends, it just happened to be on one that saw a major blizzard sweep across the country. We were forced to stay longer than we had planned, and all of the snow sculptures were unfortunately covered with fresh snow, but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve seen! I’d definitely go back again next year.

Visiting Hokkaido for the first time (April)

I was super pumped to fly to Hokkaido for the first time. It had been on my bucket list since moving to Japan. This northernmost island of Japan is most famous for its powder snow, so a friend and I went up for a few days of snowboarding. I met some extremely kind people who made the trip all the more special, visited a chocolate factory and a beer factory, ate a lot of fresh seafood and discovered the wonderful Otaru Canal – a beautifully preserved waterway that used to link the warehouses with ships in the bay.

Snow Corridor and Japan Alps (May)

After visiting snowy Hokkaido, I was inspired to see the famous Snow Corridor in Toyama prefecture. This road is along the Tateyama-Kurobe Alpine Route, and is closed for the duration of winter. A snow wall, up to 20 metres high, is created when they clear the road in spring, and is visible from April to June. Beyond the snow wall is Mt Tateyama, a part of the Northern Alps. This pure white landscape was truly spectacular!

Rainy season at Meigetsu-in (June)

A bit closer to home, Kamakura is a city just an hour or so south of Tokyo. I went to a temple called Meigetsu-in for the first time, after hearing about their beautiful hydrangea stairway. I loved seeing the unusual shapes and colours of the flowers, some which are only found in Kamakura.

Fuji Rock Music Festival (July)

I’d wanted to go to the Fuji Rock Music Festival for ages, and finally made it happen this year. A friend and I went for the final of the 3 days and camped overnight there. It is a massive festival, with 7 main stages plus many smaller ones as well as other attractions. The festival is located at a ski resort in the middle of nowhere in Niigata prefecture. It really is like a rave in the mountains!

Climbing Mt Fuji (August)

By far one of my best memories of 2014 was witnessing an epic sunrise from the summit of Mt Fuji. It was a tough hike. We started at 2,300m at 7pm, getting to the top, 3776m, around 2am. We eventually made it back down around 9am. Luckily we had amazing weather the entire time. I was left with some foot related injuries, but I still think it was one of the best experiences of my life!

Matsumoto Castle (September)

One of 4 castles that are national treasures, Matsumoto Castle is the only black one. It’s nicknamed the Crow because of its colour, and was never actually attacked by enemies which has left it in a remarkable condition. Matsumoto Castle is in Nagano prefecture, about 2.5 hour bus trip from Tokyo. The day I went, there happened to be an event celebrating Matsumoto’s sister city relationship with a town in Switzerland. I got to watch an amazing taiko (drum) performance, as well as hear some genuine yodelling!

Discovering Karuizawa (October-November)

One of my new favourite places in Japan is the town of Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. It’s known as a summer resort with lots of sporting, shopping and outdoor activities for young and old. I visited the town for the first time in October and fell in love with the natural beauty of the area! I was back a few weeks later to enjoy the mesmerising autumn colours. It’s an easy 2 hour trip from Tokyo, so I will definitely be going back many times in 2015!

Road trip to Ibaraki (October-November)

After finally getting my act together to get my Japanese Drivers Licence, some friends and I went on 2 road trips to Ibaraki prefecture, a few hours north-east of Tokyo. I was very excited to be back behind the wheel! On our first trip, we went to the Hitachi Hillside Park to see the bright red kochia shrubs. The second time was an overnight trip, visiting a few autumn leaves spots like Fukurodo Falls. Ibaraki is beautiful in autumn!

Autumn colours in Toyama (November)

The BEST autumn leaves spot of 2014, in my opinion! After talking with a sweet elderly lady who we met on our way to the Snow Corridor back in May, my friend and I decided we would return to Toyama to visit the Torokko Train. I’m so glad we listened to her advice. The scenic train winds through the Kurobe Gorge, parallel to the emerald-coloured Kurobe River. We timed our trip perfectly and were able to see the colours at their peak. It was an unforgettable experience and I’ll always treasure the memory of being there.

As you can see, most of my trips were to Nagano, Niigata, and Toyama prefectures which are all in the Chubu region of Japan, and no more than 3-4 hours from Tokyo. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2015, please consider these places for a day or overnight trip!

As for me, there’s still so much more to discover in Japan. Some places at the top of my 2015 list are Shikoku, Yakushima, Okinawa, Niseko, as well as return to northern Tohoku. Can’t wait!!

Happy New Year to you all! Party safely!

Crimson Covered Hills


haiku
 
 
 
 
 

Hitachi Seaside ParkHitachi Seaside ParkHitachi Seaside Park

Hitachi Seaside ParkHitachi Seaside ParkHitachi Seaside ParkHitachi Seaside Park Hitachi Seaside Park

These photos were taken at the Hitachi Seaside Park in Ibaraki prefecture, a little less than 2 hours north of Tokyo. The crimson ‘grass’ seems to have many different names, including Kochia and Nemophila in English, and Kokia and Houkigi (broom tree) in Japanese! They might look soft and cute from a distance, but they’re actually quite hard and coarse! During summer, they are green as grass, then as the pink, red and white cosmoses start to bloom, the kochia begin to turn crimson red! They stay this way for just a few weeks. It is a sensational sight!

All year round, the Park has a beautiful array of blooming flowers. Check out the Flower Calendar here! > http://en.hitachikaihin.jp

Hello, Autumn!

The singing and the dancing die away
as cooling breezes fan the pleasant air,
inviting all to sleep
without a care.

– from “Autumn” by Vivaldi

What better soundtrack is there to describe the changes through the seasons than Vivaldi’s most famous concertos? I played the violin for about 10 years – until I was 16-17 years old – and really wish I still played regularly. My violin is at my parents’ home, so I have to make do with playing the ‘air violin’ whenever I feel the urge! I remember practicing Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ many times when I was younger – as challenging as they are to play, it’s fun to get swept away with the music!

Kyoto, 2012

We had a relatively mild summer in Tokyo this year – I think I remember it being pretty hot and humid way back in June just before the rainy season started, but apart from that, it’s been surprisingly bearable! Just in the past few days, it’s started to get chilly – always the first sign of autumn! And that got me excited for the next few months! Autumn is my favourite season for hiking, and possibly my favourite season for fashion. Bring on scarves and knee-high boots!

Around this time last year, I wrote a post on the places I wanted to go to for autumn leaves viewing (called 紅葉 koyo in Japanese). My ‘Autumn Mission’ took me to different parts of inner Tokyo – like Shinjuku Park and temples around Setagaya, as well as Showa Memorial Park in Tachikawa (western Tokyo) and the World Heritage temples in Nikko (2 hours north of Tokyo). It was fantastic to witness all of those beautiful places!

So this year, I’m back with even more eagerness to get out there! There are a few places I didn’t get round to seeing in Tokyo last year, for example:
Meiji Jingu Gaien, famous for its grand avenue of yellow gingko trees.
Koishikawa Korakuen, a stunning garden next to Tokyo Dome.
Rikugien Gardens, which also has night time ‘light ups’.

Outside of Tokyo, I have 3 places which I will 100% try to get to this year!
Kurobe Gorge, Toyama. After going to Tateyama in the Northern Alps earlier this year, it’s been my goal to go back during autumn. There’s a famous scenic train called the Torokko train which winds its way through the gorge. Lots of hiking, clear rivers and a few onsens (hot springs). It’ll be a great weekend trip!

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Kurobe Gorge Torokko train. Image from Rurubu.com

Hananuki, Ibaraki. On the east coast of Japan, a couple of hours north of Tokyo, is the Hananuki Gorge. A picture of the suspension bridge leading us into a canopy of red and orange is what first caught my eye a couple of years ago. It looks like a perfect overnight getaway from Tokyo.

Tsuchitake Bridge in the Hananuki Gorge. Image from Rurubu.com

Miyoshi, Shikoku. This place has been the highest on my list for the longest! I’ve never been to the island of Shikoku, I guess it’s because I’ve always thought it’s not easy to get to, and once you’re there, you really need your own car to get around. Since I got my Japanese driver licence earlier this year, and I’ve discovered I can get there on an overnight bus, there’s nothing stopping me now! I’ve always wanted to walk across the ‘vine bridges’, made out of actual vines which stretch across the gorges. There’s also lots of good hiking, food, and scenery which I don’t think you can get anywhere else in Japan. Can’t wait!

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Yoshino River cruises. Image from WalkerPlus.com