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!! :-)

Autumn Mission: Shinjuku Gyoen (wrap up)

So I realise it’s no longer autumn, and I realise I’ve already posted many autumn foliage photos… I promise this is the last one! I visited Shinjuku Gyoen as part of my Autumn Mission just before I left on my Australia holiday in December, and I’ve been meaning to do this wrap-up post since. Better late than never!

I’d been told it was beautiful at Shinjuku park in the autumn, but since I’d gone so late in the season (it was already winter), I wasn’t expecting a lot. I was more than pleasantly surprised. In fact, I was quite blown away! The fiery reds, oranges and yellows contrasted with the evergreens, and sparkled in the morning sunshine. The fallen leaves swept across the path, rustling and dancing in the wind. Overhead, the tallest trees branched their arms together as if protecting the ground below. The forest was alive! And to top it off, there were only a few others basking in this beautiful, natural show… no crowds, yay!

The tree is on fire!
The tree is on fire!
Sun-kissed forest
Sun-kissed forest
Shinjuku Gyoen front entrance
Shinjuku Gyoen front entrance
Corridor of colours
Corridor of colours
Reflections
Reflections
Intense red!
Intense red!
Contrasting colours
Canopy of colours
Shinjuku Gyoen koyo
Peaceful morning walk
'Flower' pine cone
A lone pine cone bidding autumn goodbye

** Autumn Mission Wrap Up **

My self-assigned mission was to see as many autumn-foliage spots as possible in and around Tokyo. I definitely tried as hard as I could, and made the most of weekends and holidays. But, there just wasn’t enough time to see everything! Nevertheless, after spending my first autumn in Tokyo, I can say that it is such a beautiful time to be in the city. I’m not sure it’s as breathtaking as the cherry blossoms in spring, nor autumn in Kyoto, but compared to my hometown in Australia – which is green, green, green all year round – I was like a kid in a candy store!

My autumn adventures of 2013 were:

1) Nikko (Post 1) / (Post 2)

2) Mt Takao

3) Showa Memorial Park

4) Setagaya temples

5) Shinjuku Gyoen (see above)

Until next year!

Autumn Mission: Temples in Setagaya

It was a very chilly morning, already well into December. I thought I had completely missed the chance to see kōyō in Setagaya. Work, life, bad weather (and sometimes just pure laziness) had meant I’d kept putting it off. I’d been looking forward to visiting Gotokuji Temple in particular, ever since I saw its momiji maple trees back in summer. Gotoku-ji is a temple that I had stumbled across during a walk around my neighbourhood, not knowing it was the birthplace of the famous ‘beckoning cat’ or maneki-neko! I didn’t take anymore photos of the cats this time – you can look here at my post about Gotoku-ji, if you’re interested. Either way, I hope you have a look back to compare how different the place looks in autumn compared to summer! At that time, the leaves were as green as grass, but I knew come autumn it would be one hell of a sight!  

There’s one thing that the Japanese always know how to get right: gardens. Their meticulous culture means that nothing goes unnoticed and every little detail is considered. Some people might think it’s a bit over the top, but it’s one of the reasons I love Japan! The beautifully trimmed shrubs, the contrasting colours, the symmetry – it’s all the ingredients for a perfect Japanese garden, just like that at Gotoku-ji.

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

Gotoku-ji

The second temple I visited was Jotoku-in, just around the corner from Gotoku-ji. I stumbled across this one, too! Actually, I had been zooming down the street on my bicycle when to my right I glimpsed a giant yellow tree. Drawn to this lone ginkgo tree, I slammed on the brakes and swerved into the entrance of the temple. The very dramatic discovery was followed by a tranquil exploration of this small temple. I was the only person there so I could take my time taking photos and soaking up the beautiful nature.

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Jotoku-ji

Rub the head of Ikkyu-san, a famous anime monk boy, for good luck. :-)

Jotoku-ji

It wouldn’t be Japan if there wasn’t a vending machine in sight. I’m not even joking.

Autumn Mission: Mt Takao

It’s been a busy past few weeks! Today is the last day of November, and soon autumn will be all over for another year. I’ve managed to get to a bunch of different places to check out the autumn leaves, mostly outside of Tokyo. The higher altitude places have passed their peak, and lower down here in the city, things are starting to look good!

A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I went out to Mt Takao, in Tokyo’s far-west. It was a beautiful, sunny autumn day. Not a cloud in sight. We met at Shinjuku station mid-morning, and could tell already that it was going to be crowded on the mountain. Loads of hikers filled the train, and we were lucky to get seats for the 1 hour journey. Arriving at Takaosanguchi station, we quickly realised just how many other people had had the same idea as us! I have never seen a mountain so packed!!

Crowd outside the station
Crowd outside the station
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Crowd at the entrance of Mt Takao
Burst of yellow
Burst of yellow ginkgo trees

Wanting to escape the mass of people, we went quickly on our way. Hiking up the trail was a bit slow, because it was basically ‘follow the leader’ most of the way. I was slightly amused at one girl who was hiking in heels… Girls in Japan are crazy, I tell ya!

Mt Takao in autumn

Green green green
Green green green
Mt Takao in autumn
Suspension bridge
Mt Takao in autumn
Never ending stream of hikers!
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
Starting to see colours as we reach the summit
On top of the world!
On top of the world!

But even then, when we reached the top, it felt like we were back in the middle of the city. There were so many picnics happening under the trees; everyone was taking a million snaps of the leaves from all sort of angles; there were even loooong lines for the ice cream van! It was so strange to be in what felt like the middle of nowhere, on top of a mountain, yet for there to be so many people! 

Picnic central
Picnic central
Beautiful corridor of colours
Beautiful corridor of colours
On fire!
On fire!

Mt Takao in autumn

Mt Takao in autumn
Seeing red

We didn’t end up staying at the top for too long, as you can probably imagine! The hike down was just as crowded as the hike up, but we’d mastered the skill of overtaking, so it didn’t take us long! Back at the bottom, we were greeted by the sounds of taiko drums. There’s always something special about hearing those deep, powerful beats.

Taiko performance
Taiko performance… go girls!
I heart this puppy!
I heart this puppy!
Man hole!
Man hole!
Final snap of the colours
Final snap of the colours

Despite the crowds, I really enjoyed the day trip to Mt Takao. The weather was stunning and the autumn colours were inspiring. Plus, spending time with a friend and getting some exercise… a pretty great way to spend a Sunday if you ask me! :-)

 

 

 

 

Autumn Mission: Nikko

The leaves have started changing in Tokyo! Finally, I can get on track with my Autumn Mission.

One place that was on my list, and I’m happy to say I’ve now checked off, is the one and only Nikko. This was my second time to the World Heritage town, and it was just as spectacular as I remembered! A couple of friends and I spent the day around the back streets, discovering beautiful colours around every corner. It was so peaceful being away from the crowds. It’s actually kind of unfortunate that most people only go to the well-known sightseeing spots. They’re missing out on so much! At night, we checked out the “light up” at the shrines and temples. I wasn’t sure how good it was going to be, but maybe that’s what made it all the more impressive! The red shinto shrines and momiji leaves against the black night sky were intense and powerful. I literally couldn’t put my camera down! Walking around the small pond in Shoyoen Garden was probably the most memorable part of the night. The reflection of the trees in the water was so picturesque… if only there hadn’t been hundreds of other people there! As usual though, there was no pushing and shoving despite the crowd sometimes having to walk in single file. And even when the line came to a halt because someone wanted to take a photo, people waited patiently. It really is a special country.

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Nikko in autumn

Autumn Mission!

Recently, I’ve felt a new surge of motivation. I don’t know where it’s come from, perhaps the beginning of a new month and a new season. I have decided I’m going to study harder (Japanese language, that is), go to the gym more often, meet more people, and get to know Tokyo a lot better. I’ve signed up for the JLPT (a Japanese test) which will be in December, which means I need to do some serious study! And, I’ve recently discovered ‘meet ups’ in Tokyo, which are organised groups that do various things from play sports to do language exchanges. It’s my new favourite thing!

Actually the time of year really did inspire me for my goal to get to know Tokyo better. I love how the seasons are celebrated in Japan. Unlike Australia where the seasons are basically ‘wet’ and ‘dry’, here, spring has cherry blossoms, summer has fireworks, autumn has maples, winter has snow.

Four seasons in Japan
Four seasons in Japan

The beautiful, autumn phenomenon of leaves turning red is called kōyō. In my previous post you can see some photos I took in Kyoto last year. Apparently the 2012 season was the best Japan’s had in about 10 years, so I was pretty damn lucky to experience it! Considering I’m now living in Tokyo, I figured it’s the perfect opportunity to see the top kōyō spots in Tokyo and further north over the next 3 months. I also LOVE gardens and nature, so I generally want to visit as many gardens around Tokyo as I can anyway.

An amazingly informative and well-presented website called Walker plus shows the progress of the autumn colours across the country, with regular updates and reports. You can see the leaves are still mostly green all over Japan, but now is the time to start planning!

Walker plus Autumn report 2013
Walker plus Autumn report 2013

Walker plus is pretty awesome – I also use it to search for the best cherry blossom spots and summer fireworks festivals. It even has a smart phone app called Walker Touch you can download for free, so you have access to information about events, festivals, concerts, cinemas, etc., anywhere, anytime. You can also bookmark events in the Walker calendar which I think is really convenient. Here are some screen shots, as you can see, very cute and colourful!

Walker Touch

According to the Walker plus website, the most popular kōyō spot in Japan is in Nagano prefecture, at a place in the Central Alps called Senjojiki Cirque. I’ve never been, but I’ve seen pictures and man, it looks like the hills are on fire! Take a look at this amateur video:

There are actually hardly any really popular kōyō spots in Tokyo unfortunately. To get to most of the good spots, you need to go hiking up some mountain in the middle of nowhere. But, I have managed to find a few places that should be worth a squiz…

Rikugien Garden and Koishikawa Korakuen are gardens in Bunkyo ward, right in the middle of the city. Rikugien Garden was built at the end of the 17th century and its creator interestingly used a special form of poetry as inspiration. Koishikawa Korakuen has also been around for a long time. It features miniature reproductions of famous spots around Japan.

Shinjuku Gyoen is in… yep, Shinjuku. It’s actually my favourite garden in Tokyo because it’s a HUGE park right in the middle of one of the busiest commercial districts in the world, and features a French garden, English garden and Japanese garden. I love all of them!

Inokashira Park is behind the Ghibli Museum in Tokyo’s north-west. It was built in 1917, and has a big pond and a small zoo.

Mount Takao is in Tokyo’s far-west, about 1 hour from Shinjuku. It’s a super popular spot for hiking because of its easy access from the city. I went hiking here a couple of months ago and loved it. There are 8 trails you can choose from and each have their unique features.

Beyond Tokyo, some popular spots are Nikko, Mt Fuji Five Lakes, Shosenkyo Gorge, and Kamakura.

I wonder how many of these places I can get to this season! Mission: accepted.