A Scarlet Sea in Saitama

Red spider lilies are on everyone’s lips right now! These gorgeous, bright red flowers signify the start of autumn and are now in full bloom.

Interestingly, these flowers are actually also associated with death in Japan. You’ll see lots of spider lilies around graves, where they represent the souls of the dead. Also, farmers make the most of the poisonous bulbs by planting them around their fields to keep pests away! But, as is the Japanese way, they like to celebrate everything, even if it’s a flower symbolising death!

Wednesday was Autumnal Equinox Day, a public holiday here in Japan, so to make the most of this day off work, I met up with a friend and headed to the most famous place in the country to see these lilies.

Kinchakuda is a park in Hidaka, Saitama prefecture, about an hour north-west of Tokyo. A cool, shallow river runs around the circumference of the park, in a horseshoe-shape, almost making it feel like an island. While the outer edge of the horseshoe is dense forest, the inner edge is packed with a sea of scarlet! It is an absolute crazy sight!

Five million spider lilies, in fact, cover the park like a warm blanket. The flowers themselves do remind me of spiders with their long, lanky legs! Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered around from flower to flower. The afternoon sun flickered through the forest canopy, lighting up the bright green stalks of the lilies. The sea of red flowers made for the perfect photo shoot background, and we saw many ‘photo shoots’ going on! I loved one couple in particular, dressed in cosplay – the guy reminded me of the Mad Hatter, and the girl of Little Red Riding Hood. The perfect couple, maybe!?

After wandering around the park in a daydream, we picked up some delicious yakisoba from one of the many local produce stalls and sat by the river, feet in the water, cool breeze washing over our faces. It was a great day!

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!

 

 

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!

The Life of a Plum Blossom

Plums, called ume in Japanese, are arguably more a part of Japanese culture than the cherry blossoms. The sakura are so short-lived that I feel like if you blink you’ll miss them, and then it’s all over for another year. Whereas the plum blossoms stick around for a good month or more. But not only is the flower popular, the plum fruit itself is well integrated into Japanese cuisine! You are guaranteed to find an umeboshi (pickled plum) in almost every bento lunch box, sitting on top of the rice. It’s too sour for me, though. My hiking buddies often snack on sour, dried plums as an energy boost! Another common way to have it is as furikake seasoning sprinkled on top of your rice. You can not only eat it, but drink it, too. Umeshu is sweet alcohol made with plums and is always listed on the drink menu at restaurants (I love it!).

While the famous cherry blossoms bloom when the weather is much warmer, the plum blossoms start to show their faces towards the end of winter. I actually saw the first plum blossoms just starting to bloom in mid-January! Since early February, they have taken over the streets and parks of Tokyo. Lots of public gardens have official plum festivals, but you don’t necessarily need to go to those places to see these beautiful flowers. There are so many trees randomly all over the place, in people’s backyards, next to train tracks, even growing in alleyways! The flowers range from white to pink to red to yellow. They are like splashes of colour all over the city.

Looking through the photos I’d taken over the past month, I noticed there were lots of images showing the different stages of blooming. I think the little buds are adorable! And then, when they burst into life, it’s really a spectacular vision. One day I want to do a timelapse video of this! For now, I’ve decided to do a little ‘life of a plum blossom’ photo story. Enjoy!

Hanegi Park
The beginning – the birth of a flower.
Hanegi Park
The first burst.
Hanegi Park
Searching for sunlight.
Hanegi Park
Slowly opening their eyes after a long slumber.
Hanegi Park
Welcome to the world!
Hanegi Park
Altogether, they bask in the sunlight.

Then, everyone joins the party! The whole park comes alive with a distinct, sweet fragrance filling the air!…

The flowers stay like this for a few weeks before falling to the ground. Then it’s time for the fruit to grow!

I don’t remember enjoying the plum blossoms as much in any other year I’ve been in Japan. For some reason this year I’ve really taken notice of them. I love how they have the power to draw so many people, but at the same time they make each person slow down and stay a while to enjoy their beauty and sweet smell. Nature is pretty remarkable!

Fun with Reflections!

I’ve been to Showa Memorial Park so many times since I moved to Tokyo last year, that I think it’s safe to say it’s my favourite park in Tokyo prefecture. Sorry, Shinjuku Gyoen, you’ve been replaced! Every time I visit Showa Memorial Park, I discover another part of its HUGE grounds! And not only is it a massive park, but each of the five ‘zones’ have different seasonal draw cards. So there really is no bad time to go.

Showa Kinen Park Map

For this visit, I went to Zone E to see the Japanese Garden for the first time. It’s kind of like a cool secret garden, where you have to walk through inconspicuous wooden gates into an area hidden from the outside world. Once you’re in, though, it opens up to a glorious, tranquil lake.

I was not at all expecting such a beautiful spot. The afternoon sun made for some brilliant colours. And the still lake made for some epic reflections! It reminded me of art projects in primary school where you fold a paper in half, put blobs of paint on one side and then fold the other half on top, then open it up to reveal a symmetrical ‘masterpiece’! Those paintings were always a lot of fun, as was trying to capture these lake reflections!

Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden

Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden

Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden

Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden Showa Kinen Park Japanese Garden

Tulips in Tachikawa

Last weekend, I tried to make the most of the tail end of the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. I checked out Showa Memorial Park, a massive 163 hectare park out in Tachikawa, western Tokyo. The last time I was here was for the stunning Autumn festival. The park has about 1500 sakura trees, so I was excited to catch a glimpse of the later blooming varieties. But, as I walked through the park gates, I literally walked into a flower festival – tulips were everywhere! My nature-loving mind exploded with joy! The bizarre varieties of tulips, the vibrant colours, the fragrance in the air, the pond, the stream, the green lawns – it was all so perfect. I walked around in a daze, wishing that one day this could be my own backyard (of my imaginary house)!! My favourite tulip was one called the ‘honeymoon’. For a flower with so many spikes to be called that, it makes you wonder about the person who named it! Perhaps their marriage didn’t work out as they’d hoped?! No, but actually I think they are referred to as ‘frills’, not spikes, which makes more sense.

The 'honeymoon' tulip
The ‘honeymoon’ tulip