Pretty Tokyo: Sakura 2016

The last of the late-blooming cherry blossoms have bid their farewell for the year, the sakura fever has died down and the city has gone back to normal. I can’t believe it’s already the end of April. It’s already been a month since I was roaming the Kansai region in search of sakura awesomeness. As soon as I got back from that trip, I had to go back to work which left just 2 or 3 full days to get out and explore during the peak cherry blossom period. Don’t you hate it when work gets in the way of life… :-P Just kidding. For the most part, I ended up taking my “mamachari” bicycle around my neighbourhood, as I do at least once every spring, and discovered and rediscovered many breathtaking spots. I’m lucky to live in a gorgeous area. I also went hiking in Saitama where the season is much later than Tokyo due to the temperature difference. There are so many great places everywhere you look!! And as usual, there were still tons of places on my list that I didn’t get to go to – the main ones being Kawaguchiko and Izu. I wasn’t planning on doing a post on Tokyo’s cherry blossom season but I have loads of photos and I thought it would have been a shame not to share them. These are some of my favourites.

Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 3)

As the train entered the outskirts of the city, I slowly opened my eyes after having dozed off. Half asleep, I looked out the window; a sea of city lights met the dark night sky. In the distance an unmistakable sight immediately got my attention and any tiredness I had felt from the previous couple of days quickly vanished.

Perched on top of a hill overlooking the city was a blinding, pure white vision, like an angel descended from heaven. Lit up from all angles, Himeji Castle seemed to float above the city. It looked like an illusion, and a little out of place in a modern city. Then again, the castle has been around in its original state for over 400 years, so perhaps it’s the city that doesn’t match!

My sakura trip so far had taken me to Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and the countryside around it, and Osaka, before bringing me to my final destination. I was super excited to be visiting the country’s most famous castle, especially since it had been closed for so long to undergo renovations. I was still a couple of days early for the peak of the cherry blossoms, but I knew I was in for an awesome experience regardless.

I was up early again the next day. I had heard of the long queues to get into the castle, and the congestion inside the castle itself due to narrow and steep staircases, so the plan was to get there as early as possible. During the cherry blossom season, the gates open earlier than usual, and at 8:45am it was already busy.

One thing that intrigued me about the castle was all of the defence mechanisms. From the castle grounds entrance, you follow a confusing, winding path that goes through about half a dozen gates before you actually step foot inside the main keep. In fact, there used to be 84 gates throughout the complex. The castle appears to have five floors, but actually has six plus a basement within the stone base. The different floors are full of secret hiding places, special lattice windows and stone drop hatches, and the walls outside are lined with gun and arrow shooting holes. Also, the white exterior is made of plaster to protect the castle from fire and bullets.

I finished my visit at midday with a quick walk around the central moat only to stumble upon the most gorgeous view ever! I had seen the castle from this angle on postcards but didn’t know exactly where it was. Cherry blossoms in the foreground, the red bridge in the middle ground and the castle in the background – amazing. I ended up sitting here with my lunch taking in the view for as long as I could.

 

What an incredible few days. Kansai is a special region full of iconic locations and a lot of history. This was my sixth spring in Japan and rather than thinking I’ve done everywhere worth going, I just keep discovering more and more places I want to go! Talking to the locals of a particular area, you find out so much that you’ll never find in guidebooks. But for now, the cherry blossoms have departed and it’s back to normal life, for a short while at least :P

 

Sakura Hunting in Kansai (Part 1)

In a country famous for its spring scenes filled with pink and white cherry blossoms, it’s hard to decide just where to go to enjoy these short-lived flowers. Your most memorable sakura experience could be anywhere from a residential street to a major tourist spot to a remote mountain side. The only thing to do is just get out there and explore!

For the sakura season, I had originally planned to stick around Tokyo like last year, mainly so that I could save money. But the closer I got to the spring holidays, the more I felt the itch to leave the city and make the most of my time off. With a week to go, I bit the bullet and booked my tickets, found accommodation and jotted down a rough plan. My destination: Kansai.

Kansai is a region of Japan that’s home to ancient cities, national treasures and the country’s oldest structures. It’s almost the polar opposite of Tokyo. After living in the modern, fast-paced capital for 3 years now, I immediately noticed the difference especially at my first stop, Kyoto. Even the most touristy of places have somehow managed to keep that traditional, ‘old Japan’ charm.

The last time I was in Kyoto was in 2012 during one of their best ever autumn foliage seasons. The streets were splashed with brilliant reds and yellows and oranges. After seeing the city at its fiery best, I knew I had to see it during the sakura season, too.

Night 1:

Higashiyama & Gion

Day 2:

Heian Jingu & Nanzen-ji

Imperial Palace

Rokkaku-do & Philosopher’s Path

Kyoto was breathtakingly beautiful, even though the sakura were not in full bloom. I loved strolling, or rather, crowd surfing, in Higayashima. I made it to Kiyomizu-dera just before dark and watched the sun disappear behind the mountains. Walking around the streets at night felt like I was on a movie set with so many girls wearing kimono. I think Kyoto is the only city where it’s completely normal for everyone to wear a kimono! The following day I rented a bicycle which was such a good idea. You don’t have to worry about bus timetables, or getting tired from walking, or limiting yourself to just one area. Highly recommended if you visit Kyoto :) As for the sakura, the Imperial Palace was by far the best spot to see them while I was there. I love the feeling of being rained on by petals when you stand under a weeping cherry tree. And the Imperial Palace was full of them! I was also lucky to get sunshine on and off all day. As we all know, pink blossoms against a blue sky is always a winner.

After a busy day of sakura hunting I bid farewell to Kyoto, and continued onto my next stop. I headed south to a place famous for their deer that freely roam the streets. Part 2 coming soon.

Spring Afternoon at Yasukuni Shrine

Exciting times in Tokyo… Spring has officially sprung!

At Yasukuni Shrine near the Imperial Palace, there is one tree in particular which is carefully observed by the Japanese BOM. It’s a somei-yoshino, also the most common variety of cherry blossom found across Japan. A camera is set up in front of the tree so that the meteorologists can keep an eye on it 24/7. The footage can be seen by the public on the shrine’s homepage, and I’m not going to lie – I had been checking it all weekend in anticipation!

Then, on Monday morning, it happened. The first buds broke open and delicate white petals emerged. The media was onto it straight away, and opening of the sakura season was officially announced in front of hundreds of photographers and reporters.

At the moment, there are just a few somei-yoshino flowers dotted here and there. But this time next week, they should be close to full bloom. Yay, I can feel the excitement in the air!

There are hundreds of varieties of cherry blossom, that differ in shape, colour and blooming times. There were a few deep pink coloured trees at their peak. Such a gorgeous colour. And behind the shrine is a cute little pond and tea house garden. The afternoon light was sublime! Wandering around here was the perfect way to spend a warm spring afternoon.

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!