8 Reasons to Love Shinjuku Gyoen

I’ve been to Shinjuku Gyoen so many times in the 5 years I’ve been living in Tokyo that it almost feels like I’m arriving home when I walk through the park entrance gates. It’s become a very familiar place. From the cherry blossom season and hot summer days, to the vibrant red autumn leaves and snow-filled lawns, I’ve experienced it all at this park. Continue reading “8 Reasons to Love Shinjuku Gyoen”

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

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!

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.

Autumn Has Arrived

Today marks the first day of autumn. And in good style, it’s a national holiday in Japan, 秋分の日. Yes! I can laze around :-D Today, there will be 12 hours of daytime and 12 hours of nighttime. And then from here on in, the days will get shorter and shorter.

I reckon the best thing about autumn is the warm, cozy feeling it brings. Even though I’ve never in my life experienced this, when I think of autumn, I immediately think of sitting around a fireplace, all snug and warm, while outside the trees rustle in the winds. Bit weird, I know. Must have been some story book I read or movie I watched as a child! But what I actually do know is that the temperature drops; the morning air becomes fresh and crisp; blankets and jackets are brought out of storage; night inches earlier and earlier, almost like gently pushing people into their warm homes to be with their families; gradually cold thirst-quenching drinks are replaced with hot chocolates and warm cups of tea; and the colour of foliage changes from cool shades of green to warm shades of red, orange and yellow.

In Japan, I think of acorns…

Acorn

and pine trees…

Pine fern

and loads of colour, like these snaps of Kyoto…

Kyoto

Kyoto

Kyoto

Kyoto

And then there’s the novelty side… Autumn salad (although I’m pretty sure the only difference to the regular salads is it has pumpkin)

Autumn salad

Halloween candies…

Halloween KitKat

Halloween KitKat

Halloween Pocky

Halloween Pocky

And of course, autumn beer…

Autumn Kirin beer

Happy Autumnal Equinox Day, everyone!