Serious about Sakura

Can you feel the change in the air? Spring has returned!! The mercury has hit the 20s and the cherry blossoms have started to show their pretty faces!

It’s a great time to be in Japan. The whole country seems to be buzzing with excitement. In Tokyo, the sakura (cherry blossom tree) season officially began on March 23rd, and the flowers should be in full bloom in a couple of days time. I’ve already been to 3 sakura viewing spots in Tokyo, and will hit up lots more places over the next week! It’s a good thing I’m on spring holidays right now – no work, all play!

As you can imagine, the sakura are kind of a big deal in Japan. Of course, there are many people who actually take the time to appreciate their beauty and delicate nature, but I feel like the flowers are becoming increasingly over-commercialised (as much as is possible for a flower, anyway!). Businesses sure know how to capitalise on the popularity of something. From sakura-flavoured ice cream, to special sakura packaging, to whole station entrances being covered in images of sakura, for about 2 months of the year it is pink pink pink everywhere! It reminds me of Christmas time when everything turns red and green, the department stores become packed with Christmas trees and decorations, and Christmas jingles are played 24/7. The novelty factor can be a bit too much sometimes, but I think it’s fun to change things up with these limited edition products. It definitely keeps things interesting!

While the nation becomes sakura-ized, meteorologists have the very serious and extremely high-pressure job of predicting when the sakura will actually bloom. The whole country relies on the information they give! The sakura forecast maps start to appear around early to mid-March, and people immediately start planning their hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties! This year, the predicted season start date (when the buds begin to open) was March 24th, with the best viewing period happening between April 1st-8th. It’s literally a show that lasts less than 3 weeks. Is there any other flower that has this short of a lifespan??

Sakura

If you thought that was insanely precise, wait to you see what happens next. In the week before the forecasted season, things get even more serious. We start to see live maps that show what stage of blooming the flowers are at. At my favourite event website, Walkerplus, we can see the progress through 7 stages. It starts with つぼみ (buds), then comes 咲き始め (starting to bloom), 5分咲き (50% bloomed), 7分咲き (70% bloomed), 満開 (full bloom), 散り始め (starting to fall), and lastly 青葉 (green leaves).

SakuraSpring is a fun time to be in Japan. I will never get sick of it! If you want to visit Japan and see the cherry blossoms, it’s really a gamble as to when they’ll be fully bloomed, but being here before/after April 1st is usually a safe bet. There are early and late blooming varieties anyway, so even if you miss the peak period you’ll still be able to enjoy this spectacle!

 

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.

Colouring the Night Sky: Hanabi Season

Feelin’ HOT HOT HOT! Summer has descended in all of its sunny, warm and humid glory. The temperature went above and beyond the forecast today, reaching 36°C ! And summer in Japan means one thing… the beginning of Hanabi season!!

Like many countries, Japan takes pyrotechnics very seriously, and you can be sure whether it’s at Disneyland or a national fireworks competition, you will see a well-synchronised, spectacular, colourful show. I did a bit of research so I could share with you the top fireworks festivals, as well as to make sure I don’t miss out on any! There are loads of smaller fireworks festivals especially around Shinjuku, but the top summer festivals are found in Tokyo’s outer suburbs of Itabashi, Adachi, Katsushika and Edogawa, as well as the inner suburbs of Sumida and Chuo.

Tokyo Wards - fireworks locations
Tokyo wards –  top fireworks festivals locations

Here are the top festivals, ordered by date…

第35回足立の花火

The first fireworks festival to get the party started is the Adachi Fireworks Festival. It’s also currently ranked the most popular fireworks show in Japan!
When >> July 20th 2013, 7:30pm-8:30pm
Where >> Ara River in Adachi ward
Visitors >> About 590,000 people
Size >> 12,000 fireworks, 4 shows:
1) fireworks representing the 4 seasons
2) fireworks in all sorts of shapes and famous characters
3) fireworks synchronised with a music soundtrack, including the “Niagara Falls” fireworks
4) fireworks synchronised with music. The climax of the show this year will be fireworks in the form of a “full-bloom cherry blossom tree”!

*****

第47回葛飾納涼花火大会

Next is the Katsushika Cool Summer Evening Fireworks Festival.
When >> July 23rd 2013, 7:20pm-8:20pm
Where >> Edo River, Katsushika ward
Visitors >> About 580,000 people
Size >> 12,000 fireworks

Katsushika Noryo Fireworks Festival. Image by calvinmyjourney.
Katsushika Noryo Fireworks Festival. Image by calvinmyjourney.

*****

第36回 隅田川花火大会

One of the oldest and most famous fireworks shows in Tokyo is the Sumida River Fireworks Festival.
When >> July 27th 2013, 7:05pm-8:30pm
Where >> Sumida River, Sumida ward (near Asakusa)
Visitors >> About 950,000 people
Size >> First site = 10,716 fireworks; Second site = 12,050 fireworks

Image by てんどん (http://photozou.jp/photo/show/141110/145311514) [CC-BY-2.1-jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.1/jp/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
Sumida River Fireworks and Tokyo SkyTree. Image by てんどん.

*****

第54回いたばし花火大会

Kicking off the August festivals is the Itabashi Fireworks Festival.
When >> August 3rd 2013, 7:00pm-8:45pm
Where > Ara River, Itabashi ward
Visitors >> About 520,000 people
Size >> 11,000 fireworks

*****

第38回江戸川区花火大会

On the same day as the Itabashi Festival, is the massive Edogawa Fireworks Festival.
When >> August 3rd 2013, 7:15pm-8:30pm
Where >> Edo River, Edogawa ward
Visitors >> About 900,000 people
Size >> 14,000 fireworks

*****

第25回東京湾大華火祭

Another hugely popular August festival is the Tokyo Bay Fireworks Festival.
When >> August 10th 2013, 6:50pm-8:10pm
Where >> Tokyo Bay, Chuo ward
Visitors >> About 650,000 people
Size >> 12,000 fireworks

Tokyo Bay Fireworks 2012. Image by Norio Nakayama [http://www.flickr.com/photos/norio-nakayama/7766652600/]
Tokyo Bay Fireworks 2012. Image by Norio Nakayama.
For more information on fireworks in Tokyo and around Japan, visit Hanabi Walkerplus.