Cherry Blossoms – Day to Japan Day 8

Seeing the cherry blossoms in Japan is on a lot of people’s bucket list and I always wondered what made them so special. They happen in other places in the world around the same time. In fact, I have seen them pop out every Spring that I have lived in Korea, and yes, they are pretty, but to put it on my bucket list of things to do before I die seemed a little absurd. But to the Japanese people, this annual event is something to get excited about.

It is a completely different feeling being in Tokyo during Sakura, or the cherry blossoming season. It only lasts for a couple of weeks, but people make the most out of it while they can, and they are also so happy throughout the course of this natural event. You will see people walking around with cameras all over the city, getting ready to take that perfect shot of the tress exploding in pink and white. They also gather in the parks during the night to celebrate with each other with picnics and the sharing of drinks.

I think the best way to describe it is by talking about this older couple I witnessed at one of the parks during my stay in Japan. They did not move quickly, and they were bent over from years of hard work. The man held his cane in one hand, and his wife grabbed his other arm as the walked among the lanterns that Tokyo had put out to highlight the blooming of the Sakura. I like to think that they did not make it out of the house very much, but this was an event that they would not miss ever. As they shuffled down the park’s path, they had huge smiles on their faces as they peered this way and that to take in the beauty that was before them. The moment was truly magical for them, and I am sure that they had seen it every year of their lives, and every year, it was just as spectacular.

This is like Japan’s Christmas season, except the nature that they witness marks the coming of Spring and warmer weather. It does have that feeling of going out and looking at the Christmas lights during a snowstorm, except that it is not as cold outside, and I was a lot more comfortable taking in the views.

The whole city is not covered in Sakura, and I did come across the occasional lone tree making its mark. There are many places where the blooms really hit, and these are the places where people come together every night. Each one of the locations has its own charm and its own excitement, but there are tons of people gathered at each spot to enjoy the mark of this celebration before it disappears for another year.

The ancient architecture adds to the excitement, as I was able to see the cherry blossoms frame some of the bigger shrines and extend out over some of there gates. I have not seen this same appeal in Korea even though I bet there are places where it does exist. They just seemed to go hand in hand in Tokyo.

They are not only fun at night, but it is still quite the sight to see during the day. I think I was out there during the height of the bloom as I was able to travel down one of the streets and see the trees line the canals of Tokyo.

One of the best ways to enjoy them is to go out on the canals in a kayak, and get up close to them hanging out over the water. It was a great way to spend the morning while getting a little exercise. There are also a lot of tour boats that travel up and down these canals, and many of the guests would wave at us as they traveled on by. But it was the pre-school children that were my favorite. The path that we took went by many of the schools, and the teachers took the time to take the kids out on walks to enjoy the Sakura as well. Any time they saw us, they would wave at us and say the only two English words that they knew, “Hi” and “Goodbye” when we drifted away. It just added to the joy of the moment.

So I knew that by coming out to Japan with the goal of seeing the cherry blossoms, I would be something really pretty. What I did not know was I would be caught up in the excitement of the city celebrating one of their favorite times of the year. I learned why many people put this on their bucket list, and I am glad I got to experience it once in my lifetime. It has made this trip to Japan probably my favorite one that I have been on so far, and it is going to be hard to beat the calling of Spring with the Sakura if I ever get the chance to come back again.

Goodbye, Japan, and thank you for the wonderful trip.

 

Let’s Talk About Food – Back to Japan Day 7

 

There are certain places in the world that people think of when they think of food, Italy, France, Thailand, and most definitely Japan. The culinary delights that can be explored in this country seems to be unlimited, and it would take a lifetime to explore them all. Each of them offer new tantalizing tastes that will make your bud sing, and a blog itself would have to be dedicated to the many ways food is offered in this country.

Of course, when the common man thinks about Japanese food, the first thing that comes to mind is sushi. It is an exotic dish in the United States, but it is not as big of a deal in Japan. Even though there are many fancy restaurants that can be found that serve this dish, it is considered more something that a person can grab for a quick lunch or even breakfast. My favorite way to eat sushi out here is to find the places that sit everybody around the cooks who constantly place various plates on a conveyor belt. You just pull off what looks good, and then the add up the plates, you pay and you go. It keeps everybody happy, and it is a fun way to eat sushi.

Another fun dish to have is okonomiyaki. This is kind of like a pancake made with dry rice as the main ingredient, but there are many other things that they throw into them. You mix them up in a bowl, and the cook them at your table. You can get healthy choices with fish and vegetables, or you can go the route that I went and load it up with a bunch of different meats. There is a really good restaurant that serves this in Harajuku called Sakura Tei. It is a little hard to find because it is hidden well among art galleries, but it might be one of my favorite restaurants in the world because of the food, atmosphere, and fun of making my own savory pancake.

I was also able to experience a lot of street food on this trip to Japan. Anywhere the cherry blossoms come out, they set up a festival for the two weeks that it happens. The booths come out and a variety of food is offered. You can find anything from ramen to fried potato swirls. It is also a fun way to dine because you get to jump into the festivities going on around you, and everybody can find something that they will enjoy.

Speaking of noodles, Japan offers many different types of them from cold buckwheat noodles to think steaming bowls of udon noodles. During the summer months, the colder options are great, but on this trip there was a little bit of winter still in the air, and I enjoyed the hot udon noodles. Many times they are served with some tempura to make a great meal anytime of the day.

Japan is also well known for its Kobe beef. This might be the most tender steak that I have ever had. It just melts in your mouth, and it is worth every penny I spent on it. The rumor behind why this beef is so tender is because the ranchers who raise these cows will feed them beer and massage them while they are alive. It makes the beef tender, and it makes me happy that at least the cow had a happy drunken life while still alive.

Basically, it does not matter where you go in Japan; there is going to be something amazing waiting for you. You just need to be a little adventuresome because you might not always know what it is you will be getting. There are many traditional Japanese dishes out there, but this a very creative country, and I always come across something new that quickly becomes my favorite new dish. The food alone makes coming out here worth it.

They Can’t Shut Us Down – Back to Japan Day 6

Early shoppers at Tsujuki Fish Market

One of the most memorable experiences of my first visit to Japan was visiting the fish market in Tsujuki. It was a big warehouse where all the day’s catch would be brought in to be chopped up and sold to the local markets and restaurants. It was a crazy experience of fishermen and butchers working in harmony with buyers who were looking for the perfect fillet of spicy tuna. It smelled a little of fish, but it was an experience that always stuck with me. Recently, this old market shut down and moved off to a new location. It was a big event that was talked about in all of the newspapers around the world because Tsujuki was one of the oldest and largest fish markets in the world. It could be destructive to this iconic part of Tokyo, but the restaurants and shops that established themselves over the years were not going to let the place shut down that quietly.

Namiyoke Inari Shrine on the edge of the Tsujuki Fish Market.

There are still three blocks of merchants that get up early every morning to open up their shops and welcome the crowds that make their way down there. The shrine on the corner of the market is still visited by these same people to give out a quick prayer before they set off for the day. And more importantly the crowds of people still come down to this place to snap pictures and enjoy the food that is here.

A crab kissing a fish.

The smell of fresh fish still lingers in this corner of the city even though the buyers have left it behind, but there are still numerous sushi restaurants that open their doors at 5:00 in the morning to serve breakfast, and the old statues are still hanging from the buildings. It is not only fish that they sell here either. There are many stores that offer fresh coffee, tea or ice cream. Vendors also bring in fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as all of the appliances needed in order to make the meals you want with all the fresh food that you just bought. Of course, there are the shops that sell the silly tourist things like t-shirts and trinkets, but that is not the main focus of this place.

Snow crab being prepared for me on the street of the Tsujuki Fish Market.

It is all about the food, and some of the best bites that this place has to offer are prepared on the street. They will make egg on a stick, thin slices of Kobe beef, and various types of fish of course. My favorite was the fresh snow crab that was fried in oil, and then put on a big pat of butter before smothered in soy sauce before it was all glazed right in front of me. It was served with a little bit of Dijon mustard, and would have been considered gourmet anywhere else in the world. But here it is just street food. It is this grounded feeling that this neighborhood has that makes sure that it will always last even though the fish market has moved to another part of the city.

A Change of Pace – Back to Japan Day 4

Statue outside of Futarasan Shrine in Nikko National Park.

If I haven’t said it before, I will say again right now. I really enjoyed Nikko, Japan. It is a beautiful town set in a beautiful part of Japan with friendly people and great food. There is enough culture here to make my time that I spent there not only rewarding but fun at the same time. There are many places that I would go back to if I ever find myself in Japan again, but Nikko would have to be the top of my list. I could have spent more time among the cedar trees and just soaking in the mountain air, but this is not the reason I came out to Japan in the first place. I was here to see the cherry blossoms, and I had yet to really experience this on this trip and I wasn’t going to find it in Nikko.

A path through the cedar trees in Nikko National Park.

So I said goodbye to this wonderful small town, got on the train and headed off to Tokyo to where I knew the cherry blossoms would be. Now, I have been to Tokyo on a couple of other occasions, and it seems to get better every time I head back there, so even though I was leaving behind Nikko, I was excited to see what adventure awaited me this time.

The view from my place in Tsukiji.

First off, getting to Tokyo is a big change from the quiet atmosphere of the mountain town I was just in. Depending on what source you look at, Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, if not the biggest. So the tall cedars and wide open spaces were replaced by tall buildings, and big crowds. I have found that the best way to explore this city is to find one little neighborhood to go to and see what it has to offer. This time I am going to stay in Tsukiji next to the old fish market, and close to Ginza, one of the bigger shopping centers in town. I am close to the subways, but I know that I will not be able to see all of this town, so I will just have to pick and choose what to do while I am here.

Stairs outside of a shop in the neighborhood of Harajuku.

But I do not think that it really matters where I stay because the one thing I know about this town is that the people are individuals and like to think of new and exciting ways to express themselves. Every corner I turn I know I will see something that will make me smile and make me laugh. There are surprises that I will find here. I have been here for only a couple of hours, and I have already had some great food, seen some strange sights, and have even run into one of my students. It is a great way to start this part of my adventure.

The Happiest Place on Earth – Back to Japan Day 5

I am told that when I was really young, my parents took me to Disneyland with my siblings. I don’t remember anything from this event, and I believed that this would always be my experience with the collection of theme parks around the world. It always looms in the background every time I travel to Tokyo or Hong Kong. Posters are plastered in the airport and many of the bigger subway stops that I should go out and enjoy a day out there, but I always heard that it was something more for small children and there were other places that I wanted to go and see. Well, yesterday, I finally bit the bullet and went out to see what this place was all about by going to the Tokyo version of this theme park.

First of all, know that if you want to go to the Tokyo Disneyland, it gets really busy, and if you do not have tickets, you may want to get them before you arrive. You can still go up to the ticket counter and buy them the day of, but I would suggest that you get there at 8:00 in the morning because I have heard that they quit selling tickets when the park reaches capacity.

Otherwise, I can see why kids want to come to this place. I could see it on the subway train that I took out to the park. As soon as we reached the stop, the kids on the train started to get really excited and could barely wait for the train doors to open. As soon as we got off, a line of palm trees guided the way to the front door, and the blue skies made it feel like I was in southern California and not Japan. But then the Japanese love of Disney took over.

Groups of kids come to this park and they all dress alike so everybody knows that they are together. There were many times I saw groups of Japanese teenagers all dressed in school uniforms and all this the same hats on walking around together. It was a weird little touch, and I do not think that I would have seen the same thing if I was in the one in California.

For awhile, I thought it was Disney law that everybody wear some kind of hat gear. There were many headbands with various ears on them, or hats that showed the heads of various Disney characters, but then when you looked at the back of them, they would have little stuffed doll bodies of the heads that they wore. I refrained from buying one because I could not see myself wearing it anywhere but the park that we already were in.

I didn’t really know how the park worked, but I dreaded the long lines for the rides. I was introduced to the fast track program that was out there soon though. Basically, you can take your ticket and get a pass for a ride at a certain time so you don’t have to wait in line as long. The only problem is that you can only do it once every couple of hours, so the rest of the time you have to spend you time standing in line. It is great when you get to use them because then it makes you feel as if you are special and you can just walk right in, but standing in the standby line really stinks. They will give you an estimate for how long it will take, but it is always longer than the time that they give. I stood in one line for the Thunder Mountain Train for three hours. This is not the best way to spend your time at the Happiest Place on Earth.

The problem with the fast track tickets at Tokyo Disneyland is that they run out of them around noon because the places are already booked, so they close up the stands where you can pick them up. It meant that I got to spend most of the night and the afternoon standing in line. It seems like this is the major theme of this theme park. You have to stand in line for the rides, food, and even the bathroom. It makes the day exhausting and my feet are really feeling it today.

For the most part, I am glad that I got to experience a Disneyland at least once in my life. I do not know when I will be back again, but at least I can now know what it means to be at one of these iconic parks.

Mud Season – Back to Japan Day 3

I know that the eventual goal is to find the cherry blossoms out here, but I was pretty sure that this would have to wait until I made it to Tokyo. I thought that I was up too high in elevation for these trees to be able to survive and show the pink explosion that I have heard so much about. But I have found a couple of them as they try to compete with their siblings down in the big city, but it was still not the time for them to come out like advertised. And yesterday, I went further up the mountains of Japan making sure that I would not see them at all.

One of the things I recommend getting if you ever come out to Nikko, Japan is the bus pass for the area. It allows you to have unlimited rides on the bus through town, and will even take you up a very windy mountain road to the mountain town of Chuzenji. This town sits on the banks of a mountain lake, and has many hiking paths in the area that can take you to many exciting and beautiful spots. I imagine that during the summer months, and the fall, the place is packed with people, enjoying the mountain air, and playing on the lake. The trees up here make it look like the perfect place to be when the leaves change color, but in the spring, there are not many people here. The town knows this, and most of the shops and restaurants close up for the mud season.

Even all of the docks were blocked off, preventing people from going out on to them, and all off the paddle boats shaped like swans were loaded up on the shore, and locked up until warmer times would come. Despite the lack of people, I think that this might have been the best time to come. I did not have to fight crowds to enjoy the scenery, and without the noise that comes with vacationers packing the shore, it gave me a quiet respite that allowed me to just enjoy the day for what it had to offer.

Even the biggest attraction out there, Kegon Falls, did not feel overcrowded. This 100 meter waterfall brings many people to take pictures. There are some nice viewing places on top, but to get the best views, I needed to take an elevator through 100 meters of mountain to get to the bottom of the falls. There were a few people who took the bus up to this spot today, but not nearly as much as there could have been. I had no trouble finding a spot on the rail to take some pictures and enjoy the beauty of the scene. Granted I have seen pictures of this place in autumn and I can see why the crowds come out for it, but I really enjoyed the time I was able to spend there without them.

I know enough about the mud season by growing up in Colorado, and seeing the mountain towns empty during those times of the year when the tourists just do not want to come, but I think that these can be the best time to enjoy places. I got to see something truly spectacular, and I felt like I was the only one that got to see it. I know in reality that is not true; that many people come to this place to take in its beauty, but I still will hold on to that feeling because it has made this trip one of my favorite ones so far. It is still about the sights, but this time, it is mine to enjoy the way I see fit.

A Day in Nikko – Back to Japan Day 2

I did get to see one tree start to produce a couple of bud that would eventually explode with cherry blossoms, but that is not what Nikko is really about. It is more of a mountain town filled with cedars and ancient temples and shrines. The town experiences and influx of people during the autumn months to see a different kind of event with the trees, and it was nice to explore the city during one of the quieter times. That does not mean that people still did not come out for the day from Tokyo to look at the sights before heading back for the evening. This town has the ability to get really busy for the day, but as soon as that last train leaves for the evening, it turns into a sleepy little mountain town again where everything closes by 10:00 in the evening. But it makes sense because all of the amazing things to see are best enjoyed during the daytime, and there really is not reason for a night life.

One of the more iconic sights is the Shinkyo Bridge. It is right across the street from the Nikko National Park, a World Heritage Site. It is an ancient bridge that spans the river that runs through town, and there is hardly ever anybody on it. The reason for this is because they charge you to walk across it, and it doesn’t lead to anywhere. In fact, you just have to turn around and come back after you have taken the journey, and you can’t really see the bridge while you are on it. It would be like going to the Rialto Bridge in Venice and wanting to take a picture on top of it. There is another bridge fifty meters from this one that you do not have to pay to cross and it is the perfect place to admire the architecture. This is where you will see the crowds taking their pictures in front of the bridge. They then travel across the street to see all of the temples and shrines that Nikko can brag about.

They will find themselves instantly among the cedar trees and every turn that they take they will find another pagoda, shrine or gate. It is a great fortress that was built during the Shogun era, and you can see how this would have protected people from rival armies. It is also the perfect spot to sit back and listen to the wind blow through the cedars while admiring the amazing art work that has lasted through the ages. The most impressive of the shrines is the Toshogu Shrine. It is worth the time to go up to the numerous gates and buildings and admire the intricate carvings that decorate the eaves. There are many little treats that you can spot if you spend the time to look for them, and because the crowds were smaller while I was out here, I believe I was given the opportunity to fully appreciate the sight.

But the place I enjoyed the most was the one furthest away from the crowds. It was the Kanmangafuchi Abyss Trail. This path runs along the river and you have to walk through a residential area in order to find it. It hold numerous Jizo Buddha statues, a favorite Buddha in Japan because he looks over the children. I know it is probably different during the busier times of the year, but we were only one of three groups of people who had made their way down here. The statues are really cool to see, but the river is also a treat. This is just what the city of Nikko has to offer itself. There is still the mountain area to explore that would make doing this small little mountain town in a day a really hard thing to do.