Cherry Blossom Time in Japan
The airlines have this really repressive rule about not giving birth in-flight, so we’re finishing up some travel before we hunker down back home in SF to have a baby. We recently visited Japan, which by the way is NOT where Hong Kong is. Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a city in China. Japan, same continent, completely different country, a 4-hour flight away. (Sorry, I’m sure you
know that, dear reader, but when we moved to Hong Kong nearly two years ago, a shocking number of people said, “cool, have a great time in Japan!” The bank even sent us checks that say, “Hong Kong, Japan.” Amazing, huh?).
Anyway, Japan – we loved this trip. The 127 million people of Japan are our new best friends. It has the best trains, the best sushi, and (at least) the second-best baseball of any country on earth. And, it has the cherry blossoms. We were there at the perfect time, during the one- or two-week window when they’re blooming. Allison’s photos look great, but we both agree they don’t do justice to the knockout colors. I thought they’d be nice to see, but good grief, I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful they are -- it’s like seeing snow for the first time.Tokyo Drift
We flew into Narita at night, took a variety-pack of transit options to our hotel in Shinagawa, and collapsed. The next day, after fixing up our Japan Rail tickets, we started exploring Tokyo. It’s the largest city on Earth, with 35 million in the metro area, so needless to say, you just have to sample it in dollops. We started at Hama Rikyu
, a 300-year-old traditional garden surrounded by skyscrapers, and got our first taste of the blossoms. Then we went up to the Asakusa neighborhood, passing through the Kaminarimon Gate and down Nakamise Dori (which apparently means “snacky-treat street”) to get to Sensoji Temple
and its Pagoda. Sensoji, which is Buddhist, is the oldest temple in Tokyo, founded in the 7th C. It’s a great place to get your fortune, too. Just drop a 100-yen coin in the box, shake a stick, and find the scroll with the matching number – it’s foolproof. A friendly guy helped us sort it out, and I got a good one, but Allison got “The Best Fortune!” The guy was really excited by this. We also had our first Geisha spotting here. These girls had to stop every 10 seconds, because everyone wanted to take their picture.
That night we went to Ueno Park
, roughly the Central Park or Golden Gate Park of Tokyo, where the Cherry Blossom Festival was in full swing. We went to the Gojoten Shrine and Shinobazu Pond, but mostly we just wandered around, taking in the scene – picnickers, live jazz, swan boats, and the incredible cherry trees. We ate yummy food we didn’t know the name of (a grilled veggie pie of some sort), and stayed to watch the lanterns come on as night fell. Here's a video montage of Ueno
.Hakone – in search of Mt. Fuji
With our train passes in hand, we took our first Shinkansen or “bullet train” to Odawara and started working our way to Hakone
. Half the fun of this scenic national-park area is just getting around it. After the bullet train, we took a series of little switchback streetcars up mountains, to a tiny spot called Myanoshita, where we checked in at the oldest hotel in Japan, the Fujiya. It’s big, drafty, beautiful and historic – everyone from Einstein to Eisenhower to the Emperor has stayed there. That afternoon, we checked out the incredible Hakone Open-Air Museum, a sculpture park with large-scale works by Picasso, de Kooning, Miro, Henry Moore, and other heavyweights of the 20th Century sculpture. They even have a much-appreciated hot tub for your feet.
We were hoping for better weather the next day for views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest and hardest-to-see sight. It was cloudy and drizzly, but we had a great time anyway. We took the mountain streetcar up to the Hakone Museum of Art to see Japanese art in a traditional garden, and then a cable car to a ropeway (sheesh!) to Togendai on the shore of Lake Ashi, where we caught the pirate ship (I’m not making this up) across to Hakone-machi. This was a stop on the old road from Kyoto to Edo (Tokyo) in feudal days, so they have a Check-point Museum and a Detached Palace Museum that display some of the history – The Shogun used to make the samurai leave their wives and families here as semi-hostages, to make sure they would come back and not rebel against him. We went up to the Lakeside Observation Building, which had a nice view of the lake, but alas, not of Fuji. The friendly woman there gave us a little photo of the mountain that had been taken “just one week before.” Sigh...
We found consolation at Narukawa Art Museum, with a small but fantastic collection of both ancient and contemporary Japanese painting, and we had a 10-course Japanese meal at the Fujiya – yuummmm.
Oh yeah, and the next morning as we left Hakone for Kyoto, having given up on Fuji
sightings, the sun came back and we got terrific views of the moody mountain from the windows of the bullet train. This video
gives a nice overview of Hakone, including the Open Air Museum the pirate ships, and Fuji.Kyoto in full bloom
Besides being the capitol of Japan for more than a thousand years (until 1868), Kyoto is also the only major city in the country that the U.S. didn’t bomb during World War II, so it’s the place to see. And with the cherry blossoms out, it’s just unspeakably lovely. Our first day, after arriving by train, we visited Nijo Castle
, built by the first Tokugawa Shogun in 1603 (while Shakespeare was writing Macbeth
, which Kurasawa would later adapt as Throne of Blood
, set in a Nijo-like castle – but I digress…). A great traditional Japanese castle, this place has the famous “nightingale floors” that squeak so no ninjas can sneak up on the shogun. Plus, if you happen to be a little gassy, you can always blame the noise on the nightingale floors.
We stayed in a ryokan (video)
in Kyoto – this is the type of hotel where you sleep on futons over tatami mats in traditional Japanese style, and breakfast and dinner are served at low tables in your room. We ate
sitting cross-legged on the floor, which was challenging for my pregnant wife and her oversized Western husband, but the food was, um, always interesting, at the least, and sometimes delicious – like the sukiyaki, wow.
Next day in Kyoto we started at the Ryoanji Temple, which has the most famous Zen Rock Garden
in all of Japan. We blissed out for a while, mulling the eternal questions (islands in the sea? mountains in the clouds?), then walked around the temple and the thousand-year-old pond. Next was Kinkakuji, or Temple of the Golden Pavilion
, which was once burned down by a disturbed student monk (the story is told by Yukio Mishima in his famous novel The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
). It’s since been redone in dazzling gold.
We also saw Ginkakuji, Temple of the Silver Pavilion
, but it ought to be called The Temple of the Under-Repairs Pavilion. We did see the monks working on the biggest sand-castle ever, though, and the cherry blossoms were still great.
Speaking of which, maybe the best blossom viewing of the whole trip was on the Philosopher’s Path
, alongside a canal in Eastern Kyoto. People were just strolling through this area in awe, us included. We followed it all the way to Eikando Temple
and Nanzenji Temple
, both of which are lush, beautifully maintained, and active Buddhist temples.
Our last stop that day was Heian Shrine
, with its gigantic vermillion and green Torii Gate, and probably the most beautiful garden we saw in Japan. Allison recognized the stone steps over the pond as a place she’d been with her mom on a girlhood trip to Kyoto 20something years ago – so we took her pictures in the same spot to memorialize her return.
In Kyoto, the hits just keep on comin.’ The next day, we saw the Sanjusando Temple
, the longest wooden building in the country (the monks used to hold archery contests in the loooooonnnggg hallway). They needed all the space for the 1001 wooden statues of Kannon, an incarnation of the Buddha with 1000 arms. I’m no math genius, but that’s a lot of arms. Sorry, no pics allowed inside, so you’ll have to check that part out for yourself.
Sometimes, amidst all the splendor of the temples, it’s nice to see a small place, like the Kawai Kanjiro House
. Kanjiro was a master potter, and his house was transformed into a museum of his work, but it’s also a great place to see and appreciate the interior of a typical, modern Japanese home. Kanjiro designed and built all the furniture, too, and he had a fine eye for simplicity and beauty.
We then walked through Otami Mausoleum and the hillside Toribeyama Cemetery, to Kiyomizu Temple
. This place was founded in 798 – it’s built over a cliff and features an enormous wooden veranda supported by 139 pillars, each 50 feet tall. The setting on the hill, especially among spectacular cherry blossoms, is fantastical – it’s like a fairy-kingdom on cherry-blossom clouds. The temple also has the Jishu Shrine, which has reputed magical properties. We got a special charm here for “Easy Delivery” for Allison, and we sure hope it works. I also walked 30 feet with my eyes closed (I swear) between the two “Lover’s Stones.” This guarantees success in love, which I already have, so I dedicated my walk to a worthy friend in San Francisco (no names, but you know who you are). Add in another Geisha spotting (four of them!) and an outdoor concert by schoolkids, and you have a brilliant youtube video
on your hands. If you only have time for one click, make it this one.
Our last afternoon in Kyoto, we checked out the Imperial Palace
– lots of paperwork, then a stick-to-the-path guided tour. A nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there, and not even the emperor does, these days. A stroll in the Ginza neighborhood, and through the beautiful, blossoming Maruyama Park
, filled with revelers enjoying the blossoms, was much better, even if it was less official. And, they had a Starbucks, too.
is of course famous as the first city in the world to be hit with an atomic bomb. We wanted to go there because, as Americans, we felt it was an important place to see. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was thinking we’d see disturbing images in the museum, and a feeling like visiting Auschwitz or Dachau, which I did in my European vagabond days. What we found was actually a thriving, charming city, dedicated to peace. After all, who could better understand the value of peace than the people of Hiroshima?
The heart of the city is Peace Memorial Park. At its entrance is what they now call the A-Bomb dome – once a government building, now an iron skeleton left in place as a visual reminder of the bomb’s effects. The most moving place in the park, for me, was the Children’s Peace Monument, literally filled to overflowing with thousands upon thousands of paper cranes, made by children from around the globe and sent to Hiroshima as a plea for peace. This is memorial to a little girl, Sadako, who suffered from radiation sickness after the bomb. She believed if she could fold 1000 paper cranes, she could be well again. She didn’t – she died of leukemia; but today, children around the world know her story and honor her memory by seeking peace. Nobody who sees this place would want to try to explain to children why bombing civilians is “necessary.”
The park also houses the National Peace Memorial Hall, which feature a 360-degree panorama that recreates Hiroshima as seen from the bomb’s epicenter, made from 140,000 tiles, the estimated number of people who died from the bomb by the end of 1945. At the base of the park is the Peace Memorial Museum, a difficult but very moving and extremely well-presented account of the effects of the bombing.
Wow. After that, we wanted to see something beautiful, so we walked over to the fine Hiroshima Museum of Art, and saw a small but terrific collection of Japanese and quite a few French paintings, including works by Chagall, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas, Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Modigliani, Monet, Matisse, and Renoir. See, humanity’s not so bad, is it?
The best was yet to come. It just so happens that there’s a pro baseball team, the Hiroshima Carp, that plays in a stadium right across the street from the park! I got an autograph from one of the players, walking down the street! And hey, they had a home game, that very night! And we got tickets! Because the Carp is a pretty crummy team! And they haven’t won anything since 1975! But hey, if you can overlook that (and I sure can, having grown up a Cubs fan, and rooting for the Giants), then, a Carp game is pretty much the coolest place on earth. These fans really, really love their team (video).
They root HARD for the Carp, with synchronized cheering, clapping, stomping, chanting, songs, cheerleaders, and balloon-releasing. We’d never seen anything like it. And there was some pretty good baseball, too. Allison, who is a fan but less rabid than me, absolutely loved the game, and I was over the moon. We were adopted by some friendly fans who shared their fish patties, rice wine, and balloons with us, and taught us cheers. I can speak about 50ish words of Japanese, but my Japanese was, incredibly, better than their English – nonetheless, we had a great time with them. They even gave us a plastic Carp bat as a gift for our yet-to-be-born child. The Carp lost, to the Yokahama BayStars. But, I am a lifelong Carp fan. Go, Ca-pu, go!
Back to Tokyo
We took the bullet train back on Saturday, a 4-hour trip from Hiroshima, and had a short but sweet visit to the East Garden of the Tokyo Imperial Palace
that afternoon for, you guessed it, cherry blossom viewing. We saw Tokyo Tower above the Manhattan-esque streets of the world’s largest city. That night, we went to the famous Tokyo Dome
, for the game we planned in advance to see -- the Tokyo Yomiyuri Giants vs. the Hanshin Tigers. This is the Japanese equivalent of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. The Giants based their colors and logo on San Francisco (then the New York) Giants, and they’re the most successful team in the league, with 35 pennants in 80 or so years. They also have the biggest payroll, but they haven’t won for the past few years anyway (Yankees, anyone?). Meanwhile the Tigers have the league’s most rabid fans, even when they’re on the road, and they’ve done better than the Giants lately (thus, the ‘Japanese Red Sox’ label).
It was cool to see the famous Tokyo Dome, filled to capacity, with the enormous jumbotron screen, and two mini-blimps floating around inside. But the dome and the artificial turf make for a somewhat canned environment. And with the high-priced Giants team off to another brutal start (they lost to the Tigers to fall to 1-7 to start the season), the crowd was a leeetle cranky. I did chat with my neighbors a bit about who the best players are, but it was nothing like the family-picnic atmosphere we’d had at the Carps game, where the fans had high hopes, low expectations, and a lot of fun. Tokyo Dome has the spectacle (watch the video here)
, but on the whole, we’ll take the Carps.
The next morning was our last in Tokyo, and we decided to pass on the temples, shrines, parks, and baseball stadiums. Instead, we wandered around the Harajuku neighborhood
, the favorite spot for Japanese youth, flashy dressers, punks, fashion leaders and fashion victims. Part Haight-Ashbury, part Rodeo Drive, and all Japanese, it’s where Austin Powers would go if he were visiting Tokyo – it swings, baby. This is the ’hood Gwen Stafani’s Harajuku Girls come from. We hit the outdoor street market, and a couple of trendy shops like Kiddy-land, which is five floors of pop-culture heaven. Watch us turning Japanese
After that it was time to work our way back to Narita, where we hung out for ages in the Cathay Lounge waiting out a flight delay, before making it back to Hong Kong before midnight.
Only one more little trip – a last-hurrah weekend in Beijing – and then we’ll head back to the U.S. before the end of the month. We’re working on packing up the Bamboo Grove apartment in Hong Kong now, and having a series of farewell dinners with friends here. The bean is coming along fine according to Dr. Ferguson, and Allison is doing just great, even if she is amazed by what you have to go through to have a baby.
Hope all is well with you – let us know, when you can.