Hanami

One of the things that I admire most about Japanese society, is the appreciation of natural beauty that is wired into the culture here. Sure, lots of people in the world appreciate nature. Lots of people like flowers and make a point of going to see them. But, this is the first place I’ve lived where the blooming of a flower is a national event that warrants festivals, parties, and a whole array of limited edition food flavors in stores – not to mention motivating throngs of people to go out and admire the blossoms.

The blooming of the cherry blossom trees is a big effing deal here.

Around the end of March, you begin to see “cherry blossom reports” on the news and on the internet anticipating when the sakura (cherry blossom) trees will be in full bloom, and which days will be the optimal time to see them in which parts of Japan. Stores start to offer various sakura flavored foods as well, which is a unique experience for me, as there aren’t many occasions to eat flowers in the US. Here I’ve tried cherry blossom flavored wine, desserts, iced tea, and even fried rice! (Not sure I will have that again, but it wasn’t terrible). Once the flowers bloom, it is traditional for people to gather a group of friends and family for a picnic (read: drinking party) underneath the trees.

These are called hanami parties (literally flower viewing parties). And when people come out for an event here, let me tell you, they come out in force. Perhaps it is the relative crowded-ness of the city that makes events seem more popular than comparable events in the US, or perhaps Japanese people not only work really hard, but play really hard as well. Or maybe, there is something about the culture that just makes this a nation of do-ers. But when people do something in Tokyo it is not just a passing fancy – they go ALL OUT. So, when I went to a rather popular park in Tokyo to see what hanami is all about, it was MOBBED. There were more people than cherry blossoms, I believe. But, as with any event that draws a big crowd, part of the fun can be the people watching as well.

The hanami tradition goes back many, many hundreds of years. I have heard that the reason the cherry blossoms evoke such a strong response is their fleeting nature. They last perhaps a week, and as such they can be seen as a reminder of the fragile nature of life.

Here are some photos from my hanami experience in Tokyo:

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A few random shots taken in Tokyo

A few unrelated photos taken in and around Tokyo:

Kyoto and Nara

Last month, a good friend visited me from the US, so I had the opportunity to make a second trip to Kyoto, and this time to see Nara as well. Initially I had not really wanted to go to Kyoto. I had been there already, and wanted to save the money, but this being my friend’s first ever international trip, I thought it would be a little harsh of me to send her off to see a whole city on her own when I could act as somewhat of a seasoned tour guide. So, I went, and I was able to see a few new things that I didn’t catch the first time around.

Some pics:

I have a serious Kit Kat problem

Kit Kat is a very familiar candy in America, but I was surprised to learn of its unique popularity in Japan.

I’m told that the words Kit Kat remind people of the Japanese phrase “kitto katsu” which is said among students taking exams and is supposed to mean “I’ll do my best to succeed.” As a result, they have become a convenient gift for graduating students, and usually feature a little space on the back of the package for writing an encouraging note to the receiver.

Apparently Nestle is also playing into the Japanese cultural tradition of giving little gifts – especially edible ones – anytime you travel somewhere or want to thank someone. They have created specialty flavors of Kit Kats that are only available during certain seasons or in particular areas of Japan, making them sort of a collectible item. (Try them all!!!).

I have fallen hook, line, and sinker for this ploy and cannot resist buying them wherever I see them.
Behold: my Kit Kat collection thus far:

Long overdue pics from Sapporo Snow Fest

I haven’t posted to my blog in a solid 2 months, so it probably goes without saying that I’m behind the 8 ball a little bit. But, I have at least still been getting out and seeing things. I like to think that “doing” is a bit more important than “writing about doing” in the grand scheme of things.

In February, I traveled to Hokkaido – the northernmost prefecture/island in Japan – to see the Sapporo Snow Festival. This is an annual event that has been going on since the fifties, featuring huge, intricate sculptures made of snow and ice.

Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Monkey Park

While I was in Nagano last month, I visited the snow monkeys – wild Japanese monkeys that like to soak in the hot springs in the wintertime. Jugokudani park has been created with its own special monkey onsen so that tourists can come and watch them.

Behold:

Traveling solo in rural Japan

I had a really nice experience at the hotel I stayed at in Nozawa Onsen. In spite of the fact that the proprietor spoke no English whatsoever, she was really friendly, and at one point even called her son on the phone to explain something to me in English. Still, the language barrier did allow for some confusing moments.

What the son was called to explain to me was that they would be canceling a cab they had booked me for to go to the train station the following day for day tour to the snow monkey park. Although I really wanted to go there and had every intention of doing so, the tour was too late in the day and would make me miss my bus back to Tokyo. But the really confusing part is why they had booked me a cab to begin with. I had never spoken to a soul here – least of all about going to the monkey park or any other plans for my day on Monday. Why would they just randomly sign me up for a tour without knowing my schedule? My skimpy Japanese skills could not get me an answer to that one.

Then I tried to reserve breakfast for the next day. The website stated you needed to reserve a day prior. I’m pretty sure I used the right word for breakfast and I’m pretty sure I was told no. What I don’t know is why. Were they out of food? Was there a reservation cut off time? Did she think I was asking about general breakfast availability rather than requesting a reservation? Who knows? I decided I would find a coffee shop and survive.

Then, I came home after the fire festival just a few minutes before the 11pm curfew, or closing time. I had learned earlier that the shared bath was available from 5pm to 10pm only, but since eating dinner and seeing the fire festival were my major priorities, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not get to take a shower. Oh well, I had on so many layers of clothes there’s no way anyone would ever smell me. But as I was getting ready for bed in my room around 11:30, the phone rang. The front desk was calling to tell me I could take a shower. “It’s closed” I said in Japanese. “It’s ok. Dozo” – (please) she said. Humph. I don’t know how they knew I was up, first of all. And second, I’m not sure why I was extended this courtesy. Did they say “oh, the dirty foreigner hasn’t bathed! Call her and make her do it at once!” Or, did they say to themselves – “oh, the poor girl missed the shower time bc the festival ran so late. Let’s let her go ahead and use it.” I also have no idea how they knew that I, specifically, had not bathed but I guess it is a rather small hotel. I was intrigued to find a handwritten “vacant/occupied” flip sign hung over the door that wasn’t there before. Did they think that I, or perhaps other western guests would skip bathing rather than be naked amongst strangers?

Upon returning my key the next morning, the older lady who had checked me in beamed at me and offered me coffee. I accepted, and was presented with a delicious apple as well – perfectly peeled, cored and quartered, and served on a plate with a toothpick so as to keep my fingers clean. I found this especially surprising since i was not allowed to BUY breakfast just the night before. We had a short conversation as I put my shoes on, whereupon I was able to find out how many words from Japanese class I had remembered and which ones I’ve forgotten. Also, my pronunciation needs work. I tried to say a gracious phrase from my Lonely Planet phrase book, but had to show her the Japanese in the book before she understood me. But then she was really pleased and said something I didn’t understand except for the borrowed English word “friendo”. Overall, I found all of the Japanese people I encountered to be this warm and friendly everywhere I went on this trip.

When traveling in Japan, even if you’re pretty certain of where you are going, I highly recommend using whatever few words of Japanese you know to ask someone. Throughout my journey through rural areas in Nagano, ordinary bystanders went out of their way to make sure I was taken care of. A woman at the Nozawa Onsen station came over to alert me to the arrival of the bus I needed, and took it upon herself to tell the driver where to let me off. I hadn’t asked her for any help – she had simply been standing next to the ticket man when I asked him if I was at the right stop. At the next small village station, two ladies helped me find the next bus I needed after they overheard me asking the station agent. Upon arriving at the next station (there were FIVE transfers in this trip!) I double checked the name of my next destination with the driver. He then asked another driver who walked me all the way inside the train station and upstairs to the second floor, marched me over to the gate agent, and explained to her where I was going. She then helped me personally through the whole ticket buying process. Some of these people knew a fair amount of English, some knew almost none, but all were more than happy to shepherd me around more like they would a friend rather than a stranger.