Tag Archives: Tokyo

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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Winter approaches in Tokyo

Winter is coming, and it is starting to get cold at times now.  Mostly the days are actually really comfortable – strange for late November, early December – but welcome, after the 4-month steam bath that is affectionately known as “summer” here in my part of Japan.  But, this week for the first time, I had to bring out my long wool winter coat.  My coat is mid-calf length and fire-engine red, so though it is pretty, it feels a bit ostentatious when wading through the sea of black and beige that is Tokyo-ites in their clothing.  It’s not enough that I am really tall, non-asian, and have curly hair (somewhat of a rarity here), but now I am draping myself in head-to-toe crimson like some kind of visual foreigner siren.  I stood out before, but now you absolutely cannot miss me.

Though I dislike cold weather, Tokyo is kind of a nice place to spend the colder months.  People in Tokyo generally dress very well, so they look great in all of their trim pea coats or sporty puffy jackets, all wrapped up to their ears in stylish scarves and topped off with cute hats.  Girls here love to wear tiny shorts and mini skirts with black tights or thigh-highs.  It looked absurd to me when they did it all summer long in the muggy heat, but now that it is cold, it looks adorable and somewhat sensible as well.

One aspect of Tokyo that really lends itself to cold weather is the food.  Soups are a fairly large segment of the Japanese food offerings that I see on a daily basis.  Udon, Soba, and Ramen shops are all over the place, and all specialize in noodles and soups and combinations of the two.  Curry rice is also quite popular, and is very similar to a stew, which makes it a perfect food for winter.  Additionally, coffee is huge here – possibly more popular here than in America. So, there are coffee shops everywhere, and a wide variety of coffee drinks (and of course, tea!) can be purchased in the omnipresent vending machines and convenience stores.  The convenience stores here do not keep brewed coffee around, unfortunately, but they do offer a nice alternative.  Once the weather becomes chilly, they begin to offer a heated section of bottled drinks in addition to the refrigerated one.  So, you can get all manner of toasty warm drinks:  coffee, of course, and tea in a variety of flavors, but also hot chocolate, and hot lemonade – something I hadn’t thought of having before coming here, but which is quite logical when you think about it, what with all the emphasis on lemons and vitamin C during cold and flu season.  As an ingenious bonus, the ubiquitous vending machines ALSO have a hot section in the winter!  This is something I have never heard of in the US, but in a walking city like Tokyo where you are out in the elements, I think it is positively brilliant.  For roughly a buck fifty you can enjoy a nice warm drink on the train platform after a chilly walk to the station.  It’s very soothing and makes the cold a bit more tolerable.

In homes, the cold is handled much differently here than in the U.S.  For reasons I don’t yet understand, Japanese homes generally do not seem to be equipped with any sort of central heating system.  At work we have central heat and air, but at most homes and apartments, people seem to rely on wall-mounted heating-air-conditioning units which are not terribly effective at heating a room and can only push cooled or heated air in one direction.  It would seem that people don’t even rely on those very much, because there are a variety of popular heating contraptions that I am always hearing about these days.  A very common item here is a low table with a heater attached to the underside, called a kotatsu.  The idea is that you drape a blanket over it (there is a split table-top to allow you to do this) and it creates sort of a little heated tent for your legs while you eat or work or study.  (I have one, but I have yet to try it, as I much prefer to crank my wall heater unit in pursuit of the elusive concept of total room comfort.)  I’ve also heard Japanese people talk rather lovingly about a special hot water bottle that you are supposed to put inside your futon which makes for a very warm night’s sleep.  Additionally, there are all manner of fuzzy booties, belly warmers (like leg warmers, except for your midsection), and various shawls and wraps being stocked in all the stores.

One last thing I am really looking forward to for winter is the onsens, or hot springs.  The Japanese people are very fond of baths, and they are a rather nice part of Japanese culture, in my opinion.  There are public bath houses, called sento, which are a traditional place of relaxation here, similar to the spa at your local gym, (sans workout equipment), and then there are the outdoor hot springs provided courtesy of Japan’s geothermal activity.  I had the opportunity to visit one of these outdoor springs after a nice hike in rather brisk weather, and it was a relaxing treat.  I am looking forward to more.

And for your viewing pleasure, here’s a picture of the Japanese snow monkeys enjoying an onsen in the snow.  Something I hope to see myself this winter!

Ooooohhhh...waaaaaaarmmmm

Ahh, small town living

There is alot to be said for a life of simplicity.  I quite enjoy being my own cruise director these days.

Last weekend I was able to catch up with some old friends and acquaintances from high school, and even meet people that I am distantly “related” to, but had never met.  If your family lives in a small town for very long, you will find yourself connected to random people in more ways than you know, and this will happen with or without your direct participation.  I saw old track teammates, talked to childhood playmates, met people’s husbands, all of that.  My very popular friend James was back in town visiting from Japan and had this little party to get his friends together.  He’s the only person I actually know over there, (though I’ve made a few pen pals that I plan to eventually meet), so of course I went out to say hello while he was here.  Festivities were held at the bar at the Ramada Inn, which is adjacent to the Kmart, if that tells you anything about my hometown. (I think it isn’t long before there are bars located IN the big-box stores, and then you won’t ever need to leave…)  One of the lovely things about going out in a small midwestern town is that no one expects you to order signature martinis or artisan beers, so a perfectly good time can be had with just one $10 bill and not even a whiff of hipster irony.

While James is the type of person to call everyone he knows and get them together on the rare occasion when he is back at home, I’ve traditionally been the type of person to sneak into town only for Christmas, and barely leave the house while I was here.  I could do that then, because I was only ever here for a week at a time.  Until now, for me, my high school years have existed in a bubble.  At first I tried to forget about that time and distance myself from it completely.  I was not happy with who I had been, or with how those years had failed to measure up to the John Hughes film catalogue.  Now that there is a good decade and a half separating me from my Aqua-net hairstyle and peg-legged jeans, I’ve actually developed some nostalgia for those years.  I found that I’m curious about my old classmates, and I love seeing what they look like as grown-ups… how their personalities have changed and how they have stayed the same…where their paths have taken them.  I wish that I hadn’t been so shy and self-conscious back then, as I would have liked to get to know some of these people better.  It is astounding how many people there are in this world, and each one of them has a unique story to tell – even in a small town where not a lot seems to happen.  People are interesting.  Their lives are interesting.

Operation “Teach In Tokyo” is still on and moving full speed ahead.  I spent a couple of weeks glued to the coverage of the earthquake/tsunami/radiation disaster trifecta, and for a while it made me hold off on buying my plane ticket.  I wondered if I was about to throw away hundreds of dollars on a flight only to have a nuclear meltdown occur which would then cause the government to restrict travel to Japan.  Nevermind the health risks of being near a leaking nuclear reactor, with low levels of radiation leaching into the air, the water, and the food supply.  Regardless of the reasonable concerns, I believe in my core that all will be well 6 weeks from now and that I will still be able to go, so it seemed stupid to keep putting off buying the flight.  I went ahead and pulled the trigger.  I have no desire to change my plans, and I stubbornly refuse to think that the worst-case scenario will happen.  I have no “plan-b country,” as a friend of mine casually inquired yesterday.  The way I see it, conditions will never be ideal – you just commit, and once you’ve done so, stay the course…it will all work out in the end.