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Archive for the ‘Cherry blossoms’ Category

If you’re interested in the actual locations of the places I went to, you can check this map out.

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This is part 2 of my blog post about my trip to Japan. Scroll down for part 1.

Day 8 – Osaka

Saying goodbye to Tokyo we went off to Osaka aboard the shinkansen (bullet train). Normally it would cost around $140 for a one way ticket, but that’s where having a JR Pass comes in handy. A JR Pass allows you to ride any trains or buses operated by the JR company…for free! However, it costs around $300 so you have to calculate the total of all the JR trains you’ll be riding to make sure it’s worth it. And it’s only valid for 7 consecutive days. As for the shinkansen ride, there’s nothing like going 200 mph across Japan. The ride was incredibly smooth with plenty of leg space. For some reason I thought it would be like an airplane but thankfully it wasn’t. One minor little issue is luggage space. There’s an overhead rack but for large pieces of luggage, the only spot is behind the last row of seats. And if you’re not careful you could block the people in the last row from reclining. Oh, and if you haven’t fallen asleep you can see Mt. Fuji about an hour or so into the trip. The hotel we stayed at was in Shin-Osaka (just north of Osaka). It’s only a 15 minute shinkansen ride to Kyoto. Normally that would be an expensive ride but that’s where having a JR Pass comes in handy.

With a good portion of the day taken up by the 3 hour train ride, we decided to spend the rest of it in nearby Osaka. We headed to downtown Osaka, an area called Namba. You may have seen pictures from Japan of giant mechanical and neon signs. Those are from this area in Osaka. We went to Den Den Town which is like a mini-Akihabara and Doutonbori which is like a tourist attraction of shops and restaurants. Doutonbori is a place with many giant mechanical and neon signs. It is also where we went to for dinner. We had our first taste of okonomiyaki. It’s kind of the signature dish of Osaka. I was worried about how it would taste; it doesn’t look too appetizing at first, but I was surprised. It was actually pretty good. The problem that occurred though was that I got full pretty quickly. I forced myself to finish it and I paid for it later :P.

Like a thick pancake stuffed with meat and seafood

Day 9 – Kyoto (Ginkakuji/Nanzenji/Heian/Gion)

Even though Tokyo has a couple of places to view cherry blossoms, the place to be is definitely Kyoto. Besides the cherry blossoms, Kyoto has a lot of shrines and temples and is practically the opposite of Tokyo. You could spend an entire week in Kyoto and not see everything. I tried to get to all the major landmarks in Kyoto before my time was up. Our first landmark was Ginkakuji, aka the Silver Pavilion. It is in the northeastern part of Kyoto. The street leading up to Ginkakuji has a small canal that’s lined with cherry trees. It makes for quite a photo-op! The temple was being renovated for a while but they recently finished their work a few weeks earlier. I guess they heard I was coming :P. The temple was nice looking but the entire area around the temple made it a very peaceful and beautiful place to be.

Ginkakuji-the Silver Pavilion

Right outside the temple is a shop you can buy these little pastries called cream puffs. They were really tasty and surprisingly refreshing. From Ginkakuji starts (or ends, depending on which way you’re going) the Path of Philosophy. It was named so because a famous Japanese philosopher walked along this path all the time. This path follows the same canal that lead up to Ginkakuji. Along its 2km length are hundreds of cherry trees. It was another spectacular sight. It made for a very nice stroll.

Blossoms by the canal

The Path of Philosophy ends near Nanzenji Temple. The entrance to Nanzenji has a huge gate to welcome you in. Nanzenji actually consists of multiple buildings. One building, called Seiryo-den, has a nice rock garden within. After Nanzenji we headed for Heian Shrine. But first, we stopped for a snack break at this little tea house near Heian Shrine. It’s called Kyoto Nama Chocolat Organic Tea House. Obviously from the name, they also sell these amazing chocolates. They had 3 types of chocolates: green tea, Austrian liqueur, and shochu (a type of Japanese liquor). I wanted to buy a box of them to bring back but apparently they started selling out when they were shown on TV. After our snack we continued on to Heian. It has a wide open courtyard with a large cherry tree near the back. In the garden around the outside of the shrine are some weeping cherry trees and a nice pond.

Very peaceful and relaxing

Heian Shrine

Our next stop was the Geisha district, Gion. Gion has lots of little shops and restaurants along its main street. Off of the main street is an area with some sakura that they light up at night. It gives a whole different look to the sakura and definitely should be one of the ways to see it. Right next to Gion is Maruyama Park and of course, more sakura to be seen. The main attraction of the park is this big weeping cherry tree that also gets lit up at night. There was a huge crowd around it taking pictures. It was hard to take pictures of the tree with all the people around but I was able to get some pretty shots of it.

The lighting makes it look completely different

Popular weeping cherry tree in Maruyama Park

Day 10 – Nara/Kyoto (Fushimi Inari)

For my 10th day in Japan I went outside of Kyoto/Osaka to Nara. Nara has the world’s largest wooden building (Todaiji Temple) and inside is Japan’s largest Buddha statue. All that is within Nara Park where wild deer freely roam the park. The deer is one of the first things you’ll notice in Nara. They stay within the park area even though there’s nothing stopping them from going outside of the park. It could be that they know all the people handing out the food are in the park. And yes, you can hand feed them deer crackers that you can buy. Even though they are used to being around people, there are signs all around the park warning you that they are wild animals. They can bite, charge at you, kick you, and even head butt you which I experienced first hand :). What happened was I was feeding some deer when this one deer started to head butt me. Actually it was more like nudging me with his head, basically saying “Feed me!”. I was kind of glad that I ran out of crackers! Though that doesn’t stop them from following you around, thinking you still have food. Thankfully they give up after a while; otherwise I’d have my own pet deer right now!

Hello! Sorry, out of food!

The first place we went to was Kasuga Taisha Shrine. It’s famous for all the lanterns that they have. After Kasuga Taisha, we walked through the park to Todaiji. Todaiji is truly impressive. It’s a huge building and amazing to think that it’s entirely made of wood. Amazingly, Todaiji was originally larger in the past. The Buddha inside was just as impressive as the building it’s in. It’s supposedly the largest bronze statue in the world. We ended our trip at Nara Park with a visit to the second tallest pagoda in Japan at Kofukuji Temple.

Largest wooden building in the world

After spending most of the day at Nara, I took the train into Kyoto to Fushimi Inari. Fushimi Inari is famous for the hundreds of torii gates leading up the mountain. Some of them are so bunched together that it looks like it forms a tunnel. We spent so much time at Nara that it got late pretty quickly. We only went part way up before deciding to turn back when it started to get dark. It got REALLY dark as we made our way down, with only a few lanterns lighting the path. It got kind of spooky.

They've got big gates, little gates, old gates, red gates, just lots and lots of gates!

Day 11 –Himeji/Osaka

Today was a great day…and a bad day. We boarded a shinkansen and headed for Himeji. Himeji Castle has what some consider to be the best and most preserved castle in all of Japan. I had to see the castle now (as opposed to on a future trip) because starting mid-April it would have been covered in scaffolding and under renovation for the next few years along with restricted access. So I had to go see it now in its full glory. We arrived early, which would turn out to be a good thing because there would be a huge line later in the day just to get into the castle grounds. The castle was very impressive and when viewed along with the sakura, it became a very beautiful place to be. You could go inside the main castle building but there was a pretty long line to get in. Still, we waited on line and when we got inside, it wasn’t too impressive. I think it was partially because of the huge amount of people inside. It probably would have been better if there was a smaller crowd so you can take it all in, especially after climbing all the stairs to the top where it’s just a small room. The bad part of the day came when I injured my foot. There was a staircase made of large stones and on one step there was a gap between two stones. I stepped into that gap with the left side of my left foot and awkwardly stumbled down a few steps. And like most injuries like this it didn’t hurt at first until a few hours later when I started to hobble around. Sitting down obviously helped but as soon as I stood up, it hurt like hell!

A castle and its blossoms

Right next to Himeji Castle is Kokoen Garden. It’s a very nice Japanese garden. They have a bunch of small ponds with a lot of very big carp in each of them. It was a very pretty and peaceful garden. If I wasn’t in pain I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more :).

Big fish in a small pond (but very pretty!)

We headed back to the hotel around mid-afternoon but along the way we bought a cup of ice at a convenience store (yes, they were actually selling a cup of ice) for my foot. We rested for a bit while I iced my foot and then we headed out for Osaka. This time we went to the northern part of Osaka called Umeda. Right across from the station there is a Yodobashi Camera department store. Besides all the electronic goods in the lower floors, in the top floors are restaurants and a “Sweets Museum” which is just a bunch of dessert stores. We went to a steak/hamburger place and then had some mocha and cupcakes for dessert. At around this time my foot just stopped hurting for some reason. I guess the icing at the hotel worked! We took a look around the area, went to some more arcades (crane games!) then called it a night.

Day 12 – Kyoto (Sanjusangendo/Kiyomizudera/Arashiyama)

First stop was Sanjusangendo where there are 1000 human-sized statues of a goddess. The building is also the longest wooden building in Japan. It was an impressive place. Unfortunately they don’t allow pictures to be taken.

One of the more popular places to visit during sakura season is Kiyomizudera. It’s a temple in the hilly eastern part of Kyoto. You have to walk up a hill past many shops and restaurants to reach the temple. Some snacks of note that you can purchase here are a soy milk donut shop and a cream puff shop. At this point one of my cousins got sick and my other cousin (her sister) decided to take her back to the hotel. I felt bad continuing on while they headed back to the hotel, but there was no point for all of us to go back so I pressed onward. At the temple itself you get a great view of Kyoto as well as the many cherry trees surrounding the temple. The view plus the temple and the sakura made for a beautiful sight. Right below the temple you can drink water from 3 small waterfalls. The water comes from a natural spring and is considered to be “holy water”. Drinking the water is supposed to fulfill your wishes. I took a drink and all I’ll say is it hasn’t come true yet :).

Very popular place, not just for cherry blossoms

I think I'll need to take a shower in it for it to work

For the afternoon I went to the Arashiyama district of Kyoto which is in the northwestern edge of Kyoto. From there I got to see some more sakura and a bamboo grove. The sakura was seen a little differently here. You could see a lot of cherry trees on the forested hills in the distance. The Hozu River flows through the area and adds a little something extra to the scenery. I think it also brought with it cold air and wind because it got very chilly there. I ended my day a little early so that I could go back and check on my cousin.

The hills have...blossoms

Day 13 – Kyoto (Ryoanji/Kinkakuji/Nijo Castle)

My cousin felt a little better today but still not well enough to go around sightseeing. So they both decided to stay around Kyoto station and do a little shopping and just take it slow. So off I went by myself again. My first stop was Ryoanji. It has one of the most famous rock gardens in all of Japan. It’s supposed to be up to each person that sees it to interpret its meaning. I thought it looked nice :P. Honestly though, I’m surprised by all the rock gardens I’ve visited of how “clean” they’ve kept them. Not a single branch or leaf is on the rocks and with a cherry tree hanging over it, there wasn’t even a single petal on it. I then walked over to Kinkakuji, also known as the Golden Pavilion. It isn’t actually made of gold, but covered in gold leaf. Surrounded by a pond, it was a very pretty scene. The garden around Kinkakuji was also very lovely.

If I squint my eyes, I think I see a cat playing with yarn

It's not real gold, that's why no one's swimming towards it

For lunch I met up with my cousins at Kyoto Station. We went to Takaraya Ramen. I read some good reviews of the place and was looking forward to having the bacon and cheese ramen. Unfortunately, the branch we went to didn’t seem to have that for sale, so I ordered the Takaraya ramen. That turned out to be really, really good. Personally I thought it was better than Ichiran in Tokyo.

Awesome, awesome ramen!

I parted with my cousins again and headed for Nijo Castle. Even though it’s technically a castle, it doesn’t feel like a castle. It has a moat and castle towers but the buildings seem like a really nice Japanese home. Its main building has survived for hundreds of years including the some beautiful hand painted sliding doors. Nijo also has a nice pond and garden.

Day 14 – The end

And so ended my second trip to Japan. Even though I spent 3 more days there than my first trip, it seemed to pass by more quickly. I think it was because I saw so much more on this trip. Each day was packed with stuff to do. We would leave at 8:30AM and wouldn’t get back until 10:00PM. It was fun having my cousins there even though I sort of became the tour guide but I kind of fell into that role because I was the one that planned every little detail of the trip and I had the GPS. I obviously enjoyed it immensely and I am already planning my next trip.I can’t wait! Fuji, here I come!

じゃあ また! Jaa mata!

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Well here I am again. This is my second trip to Japan in as many years. I know there are plenty of other places around the world I can go to but I just love Japan too much. Plus I’ve only seen Tokyo and a few surrounding cities so there’s lots of Japan I’ve yet to see. For this trip I went with 2 of my cousins. I told them I was going again after my last trip and they wanted to go as well. This time I went back to Tokyo but also headed westward on the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, Osaka, Himeji, and Nara. Also, I went during the most popular (and busiest/crowded) time of the year in Japan: sakura (cherry blossom) season. Hundreds of cherry trees blossoming at the same time is a sight to behold and that’s just in a single park! If there’s any one time during the year to go to Japan, it’s during sakura season. Well enough with the intro, on with the show!

Day 1 – Shinagawa

Once again, as with my first trip, the 14 hour plane ride was uneventful, which is always a good thing. As with my last trip I got the Suica & N’EX package. I highly recommend getting that if you’re going to spend a few days in and around Tokyo. The N’EX train took us directly to our destination, Shinagawa. The hotel I stayed at was the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. It’s a pretty nice hotel and it wasn’t expensive either. I got a double room which is a little larger than a typical Japanese hotel room. Plus they have an aquarium that’s literally right next door, but we didn’t go.

Day 2 – Tokyo Anime Fair/Odaiba

So the reason I left on a Friday (arriving on Saturday), was so that I could attend the Tokyo Anime Fair! It’s held at the Big Sight Convention Center in Odaiba. The Fair is mainly for the various anime studios to show off their latest and upcoming anime. There was a HUGE line outside and there was just as long a line when you got inside the building. Thankfully the line kept moving so it wasn’t too bad. Once we got inside the convention hall it got loud and crazy! Much unlike most anime conventions, they don’t allow cosplaying. Big minus there. But they do hire their own models to dress up and promote their stuff so there’s some consolidation :). Each studio had their own booth and many of them were giving out freebies, mostly flyers and plastic folders.

Posing for the cameras

Wahhh?

After I got my fill of anime, I went to revisit the other side of Odaiba. I missed my chance to ride the Ferris wheel there the first time around so I made sure to do it this time. Went back through Venus Fort and then headed over to Aqua City, which is a shopping center. They have a restaurant floor where we had some ramen for dinner.

Day 3 – Asakusa/Hama Rikyu/Shibuya/Harajuku

One of the places in Tokyo I didn’t get to go to on my first trip was Asakusa. It’s one of the few places where you might consider as “old Tokyo”. The main attraction is Sensoji Temple. The street leading up to Sensoji, called Nakamise, was lined with various souvenir stores and snack shops. We had a bunch of tasty snacks including some fresh red bean cakes, sakura powdered mocha balls, takoyaki, and sembei crackers. Oh, and we saw our first cherry blossoms there too. The temple itself was under renovation so it was covered in a tarp but we were still able to enter it.

Tourists aplenty

From the temple we took a boat ride down Sumida River to Hama Rikyu Garden. The garden had a very nice flower field with a bunch of yellow flowers. In contrast to that were the skyscrapers in the background. We took a stroll around the garden, seeing some more sakura and a 300 year old pine tree. We then went to Harajuku to do a little shopping and also had some crepes. At night we hung out at Shibuya to check out that crazy intersection.

Nature meets the city

Day 4 – Chidorigafuchi/Yasukuni Shrine/Akihabara/Ginza/Shibuya

Today was the first day to really check out some cherry blossoms. The first place was Chidorigafuchi, which is the northwestern moat area of the Imperial Palace. There are about 1000 cherry trees along the entire moat. We walked through just a part of it. I wasn’t in this area on my first trip so I don’t know what it looks like without all the sakura, but I think it goes without saying that it looks amazing with the sakura! There was this one spot where there were some purple flowers around the grass and the pink sakura hanging over it. It made it look twice as nice.

Pink cherry blossoms meet purple flowers

The next cherry blossom location was Yasukuni Shrine which is just a couple of minutes away from Chidorigafuchi. The shrine itself was built to commemorate Japan’s war dead. The area leading up to the shrine had a bunch of food stalls and some people having picnics under the few cherry trees there. The majority of the sakura were in the shrine area. They were also holding an outdoor theater with singing and sword performances. They also had a snack stall where they sold some really good almonds covered in some kind of powder.

After taking a bunch of pictures of the sakura, we headed to Akihabara to do some browsing and shopping. But first, it was time for lunch and decided to go get some sushi. The place I went to was Sushi Zanmai. It’s a conveyor belt sushi place, a.k.a. sushi-go-round. There’s a conveyor belt that goes around the room while the chef makes the sushi and places it on the conveyor belt. What you pay depends on the color of the plate the sushi is on. The sushi was pretty good and it was also pretty cheap. The most expensive dish was about 600 Yen for two pieces of sushi. They had this nigiri sushi that was salmon with a mayo topping and it was soooo good! I wish I had some more sushi before I leaving Japan. After lunch we went shopping in the many toy/anime stores that are in Akiba. We bought plenty of stuff to fill our luggage :). One place we went to was a gatchapon store. Gatchapon are the small plastic balls with toys inside. Many of  them are either 100 or 200 Yen in price, but when 100 Yen (~$1) is a small coin, it’s very easy to spend a lot of money there.

Sushi-go-round!

With bags in our hands we went to Ginza for a quick look around. We went to the basement level of a department store where they have a variety of foods for sale. We didn’t get anything because we were still full from the sushi but everything looked really good. At night we headed back to Shibuya because we wanted to go to a ramen place I had read about called Ichiran. It had good reviews and rightly so! First, like many ramen places, you go to a ticket machine and pay for what you want. You take the ticket and give it to the waiter. You then grab an order form and you get to customize your ramen! You get to choose flavor strength, richness, whether you want a pork fillet, and how much of their “secret sauce”. I made my choices and boy was it good! It was the best ramen I ever had!…at that point :). It was just a tiny bit too spicy for me. Next time I’m just gonna get half of the secret sauce and see how that tastes.

Some really good and spicy ramen!

Day 5 – Mt. Mitake

Today was my hiking day. I went to Mt. Mitake which is one of the closer hiking spots to Tokyo. My cousins decided to stay in Tokyo to do some shopping so this was a solo trip for me. Immediately off the cable car is a great view of the surrounding area. The hike was a little more difficult than my hike at Nikko on my first trip. First off, the trail had a lot of ups and downs. The trail itself was more “natural” than the trail in Nikko. In Nikko they built a wooden path for you to follow. Here it was a dirt path with rocks and branches and an occasional tree limb you had to climb over or walk under. Besides the view, that trail would occasionally offer, was an area called the “Rock Garden”. It was a very picturesque place. It was basically a small stream with small and large rocks all over. Some of those rocks became stepping stones to cross the stream a number of times. At the end of the Rock Garden was a small waterfall. All in all, it was a relaxing side trip.

Picturesque scene from the rock garden

Very pretty scene

For dinner, we headed back to one of the restaurants I went to the last time: Jojoen. I noticed there was a branch right next to the hotel so it was perfect because my legs were very tired.

Day 6 – Ueno/Shinjuku

Today was all about the cherry blossoms in Tokyo. We visited 2 of the most popular places to view sakura in Tokyo: Ueno Park and Shinjuku Park. Both parks have over 1,000 cherry trees. Ueno Park looks like a completely different place, not just because of the sakura but because of all the people. There were hundreds of people all around the park viewing the sakura. If you were claustrophobic it may have bothered you but the crowds seem to add something extra to the moment. All these people in one place, to see one thing…well, a lot of “one thing”. Something that stood out were all the blue tarps that had been laid out for picnickers. Usually when a group wants to reserve a spot, a person in that group will arrive early in the morning and just sit (or even take a nap) on the tarp until the rest of the group arrives for lunch. With all the cherry trees in the park, it was like walking under a tunnel of sakura.

People saving a spot for their sakura viewing parties

Up close and personal

Shinjuku Park felt less crowded than Ueno Park but I think that’s mainly because this was a larger park with more open space. There’s a small entrance fee to get into this park but well worth the price. The park includes a small pond and different styles of gardens. The cherry trees have their own area as well. You can really see the different varieties of sakura at this park. It’s a very beautiful park and is probably just as nice without the sakura.

Cherry blossoms everywhere!

Day 7 – Akihabara/Yokohama

Today was kind of a free day. We enjoyed Akihabara so much that we decided to go back. We did some more shopping but one thing we did differently this time was go play some crane games at the arcades. I think I may have found a new addiction! I was able to win a couple of things and most of them only took 2-4 tries. Though, once again, it’s easy to spend a lot of money because they’re 100 or 200 Yen per try. I’ve learned that one trick is to use one of the claws to try to flip the doll into the hole instead of trying to pick it up with both claws. I could have easily spent the entire day playing these games. One little detour we took was to a cat café. Yes, a café…with cats. You pay per hour but you get to play with the cats as much as you want. If you’re not a cat lover obviously it’s not for you but I found it very relaxing.

Kitty!

Later in the day we went to Yokohama where we checked out the Cosmo World amusement park. And maybe not surprisingly, we spent most of the time at the crane game area :P. My cousins also wanted to check out the Ramen Museum so we headed there for dinner and got there just in time for the final orders of the night. The ramen was pretty good but the ramen at Ichiran was way better.

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