Archive for the ‘Sakura’ Category

Ueno (上野)

Ueno is located in the old Shitamachi (下町) area of Tokyo, along with Asakusa. We have visited the area a couple of times on our trips to Japan, but have only scratched the surface of what the district has to offer.

The most famous part of Ueno is, of course, Ueno Park (上野公園), located alongside Ueno Station and famous for its cherry blossom in Spring.


Our first visit to Ueno was in October 2010 when, on a particularly rainy day, we decided to follow our visit to the Drum Museum in Asakusa with a trip to the National Museum of Nature and Science.

I work in a science and industry museum and I’m always interested to see how other countries approach science in their museums. By far my favourite science museum is Miraikan, which seems to get the balance between learning and fun just right. The National Museum of Nature and Science is a mix of the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum in London. It’s an integrated museum with a satellite site out at the Tsukuba Research Centre. We only visited the main museum building in Ueno Park, but I want to visit the Centre for the History of Japanese Industrial Technology as well, one day.

The main museum is split into two galleries. The Japan Gallery presents the natural history of the Japanese islands, as well as an introduction to the scientific instruments used to observe nature in Japan. The Global Gallery presents natural history across the planet, mixed in with a celebration of Japanese scientists and an exploration of how science and technology has progressed in Japan, compared with other nations.

We mainly explored the Japan Gallery on our trip. It was interesting to learn how people have adapted to the environment in Japan over the centuries, and how they have used science to understand the nature of Japan. I particularly liked the chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs, one of which preserves a recording of the Great Kanto Earthquake.




The natural history displays were interesting, particularly the displays of flowers, fossilised plants and insects.


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The museum is pretty big, and we were running out of time, so our visit to the Global Gallery focused on the Science and Innovation display. This featured similar objects to those collected and displayed at the museum where I work. The space seemed a little stark, and a lot of the interactives were broken. It was interesting to see the industrial machinery, aviation and computing displays, though, and particularly nice to see the Manchester Mark I computer given a name check!







There was also a display of dinosaurs that we visited at the end. It was in a really small room, but the curators had done their best with the space. The path through brought you up close to the skeletons and replicas, so you got a sense of scale. It did feel cramped and jumbled, though.



There are other museums in Ueno Park, including Tokyo National Museum and the National Museum of Western Art, neither of which we have visited yet. There’s a zoo in the park as well, if captive animals float your boat.

We did a bit of cherry blossom viewing in Ueno Park, in April 2012, and had a wander around Shinobazu Pond. The Park is beautiful and very busy in cherry blossom season. The April day we visited was a sunny one, but not particularly warm. The park was filling up with people by the time we arrived. At the southern entrance to the park, close to Ueno Station, there is a cherry tree with a large inscribed rock sitting under it. It seems to be something to do with a Rotary Club.



We took the tree lined path north from this stone, past a display of lanterns for the Ueno Sakura Matsuri (Ueno Cherry Festival).


We somehow missed the statue of Saigo Takamori, one of the generals who fought in the Battle of Ueno which destroyed most of the buildings previously on the site the park now occupies. The Battle of Ueno was part of the brief civil war that followed the Meiji Restoration. Supporters of the overthrown Shogun fought the army of the restored Emperor in the grounds of Kaneiji Temple, which was a family shrine for the Tokugawa Shoguns. Most of the temple was destroyed, and the land became the property of the city of Tokyo. Ueno Park was established in 1873 and was gifted to the people in 1924 in celebration of Prince Hirohito’s marriage. The park’s official name is Ueno Onshi Koen (上野恩賜公園), or Ueno Imperial Gift Park.

The walk up through the cherry trees was very pretty, and full of Tokyoites and other tourists taking photographs. I particularly liked the starkness of the branches against the froth of the cherry blossom, and the way the branches seem to have been trained to give a zigzag effect.



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There were plenty of people having blossom viewing picnics, and tarpaulins were laid out and marked with names ready for evening picnics. On group of people had an enormous banquet – plate upon plate of food, arranged in the middle of the tarp, with the people sitting in a ring around it. I would like to be more organised and have a picnic under the cherry blossom in Ueno Park!

After we’d walked the length of the avenue, we turned back and headed for Shinobazu Pond. Kaneiji Temple was modelled on Enryakuji Temple in Kyoto, which overlooks lake Biwako, which Shinobazu Pond is said to represent. An island in the middle of the pond is home to the Bentendo, or Hall of the goddess Benten. It’s the green-roofed structure in the picture below.


Part of the pond is reserved for the preservation of wildlife, but most of it is used as a boating lake, with swan shaped pedalos for hire. It being cherry blossom season, there were plenty of food stalls around, so we treated ourselves to a cup of salted sweet potato chips, which were delicious.





On our walk around the pond, one of the nicest sights we saw was a man feeding the birds from the nature reserve. Some of the birds were bold enough to eat straight from his hand, and he was whistling to them to bring them to him. We stood and watched him for a while, and he happily let me take a photograph of him.


On our trip to Ueno Park in 2010, we paid a short visit to the Ameya Yokocho shopping street. It was disappointingly like Oldham Tommyfield market. I was expecting something more vibrant from the descriptions I’d read, but it was quite grey and drab. Perhaps because it was a wet day. I didn’t take any photographs because of the weather.

Our most recent visit to Ueno was on our walk from Akihabara over to the Sky Tree in May 2015. We decided to go to Asakusa via Iriya so that we could make a reservation for dinner at Bon. This walk brought us up alongside Ueno Station, across a pavement in the sky. It was another aspect of Ueno to what we had seen before, and we discovered a chiming piece of public sculpture.

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There is still lots for us to see and do in Ueno, and it is one of my favourite parts of Tokyo. I’m sure we’ll head back there one day and take in some of the other museums in Ueno Park, and explore more of the other sights the area has to offer.


Kiyomizudera (清水寺)

Kiyomizudera (きよみずでら/清水寺) is a Buddhist temple in Eastern Kyoto. Those are the basic facts. Kiyomizudera is also a magnet for tourists because of its setting and the charm of seeing it at cherry blossom time or during the autumn colours season.

We first visited Kiyomizudera in late March 2012. We had been hoping for some early cherry blossom, but the winter had been so cold that the blossoms were late opening and the branches of the trees were mostly bare.

It was also pretty cold halfway up Otawayama. We enjoyed looking around the temple grounds, though. Our second visit, in April 2013, was warmer and we caught the tail end of that year’s cherry blossom.

As well as the main hall, shown in the two pictures above, there are plenty of other buildings to visit in the temple precincts. On our first visit, we approached Kiyomizudera via Matsubara-dori.

Matsubara-dori is a crowded shopping street lined with souvenir shops, pottery shops and food retailers. It can be quite a crush to make your way through the crowds, but at the top you emerge into a wide plaza in front of the Deva Gate.

This is a spot for photo opportunities, although with the number of people all trying to get their Kiyomizu Moment captured on camera, it’s hard to see how anyone can get a good selfie or portrait shot!

Up the steps past the Deva Gate are the ticket booths where you pay your entrance fee to the temple. It’s only 300円 to go in, which is a bargain for what’s on offer. On both our visits, the area in front of the ticket booths has been crowded with people who weren’t really queuing for tickets, making it seem as though there would be quite a wait for entry. A lot of the people are part of organised tours, waiting for their guides to sort out their tickets, so we have learned to just walk past them up to the ticket booths.

Through the ticket barrier, you pass the three storey pagoda.

This is currently wrapped up ready for renovation, as the whole temple site is in the process of being renovated in stages. The original temple was built in the 8th century, and rebuilt during the Tokugawa shogunate in the Edo era. Most of these buildings have survived and are presumably in need of some TLC after 370 years. In 2012, the Okunoin Hall, the Amitabha or Amida Hall and the Gautama Buddha or Shaka Hall at the back of the site were all being renovated, and were still off limits the following year. In 2012, there were men working on the roof of the Okunoin Hall, apparently without safety harnesses. This wouldn’t happen in the UK!

The Main Hall is the main draw, though. The platform that juts out across the valley is supported by 12-metre long zelkova tree trunks and the floor of the platform is made from cypress boards. The Main Hall and its platform were famously constructed without the use of any nails – quite something!

People lean out from the balcony to get a better look at the view across the city of Kyoto. I’m scared of heights, so I didn’t lean at all, preferring to stay safely behind the sturdy wooden barrier!



Looking down from the platform, you can often see other visitors taking pictures of each other. In April, our visit coincided with graduation from high school, and there were plenty of young ladies dressed up in kimono taking photographs of each other underneath the cherry trees.

Across the valley from the platform is another pagoda, the Koyasu Pagoda, which nestles among the thick forest of trees on the mountainside, its vermilion tower peeping above the canopy of leaves. It’s apparently the place to visit if you want an easy time giving birth.

Kiyomizudera is a working temple, and there are often people praying before the statue of Buddha in the main hall, although more often the view is obscured by other tourists!


Behind the Main Hall is a Shinto shrine, the Jishu Shrine.

Jishu Shrine is dedicated to the Japanese equivalent of Cupid. He is Okuninushi no Mikoto, who has quite a piquant story associated with him at this shrine. Okuninushi was travelling to Inaba province in order to woo a comely maiden. On his way, he encountered the Hare of Inaba. This hare had a habit of tricking people into giving it what it wanted, but every time it resorted to deception, it had to peel off its own skin (some legends say that it tricked a shark and it was the shark who peeled off the hare’s skin). Nice. Okuninushi was a kindly god, and healed the rabbit, and taught it less deceitful ways to get what it wanted. There’s a statue of the hare at the entrance to the shrine.


Okuninushi and the hare also feature on the ema plaques that people write their prayers on at this shrine.

The shrine is popular with young ladies looking for love, and with newly weds hoping to guarantee a long and happy marriage. In front of the main shrine building is a pair of stones set about 10 metres apart. Legend has it that if you can walk with your eyes closed in a straight line between the two stones, then your love will be realised. There were plenty of school girls giving it a go when we visited in 2012. We didn’t take our turn, because we are already married, but we did pay 1,000円 for a Good Marriage charm from the shrine.

Heading back towards the Main Hall, the path takes you past the shrouded Ontokuin Hall. This is apparently a smaller scale version of the Main Hall, with its own platform, but on neither of our visits could we enjoy its pleasures. Along with everyone else, we made our way along the pathway running alongside the hall, and paused to take photographs of each other with the Main Hall in the background.

Past the Ontokuin Hall lies the Otowa Waterfall, from which the temple gets its name. Kiyomizudera means Pure Water Temple. The purity of the water from the waterfall is celebrated by visitors who drink from one of the three streams falling in front of a small platform. Each stream has a different property, and you’re only supposed to drink from one during your visit. You may choose to benefit from success in exams, a good love life, or a long life.


Close to the Otowa Waterfall is a small restaurant that serves up noodle dishes. We’ve eaten there on both visits, and the food is really good. I’ve tried both the kitsune udon and the zaru soba.

At the end of the path that leads past the Otowa Waterfall is an area with other, smaller temple buildings, statues of Jizo nestling on the banks that flank the pathway, and a pond where turtles live.


The path leads round eventually to a plaza close to the Deva Gate, where there are sacred stones and cherry trees.

Kiyomizudera is a beautiful place to visit. It’s prettiest when the cherry blossom is out, or there are leaves on the maple trees. It is a very busy place to visit, though, so be prepared for others jostling you to take their turn at each photo opportunity along the way. Give yourself a couple of hours at least, and maybe combine it with a wander around Matsubara-dori, Sannenzaka and Ninenzaka, where you can pick up some really lovely pottery and other souvenirs of your visit. There are other shops and cafes on Chawanzaka, a narrow street that leads up to Kiyomizudera from the pottery area of Gojozaka. You can get to Chawanzaka from Kiyomizudera by walking down the steps to the left of the plaza in front of the Deva Gate, instead of heading down Matsubara-dori.

Hanami (花見)

Hanami (花見), or flower viewing, is a big deal in Japan. It usually refers to the cherry blossom (sakura/さくら/桜) season in late March-April, but can include plum blossom in February/March. Hanami can take a couple of forms – you can simply stroll through a grove of trees, enjoying the blossoms and taking lots of photographs of them, or more traditionally you can have a picnic under the branches. Hardcore hanami participants camp out to ensure they secure the best spot ready for when the blossoms open.

For those who don’t want to camp out in the cold, another option is to tape your family name, or the name of your company, onto your tarpaulin and trust that nobody else is making use of your spot when you want it.

On our first trip to Japan, we visited in early May, by which time the cherry blossoms were all but gone and the wisteria was beginning to come into bloom. This year, we decided to visit at the end of March into the start of April to make sure we got to see some blossom. 2012 started out very cold, so the cherry blossom in Japan was late in coming out. Most of the blossom we saw while we were in Kyoto was plum blossom. It took us a while to work this out! For anyone else unsure of how to tell if you’re looking at plum or cherry blossom, plum blossom comes in lots of shades of pink – from almost-white to deep cerise – and the petals are rounder. Plum blossom often has multiple petals as well as a lovely scent.


Cherry blossom is more delicate in appearance, and the petals are more oval with a small nick at the tip.


In Kyoto, we visited Kitano Tenmangu (北野天満宮) in the north west of the city. This shrine is famous for its plum trees, and we saw plenty when we went to the monthly flea market in the shrine grounds. In the plum orchard in front of the main shrine entrance there are around 2,000 trees, and then there are more inside the shrine grounds as well. As with cherry blossom, there were plenty of people taking photographs of the blossoms and of each other standing beside the trees.


The best cherry blossom viewing sites in Kyoto are Maruyama Park, Kiyomizudera Temple and Nijo Castle. We visited all three, but without much luck. At Nijo we did a night viewing, and there were only a couple of trees with blossom on them. It was difficult to tell if they were plum or cherry. Most of the trees were still ghostly skeletons in the night air.


At Maruyama Park, although preparations were well underway for the Hanami Matsuri (花見祭り) that was to be held on March 30, including park wardens sawing off stray branches so that revellers would avoid injury, very few of the trees had blossoms on them.



There were a few trees in bloom at Kiyomizudera (清水寺), but not the riot of blossom that we had been hoping for! Most of the trees within the temple grounds were stark and bare.


We had a little more luck when we moved on in our travels to Kamakura (鎌倉), where the cherry trees along Dankazura, in the middle of Wakamiya Oji Dori, were starting to come into bloom. Dankazura leads up to Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Jinja, where one cherry tree in particular was attracting the attention of lots of visitors!


By the time we reached our final destination of Tokyo on our recent trip, cherry blossom was busting out all over the place. We stayed in Asakusa again, and the trees leading up to Sensoji were frothy with sakura.


We also took an evening stroll along the Sumida River, where preparations were being made for another Hanami Matsuri, and the trees were doing their best to be ready on time while a few brave souls were risking the wind chill factor to have a picnic!


A trip across to Ueno was very rewarding. Ueno is Hanami central in Tokyo. Along the main avenue of cherry trees in the park were taped down tarpaulins, very organised picnics, and plenty of recycling stations for people’s picnic rubbish. We saw a news item while we were in Tokyo that showed tech-savvy picnickers making the most of an app for Domino’s Pizza and having their picnic fare delivered by GPS.


We also tried to visit Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑) while in Tokyo, but foolishly went on a Saturday when it was almost impossible to cross the road at the entrance to the park, let alone get through the gate. So we missed out on seeing the national collection of 1,500 cherry trees.

We did see plenty of cherry blossom, though, including at Shibuya Station at night.

So as well as the more traditional and popular places to view cherry blossom, there are always opportunities to enjoy a quiet moment contemplating sakura as you go about your daily travels in lots of Japanese cities. One such opportunity for us was Sengakuji, near Shimbashi, where in the quiet serenity of the temple grounds we saw this beautiful tree: