Posts Tagged ‘hanami’

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.


Hirosaki City (弘前市)

One of our side trips while staying in Aomori city (青森市) was to Hirosaki city (弘前市). I had done some reading about other places to visit in Aomori prefecture and Hirosaki, with its castle, its cherry trees and its old samurai housing district, looked interesting.

The city has a long and important strategic history. During the Heian era, it was controlled by the northern branch of the Fujiwara family during the 12th century, until the Minamoto family, who ruled from Kamakura in the south, defeated them in battle. Control of the city and the region around it was passed to the Nanbu family, a branch of the ruling Minamoto family in 1189. The Nanbu family didn’t have it easy, though. A branch of their family, the Oura family, wanted more power, declaring their independence from the main family in 1571. Oura Tamenobu led the family in a series of attacks against Nanbu-held castles. Tamenobu was a canny leader. In 1590, he pledged allegiance to Toyotomi Hideyoshi and guaranteed his family’s position as rulers of the Hirosaki area. The family changed its name to Tsugaru, from the area in which it had traditionally held its lands. Ten years later, allegiance switched to Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Tsugaru family was on the winning side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which was instrumental in unifying Japan under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Tamenobu was rewarded with an increase in his lands, with Hirosaki castle its administrative centre.

I discovered all of this online in our hotel room immediately after our visit, because we saw this mystery statue on our travels around the city, and I wanted to know who he was. The statue didn’t appear in any of the literature we picked up from the tourist information office at the station, and there was very little information about Tamenobu other than that he was the first of the Tsugaru daimyo and he planned Hirosaki castle, which was built after his death by his successor Nobuhira.

Statue of Tsugaru Tamenobu in Hirosaki city

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Our journey started in Aomori, with the purchase of a giant apple from a greengrocers on the station approach. Fuji apples are my favourite apples, but I also like Jonagold, and the shop sold both of them. It was a tense moment as I tried to decide and the man who ran the shop waited patiently but expectantly. I went for the Fuji apple, mainly because it had a sticker on it in the shape of Aomori prefecture!

The train journey from Aomori to Hirosaki was lovely, taking us through the countryside with its mix of rice paddies and apple orchards. I managed to take a couple of photographs through the window of the moving train.

Apple Orchard from the train

Rice paddies near Hirosaki city

As we drew closer to Hirosaki station, Mount Iwaki loomed into view. It’s a double volcano and very imposing with its snow-covered peaks. It forms an impressive backdrop to the city as you walk through it.

At the station, I added a couple more JR station stamps to my collection, and we picked up a guide map from the tourist office. It’s a well designed map with information about World Heritage sites, apple production and key sites in the city from temples and shrines to Hirosaki Castle Park via the selection of European-style buildings that are scattered throughout the city, a reminder of the Meiji era’s desire to emulate the West. The guide opens out to reveal a map of the city, including the City Loop Bus routes and an enlarged map of the Castle Park. As guide maps go, it’s one of the most user-friendly I’ve come across. There’s even an online version of it. Well done, Hirosaki City!

Leaving the tourist office, we emerged into the station’s central plaza and I couldn’t resist the temptation to be photographed next to the giant apple that sits in the middle of the concourse.

Ridiculously excited by a giant apple!

Outside the station there was more evidence of the city’s pride in its apple production.

Hirosaki, City of Apples

Rather than catch one of the loop buses, we decided to walk from the station to the Castle Park. We followed signs for the Otemon Gate, which took us through the city centre, past the Episcopal Anglican Ascension Church, past shops and public sculptures representing the produce of the area, from pottery to apples. The walk seemed to take forever! We paused to take photographs at the Aomori Bank Memorial Hall.

This bank was the first to be established in Aomori Prefecture and was designed in the Renaissance style by Horie Sakichi, mixing European and Japanese architectural elements. It’s possible to go inside and look at the original fixtures and fittings, such as its ceiling covered in imitation leather paper and the counter made from Aomori keyaki wood, but we didn’t make a visit, choosing instead to press on to the castle.

We entered via the Sannomaru Otemon Gate, next to Otemon Square.


As we passed through the gate, we could see there were still some blossoms on the late blooming cherry trees.

Hirosaki Castle Park is one of the best places in Japan to do hanami. Apparently, the cherry blossoms fall so thickly onto the moat surrounding the castle that it looks like the water has turned pink. The city holds an annual Cherry Blossom Festival during the peak blooming, which typically occurs between late April and early May. We were about a week late. In a way, I’m glad, because it was quiet and we were able to admire the late blossoms up close with some of the other visitors to the park.



One of the two women in the first picture above was desperate for the wind to set off a blossom storm. We giggled together as she waved her arms to encourage the wind and mimed knocking the branches.

The main draw of the park for us was the Castle Precincts. The park itself is free to enter and walk around, but if you want to visit the Castle Precincts and the reconstructed Castle Keep, there is an entry fee of 310円 to pay.

On our way to the Castle Precincts, we paused by one section of the moat to eat our lunch of inari zusshi, egg sando and, of course, our giant apples.

As we sat and ate, a swan glided past on the moat, towards the vermilion bridge spanning the water that was as green as a cup of matcha tea.


Apples finished, for want of a bin nearby, we temporarily placed the cores on the uprights of the fence in front of the bench we were sitting on. Shortly afterwards my bug-fascinated husband leaned forwards to inspect his apple core. A caterpillar had climbed on board for a quick snack!

We left him to it, and headed towards the the castle, crossing the bridge over the moat with our fellow strollers.


Around the corner, we came upon a coach party of other tourists, lining up to take turns at photographing each other on the bridge in front of the Castle Keep. We waited our turn and did the same before heading for the ticket office, where there was another view of the keep.


Once inside the grounds, we went to look at the small museum housed inside the keep. This three-storey building was constructed in 1810, replacing the replacement for the original five-storey keep that burnt down in 1627, following a lightening strike. The upper floors are accessed by increasingly steep ladders, and each floor has displays of artefacts dating from the life of the castle, including swords, armour and pottery.


Going up and down the steep ladders was an adventure, and we both took care to heed the warning signs about banging our heads as we emerged at the top of each set. There were spectacular views of the castle grounds to be had from the narrow upper windows. I particularly enjoyed looking down on people having their photograph taken on the bridge beneath the keep.

Back outside the keep, we read some information about it being moved to a more central spot within the Honmaru as part of a ten year project to renovate the castle walls. The project is due to start in October 2014. The keep itself will be dismantled and it will take five years for it to be rebuilt. The moat around the castle precincts will also be covered up while the renovation work on the walls is carried out. We timed our visit just right!

We strolled through the remains of the castle precincts, enjoying more of the cherry blossom and pausing to admire a couple of the remaining corner turrets, known as yagura.




We exited the park through the northern Kamenokomon Gate and headed for the Nakacho Historical House Preservation Area. The area preserves five or six old buildings and houses from the samurai era, some of which are now shops, others are homes that are open to the public to look around.

The first pair of buildings are directly opposite the castle grounds as you exit the Kamenokomon.


The Ishiba House belonged to a family of wealthy merchants who originally sold straw products. The shop is now the Japanese equivalent of an off-licence, or liquor store if you’re reading in the US. It’s possible to go in and not buy anything, and the shop owner will talk to visitors about the history of the building. Next door is the Kawasaki Dye Works, which we did go into. The studio is the last remaining place in Hirosaki where natural indigo dyeing is still carried out. The studio offers workshops on hand dyeing handkerchiefs and scarves using original Edo era dyeing vats. The shop at the front sells an array of indigo dyed products, and the woman running the shop is very friendly. We bought quite a few souvenirs here.

Behind these two shops is a grid of residential streets. A lot of the houses are modern, and look very expensive. I imagine it costs a lot to live in a preservation area. One house in particular had some very attractive topiary at its gate.

Dotted among the modern houses are some of the remaining Edo era buildings. Once again, I hadn’t done my research properly, and we arrived too late to have a look around inside the former Umeda and Ito residences. I did try a guerilla shot over the fence of the former Umeda residence to see what we could have seen if only we’d been half an hour earlier.


Back on the streets behind the Ishiba House and Kawasaki Dye Works, we found a gate that looked old to us, so I’ve decided it was a samurai gate. It probably isn’t, but a woman has to find comfort from disappointment somewhere!


We considered catching the loop bus back to the station, but decided to walk back instead. We passed some interesting shops, including a tattoo parlour with a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary gazing wistfully out of a window. Our route back was definitely through the non-touristy end of town, which made it more interesting for us.


When we arrived back at the train station platform, someone had helpfully laid down pieces of tape decorated with apples to show passengers where the train doors would be when the train came into the station.

As ever, there was much we didn’t see in Hirosaki, but it’s always good to leave yourself an excuse to go back somewhere. I’d like to visit Aomori Prefecture during August, so that we can experience the two main Nebuta festivals in Aomori City and Hirosaki City. The temperature was quite cool while we were in the area, in early May, so hopefully this region of Honshu is less humid than Tokyo or Kyoto seem to be during the summer months. I would definitely go back to Hirosaki to visit the places we missed out on this first trip.

Night blossom viewing at Nijo Castle

When we stayed in Kyoto in 2012, we stayed at a machiya in a block between Shijo Dori and Oike Dori. The owners left us some information about the night blossom viewing that was happening at Nijo Castle during our stay. We’d visited the castle on our honeymoon, and it is still my favourite Japanese castle, although we haven’t been back to explore it further since that initial visit.

We almost didn’t make it to the night blossom viewing. We arrived 50 minutes before the grounds were due to close, and had to whizz around. It was pretty cold, though, so whizzing helped us to keep warm!

As we entered the grounds, the buildings looked very different in the moonlight, with low level lanterns casting stripes of light across the gravel. Quite a different view to the one we saw three years before.

Because of the cold weather, there were only a couple of trees in full bloom. The bare branches of the other trees looked spooky beneath their spotlights. The trees with blossom on also looked a little eery.


Night blossom Nijo Castle  

As we made our way along the paths, some of the buildings were also lit up and looked cosy and inviting across the pond.

There were also paper and bamboo lanterns on display in the shapes of different birds and animals. I liked the peacock. At the end of the stroll route were a number of temporary structures where performances had clearly been put on earlier in the evening.

 Koto and flowers

I think we experienced some bad luck with the weather and the lack of blossom, as I’m sure this is a wonderful experience on a warm spring evening with the trees in full bloom. It was certainly a different experience for us. We seemed to have arrived too late to enjoy some of the other entertainment laid on, including flower arrangements and the opportunity to drink green tea in the moonlight, as well as the koto performance we missed. By the time we got to the end of the route, things were being packed up and the tannoy announcement ushered us out and home.



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: