Posts Tagged ‘Ueno Park’

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

My Japan Guide

Friends of ours are going to Japan for Christmas. I’m not jealous. No.

They asked if I would give them some hints and tips. They’re going to Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima – fortunately all places I’ve been to! When I sent my list of hints and tips, it was suggested that I publish it, so here it is. It’s not comprehensive, and it is highly subjective, but maybe if someone else is planning a trip and needs a bit of guidance, it will help.

General

Prepare yourself for jetlag unlike anything you have ever experienced. The first time my husband and I went to Japan, we couldn’t sleep on the flight and ended up being awake for 36 hours. This made arriving in a country like Japan, that is so different to the UK and has a totally different way of writing its language, utterly discombobulating. It took us a day and a half to recover. The same thing happened on our second trip. On our third trip, we had wised up and bought ear plugs and eye masks, so that we could shut out the aircraft surroundings and get a little sleep on our way from the UK to Narita. It helped. We didn’t feel nearly as spaced out when we arrived as we had on previous trips. It is worth building in a day at the start of your trip, too, that doesn’t involve doing much of anything at all. I know, you’ll have travelled a long way and you don’t want to miss a moment of this fantastic country, but be kind to yourself. Let your body recover. If you can’t bear to sleep off the lag, then find a park to sit in, buy some food, and chill while you take in the view.

In terms of travelling once you’re there, the Japanese train system is worthy of the word awesome. I stand completely in awe of it. I have a friend who says that we shouldn’t be in awe, that this is how a train system should work, and we should demand the same standard in the UK. Well, yes, but…

The Hyperdia online train timetables are really useful when planning day trips or working out how long it will take you to get from one major city to another. You can narrow down the train companies, if you’re travelling on a JR Pass, so that only the Japan Rail routes are shown, and you can instruct it to take you via other places you want to visit en route. You can pick up paper copies of the train timetables at major stations in Japan, but if you have a device with you that connects to the internet, why bother?

If you’re going for at least a week and planning to travel around a fair amount, then it’s worth investing in a JR Pass before you go. The passes are only available to visitors to Japan, who have a sight-seeing visa in their passport. When buying the pass, you are sent an Exchange Order which must be validated and exchanged for the pass when you arrive in Japan. You have three months in which to validate the pass, so don’t buy it too far in advance! The UK based Japan Travel Centre has useful FAQ about the pass, and is the cheapest for buying the pass at time of posting. In the UK, you can also buy the pass from My Bus. We’ve used both companies and never had any problems. It’s up to you whether you go for an Ordinary or a Green Car pass. We’ve always used Ordinary passes – there doesn’t seem to be any particular advantage to a UK resident in travelling first class in Japan, as ordinary class is better than first class in the UK!

I recommend the Lonely Planet Japanese Phrasebook. I’ve already included this book in my post about guidebooks. I got it as a honeymoon present, it has a food index to help you decipher menus and food in shops and loads of handy phrases that you can either try to say or point at for the Japanese person to read. It gave me my first triumph at speaking Japanese and being understood (asking to send a postcard to the UK).

Money. Take some yen to cover your first couple of days. We budget at 10,000JPY per day and often have money left at the end of the trip. We take travellers cheques in yen and cash them as and when. Banks (and their ATMs) close at 6 p.m. and it’s hard to find an open one at the weekend. There are ATMs in 7eleven convenience stores that take UK debit cards. I found that buying yen before I went and using my card to draw yen out while I was there was pretty similar in terms of exchange rates and commission. Cash is still the easiest option, more places take card payments now, but it’s still quite rare.

Onigiri: the best convenience food in the world! Rice balls with various fillings, usually wrapped in nori seaweed. This is a guide to deciphering the labels, but if you’re an omnivore, just take pot luck. They are amazing! I have accidentally eaten fish ones and they were delicious…

Let’s talk about the weather. We have been to Japan in March, May and October. March was surprisingly cold. May was warm, building up to hot. October was warm but damp. In both March and October, we have experienced typhoons, so a sturdy umbrella and lightweight rain gear are both worth packing. If you’re going around Christmas, like our friends, it will be cold while you’re there. I have a friend who is out there teaching, and he dresses like a Michelin man during winter. If you’re visiting in winter, take lots of layers. Should you be unlucky enough to get ill, here’s my account of trying to find cold remedies that work (there are none) in Japan. If you’re going in summer, prepare for hot, humid and potentially stormy weather.

Department stores: Tokyu Hands in Tokyo for all sorts of stuff (it’s part hardware store, part IKEA, part Woolworths), Yodobashi Camera everywhere for electronics, Loft for house-type stuff, Daimaru in Kyoto for the food hall, Isetan at Kyoto Station. We’ve been to an Isetan in Ginza, expecting it to be as lovely as the Kyoto one, but it was geared very much to the shopping clientele of Tokyo’s answer to Bond Street, and not to the likes of us! This blogger has written a guide to the best デーパート in Kyoto, including how to get a tax refund if you’re buying something over 10,001JPY in price.

Tokyo

Get hold of a copy of the Tokyo Lonely Planet Encounter Guide. Again, I’ve already blogged about this little gem. It has a good map of the main tourist areas in Tokyo and useful info on places to eat and drink.

It’s worth downloading a Tokyo Metro Subway map, but you can also pick them up at any of the stations. As with having a London Underground map, it’s useful to have something to hand while you’re travelling around so that you know where you need to change lines when crossing the city. There is an overground loop line, called the Yamanote Line, which you can use your JR Pass on, but sometimes the subway is more convenient. If you don’t have a JR Pass, or you prefer the convenience of the subway, we were advised once to buy a Tokyo Metro One Day Open Ticket on days when we would be doing a lot of hopping around. Priced at 710JPY, it gives you unlimited travel on the Metro subway lines. If you know you’re also going to be using the Toei Subway Line, get a combined One Day ticket for 1,000JPY. As well as saving you a little bit on individual journeys it means you don’t have to queue to buy a ticket for each journey you make. There’s also the PASMO card, which is similar to the Oyster card in London, and enables you to use Tokyo Metro Subway trains, JR trains and buses, as well as pay for goods in some stores. It doesn’t save you any money, but it does mean you really don’t have to think about what sort of ticket you need to buy to travel.

In the past when visiting Tokyo, we’ve always stayed in Asakusa, which is in the old Edo part of town. Even if you don’t stay there (and there are reasons for and against doing so), it’s worth a visit. The Sky Tree is there, and the area has a whole lot of history.

Ueno isn’t far from Asakusa and has a huge park, loads of museums, and an old street market near the train station.

Ochanomizu/Kanda/Jimbocho are fun for a half day’s wander around the guitar shops and book shops. It’s a boho kind of area, with a university town feel to it.

We made our first trip to Odaiba in March 2012 and loved it. We wished we’d given ourselves more time to explore, as there is lots to see and do. We made a return visit when we stayed in Akihabara in 2014, visiting Miraikan and seeing Gundam again. It can get a bit cold and windy, as it’s a man-made island in Tokyo Bay, so take a coat! We took the JR Yamanote line to Shimbashi station, then rode the automated Yurikamome elevated train over the Rainbow Bridge. We chose to buy the one day open ticket for 800JPY, so that we could hop on and off the train when visiting different areas. When we arrived at the ticket machines, we had a struggle to work out how to buy the ticket – there were lots of different coloured machines for different types of ticket. Eventually, we worked the colour coding out, mainly by following instructions that said 800円 on them!

We love Kabukicho and Shinjuku. Kabukicho because it’s so garish and there are Taito Stations to while away the hours and the Yen on arcade games, Shinjuku for the skyscrapers and the photography opportunities late at night. Plus it’s where the taxi scene that opens Lost In Translation was filmed – Bill Murray’s face is a perfect depiction of the effects of jet lag.

Shibuya has an iconic pedestrian crossing and the Hachiko statue. It also has the Starbucks where a scene in Lost In Translation was filmed.

Harajuku and Yoyogi Park/Jingu bridge are no longer the Cos Play magnet of old – partly because of the number of tourists turning up to photograph the teens in their finery. It is still a great place to shop, and experience the cutting edge of Japanese fashion, along with Omotesando and Aoyama.

Atmos vs Hello Kitty Reebok trainers in La Foret, Harajuku

Crayon House (delicious food and delicious Yebisu beer, with a bookshop on the ground floor level) is also in the Omotesando part of town. The first time we went, it was exclusively vegetarian, but more recently has changed to vegetarian friendly, with more meat and fish dishes on the menu. They do still have a monthly Vegetarian Buffet night, though.

Bon  serves traditional Buddhist food. It’s quite expensive, but well worth it – this is my blog post about it.

On our 2014 trip, we discovered two more good places to eat when you’re veggie/vegan – Brown Rice Cafe, near to Crayon House, and Pure Cafe in the Aveda building behind Omotesando.

Kyoto

Kyoto’s subway consists of two lines – the Karasuma line and the Tozei line. The Karasuma line runs north-south, and the Tozei line runs east-west. Kyoto is a walkable city, but sometimes you’ve had enough walking and need to use the subway! There are also City Buses that you can ride on a loop around the city for a flat fare of 220JPY – just remember to pay as you exit the bus, try to have the right change before you get on or use the change machine in plenty of time before you’re due to exit the bus. Buses can get crowded, and not being prepared to pay as you leave can cause irritation! There’s a brief guide to how to use Japanese buses on Japan-Guide.com. There are a few overground railway lines as well, that will take you to places of interest just outside Kyoto, including Arashiyama, Nara and Fushimi Inari.

Exploring Kyoto on Foot is a good guide book, even if you don’t follow the trails.

Nishiki Market and Teramachi Dori are must-see places in Kyoto. Nishiki Market is a covered market with food stalls, craft shops, clothes shops and 100 Yen shops all mixed in together. You can try some of the food on offer, or buy a snack to eat as you browse, as well as gasp at the exorbitant prices in some of the high end greengrocers. We once saw a basket of mushrooms at 98,000JPY. That’s about £700/$1100. Teramachi Dori is a very long street stretching north to south. A mid section of it is a covered shopping arcade. It gets its name from the temples relocated to this part of Kyoto in the 16th century by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Shin Kyogoku is another covered arcade that runs parallel to Teramachi Dori.

As recently revealed, Nijo Castle  is my favourite Japanese castle. You don’t need to see another one when you’ve seen this one, in my opinion.

A trip to Kyoto wouldn’t be complete without a look around Gion and Maruyama Park. You’re more likely to see a Maiko Henshin than a genuine Maiko or Geiko, but if you time it right, you might see some on their way to work, or you could go to Gion Corner or time your visit to coincide with the Kitano Odori in spring.

Kiyomizudera is also a must-see, particularly if you are in Kyoto during the cherry blossom season or the autumn leaves season. The temple is iconic, built into the mountainside and protruding over a deep valley on stilts.

Gion and Kiyomizudera are part of Higashiyama district, which has lots to see and do if you have plenty of time in Kyoto. We have been three times now, and still haven’t exhausted its delights!

To the north west of the city centre are two of my favourite places, Kinkakuji and Ryoanji. We got there by bus as it was easier than taking the subway and then having to walk. Some people arrive and leave in a taxi, though!

For cheap views across Kyoto, head to the top of Kyoto station. The station is full of shopping opportunities, and the area around the station has some temples worth visiting, including Higashihonganji.

For traditional homemade Buddhist food, that is amazingly good value and extremely tasty, try Mikoan. Mikoan has now sadly closed following a fire. Other vegan/veggie places to eat are Hale in Nishiki Market and Matsuontoko Obanzai (Obanzai is now also closed). In 2015, we discovered Mamezen in the Shimogamo area north of Kyoto. Mamezen specialises in soy ramen – the broth is made with soy milk instead of dashi and the lunch sets we had featured yuba and tofu. It’s a little hard to find but is on Google maps, so not impossible. The staff were really helpful and made sure that I was safe from harm with my mushroom allergy! For the omnivores reading this, here’s someone else’s guide to places to eat in Kyoto!

Hiroshima

We’ve only done a day trip to Hiroshima so far. We’ve now stayed in Hiroshima for a few days and seen more of the sites, including Miyajima and the Peace Memorial Museum. I love Hiroshima, because it feels really chilled out.

If you’re doing a day trip, choose to either do the A-Bomb dome and Peace Memorial Park or the boat trip (covered by the JR Pass) to Miyajima. In my opinion, you can’t do both in a day and do them justice. We chose to focus on the Peace Memorial Park on our day trip in 2009. The castle is also worth a stroll around, and is doable with the Peace Memorial Park.

Hiroshima tourist guide.

The first time we visited the city, we ate at the fabulous Otis! tex-mex food and music bar, so good that I could have moved in! We’ve tried a couple of other places since then, including places we found through Happy Cow. Our favourite place was Shanti, which unfortunately closed in April 2014, but Namaste at the train station was also good, and Otis! continues to serve good food, of course.

Osaka

Osaka Castle is my husband’s favourite Japanese castle,  and for me is the best thing about Osaka! Definitely worth it for walking around the grounds and the views from the top.

If it’s views that you are after, then the Umeda Sky Building is also worth the short stroll from Shin Osaka station.

We’ve also ventured into the Nipponbashi, Dotonbori and Den Den Town areas of Osaka. I liked Den Den Town, but found Nipponbashi a bit too crowded.

 

To be honest, I’ve not had brilliant experiences in Osaka so far – the castle was nice, but trying to navigate the shopping areas and trying to make myself understood was a bit stressful for me. It seems a bit brash, as cities go. Other people I know love it, though.

So, that’s my basic guide, covering the things I think are important, and the places our friends will be visiting. There’s loads of information out there to help you prepare for your own trip, so happy searching!

Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science (国立科学博物館 / ここりつかがくはかぶつかん)

I work in a science and industry museum. Two years ago, while we were in Tokyo, on a rainy day, we went to look at the nearest equivalent to the place I work. Situated in Ueno Park (上野公園 / うえのこうえん) is the National Museum of Nature and Science (国立科学博物館 / ここりつかがくはかぶつかん). This site is home to the Japan Gallery and the Global Gallery. The museum has a second site at Tsukuba which houses the Centre of the History of Japanese Technology, the Collection Centre and the Tsukuba Botanical Garden. We didn’t have time to go there, but it’s somewhere I hope to visit.

The first thing we did when we arrived was to stow our wet umbrellas and bags in the lockers. The second thing we did was head for the café/picnic area. I loved this, working as I do in a museum where visitors are segregated according to whether they are willing to pay to eat in the café or restaurant or whether they have brought their own packed lunch with them. At the National Museum of Nature and Science, you could buy from the array of food at the café counter or eat your own food, and you could sit anywhere you wanted to. We sat at a picnic bench surrounded by Japanese school children, some of whom had brought their own bento, which they were supplementing with snacks and drinks from the café and vending machines, and some who had lunch money to spend in the café.

We bought a couple of inari bento boxes, containing four large inari zusshi and four maki rolls of egg and pickle. It was fun to eat among the school children, who were as bundled full of energy as British school children, but twice as cute!

Satisfied by our impromptu lunch, we headed off to the Japan Gallery to look at the natural history of Japan’s many islands. The gallery is made up of five main rooms which explore the nature of the islands, the history of the islands, the evolution of native species, the development of Japanese society and the way humans interact with nature in Japan. Or put another way, the gallery as a whole tells the story of how Japan came to be as it is now, how its people have adapted to the environment over the centuries and how they have used science to understand the nature that surrounds them.

Because we were wet when we arrived and had allowed ourselves to be diverted by the promise of food, we missed out on finding out that there were audio guides for rent, as well as an interactive card system that allows visitors to collect information from the exhibits they like the most and then download what they’ve found out when they go home and look at the museum website.

The first floor was full of chronometers, celestial globes and seismographs. Some of the chronometers were beautiful, although my photograph doesn’t do them justice because of the necessary low light in the gallery and the reflections on the glass cases. From a professional point of view, the displays were really good. The cases looked as though they had easy access for the curators, and the way objects were displayed was clear without obstruction from supports and restraints.

One object in particular in this room gave me pause for thought: a seismograph that had recorded the Great Kanto Earthquake ( 関東大震災/ かんとうだいしんさい). To see where the needle had etched into the barrel the vibrations and movements of the earth that caused such destruction and devastation was a strange sensation – that this scientific record is pretty much all that remains of that event.

The second floor displays explored the relationships between the different Japanese peoples across different eras and the way they have interacted with and exploited the natural resources of the islands. The displays were a mixture of botanical samples, taxidermy and models of different species.

 

On the third floor we found fossil records and palaeontology, including a Plesiosaur Futabasaurus suspended from the ceiling in the north wing of the gallery.

After filling our heads with the geological development of the Japanese islands, we headed for the Global Gallery, which is housed in a separate building. This building has six floors of displays, and we were beginning to come down with Museum Fatigue so we limited ourselves to two. Because of the museum where I work having a strong focus on the development of industrial processes, we chose the Progress in Science & Technology room on the second floor.

The space begins with a hands-on experiments section, which had taken quite a hammering from children! Quite a few of the interactives weren’t working, which is fairly typical for this sort of exhibit. We have the same problems where I work – build something that people like to interact with, and you spend as much time repairing it as people do using it!

The rest of the room explored the development of science and technology from the Edo period to the period of modernisation after the Meiji Restoration. My favourite Edo period item was an anatomical model of the human form:

In the modernisation section, there were a couple of exhibits that I liked. One was a display of early computers, which I mostly liked because the English-language interpretation panel referenced a computer for which we have a working model where I work! The other was of a person operating a lathe, supplemented by engineering drawings and documents showing how the lathe was built.

Overall, I found this gallery to be a little stark and not as engaging as I had hoped. It didn’t take much looking around it before we were ready to move on.

Our appetites having been whetted by the plesiosaur in the Japan Gallery, our final stop at the museum was the first basement floor, where the guide promised us we would solve the mysteries of the dinosaurs. I love dinosaurs. As with most geeks, I’ve loved them since I can remember loving anything. My best job so far has been working at the Natural History Museum in London and getting to see dinosaurs every day. So I was really looking forward to solving the mystery of the dinosaurs.

I was expecting a large space, similar in size to the other rooms we had been in so far, but what we found was a small room with a couple of dozen dinosaur skeletons and replica skeletons crammed together. Even walking up to the viewing platform and looking down on the exhibits, it was difficult to make sense of the display. We undoubtedly gained a sense of scale – you can’t not marvel at how big dinosaurs were, especially not when they are jam packed alongside each other – but it felt like a bit of a jumble. And it was hard to take a decent photograph – and let’s face it, that’s what most of us were there for – the photo opportunity!

 

We’d spent a good three to four hours looking around, and there was plenty that we didn’t manage to fit in. It’s a day trip of a museum, I’d say, and definitely worth a visit. Because of the wet weather, we didn’t venture up to the roof level of the Global Gallery, but I’m determined to get up there on our next visit – I want to see the parasol garden, where parasols with infrared sensors react to motion and open as visitors approach them, and I want to see the herb garden, too.

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: