Last year I had a botanical bonanza of a travel year, aimed at visiting all the great seasonal foliage locations around the U.S. I had planned on finally catching the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C. but somehow ended up in Japan! The mother of all cherry blossom destinations.
It is really hard catching the blooms in Japan when you live in the U.S. Mother Nature can sure throw you for a loop. A long bloom is at most, 3 maybe 4 weeks. Lately it is usually only a couple weeks and “peak” bloom maybe less than a week. As I was looking up D.C. flights I decided to humor my fantasy about seeing Japan and…click. Booked! Not only did I find a great price on the flight, I ended up right smack in the middle of a glorious cherry blossom peak bloom. PEAK bloom. Japan was everything I imagined, made even better by a dreamy-pink instagram haze of cherry blossom petals. It was a puffy pink paradise and I checked off one of my top 5 bucket list adventures – the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan.
Japan, land of sushi, sumo and sakura! Sakura is Japanese for cherry blossom. It is extremely important to them. They even have a word for viewing and enjoying the blossoms – Hanami. Hanami is a time for enjoying the fleeting beauty of spring and having picnics under the blossoms. Right after I landed, I headed over to the mecca of Hanami – Meguro River. This is a great place to see cherry blossoms because the narrow canal allows a cherry blossom tunnel to form. It is especially beautiful and festive at dusk when they light the trees and lanterns, and the food tents open and everyone enjoys cherry blossom champagne.
I was in awe! If this was my welcome party to Japan, I just knew this trip was going to be spectacular.
After the river, I headed out to explore Japanese nightlife in the Harajuku district. Harajuku is the hub of Japanese pop culture and it is a wild ride! You’ll find teens dressed as anime characters or just… something I cannot describe, interesting themed cafes such as the “Maid Cafe” where waitresses dress as maids to serve you, trendy shops, food and like 1,000 crepe shops. Seriously. What is with all the crepe shops? The main street is called Takeshita Dori. It’s a great area to eat and people watch. I indulged in a crepe, or two, from Santa Monica Crepes and a giant cotton candy from Totti Candy Factory!
Another great people-watching spot is nearby – Shibuya Crossing. Shibuya attracts swarms of visitors and locals alike. The crossing can have 1,000 or more people at a time, crossing every which way in an organized chaos only the Japanese could pull off with an eerie politeness. The best spot to watch the show is from Starbucks which is a few stories up.
On the corner near the crosswalk you can also find the statue of Hachiko – the loyal dog that waited at the Shibuya station every day for his owner, even years after the fateful day that his owner failed to show up because he had passed away. I honestly love this story so much. If you think you’re above ugly-crying during a movie, just watch the movie Hachi based on this remarkable dog and you’ll find your softer side.
Tokyo has so many treasures that I had a hard time fitting it all in. Here were some of my favorites:
Ueno Park. This is where the locals come to Hanami all day. There were tarps and makeshift tables underneath every tree and people were drinking and eating, and having the best time. Many were in suits on a break from work, or out with their colleagues as a company outing.
Meiji Shrine. Tokyo’s most famous Shinto shrine, dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his consort Empress Shoken. This was my first shrine visit ever. I found it to be really fascinating.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. Shinjuku Gyoen is a national garden known for its cherry blossoms and boy it did not disappoint!
Senso-ji Temple was one of my favorites because they light it up so well at night. I recommend going to see it just before sunset so you can get some great daylight and evening photos.
A short train ride will bring you to the epitome of their Kawai culture (cute culture), the Sanrio Puroland theme park. Hello Kitty land!
Beware of the food though. Although cute, it was thoroughly disgusting. The green play-doh frog was possibly mashed potato but it tasted really strange and very thick. The marshmallows were tasteless. I guess that’s a good thing because the “water” was a curry sauce and who wants sweet marshmallows in curry rice? Strangeness.
Hedgehog Cafe. I don’t think you can go to Tokyo without visiting one of their crazy cafes. They have dog, cat, owl, hedgehog, maid and various other bizarre or cute cafes. I decided to visit the Hedgehog Cafe. I’ve never seen a live hedgehog, this should be fun! It was actually a bit sad. These poor little critters are nocturnal and they just wanted to sleep and be left alone. I would not do this again. Instead, I would choose the dog or cat cafe. They appear much more happy to have all the attention.
The best part of Tokyo? Disneyland!!! What a dream to visit this place. It was extremely busy and might have been a real downer had I not gone with a plan. If you’re planning a trip to Tokyo Disney in the future, read my Tokyo Disney blog post with highlights, tips and tricks to make it amazing instead of frustrating.
Japan is a truly fascinating country. Here are some of my first impressions:
- Everyone wears medical masks, and for good reason. One ride on the subway anywhere near rush hour will tell you why.
- There are vending machines on every corner. Very convenient!
- The Japanese spend their lives in a queue and it doesn’t seem to affect them. They line up to get on the trains, to cross the street, on the escalators, food places, bus lines and don’t get me started on the theme park lines. Amazingly, they do it so politely.
- Most everything is written in English. It made public transportation a breeze.
- The train staff bows before they leave the car. Love this little touch!
- They have more convenience stores than they have people!
- It is not as expensive as you think, except for cabs and trains. I racked up $45 in train fare in 2 days. Yet, my meals were on average $10 or less. The hostels, no more than $30 a night.
- The bathrooms are amazing! Yes, they have the traditional squat-for-the-pot style but most of the time they are modern and even luxurious. The seats are heated, they come with disinfectant dispensers, the lids lift and toilets flush automatically and the best part – they have soundtracks! The sounds of rushing water either meant to help you go or to mask…when you go. Japanese and their politeness.
- The hostels are great! Many are like staying at a 4-star dormitory. But you must read the reviews to be sure you are getting a good one.
I even stayed in a capsule hotel! Cozy, a little warm, very doable.
I wrapped up Tokyo in 2.5 days and made my way over to Kyoto, “Old Japan.” Kyoto is pretty significant. It contains hundreds of historical sites, temples, shrines, gardens and infamous districts such as Gion district (Geisha!) and Arashiyama. The blossoms made it truly magical. Check out my Kyoto post here!
Or, skip to my other Japan posts – Osaka, Himeji & Hiroshima, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea!
– The Time Traveler