Wednesday, April 17, 2013

And Sakura Makes My Seasons Complete

Between the last post and now, I have visited Japan, or specifically, Tokyo, TWICE; admired the beautiful autumn maple leaves (koyo), and 3 months later, finally, FINALLY, saw with my very own eyes the elusive cherry blossoms aka sakura on my 6th Japanese trip. So now I can say that I have been to Japan in ALL seasons - from spring to winter. Sakura is like a cherry (hur-hur) on top of my cake, a life-long travel dream come true, and life feels complete (at least for the time being).
More fragile than maple leaves, less lasting than snow, the sakura blooms in unpredictable fashion, and lasts anything from a few days to two weeks. I never thought that I would have the opportunity to experience the hanami season (i.e. sakura viewing season) until the Samurai is retired, not least because he is a teacher and he does not have school holidays in April (usually the month of full blooms).  Amazingly, this year the school holidays fell in late March, and after one of the coldest winters in recent memory, it was turning into an unusually warm spring in Tokyo. On a whimsy, I decided what the heck and booked our flights to Tokyo (never mind we just visited 3 months ago. I figured, if we were lucky, we could at least see a few budding cherry trees. Better than nothing right?
As God would have it (and serendipity!!), Tokyo announced its EARLIEST first sakura bloom in 53 (or was it 56?) years since the authorities started recording the start of the cherry blossom season (based on a single tree at Yasukuni Shrine), on 16 March 2013. Full bloom was expected a week later, which coincided with our travel dates!!!! Suffice to say, I totally worked myself up into a frenzy at the thought of finally seeing sakura in its native setting. I went ballistic researching the best hanami viewing spots in Tokyo, checked the weather and cherry blossom charts from JTB and Japanese weather channels fanatically to make sure that they DO BLOOM at the right time, never mind that it was not within my control. I dreamt about all the sakura-related produce I could buy, the types of pictures and self shots I could take against all those gorgeous flowers - basically I went sakura-berserk. :P
Now, the question you must be asking is that did they match up to my expectations? I did not know why, but I half expected cherry trees to be lining all the streets of Tokyo; the fact that I was no Tokyo virgin, and know for sure that the urban areas have very few trees (unlike here in Singapore) did nothing to stem my slight disappointment when I only saw one miserable tree on my first day at Ikebukuro (where our hotel was). But of course, all the awesome sights that you see from the various pictures on the Internet come from either the large parks/gardens/shrines etc, where sakura trees abound to create wondrous scenes. And once we started visiting all the famous sakura spots, suffice to say, it was an out-of-the-world experience. You do not need to be crazy about flowers or be a horticulturalist, to appreciate the sights you see during the hanami season. The Samurai, with zero flower boy-ness in his blood, was equally awed and humbled by the sakura views as I was. I was floored. I was in pink and white heaven.
I swear I have never taken so many pictures of flowers and plants, even during my koyo season visits where the colours were more vibrant and abundant. Sakura does that to you. Everywhere you go, the Japanese and foreigners are snapping pictures like Brad Pitt (or Takuya Kimura) is in the house. In fact, Takuya may have walked past me and I would be craning my neck to get a better view of the sakura trees. We turn into crazed photographers with glazed eyes, as we mentally debate on which are the best angles to get that row of trees, or this bunch of flowers. How to frame that shrine among the blossoms, how to capture that falling petal....Madness. You will think the Japanese will be cooler since they get to see this every year, but NO. They are as insane as the Ga-Jin (foreigners) are - the obasans and the ojisans, the giggling schoolgirls and the salarymen, and rosy-cheeked kiddos. I term it, Sakura-Magic.
So here are a FEW (only a few, mind you) of my pictures from the trip.

Our first stop was the Yasukuni Shrine, since the benchmarked tree is there. There were mostly the white Somei-Yoshino cherry blossoms, and the shrine looked pretty and dreamy, shrouded in white!

My absolute favourite sakura spot was actually outside Tokyo, when we went on a day-trip to Izu Peninsula. This was at the Mishima-Taisha Shrine, and all the trees were in full bloom, and most of them were gloriously pink.

If I can decide how heaven would look like, this would be close to it.

Our last visit was to Shinjuku Gyoen, which had the largest varieties of sakura trees. This particular one was dark pink - gorgeous.

Japanese kid playing with the flowers @ Shinjuku Gyoen.

One of the rare and small sakura varieties, a peachy pink colour with bigger blooms.

White-ish pink variety, and then suddenly a red sakura among all its pale pink siblings! This particular oddity sent many photographers (including me) into a snapping frenzy.

Almost purplish variety near the pond @ Shinjuku Gyoen.

Another of the famous sakura spots is at Chidorigafuchi, just directly opposite the Yasukuni Shrine, where rows of cherry trees surround a lake. Absolutely gorgeous.

For night time sakura, Nakameguro is a great place to visit. A man-made concrete canal is transformed into Sakura paradise during hanami season.

The sakura at Nakameguro is crowded together, and forms a seamless overhead canopy. Just romantic beyond belief.

Of course, who can forget Ueno Park? It is crazy crowded during this time of the year (but so are many of the places) and the sakura trees lining the main boulevard is just stunning to walk through.

Sakura and the Pagoda @ Ueno park

Close up of the Somei Yoshino - the most common white variety.

One of the rare street Sakura trees I see, which is stunning in this dark red colour, at Ningyocho.

Writing this post makes me want to go back there again, right now. Will I want to try to see the sakura again now that I have already seen it? You bet I will. And before the Samurai retires. We just need more sakura luck in the coming years.