The blossom is starting to come out, and the gorgeous pink blooms opposite our bedroom window have brought back memories of my travels in Japan as a young, fresh-faced undergraduate about this time nine years ago (NINE?! How did that happen?). It was long before I had this blog, of course, but I thought you might be interested to see some of my photos from the trip and I hope you’ll indulge me in a little trip down memory lane.
Spring is an amazing time to visit Japan, as the weather is quite warm and the cherry trees (‘sakura’) are blossoming. The Japanese absolutely love cherry blossom – they even have a weather forecast for it on TV – and it’s going to feature a lot in this post. It’s everywhere, even in a sprawling metropolis like Tokyo, where I started my trip.
I always like to go to the top of tall buildings when I’m in a new city, as it helps you get your bearings. The Tokyo Tower is a bit like the Eiffel Tower, only in jazzy red and white.
The view from the top didn’t disappoint. On the horizon, the white splodge that looks like a cloud is in fact Mount Fuji, Japan’s iconic volcano.
Another cool thing to see in Tokyo is the Tsukiji fish market, which I’ve heard is about to be moved to another location. It’s where all the restaurants buy fresh fish, and as a tourist it’s fascinating to look around and see all the exotic species of fish straight out of the ocean, that you’d never see back home. I don’t seem to have any good fish pics readily accessible, but this gives you an idea of what the market is like.
Tokyo is famous for the bright neon lights of its electronics district. Looking back at these photos, it reminded me a bit of the Broadway area of Manhattan!
One thing that surprised me about Tokyo was that there are large, peaceful parks and gardens in which you really don’t feel as though you’re in a city at all. This is part of the Imperial Palace complex, the Emperor’s official residence.
Interesting though Tokyo was, the place I most looked forward to visiting was Kyoto, which necessitated a trip on the world-renowned ‘Shinkansen’, or bullet train. These are on time to the second, and even have markings on the platforms where you can queue to get on your designated carriage. A journey on one of these things, speeding through the Japanese countryside munching on the eclectic contents of a bento box bought from the station, is as much an experience as the destination itself. I was particularly impressed by the fact that before you board, staff go through the train turning all the seats so that they all face the direction of travel! Honestly, it puts British trains to shame (not that they needed another country’s rail network to do that).
If you’re very lucky, the train journey from Tokyo to Kyoto affords a close-up view of Mount Fuji, though more often than not it’s hidden by cloud. I was really gutted, as on the way to Kyoto it wasn’t cloudy and I got a fantastic view of it and took loads of photos, only to have the camera malfunction and corrupt some of the photos – specifically, the ones of Fuji! It was as though the volcano didn’t want me to have any good photos of it. So this one will have to suffice, with the note that it is far inferior to the images I did have of it.
Kyoto is beautiful and old, and full of amazing temples. This place is known as the Philosopher’s Walk, and here it is looking incredible thanks to all the blossom. There was a stand selling cherry blossom ice cream – told you the Japanese can’t get enough of the stuff!
If I remember rightly, this place was called the Silver Pavilion, and it wasn’t actually very silver, but did have some nice gardens.
This, on the other hand, was called ‘Kinkaku-ji’ – the Golden Pavilion – and as you can see, it was very golden indeed.
Walking around Kyoto’s numerous temples and their gardens is a tranquil experience even with other tourists milling around. I should think they look lovely in the autumn when the leaves turn red, but they’re surely at their best in the spring with the blossom.
Here’s me crossing the stepping stones you might recognise if, like me, you’re a fan of Lost in Translation.
There’s no denying that Japan is a *huge* culture shock – by far the biggest I’ve ever experienced – because everything is sooooo different from back home. For a start, though the skyscrapers of Tokyo are familiar to the western eye, the older architecture is obviously really different.
It’s not unusual to see women in traditional Japanese dress, especially in Kyoto, where Geishas are still a famous part of the local culture.
Another thing that makes you feel a long way from home is the fact that English isn’t widely spoken, not like it is when you visit a European country. As you can imagine, there are some very endearing translation errors to delight the passing tourist.
I have a whole album full of these on Facebook.
And, of course, the food is very different. This was unfortunately long before I discovered a taste for sushi, so I mostly ate noodle and rice dishes. One thing that helped overcome the language barrier was that restaurants often have plastic depictions of their dishes in the window, so you can point to the one you like the look of. Also, some of the cheaper places had vending machines at the front door (the Japanese seem to love vending machines almost as much as cherry blossom) with tiny pictures accompanying the Japanese writing, and you ordered and paid this way and then took your ticket to the counter. The photos weren’t great, so it was still pretty much pot luck what you ended up with, but I discovered new things that way!
Further ‘culture shock’ evidence: these people are having a little cherry blossom party, with a picnic under the tree! This many centuries-old custom is called “Hanami” and I think it’s charming.
Equally charming is the sight of some of Kyoto’s temples lit up at night.
That’s some serious floodlighting right there.
Nara is a nice day trip on the bus from Kyoto, with some pretty temples and lots of tame deer.
The deer – a breed called silka – are considered sacred in local folklore, and have free run of the place. You can buy little crackers to feed them (at least you could when I was there).
The temples are as atmospheric inside as they are outside. Inside one of them was the biggest statue I had ever seen.
The other big city I visited was Hiroshima, where the bombed-out City Hall and adjacent memorial park commemorate the city’s obliteration by the atomic bomb. This was one of the few buildings to survive the blast, and it’s been preserved as it was as a reminder of that terrible day.
There are also (reconstructed) reminders of Hiroshima’s older history, including the Castle (Jo, in Japanese), which was built in the 1590s but destroyed by the bomb. This replica was built in 1958.
From Hiroshima you can hop on a train and ferry to nearby Miyajima Island, which is a fascinating place. It’s considered one of Japan’s most scenic spots, and it’s not hard to see why.
As you approach the small town at the foot of the forested hills, you see the famous red torii gate, which marks the entrance to the Itsukushima Shrine.
The whole shrine is built over the water, with buildings connected by boardwalks.
There are deer everywhere here too, and they’re really used to people.
They just sit around by the paths, and they’re pretty friendly. I even had one following me around trying to nab a bit of my ice cream!
I have tonnes more photos from the trip, but I think I’ve probably shared enough now! I hope I’ll make it back to Japan one day – it was such an amazing country. I think I’d get much more out of a trip there if I were to go today, being now generally a lot more well-travelled and, crucially, having developed a fondness for sushi!
Disclaimer: some of these photos were taken by my travel companion, but it was so long ago that I no longer remember who took what. They were all downloaded from my private albums on Facebook, uploaded 9 years ago, hence the quality may not be quite as good as my usual photos!