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Trip Report Trip Report: Second Time to Japan - Sakura, Gardens and Castles

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First off, I want to thank everyone on this forum who helped make trip number two a success, including, but not limited to: kja, Mara, Kavey, someotherguy, mrwunrfl and DonTopaz. I hope my experiences will benefit others on this forum as much as I have benefited from yours!

We decided after our trip last year that we still had unfinished business in Japan, so with this trip we tried to strike a balance between visiting places that we loved, as well as seeing some new places. Near the top of our list was to see some of the most noted gardens and castles, and what better time to do that than during sakura! Our final itinerary was determined in part by what we had to cut out last time, projected sakura dates in various locations, and hotel availability. Here is where we landed:

• Tokyo – 3 nights
• Kyoto – 3 nights
• Miyajima – 1 night
• Kurashiki (Okayama) – 1 night
• Kanazawa – 3 nights
• Shibu Onsen – 1 night
• Matsumoto – 1 night

Tokyo

We arrived on April 1, a little nervous after having heard that the cherry trees had reached peak bloom around central Japan about 3 days ahead of forecast. Last year, we had flown into Haneda, from which it was super easy to just grab a cab into town, the entire process taking about 40 minutes from deplaning to arrival at the hotel. By comparison, Narita took about 2 hours from touch down to arrival at Tokyo Station. This was due in part to the fact that we decided to exchange our JR Rail Pass vouchers for the passes at the Narita Terminal One station, which took about 20 minutes. Mission accomplished, we caught the N’ex train for the 1 hour ride to Tokyo Station.

Once we arrived at Tokyo station, we decided to get the remaining train reservations out of the way for the rest of the trip. 30 minutes later we had all our Green Car reservations, of which there were many. As I had done the previous trip, I printed out all of the reservations at home before departure using Hyperdia.com, so it was fairly painless. Note that there is often a travel agent within the major stations, and these may often have shorter lines and more helpful staff members than the regular ticket windows, but that is not always the case.

One big difference this time around was that many of our ideal dates and times were already sold out in the Green Car, so we ended up booking a seat in a regular car in those cases (one negative byproduct of going during the peak of high season). Fortunately, seats in the Green Cars became available by our dates of travel, so checking back each time we passed through a JR station paid off.

Our hotel was just across the street from Tokyo Station at the Hotel Ryumeikan Tokyo. Although we were very happy with the Capital Hotel Tokyu last time, when we were researching hotels we noticed that it had increased in price by 40% during sakura season. Also, we wanted to be near Tokyo station, since it connected well with our other destinations. At first we were unimpressed with the Ryumeikan, as the room was much smaller than at the Capital, and the closet almost non-existent (we like to unpack rather than live out of a suitcase); however, by the end of our stay it won us over for it’s convenient location and excellent breakfast, which had a huge Japanese selection (and a few nods to western tastes, such as granola, yoghurt and bread, none of which we tried).

Since we had done our “must-see” Tokyo sites on our last trip, this one was dedicated primarily to all things sakura. Although weather.com had been forecasting rain all week, we woke up to sunny skies and projected highs of 74 degrees F.

Our first stop was Ueno Park, where we arrived about 8:00am. Our worries about missing the peak blooms were unfounded, as the trees looked like pink popcorn had burst all over them. A few early birds had already staked out a few choice spots for their lunch time hanami (with the ubiquitous blue tarps that seem to be obligatory), but for a time we had the park mostly to ourselves. This was vastly changed by 9:00am when the entire area was throbbing with crowds.

The main path connecting the Keisei Ueno train station with the Tokyo National Museum was breathtaking, a floral tunnel, lined with red lanterns. We spent a good 3 hours in the park, also checking out the Kiyomizu Kannon Temple and the Toshogu Shrine. The Bentendo temple is on a little island in the Shinobazu pond, the road to which was lined with booths selling street food, which we enjoyed trying; however, we were occasionally surprised to find out what we thought was a chicken meat skewer was actually just the skin, or some sort of organ meat, but which actually turned out to be quite tasty.

The path leading past the Bentendo temple was probably our favorite sakura spot in the park, partly because it was less crowded and partly because it is surrounded on both sides by the pond. There is something doubly appealing about seeing the cherry blossoms reflected back in the water. It was all incredibly photogenic, especially combined with the wispy green willows which lined that portion of the pond.

Our next stop was at the Yasukuni Shrine, which contains the tree that is used to pronounce the “official” opening of blooms in Tokyo. As with Bentendo, the road leading to the shrine was lined with food vendors, but this was a much more elaborate affair. There were dozens of tables and hundreds (thousands?) of chairs set up beneath the cherry trees to accommodate the crowds. Since it was approaching lunch time, we took advantage of the beautiful day and location. For the price of some sake and tea, we were able to secure a couple spots at a table. This gave us time to leisurely scope out all of the various food items. We settled on some delicious balls of fried dough with octopus in the middle, which I later found out was called takoyaki. Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, they were topped with what appeared to be mayonnaise, a brown sauce (like a less sweet eel sauce) and shavings of seaweed. Delicious!

After touring the shrine complex, we headed to Chidarigafuchi, just across the street, in which the moats of the former Edo Castle are lined with hundreds of blooming trees, cascading down the banks to the water, which were teaming with small rowboats. I had thought that Ueno Park was beautiful, but this scene was even more striking. From certain spots along the path above the water, it appeared as if pink and white clouds of fog had engulfed both banks of the moat.

At this point we were pretty exhausted from the plane travel and the time zone change, so we decided to take a break in our room for a couple hours before proceeding to Shinjuku Gyoen Park, which Japan-Guide.com gives its highest rating for sakura viewing. Unfortunately, I did not read the small print, because when we arrived there at about 4:20pm, it was to discover that they stopped letting people in at 4:00pm and closed at 5:00pm. Here I was thinking I was so organized! There was nothing we could do about it, so we decided to go back to Chidarigafuchi, which we learned would be lit up at night.

Since we had about an hour to kill before darkness, we found a nearby teahouse, which also sold very beautiful, incredibly expensive ceramics. We passed a very enjoyable hour having tea and sweets and “shopping” for ceramics.

If I had thought the crowds were thick earlier in the day, it was nothing compared to this area at night. Now that the sakura-happy Tokyoites were off from work, the path along the moats was like being in a subway car at rush hour. We didn’t walk; we glided, carried by the crush of the crowd. It was very beautiful, but a bit overwhelming. We enjoyed it for a time, before retreating back to our hotel, and a delicious yakiniku dinner nearby, where we formulated a plan for the next day. We had intended to leave Tokyo Station early for a day trip to Kamakura, but Shinjuku Gyoen was still haunting me. What to do??

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