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

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Apr 17th, 2015, 11:01 AM
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Trip Report: Second Time to Japan - Sakura, Gardens and Castles

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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Apr 17th, 2015, 11:42 AM
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Great start to your report! We have promised ourselves that our next Japan trip will be to see the sakura, since we saw the koyo our first trip.
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Apr 17th, 2015, 12:00 PM
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Konnichiwa Russ. Glad the timing worked out for you on the sakura and that your trip got off to a good start. I too will be following along your report with great interest, especially Kanazawa and Okayama. I'm in the early stages of planning my spring 2016 trip to Japan and Australia; like you, it will be my second time in the Land of the Rising Sun. Did you take a ride on the new Hokuriku Shinkansen? Was the restoration on Himeji Castle complete when you were there?
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Apr 17th, 2015, 12:11 PM
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Thanks, Kathie!

triplanner, yes on both counts!

More to come...
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Apr 17th, 2015, 03:46 PM
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Enjoying this, especially because we were in Japan until March 31st, the day before you arrived. We went to Ueno Park on the 29th (PACKED with picnickers because it was a Saturday) and most of the trees were a very pale pink, almost white. Could they have become pinker a few days later?
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Apr 17th, 2015, 04:52 PM
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Hi crosscheck. When we were in Ueno Park, 4 days after you, the outer part of the petals were a light pink and the center of each bloom was dark pink, so that the overall effect from a distance was a kind of light "candy-heart" kind of pink. This differed later in the trip as we encountered other varieties.
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Apr 17th, 2015, 05:40 PM
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russ_in_LA, glad I was helpful to your trip planning....sounds like your timing was excellent. I am in Kyoto now and most of the sakura are just about finished. I think when you got to Kyoto sakura viewing must have been good as well. Looking forward to the rest of your report.

I agree about Chidorigafuchi - I also have seen beautiful blossoms there in other years....
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Apr 17th, 2015, 07:27 PM
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Thanks for the report! Now I am craving takoyaki and dreaming of cherry blossoms. We missed the sakura by a few days on a trip a few years ago, only a sprinkling of petals were left in Kamakura. Since then it is my goal to return during the right time.

Looking forward to more!
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Apr 17th, 2015, 08:11 PM
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Thanks for the positive comments, everyone. It makes me happy that others are enjoying it. Continuing...

Shinjuku Gyoen

Friday morning broke gray and dreary, but regardless, we abandoned our plan to leave Tokyo Station at 8:00am for Kamakura, in order to go to be at Shinjuku Gyoen by 9:00am. Our reasoning was that, while the sakura is fleeting, Kamakura will probably still be there if we ever come back to Japan again.

A sizable line had already formed by the time we arrived 8:45, but the gates opened on time at 9:00, and not a second earlier. Virtually everyone in the crowd went left, so we went right. This was certainly a benefit of being in such a large park, where it wasn’t too difficult to find a quiet spot where you could be almost alone.

One of the things that we noticed was that there was a much greater variety of cherry species than we had seen thus far, and with a greater range of colors, from white to light pink to a shade of pink appropriate for Barbie’s Dream House. Some of them we’re just beginning to bloom, while others were at full bloom, and still more were furiously dropping petals, cascading down and collecting on the ground into little snow drifts, until a breeze sent them flying again in tiny spirals of color. We tried to catch some of it on video, but of course it never looks as good as the real thing.

Since we knew our time was limited, we made a circuit of the park rather quickly, taking in the various ponds, bridges, and quaint little tea houses in just under an hour. Circling back towards the entrance, we noticed that most of the people were still gathered within 200m of the main gate, even though the rest of park was virtually empty. Satisfied, we hopped on the subway for one stop and just made our 10:15 train for Kamakura at Shinjuku station.

Kamakura

Since we arrived about two hours later than planned, we had to settle for an abbreviated visit, the highlights of which are as follows:

• Engakuji – beautiful main gate, charming teahouse with ancient temple bell high up a steep set of stairs
• Bento box lunch in a small house on the path between Engakuji and Kenchoji
• Kenchoji – Oldest Zen temple in Kamakura with beautiful “tunnel” of blooms overhead right after the main entrance and a zen garden behind the main hall.
• Hachimanju Shrine – unfortunately, the long approach leading up the temple, which is usually the prime sakura spot, was under construction, so all the trees had been temporarily removed.
• Shopping street between Hachimanju and Kamakura Station where we had some delicious macha green tea ice cream.
• Daibutsu (The Great Buddha) – at 44 feet tall, the second largest in Japan. A great photo op with the cherry trees in the foreground. For 20 yen you can even go inside him, which was interesting to see how he was patched together out of about a couple dozen pieces of bronze.
• Hasedera – the 30 foot high gilded wood statue of Kannon is one of the largest in Japan

We grabbed a train back to Tokyo Station, arriving a bit after 6pm, and exited through the Daimaru department store, which was the closest exit to our hotel. Directly across from us we had previously noticed that, among the high rises, a side street was lined with cherry trees; however, this was different than the other times we had passed by. Tonight the street was closed off to traffic, and office workers were laying out their big, blue tarps in the middle of the street for a Friday night hanami beneath the trees. It was very festive and everyone was so happy to participate in this annual tradition.

This is as good a time as any to mention that my idea of what “sakura” means was vastly expanded on this trip. I was expecting lots of pretty blooms, which of course there were, but the excitement of the season really surprised me. This is a major holiday, and it is treated as such. If we saw a woman in a kimono, it had a bright floral print. If we went out to a nice dinner, there were at least two or three courses with a “sakura” blossom made out of ginger or tofu, and tea cups had floral designs. Men wore pink shirts and children walked through the parks singing, “sakura, sakura, sakuuuuuuuurrrrrraaaaa!” It was so touching to see a holiday that united every person in the country and alienated no one. It’s not just for couples. You don’t have to be the “right” religion. It’s not laden down with some sort of jingoistic political meaning. Sakura, the most inclusive holiday I have ever had the pleasure to celebrate, is for everyone.
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Apr 17th, 2015, 08:19 PM
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I'm so glad to learn that you again thought my input worth noting and I appreciate your kind words! I feel like I'm benefiting from a vicarious trip this time -- and for that, thank YOU!
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Apr 18th, 2015, 12:15 AM
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Oh Russ, this is such a joy to read. I'm so happy you had such wonderful sakura viewing and I'm sitting here grinning with delight as I read. And as Kja says, so kind of you to note our input, it's very much a mutual thing here in our little Japanophile community of travellers!

Your observation on what sakura means really makes me want to make our third visit (perhaps spring 2016) a sakura one!
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Apr 18th, 2015, 01:30 AM
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Thanks. Wonderful report, keep going please.

Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms in the spring sky:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XPGNqwT2N_Y
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Apr 18th, 2015, 04:28 AM
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I was awaiting your trip report with anticipation. It was worth the wait! Thank you for the vivid descriptions of the sakura. I almost feel as if I can see it myself! Your mini-trip report on Kamakura is so helpful. As we had decided against a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo, and Kamakura came up as a quicker option for our large group filled with children. We are two months from our departure and are getting excited for our first trip. And I'm super excited for your next installation! Keep writing!
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Apr 18th, 2015, 05:05 PM
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Thanks again everyone1

Lolazahra, just a heads up about Kamakura: as I mentioned, the approach to Hachimanju Shrine is all torn up, although if you take the pedestrian shopping street that runs parallel between it and the station, it shouldn't have much of an impact. Also, if you think the kids might suffer from "temple-fatigue" you might want to limit your visit to just the ones that I mentioned. You definitely don't want to burn them out on temples and shrines before you get to Kyoto!

OK, moving on...

Hikone Castle

One thing that I had learned from our previous trip was that we could take advantage of a brief stop while en route between two cities to see a sight along the way. Last year, this had happened organically, like when we spontaneously decided to go see Odawara Castle on the way between Hakone and Takayama, only because we had a long connection between trains. So this time I decided to plan some of these stop overs right into our itinerary. Our first was between Tokyo and Kyoto, with a stop to see Hikone (not to be confused with Hakone) Castle, just a bit north of Kyoto. If I remember correctly, this was a suggestion from Fodorite mrwunrfl, which turned out to be a good one.

The sun was threatening to come out from the cloudy skies, so we had high hopes for good weather when we departed Tokyo. We had shipped our luggage to Kyoto the day before, so we were traveling light, with just a couple of overnight bags, which we stored at the Hikone station. This was to be our first castle visit on this trip, as well as the first visit ever to an “original” castle; i.e., one which was not a reconstruction. Even though Hikone usually gets its peak sakura bloom about a week after Kyoto, the warm weather had sped it up this year, so we arrived to see the peak of the peak blooms under sunny skies, which was a very happy surprise.

Much smaller than Himeji or Matsumoto castles, which we would see later, I like to think of Hikone as an entry-level, “starter-castle” for your young, upwardly mobile shogun. The road leading to the castle was lined with blossom-laden trees, but instead of strings of small lanterns like we had seen at Ueno Park in Tokyo, these were interspersed with 5-foot high red poles, each with an enormous 6-sided bucket-shaped red and white lantern perched on top. Think of those giant rotating buckets that Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants used to have out front, but much prettier.

The petite castle keep is located on up a stone ramp, from which it looked bright white against the blue sky. There was a modest line of people waiting to go in, so we decided to have a look inside before seeing the rest of the gardens. It’s such a tiny little keep, how long could this take? Well, we found out, in what turned out to be trip mistake #2. While it only took about 30 minutes to get inside, it was so slow for the crowd simultaneously going up and down the wooden ladders/staircases that it took a total of an 1 hour 15 minutes to go all the way through and out again.

This would not have been a problem had I been a reasonable person and scheduled only one sightseeing stopover on the way to Kyoto; but in my infinite wisdom, I had a second stop planned, a few train stops and a bus ride away, at the Miho Museum. In order to decide whether to finish the gardens or go to the museum, we employed the exact opposite logic that we had used for our Shinjuku Gyoen visit; that is, we had already seen and would likely see a lot more sakura, but we may never get back to see the Miho Museum. So we cut short the garden visit and off we went.

When we got off the train at the Ishiyama stop, there was a bus waiting exactly where it was supposed to be, but it didn’t say Miho Museum on the front. Unfortunately, the correct bus departure was still 40 minutes away, and since we were already running behind, we didn’t want to risk getting there at 4:30 and having only 30 minutes to run through; so we bit the bullet and taxied there, which took half the time that the bus takes and enabled us to make a comfortable 90 minute visit.

Our main motivation for wanting to go here was the architecture more than the collection. Designed by I.M Pei, it’s a modern complex, but with inspiration taken from traditional Japanese building styles and the environment in which the museum is set. The approach to the museum is as impressive as the building itself, perhaps more so. We walked up a narrow driveway lined with weeping cherry trees which were just starting to bud, except for the last ones on each side, which were about 50% opened. These framed the opening of a curved steel tunnel which pierced the hillside. We could not see out the other end until we had gotten substantially through the tunnel, after which the building at the far end came into view. Looking back we could see the row of weeping cherries dangling across the tunnel’s entrance, their faint pink color picked up by the reflection in the steel lining of the tunnel.

Once through, there is a suspension bridge across a ravine, dramatically linking the tunnel to the entrance of the museum building. The building itself is comprised primarily of a framework of steel tubes and glass, which lets in the amazing forest setting, while paying homage to the traditional silhouette of the kind of Japanese thatched huts that you might find in the area. If you have any interest whatsoever in modern architecture, Google it. It's pretty cool.

The museum houses a private collection of mostly Asian and European antiquities, but the most interesting part was an 18 minute video on the design and construction of the complex. Although completed with the oversight of forest conservationists, I might have been vehemently against disturbing such a pristine site, had I had not first seen the finished product. 75% of the structure resides underground, the hilltop and trees surrounding the site having all been removed and then restored upon completion. It reminded me that one of the things I love about Japan is how it is actually possible for man and nature to coexist harmoniously.

After our visit, we caught the 5:15 bus back to the station and were in Kyoto by 6:30, exhausted after a too busy day, but happy with what we had accomplished.
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Apr 18th, 2015, 07:13 PM
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Enjoyed your account of the Miho Museum. I can almost imagine the setting from your description.
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Apr 18th, 2015, 08:59 PM
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Wow...a very impressive day....I don't have that kind of energy anymore...lol.

I went to Hikone Castle last year - I just looked at my photos - those large bucket-shaped lanterns might have been for a night-time light-up and the writing, I think, is advertisements for the sponsor....

I went to the Miho once - it is an interesting venue. fyi, if anyone will be in the area from 7/4 to 8/30 they are having a fabulous exhibit - I was able to see it at the Suntory in Tokyo:
Celebrating Two Contemporary Geniuses: Jakuchu and Buson
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Apr 19th, 2015, 08:16 AM
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enticed by the prospect of learning about the cherry blossom, your TR has delighted me, Russ. Japan has not really been on my radar but after reading what you have written, I may change my mind.

so many useful tips as well.

please keep it coming.
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Apr 19th, 2015, 04:59 PM
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@Mara, yes, It was pretty exhausting. We dialed down the stopovers a bit after that. Re: the lanterns, yes, I'm sure that's what they were for as well.

Thanks all!
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Apr 19th, 2015, 11:37 PM
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Kyoto

I won’t go into the excruciating detail about the Hotel Mume that I went into in last year’s trip report; however, our Kyoto experience on both trips is so tied to our experience there that I’m not sure I could separate the two. For example, on this trip I emailed them to ask if they could get us a reservation for the Moss Temple (Kokedera), which requires a postcard request no more than 2 months in advance. They not only did this, but also asked us if we wanted them to also make a reservation for the Katsura Imperial Garden for the same day, since they are both in the same general direction. Ummm…yes!

Then about a month before our arrival, they emailed to say that they might be able to get us tickets to the Miyako Odori, but they wouldn’t know for sure until just before we arrived. Were we interested? To be honest, I had never heard of this show, but I did a quick Google search, and it turns out that this would be the 143rd presentation of Kyoto’s traditional spring dance festival. It’s kind of a big deal. Of course, I said yes.

So upon checking in, not only were we given the written confirmations for our temple and garden reservations, but we were presented with 3rd row seats for the Miyako Odori, which included a tea ceremony and access to a small private garden behind the theater before the show. Wow! But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our luck finally ran out with regards to the weather, as it alternated between a fine misty rain and heavy downpours during our entire stay in Kyoto; however, since this was our second trip, we didn’t feel so badly. Fortunately, our sakura luck held out, as we had hit the end of the peak period in Kyoto as well, even if the blooms were all a bit soggy. So our itinerary that first day was more about hitting the prime cherry blossom spots, and only limited temple viewing.

We started by having a taxi drop us off at the top of the Philosopher’s Path, close to Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. The path runs alongside a canal which was lined both on sides with cherry trees and completely covered with blossoms, mostly the light pink ones, but accented with some of the darker weeping variety. We followed this down to the end by Nazenji temple. This is the only temple along this path we had not gone into last time, so we couldn’t pass it by this time. This turned out to be one of the highlights of the day.

As we walked through the covered wooden walkways connecting the various halls and pavilions, everywhere we turned there was a garden, either a large rock garden, a verdant moss garden, or some tiny pocket garden with an interesting waterfall or other feature. We spent a good ten minutes watching water drop into a piece of bamboo, set up to pivot like a tiny “see-saw”. As the bamboo filled up, the weight of the water would cause the end of the tube to suddenly drop, reminding me of that “drinking bird” toy I had as a child. When it angled downward the water would pour out, and the sudden loss of weight at that end would cause the bamboo to drop back to its original position with a very pleasing “thunk”. Drip, drip, drip…”thunk”. Drip, drip, drip…”thunk”. It was mesmerizing.
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Apr 19th, 2015, 11:39 PM
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To the right of the temple was an old aqueduct with stairs leading up the hill, which we had read would lead to the top of the Keage Incline, which is a set of old railroad tracks that lead up from a canal below to a canal above. In the past it was used to ship boats between the two, bridging the difference in elevations, but we had heard that it’s now a popular sakura spot.

As we walked along the top of the aqueduct, with water rushing to our left and a precipitous drop to our right, I got the feeling that it was not someplace we were supposed to be, but eventually we could hear the roar of water as it rushed from the upper canal, down a runoff channel, and presumably to the other canal below. Just ahead, we could see the railroad tracks, lined on each side by dozens of cherry trees stretching as far as we could see. This place was certainly not undiscovered, however, as was testified by the dozens of colorful umbrellas, carried along by people climbing the hill from below. In fact, we saw more than one new bride and groom, dressed in traditional Japanese attire, posed against the sakura backdrop. I felt sorry for the couples, standing in the rain on their big day, but felt confident that they would feel that the beautiful photos would make it all worth it in the end.

We walked down the incline, and then along the canal at the bottom, which soon brought us to the entrance of the Heian Shrine, which we knew had a huge gorgeous garden. Of course, being Sunday, we were far from the only ones there. When we went in May of last year the highlights were the irises and water lilies blooming in the large central pond. This time, it was the large stand of weeping cherries, with a pergola supporting their delicate branches; the dark pink blooms evoking wisteria, draping from the lattice work.

After lunch we took a taxi to Kiyomizudera and walked down through the Higashiyama streets toward Maruyama Park, another prime sakura spot. However, this time we had another mission. A friend of ours had admired an orange lacquered persimmon-shaped box with a carved wood leaf-shaped lid that we had bought in the area last year, and we were determined to find the shop where we had purchased it and buy him one. Unfortunately, the entire population of Kyoto was on the same street on this rainy Sunday afternoon, so it was a torrent of people with umbrellas, making it difficult to see where we were going, let alone the shops; however, we persevered.

We finally found the shop, on a street next to the Kodaiji temple, but when we inquired about our prized persimmon, we learned that the supplier, a local man who made them himself, had recently retired. We were delighted to find out that it had been hand made, and locally at that, but disappointed that we would not be able to buy another. I guess our friend would have to settle for a beautifully carved wooden apple instead.

Having satisfied our wooden fruit fix, we proceeded down the path to take a look at the sakura at Maruyama Park. Unfortunately, the rain continued to come down steadily, thwarting the hanami plans in the park, forlorn straw mats gathered in soggy piles beneath the trees. So we waded back to the hotel to put on some dry clothes and get ready for our 4:50 performance of the Miyako Odori.
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