Sakura (Cherry Blossom) viewing in Kawazu

This week, Mark and I went on a day trip from Tokyo to Kawazu on the Izu Penninsula to see some early flowering cherry blossoms.  It was a very Japanese experience with crowded trains and many stalls selling local food along the river bank where the majority of the blossoms were.  It really was very nice and very pink!

Japan is getting pinker at the moment in the build up to cherry blossoms – lots of posters, adverts, pink beer (at least the cans) and forecasts like weather forecasts on where to see blossoms.

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Nara

Friday night

One of the joys of living in Tokyo is leaving work at a reasonable time on a Friday night, collecting my bag from home with a quick change and getting the Shinkansen (bullet train) off somewhere exciting for the weekend.

Travel here is so reliable and comfortable the the trip really does start when you get in the train! Traditionally people buy a bento box for the journey an ‘eki ben’ or station bento and often a beer to be enjoyed once you get on the train. There is a great selection of boxes!

A few Fridays ago I did exactly the above but replaced the Eki Ben for an onigiri (a kind of rice ball or Japanese style sandwich) as I planned to get a ‘proper’ dinner once I got to Nara.

I chose Nara as it’s been a while since I looked at temples and wanted to visit somewhere historical that I had not been to before.

Nara is near to Kyoto and as I changed trains in Kyoto and it was snowing!

I got to Nara just after 2100 and found my ryokan(inn). My original plan had been to get something light for a second tea but I felt tired and the ryokan bath called me more strongly so off I went to a lovely hot bath and bed.

Saturday

I got up early the next day and after a FaceTime chat with Mark headed off for my prescribed long run if the week. I’m in training for Yokohama marathon. I had 27km to run and had read on the internet during the week that there was a cycle path on the river joining Kyoto and Nara. The description I read was from Kyoto and described it bring a little hard to get into Nara at the end so I decided to just head north and see when I intercepted the river.

This was my first real look at the town and I was impressed. Lots of narrow streets with older style houses and plenty of trees and interesting looking small shops and cafes. After a while I came to the main road and it seemed wise to follow it as I had to climb a big hill and a few attempts on smaller roads had led to dead ends. The road climbed a large hill and then went down and down on the other side. I thought about turning back knowing I now had a big hill to climb at the end of my run but the river still drew me as 27km is a very long way when you’re going round small streets!

I got there after nearly 8km and it was a great place to run. The weather was lovely, cold and sunny and there was still a fresh morning feel. Along the river there were lots of allotments, birds and houses but not many people so it was perfect for a long run.

The hill on the way back was not nearly as fierce as I’d thought and I was soon back in Nara. I’d left a few spare kilometres at the end to have a look around Nara and ran around a few more streets and a bit of Nara park famous for its temples, shrines and also its deer! There were many deer around but I also saw the 5 story pagoda and some temple buildings.

I went out for some noodles as a very late breakfast/early lunch and then headed back to the park this time in full site seeing mode.

I first went to Todaiji Temple, 東大寺, one of Nara’s most famous sites where the giant Buddha is. This Buddha is the largest in Japan at around 15m with around 437 tonnes of bronze and 130kg of gold (Lonely Planet). It’s a little larger than the one at Kamakura but because it’s inside in my view seemed small and less imposing. What was very impressive was the building that contained the Buddha. Depending on what you read it’s (one of) the oldest and largest wooden buildings in the world/Japan. It certainly was impressive.

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One if the traditions in Japan is to go on a pilgrimage of temples and shrines and get a signature in everyone. There are some people, normally monks employed at each temple to sign your book for a small fee as proof of visiting. I decided to buy a book and start collecting the signatures as they are small works of art – beautiful calligraphy.

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It’s a little late in my time in Japan but I’m sure I can get a few more and there are always future visits!

From there I visited a few more temples and explored Nara Park which was a lovely place to spend the day.

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Later in the afternoon I visited a traditional Japanese house/museum called Naramachi Koshi-no-le Lattice House.

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It was an old merchant house and very interesting to see how people lived traditionally.

There was a special festival on in Nara during the week I visited, ending on Saturday night with the parks illuminated. This meant I continued to walk around even after dark. It was quite surreal, and very busy but fun anyway. It’s best explained in pictures:

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I also enjoyed some amazake from a stall that warmed the event! Amazake is a traditional sweet low or non alcoholic drink from fermented rice sweetened and with some ginger added (at least the drink I had). It was lovely and warming on a cold night.

I realised that I’d been on my feet walking or running for about 12 hours (with a total of 1 hour stop for breakfast and a coffee in the afternoon). I was very tired so went got a nice Italian (wood fired pizza and salad) and an early night.

Sunday

Another early rise and morning run then pancakes for breakfast. Pancakes have been popular here in Japan since I arrived so it’s an easy if not entirely healthy breakfast!

I took the train a little out of Nara back to where I’d run to that morning to visit another 2 temples. I got signatures in each.

The first I visited, Yakushiji (薬師寺), unfortunately had the old east tower (pagoda) under cover for a major renovation and although active – there was a service going on while I was there – it seemed kind of empty. On reflection I think that’s because there was so much space and it was so neat and clean.  The rebuilt tower was impressive though and it would be good to see the two towers together when they are both in view.

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The second, Toshodaiji, I really liked, I think it was the older feel with lots of trees and wooden structures. There were also some great store houses.

I definitely have temple saturation for a while!

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I headed back to Central Nara, grabbed some lunch – okonomiyaki (Japanese pizza) in a small local place and then visited the Isuien Garden. This is the number 1 site in Nara according to the Lonely Planet so I thought I’d better go and look!

It was lovely, made nicer by the surrounding hills and temple. Some picture follow:

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I took the train back to Tokyo and shock- horror there was a problem with e Shinkansen and it was stopped for ages. It was ridiculous!  One hour late in total and not what I’ve come to expect in Japan!  Still, it allowed me to get all my Japanese homework done and to finish writing my blog for this Nara trip.

Happy New Year and Japanese New Year Cards

The Japanese do not celebrate Christmas traditionally although they have embraced the season with decorations and carols in all the shops! Typically it’s more for couples than family with couples having a romantic meal on Christmas Eve.

Christmas cards are not part of the celebration.

In Japan it is the changing of the years that is celebrated and families come together for the first 3 days of he year with the main celebrations on the first.

Cards are sent but these are postcards rather than Western style folded cards and they are labelled so that the post office does not deliver them until the 1st! This is in stark contrast to the UK where cards must be sent extra early and cards are delayed by the volume of Christmas post – in Japan they hold onto cards until the day itself (New Year in this case) and deliver all together!

So although not posted I’m delivering my New Year card to you all on the 1st of January. It’s based on my Christmas card that some may have received and on a painting I did of Japanese cranes.

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I wish you all a Happy, Healthy and Exciting New Year!

Travel and Impressions of Japan from time away

I haven’t travelled much outside of Japan since arriving until November this year, I’d only had one trip to Korea and that was in late April so have been fully immersed in Japan. That all changed this month – in November I’ve been to the UK, Korea and China! This has given me an opportunity to see both the UK and Japan from a different perspective.

It was strange for me to say to people that I live in Japan, for example when I left the hotel in Korea, the person who checked me out asked if I was going back to my home country and without thinking I said “yes, I’m going back to Japan where I live” – it still feels slightly strange to me that I live in Japan and really exciting! Also on the flight the attendant tried to give me a foreigner card to fill in and I said I didn’t need it as I was a Japanese resident – more slightly odd feelings!

Travelling outside and returning has made me appreciate even more how well organised Japan is, how compliant and polite the people are – most noticeable on road crossing – I found it seriously challenging to cross the road in China, it being somewhat chaotic but also having lost a lot of road sense from my months in Japan!

In the week I was there never got to understand the ‘rules’ for crossing the road in China, certainly a green light on a pedestrian crossing did not give me the right to cross, as I found out from various irate drivers and cyclists! I think the bigger and faster you are the more priority you have and slower and smaller vehicles/people should proceed slowly and yield! Not very intuitive when you’re out for your morning run in the dark! Also surprisingly the bikes and scooters do not use lights on the road even when pitch dark. I learnt this is to save batteries as most of the scooters are electric but quite terrifying when one suddenly appears from the dark!

I enjoyed reading Chinese symbols in China thanks to studying Japanese and Kanji I found I recognised a lot! I couldn’t say them but I knew what they meant which was good. Even though I knew Kanji was Chinese characters it was somehow reassuring to see that it meant I could recognise a bit of Chinese!

In China I visited 2 places, for most of the time I was in Shashi, a 3rd tier city next to Wuhan right in the centre of China, for the last 2 days I was in Beijing which (at least the parts I was in) was really developed and incredibly affluent. The company office in Beijing is in a shopping centre in the financial district with lots of designer and international shops and plenty of original art sculptures by people like Dali. In contrast Shashi is less developed although had changed considerably since I visited nearly 2 years ago with more international places, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and the like and now a fancy international hotel.

South Korea from my experience generally is more like Japan than China, more modern, more developed and more similar food. However there are still many differences and having come to love Japan it did feel good to be home!

My other observations on returning to Japan are:

– mask wearing (lots of people wear masks to prevent spreading colds and some to avoid allergies but this is more in the Spring)
– very clean (trains, airport etc)
– space – not a lot but people actually give you space as opposed to pushing past
– warm, at least compared to Beijing – it was 13 C when I arrived compared to 0 C in Beijing.

Autumn (partially) comes to Tokyo

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Japan goes crazy for Autumn colours- it’s a close second to cherry blossom – there are forecasts like you see in the rest of the world for the weather and the train stations are full of pictures of where you can go to see Japan in Autumn glory.

Japan is also famous for its ginko trees. A really nice tree that lines many Tokyo streets and turns golden yellow in Autumn.

In the UK Autumn is really in September and mostly in October so it’s strange for me to be at the end of November and Autumn is still not in its full glory.

This morning on my walk to work I took the picture in this post – it’s of ginko trees. They must be slightly different species as half are yellow and the other half still mostly green.  Its the kind of view that makes you appreciate life! Beautiful!

Educational Manga

I read in the Time Out guide to Tokyo that some of the best Manga (Japanese comics) had been translated into English and were available in a bookshop in Shinjuku.

I thought I would try reading one as an experiment in Japanese culture. I have never been into comics or cartoons, perhaps because I had no access to a TV and therefore cartoons as a young child but I’m really enjoying learning about Japan through this medium!

So far I’ve read two books – one about food and one about Japanese pre-second world war history and thoroughly enjoyed both. I’m sure I’ll read many more – just the dilemma on electronic versions – the way I read most books these days – or paper versions – somehow nicer when art is involved.

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