They’re blooming! We came specifically for the Cherry Blossom (sakura) festivities and along our way discovered a beautiful culture and history as well.
Our goal was to see the magical sakuras blooming across three different cities: Tokyo, one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world and its capital; Kyoto, the historic capital of the country; and Osaka the second largest city and food emporium of Japan. Our time was a parade of sakura blooms throughout parks, trails, temples, historical castles, and grand boulevards at every twist and turn in these beautiful cities.
We walked out of Narita International Airport just past nine in the evening and boarded a bus to downtown Tokyo. The realisation of being in Japan, and Tokyo of all places, was hard to absorb while waiting at our bus stop. What an unbelievable feeling. We’ve grown up with Japanese products all around us from movies, cartoons, automobiles and electronics. Physically being in this country was quite riveting.
For the past eight months, with the exception of Nepal, we haven’t gone through cold weather and forgotten what it felt like to be in the cold again. It was quite a shock stepping into a chilly, rainy Tokyo evening. People we’ve met along the way to our apartment were incredibly friendly, stopping and asking if we required assistance. Luckily, after an 8-hour plane ride, 1-hour bus transfer, 10 stops on the JR Metro, a 20-minute splish-splash-puddled-laden walk in the rain, we were just “around the corner” from our apartment and managed to unlock the key box and enter our tiny oasis of an apartment, leaving the cold behind.
Tokyo was nothing like we’ve experience before. What a dramatic contrast to Australia’s warm climates and expansive terrain we just left that morning. The Japanese were in winter coats, some even in Canada Goose jackets, while we were in our “warm” Australian clothes of long sleeves and jeans. That entire afternoon was spent getting decked out at Toyko’s 12-story flagship Uniqlo store. Now that we were succinctly warm for our new home, we braved the nights exploring Tokyo by dark as well.
Japan has the most restaurants per capita than anywhere in the world, many of them Michelin star ranked. Every street corner or alley you turn is filled with inviting places to eat. Not only sushi, but izakaya, yakitori, teppanyaki, ramen and, if you can believe, an incredible array of delicious pastry shops—a dangerous combo for our expanding waistlines. Elliot watched a video on sumo training one evening. We joked at first, then realised to our horror their diets eerily resembled ours (big rich hearty meals, lots of beer with naps during the day) and quickly avoided all forms of elevators and escalators, instead taking stairs where possible as we weren’t going to stop eating the amazing array of food available to us.
Tokyo is divided into many districts each with its own distinct persona yet reachable in minutes on the JR Metro line. A few districts stood out on our culture trip:
- Akihabara is an electronics mecca for gearheads. From TVs, stereos, computers, phones, anime etc. you can find it all in the many department stores of this area. There were merchants with both new and retro gear. We even found an original domestic made only Nintendo Entertainment System. Mixed in all of this was a small hidden-away cafe dedicated to cats we found while looking for snacks. Didn’t get a chance to enter, as the café had an 18+ age restriction, and instead looked in from the outside. Bizarre, considering we saw people dressed up in cosplay meandering these streets.
- Ginza is a high-end shopping district, similar to New York City’s Fifth Avenue and the birthplace of modern day Japanese department stores. In the evening the street comes alive with designer wares showing off their glitter and sparkle. This was where we outfitted our winter clothing at Uniqlo’s flagship store.
- Shinjuku is the center for all camera and digital items and everything else, for that matter. Don Quijote was one of the oddest and fun department stores visited. The department store is spread across many levels carrying everything from grocery items to high-end Rolex watches displayed in a bazaar-like format, similar to the likes of former Honest Ed’s in Toronto. We later found out DQ was a chain.
We stayed in both Shinjuku and Ginza offering different perspectives of Japanese districts. The kids preferred Ginza as the location was steps to a metro station instead of walking through throngs of people in Shinjuku, which allowed us to ease into our day with a morning metro ride.
Moving around Tokyo was a breeze using their very extensive network of metro stations. Coupled with our smartphone navigating the many JR rail lines and finding metro stops was fairly straightforward. Furthermore, in comparison to Toronto, or any other metro we visited so far, the Japanese subway is the absolute quietest and well maintained, considering the amount of people passing through the station’s many different levels daily. As soon as doors close, all you hear are subway wheels over tracks with an odd noise of a distant conversations. Phones are on vibrate, no eating or loud talking. Conversely, everyone else overheard our conversations instead.
In Japan, everything is digitized from toilets to showers, it’s all preprogrammed and activated with a press of a button. Sanitized and clean with music playing in the background whilst doing your business. Something we’ll surely miss.
English isn’t widely spoken, yet everyone was always extremely friendly and most helpful. On a couple of occasions, locals approached us asking if they could help with directions—perhaps we looked a little lost huddled around a smartphone trying to decipher directions.
As in most big cities, we were used to seeing free product samples or flyer coupons handed out on busy street corners. In Japan, however, instead of handing out samples or flyers, staff hand out tissue packs emblazoned with the advertising company’s logo. We always had a few tissue pack (or 10) on hand.
This was a place we found by chance. After a busy day of palaces and parks around Tokyo we returned to Shinjuku Station for an evening meal. Immediately after exiting the station we got lost meandering through a series of streets that placed us on the outer edge of an outcropping filled with low-rise wooden houses, criss-crossed by narrow streets, contrasting considerably from their neighbouring neon glass towers and wide avenues. It was the aromatic smell of food grilling over charcoal that led us here. Our noses, and not our smartphone, brought us to Golden Gai! We found a spot and sat down at the counter in an extremely intimate bar, no tables or chairs, and ordered away. The kids ordered grilled chicken, fish and squid. We had various yakitori dishes and a great time eating and dining that night with food and charcoal aroma wafting around us.
This was another very cool area to visit for an izakaya and yakitori dining experience. The area is popular with local business people who stop in for a quick bite and cold drink before heading home. All restaurants are situated underneath the brick arcades of subway rails, stretching between Tokyo and Yurakucho Stations.
After another busy day of sightseeing, we were hoping to stop into Yurakucho to dine at a place highly regarded for its izakaya. It was early evening and each one of us hungry and thirsty. We struck out immediately as the place was bursting with people already seated. The next place visited was also filled and couldn’t accommodate anymore people. After the fourth attempt, we asked a host (who happen to be speak English) why we couldn’t get in. Apparently, reservations are a must and usually made weeks ahead for a seating. As this was a Friday evening he was skeptical we would find a spot. Dejected, we walked out and continued hunting. Kids weren’t thrilled at the thought of walking again. After the eighth or ninth place a free table was found – inside! We got seated immediately at the most amazing place ever. We sat at low-rise tables with just a few inches separating our neighbour’s tables on either side. One of the shared dishes came in a shichirin (small portable charcoal grill) and there we were roasting small fish in Yurakucho! The kids had a blast and so did we.
Every time we think of ramen, we think of “Mister Noodle” or any other derivations from home. How so-so-so wrong were we after our first authentic Japanese ramen experience, in Elliot’s words, mind blown at the richness and deep flavours of this Japanese dish we ignored for so long. Each of us got immediately hooked and kids were planning the next visit.
The place was well known for its ramen noodle soup. It didn’t hurt to see a line stretching out to the street with people waiting in the cold too. Finally, our turn was next to get ushered in and, instead to a table and menu, guided to a machine with pictures and Japanese descriptions. After a couple of minutes at the machine, our meal was decided, prepaid and out popped a receipt for the wait staff. Eating stalls were separated by a fold-up wooden board on either side, separating each neighbour and in front was a 3×2-ft opening. The person behind the opening collects your ticket/order and closes the wooden shutters. After a few minutes, the bamboo window reopens with the meal you order! Fast and efficient.
Living and breathing in Tokyo provided a fascinating glimpse into modern day Japan with its infrastructure, people, food, and countless other uniqueness grabbing our curiosity. The next stop was a step back into Japan’s historical past to see its ancient traditions and cultures by visiting temples, shrines, parks, and public spaces. Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital for more than 1,000 years and continues to be home to 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines across the city. We also read the sakuras were close to full bloom in this area of the country.
The iconic Japanese Shinkansen, better known as the Bullet Train in North America, took us from Tokyo to Kyoto. It’s extremely fast compared to conventional trains and somewhat a mystical legend we read growing up. Now was our chance to experience this ourselves. After some research, even though cost was double a plane ticket, we decided on train travel for the convenience to be in Kyoto before nightfall.
The train leaves Tokyo Station and continues to Kyoto Station across 600kms of beautiful country and mountainous terrain, one of the world’s busiest corridor carrying over 350 million riders annually. The ride is thrilling onboard the Shinkansen. Inside is no different from rail cabins back home until you look out the window and see varying objects and landscape blur together in a whirlwind of lines and curves. The Shinkansen can reach 370 km/h, however, due to safety is currently limited to 300 km/h.
Arriving in Kyoto, we felt a difference from big and busy Tokyo instantly. In Tokyo the locals significantly outnumber travellers yet you somehow morph into their environment. It’s something we haven’t ever experienced to this level and something we thoroughly enjoyed. In Kyoto, however, as soon as we arrived at the train station, you see foreigners navigating their way through crowds, as us, trying to find their way in this city.
The plan was to take a short bus ride to our apartment for check-in after arrival to Kyoto Station. Outside the station’s north entrance is the bus waiting area. We jumped on what we thought was the correct bus to our apartment, but ended up spending all the time saved from the Shinkansen, commuting around Kyoto instead. What should’ve taken at most 10-minutes extended to over an hour plus impromptu sight-seeing tour. The bus criss-crossed our new city in a circular loop picking up passengers and, just when we thought the bus couldn’t accommodate anymore people, the next stop had a full class of children out on their field trip and eager to jump on. In the end, it turned out we were on the correct bus just in the wrong direction. Alas we got a fun city bus tour and good laughs out of it.
Kyoto is home to Japan’s last authentic geisha district with five geisha schools still operating to this day. An evening was spent visiting a renowned geisha school in the Gion district to learn more of their traditions, culture, and training. To become a full geiko, as with any profession, one must go through many years of apprenticeship as a meiko (geishas are known as geikos and meikos in the district of Kyoto). The rules are strict and a huge financial burden is incurred at the start. When the training ends, not all are guaranteed to become a geiko. The kids were thoroughly impressed with a meiko’s regimen and surprised so many rules were in place, such as no cellular phones until becoming a geiko. An amazing fact was a meiko’s hair is done once per week and, to prevent damage, they sleep on a shaped box to maintain the hairdo’s form and shape each night. Once they graduate and become a geiko, they’re allowed to wear wigs, for example, and live much less restrictive lives compared to their junior counterparts.
After the evening show at a prominent school, the kids were ultra-confident they could spot fake “geishas” in Gion. Kyoto has many dress shops catering to tourists where one can transform into a fully outfitted “geisha” with kimono, pair of geta, obi, hair wig, and makeup for the day and guaranteed to be photographed by unsuspecting tourists. The kids had fun pointing them out. One evening walking out of our apartment, the kids spotted a geiko with a minimal kimono dress and makeup, walking gracefully to a waiting car. Other than this one sighting, we didn’t see any further during our stay in Kyoto beyond the tourist geishas.
Kyoto has numerous temples and shrines across the city that we found fascinating and wonderful. The beauty in their architecture and design is reflected in each building’s religion and spiritual meaning. Luckily, we had several days to visit all the known and popular landmarks. One that stood out from the rest was the Tenryu-ji temple, just outside is the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. As popular as this place is, and it was definitely busy while we were there, the immediate feeling was quite staggering to walk through bamboo groves with trunks swaying back and forth rhythmically in the wind. Another one that stood out was the Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for its thousands vermilion torii gates which line a trail that leads into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari.
Osaka was the last leg of our travels through Japan. Considered a great city to view sakura blossoms, it was top on our list. It also doesn’t hurt visiting a city with a reputation for being the “kitchen of Japan” with some of the best cuisine the country has to offer.
Once we arrived, the weather was much warmer and with warmer weather meant sakuras were going into full bloom.
Getting to Osaka from Kyoto was the easiest so far as both cities are serviced by the same regional transit. We took a short train ride connecting each city’s rail system and then a quick subway ride to our apartment–just outside of Dotonbori district, the eating and tourist mecca in Osaka.
Osaka is a beautiful city for cycling, with many bike paths criss-crossing the city lined with sakuras. Our apartment had two bikes for our use, and having biked through Vietnam’s cities, Osaka turned out to be a breeze. The kids took their positions on the back as we cycled through canals and parks. Everywhere we went, weekday or weekend, people congregate together around Sakura trees to picnic with friends and family. It was a fantastic site to see so many people together under the warmth of an afternoon sun. We got so inspired and dropped into the nearest Lawson (popular convenience store with loads of fresh ready-made meals) to outfit our impromptu picnic and headed down to Okawa River and found our very own spot underneath the shade of sakura trees. It was a great picnic of Japanese BBQ by the water. The kids finished up first and played in the park while we nurtured our drinks. In Japan, drinking is allowed in public spaces and everyone seemed to enjoy their biru or sake with friends and family. What a way to join in on the tradition!
One warm sunny day, we biked to Osaka Castle and continued on to Kema Sakuranomiya Park where nearly 5,000 sakura trees line the Okawa River stretching for several kilometers. This time we came prepared for a picnic and brought a blanket, picked up lunch along the way and looked for an ideal spot to have our picnic under the canopy of sakura blossoms. After our picnic, we took our time meandering home visiting a few other favourite areas of the city.
Visiting Dontonbori Street was somewhat surreal in that everywhere was lit up with blinking and flashing neon lights along the canal – day or night. Kitschy yes, but it worked for Dotonbori. It’s also home to the famous Gilico’s Running Man. The same company that brought you Hello Kitty and Pocky Sticks sweets. We too posed for our Running Man pictures!
On our last day in Osaka, we visited Kaiyukan Aquarium home to one of the largest aquariums in the world. The exhibits showcased marine life from many of the world’s oceans, Japanese rain forests and even Canada’s arctic north! The aquarium is huge for good reason, as the largest tank is home to a few whale sharks. Seeing this in person was extraordinary as it’s not often you get a chance to see animals of these magnitude up close separated only by a sheet of glass.
The sakura blossoms were breathtaking to see in person and hard to describe. Everywhere you look from busy thoroughfares, streets, along the rivers, shrines or temples, to small and big parks alike are blooming together in a beautiful pink colour accenting the skyline.
The most magical aspect of the blossoms is an entire city coming together to celebrate their arrival, not just tourists. Locals plan Hanami parties, setting up tarps, hibachi bbq’s, sake, wine and pink Champagne. It seems all of Japan is happy to welcome the sakura season with family and friends alike. The event is also celebrated by corporations where business management treat their teams to a Hamani party. The youngest male on the team is sent to camp overnight sometimes to reserve the ideal spot in the park for next day’s celebrations. We’ve seen a few people sitting alone in a sea of blue tarp set out waiting for people show up.
We were lucky to be part of the sakura celebrations and came away with something special in our hearts and a new tradition to start our own Hanami party (sans alcohol) underneath Toronto’s sakura trees of High Park.
A country normally out of the way, we are extremely lucky to have visited Japan as a family. With our stomachs a little more expanded, we say goodbye to Japan and bonjourno to Italy–the country of more good food, more good drinks, and more wonderful places to visit.
Read about Chloe and Elliot’s time in Japan: