Travelling home: Part I

I’m now in Haneda Airport in Tokyo, waiting to fly back  to England  and meet my family whom I haven’t seen for a year. Seeming as I have a few hours to spare, I thought I’d share my journey.

From the train window

The train from Fukui goes through hidden forested valleys, past shining Lake Biwa before arriving in the higgledy-piggledy urban mass that is Kyoto. It is a route I know well, but every time I appreciate something new as each season is so different; from watching fluffy snow whizz past the window in winter, to seeing sailing boats on the lake in summer.

IMG_0083

Today Kyoto looked hot and muggy, but from the air conditioned carriage of my train I still romanticise the small streets and the old houses, like they were in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Some people I know can’t stand this romanisation of ‘old’ Japan, as if it takes something away from the modern Japan today, but I see them as a continuation of each other. For example, no longer do geisha’s walk the streets, but hostess clubs provide the same experience for men wanting to be doted on in exchange of money. The narrow streets, with water running down one side and lanterns hung on the houses, are still beautiful, even if a girl is walking down them with platform heels, pink hair and an anime outfit on!

The train terminates in Osaka; the hub and heart of Japan, where people conform less to traditional values, and more to the rules of fashion. I still see fragments of an older Japan, one which hasn’t changed in decades. Taxi drivers wearing white gloves, more people wearing hats than don’t wear them, and older women sprinkling  water outside their houses for some reason. Stone tori gates mark the entrance to a shrine, in a forested corner of a street, a haven of reflection between the busyness of the city. Japanese people embrace change; older salary men with grey hair, dressed in perfectly tailored suits, now have the latest smart phone. Girls ride on the back of their boyfriend’s bike, even though they have 5 inch heels on and short white skirts. Everyone looks stylish, like they’ve just rolled out of bed with perfect hair, flawless skin and a stunning outfit. I wonder how this will compare to the fashion in England.

From the airport lounge

IMG_1253

I take the randomly named ‘Salad Express’ bus to Osaka Itami Airport and continue people watching. Airports can seem like sterile places, with thousands of faces passing through each day, but if you look a little closer you’ll see they’re emotional places too. The arrival lounge is like the opening scenes of ‘Love Actually’ with families being reunited, and on one floor higher there are people crying as they say goodbye to their loved ones. I know the ecstasy and the sadness of going through both. As I fly so infrequently, I enjoy waiting in airports, seeing people crossing paths, moving homes or just going on holiday.

Some anthropologists call airports homogenized ‘non-places’ (Auge,1992) characterised by global brands and similar procedures, which is true to an extent, but you can’t forget you’re in ‘Japan’ in a Japanese airport. The annoying sounds from a TV blare out at you, shop keepers welcome you with a warm ‘irasshaimase’ as you walk past, and salary men share platters of food and beers whilst waiting for their flight.

From the plane window

I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the excitement of taking off. The wait as the plane makes its way through the myriad of flashing lights on the runway slips, the firing up of the engine and then the sudden acceleration as the plane picks up enough speed to take off. Tonight, as we lifted off the lights of Osaka looked great, with green baseball fields lit up and roads looking like white snakes criss crossing across the black earth. The cloud layer was low, and the full moon lit them up from above. We touched down in Tokyo an hour later, and I braced myself for touch down, my least favourite part of the flight.

In the next airport

Tokyo Haneda airport’s international terminal has done well in creating an old Japanese street to house its various eateries. It also has beautifully decorated areas, using flower displays, and paper hangings in keeping with the latest Japanese festival. I see there are ‘shower rooms’ but why has no one thought of putting an onsen within an airport? Weary travellers like me, who have to wait all night until their next flight, would love to soak in the silky waters of an onsen.

IMG_1249

Between 1am and 6am there are no flights and the airport changes into a busy bustling place, to one of mood lighting and soft music. Half-sleeping bodies are sprawled over long seats, trying to sleep before their flight. I am one of the lap-toppers, sat using the wifi of the airport, wasting the wee hours of the night surfing online. Cleaners polish the floor until it shines, a group of immaculate looking flight hostesses walk past happy to have finished their shift, and a group of friendly policemen remove a slightly odd woman from disturbing the sleeping layabouts.

For me, airports symbolise freedom. The possibility to jump on a flight to anywhere, making the world seem so small. Maybe when I’m on my 12 hour flight in a few hours, the world won’t seem so small. I hope I get a window seat.

IMG_1246

You may want to read Part II, to see what happened just after I’d written this post.

Best places to see cherry blossom

It has been said that Japan has six seasons; spring, summer, autumn, winter, as well as the rainy season tsuyu (from June to July) and the typhoon season (from September to October). Yet I would say there is one more to be added to that list, sakura season. From January the pink flowers open in Okinawa and sweep their way up the country, reaching Hokkaido five months later in May. During sakura season weather forecasts include the predicted opening times of the cherry blossom and people talk about how early or late they will open in offices, cafes and on TV chat shows. It’s a big deal, and it’s infectious. So excuse me, while I reminisce about my first sakura season, and the best places I saw it.

Sakura-dori, Nagoya

IMG_0784I will never forget the first time I saw a blooming cherry tree in Japan. It looked magical. Like a weeping willow hangs in a way which evokes both sadness and romance, this tree was weeping with the most beautiful pink stars of flowers I’ve seen. What made it all the more special was that I’d just met my Mum and could share this moment with her.

Imperial Palace, Kyoto

P1040120

In the gardens of the palace are orchards of sakura trees that have been enjoyed by people for centuries. Hanami is the term for ‘cherry blossom viewing’ and is when families, office workers or friends picnic, BBQ and drink under the pink petals of the cherry blossom. It is the celebration of spring, the moment winter ends and the warm weather returns. People take afternoons off work to enjoy the petals at their peak, as they know they won’t be there the next week.

Fukuoka, Kyushu

P1040240Cherry blossoms can be enjoyed anywhere, not just at the famous viewing spots and it is made special by the people you are with. In a small park, next to a baseball field in Fukuoka, my companions and I ate bento boxed lunches and drank Brazilian tea under the falling petals. It is in this state, when the petals fall to the ground like snowflakes, that Japanese people find them most attractive. It is a lesson from nature as to how to enjoy the moment, before it is blown away.

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

P1040161

From Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) to the Nanzenji neighbourhood a line of cherry trees line a canal which a Zen philosopher used to walk and mediate along.  For three kilometres you can enjoy the blooming trees, but unless you go early in the morning you’ll be sharing the experience with half of Kyoto!

Tenryuji Temple Gardens, Arashiyama, Kyoto

Three weeks after I first seen sakura in Nagoya, I was still being blown away by the vivid pinks and reds of cherry blossom. My mum however, thought I’d gone a little mad, with the rest of the country, in exclaiming, “Wow, isn’t it beautiful” at every tree! But in the gardens surrounding the Zen temple of Tenryuji, I couldn’t help but admire the trees. It is one of the most beautiful gardens I’ve been to and would definitely recommend it in sakura season or in the fall.

P1040525

P1040556

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maruyama Park, Kyoto

P1040182

P1040616

This is one of the most popular parks for cherry blossom viewing in Japan. It comes alive at night with young and old people alike drinking and eating under the festival lights. Japanese people work so hard, it’s great to see them in such a relaxed, public setting just chatting together and enjoying the setting. That is one thing we can learn from this sakura loving nation – stop and enjoy nature, plant trees which people love and cultivate them with parental care, line the streets with avenues of trees, the parks with flowers and the buildings with bright bushes, because seeing flowers brightens people day. This nation knows how to appreciate nature like no other I’ve been to.

Kodaji temple, Kyoto

P1040203My Mum and I did a full day of hanami in Kyoto and this was one of the last stops. Whilst looking around this old temple complex, with its lit up bamboo forests, moon-viewing platforms and manicured gardens, we decided to join a long queue of people. After waiting for about 15 minutes on our weary feet, we finally saw what the queue was for and there was no way back. It was an illuminated weeping cherry tree which turned blue, green and white every few minutes and the packed in crowd took photos of it like it was a national celebrity. It was at that point my Mum and I looked at each other and laughed, ok, there is a line for appreciating nature, and then going crazy for it!

I think this country has gone a little too mad for cherry trees, but perhaps I have been infected with it, as I am already looking forward to next year’s sakura season!

The Asakura Clan ruins: A Samurai City

A little-known tourist site in Fukui is Ichi-jo dani Castle, a restored town from the Sengoku and Edo period (around 16th to 17th century). Set in a beautiful valley surrounded by forested mountains and close to Ono, it’s worth a visit for anyone interested in Japanese history. Bring your own guide though, as there isn’t much explanation in English!

The main reconstructed street, also famous for where a SoftBank advert was filmed.

‘Little Kyoto’ 

The city was built by the head of the Asakura clan and it attracted many people to live there it was called ‘Little Kyoto’. Many priests, nobles and scholars moved to Ichijodani, bringing with them the latest technology and culture from Kyoto. During the 16th century the city had 10,000 people living there, making it the third biggest city in Japan! There was a castle on top of a mountain and gates at either end of the valley. The Asakura clan were defeated by a famous samurai, Oda Nobunaga, who sieged the castle and set it alight. Untouched since its destruction in 1573, some parts of the city have been restored to what it used to be like in the 16th century. Most parts have just been excavated and you can only see the outline of buildings, but the main street has been completely reconstructed.

A surprise!

My friend and I were enjoying exploring the shops and houses. They were dark inside so it took our eyes time to see the life-sized models dressed in traditional costumes. Then, my friend slid open a wooden door to find a man dressed as a samurai smiling back at her! She nearly fell over backwards! We were both wondering why he was dressed as a samurai and waiting in a house to ambush tourists, when he stepped outside and four other people dressed up in historical costumes did so too! Then it clicked, they were working there!

Once we’d stopped laughing, we proceeded to have an awkward conversation in English about the restored city. There were obviously friendly people with lots of knowledge to share, yet we lacked a common language to chat in. Maybe next time I’ll go back with someone who can translate!

Karamon gate used to be the entrance to the Asakura Manor House

Karamon gate used to be the entrance to the Asakura Manor House

Koi fish under the bridge. Do you know the oldest koi fish recorded in Japan was 226 years old?

Looking towards the Asakura Manor House

Samurai playing shogi (Japanese chess) in one of their three tatami rooms.  Also, see the swords above the men, one of  them is three metres long!

The dressed-up workers who surprised us! The tallest man is dressed as a samurai, the man on the left as a merchant and the women are general townsfolk.