In the backdrop of pink and white cherry blossoms once seen only in glowing screens, Japan on Cherry Blossom Spring is a love story. The fling is inevitable; it takes its hold when you stand in the middle of a cherry blossom lane and the cold Spring wind whisks the pretty sakura petals around and you think how dreary it is that the moment cannot be forever, when at night you look up and see the gaudy neon lights in letters you can’t read and visuals you don’t get, when you step inside a convenience store and realize they’re nothing like those back home. The trysts are shorter; stolen in the bites of famed Japanese cuisine, in glances on Devil-May-Care clothing and hairdo, in the steps of your feet on temples and palace grounds, in every touch at a vending machine, and every brush with the famed bidet. Yes, even the toilet is a dream.
Alas, the affair doesn’t last long — you have to go back home. But Japan awashed in full bloom cherry blossoms is most beautiful, and so like others who have come before you (and others after you), you promise that you’ll visit again.
At long last, the tales of those who have been to the country makes sense. Japan is beautiful, and if there’s a word beyond ‘beautiful’, it is that on Cherry Blossom Spring.
My friends and I, first timers in Japan.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, Skyscraper District
Tokyo at night
Called ‘Edo’ in the olden days, Tokyo is a massive metropolis. Before we arrived, I thought the city could be breezed through in two days. Alas, I quickly realized this couldn’t be. The city demands more respect than that. After all, it is not one of the World’s Greatest without a reason. (To breeze Tokyo, you would need at least a week.)
Tokyo is both old and new. It is a temple on the left and a skyscraper to the next, business suits on one, odd clothes on another. The rumors of technological advances are real, so are the quirky streets, the perky food, and the bustle that is weirdly only Tokyo. You can wear a bear-pajama costume with a crown on your head while walking, and no one will bat an eye.
A Shinto Wedding inside Meiji Temple.
Cherry Blossom on a moat.
We did not get to see Tokyo Tower or Roponggi, or Sensoji Temple or Ginza, or Akihabara. We also did not get inside the Monster Café and Robot Café. Our meager Tokyo-in-Two-Days was too disrespectful, it seemed, that the city did not allow us those. But we witnessed a Shinto wedding at the Meiji Temple, gawked at the futuristic Odaiba, kept on coming back to Shibuya, got lost in the pedestrian crowds for every Shibuya Crossing crossing, visited a themed-café where one of us was suffixed with ‘–sama’, and marveled atop Japan’s seat of power. Finally, my friends and I were inside train stations, and trains, and streets, and whatnots that we only used to see in anime.
The view from Odaiba.
My favorite part of Tokyo was the sunset and the nighttime in Odaiba, an artificial island built in the 1850s that Elon Musk and SpaceX will find no trouble feeling at home to. Go there nearing sunset and don’t mind the hefty Yurikamome round-trip train expense because the view from central Tokyo to Tokyo Bay to Odaiba is absolutely worth it. (I’m terrible with directions so if my geography there was nowhere near the same zip code as ‘Accurate’, this is my disclaimer.) Once you arrive, head straight to the bay area where Japan’s Lady Liberty is and take in the breathtaking view. Before you lies Tokyo City in all its glory, half embraced by an illuminated Rainbow Bridge. And damn if you don’t fall in love with Odaiba right then and there.
Next, stroll through the artificial island and you’ll find that it is more than just ‘That-Island-Where-Gundam-Is’. Odaiba is one of those places that surprise you, and so you should let it. You’ll find Odaiba amazingly futuristic, so much so that it’s easy to picture flying cars in the air, or to imagine the entire island separating itself from Tokyo to become the first colony in space for a selected few of mankind.
Magazine night lights, Tokyo.
In the afternoon, the sun shines over pretty Hakone.
Miles and miles from Tokyo’s metropolis lies the sleepy town of Hakone. It is pretty, it is pricey, and if you squint your eyes on a foggy afternoon, it looks like one of those pretty towns inside Stephen King novels.
It is home to Owakudani (‘O-jigoku’ or ‘Great Hell’ in olden times), a remnant of the last eruption of Mount Hakone thousands of years ago. Essentially a crater and still an active volcanic zone, there’s a ropeway to pass from one side of the crater to the other. Hundreds of feet in the air, the sulfuric flames beneath are a sight to behold. (It looks like the starting stages of Mars colonization.)
Owakudani black eggs.
Hakone is blessed in Ryokans, ‘hot springs’, temples, and Lake Ashinoko. If fortune smiles upon you, cruising by Lake Ashinoko will give you a spectacular view of Mt. Fuji — she with the perfect snow-capped cone volcano.
As for us, Fortune laughed at us the moment we were about to cruise the lake to see Mt. Fuji. Suddenly, Hakone became rainy, went foggy, dropped to a 7C temperature, and hid Mt. Fuji. We laughed right back, of course. When we stepped off the ferry cruise and saw snow everywhere, we laughed right back because hey, there’s snow. When at night we got lost on our way to our hotel and the temperature dropped to 4C, we laughed right back because hey, what an experience. We laughed right back when we discovered the joys of vending machines, and that even a bottled coffee tastes excellent in Japan.
History tells us that Kyoto was taken out of the list of Japanese cities where the atomic bomb is to be dropped because Kyoto is beautiful. And boy it truly, truly, truly is.
Temples, castles, shrines, UNESCO sites, jinrikisha (human-drawn carts), and girls wearing kimonos — those are Kyoto at a glance. Step by step the city somehow makes all your Rurouni Kenshin dreams come true. In what is largely considered the most beautiful city in Japan, this former capital is a dream. It’s not hard to imagine samurais, ninjas, geishas, and courtesans walking the city streets. Or intrigue unfolding beneath a full bloom cherry blossom lane.
The Golden Pavilion.
My friends and I saw a geisha walking by Gion district, and she was such a sight to behold because there’s quite none like her. The tales are true; you’d know a geisha when you see one. We saw the first blooms of spring in the cherry blossom lane of Gion’s Shimbashi (Shirikawa) where even the canals are absolutely gorgeous. The day before that, we saw the early sakura buds coming to life as we stepped inside Toji Temple and strolled through the Philosopher’s Walk. When we walked the Silver Pavilion, I realized the Zen is true, Zen is here, and Zen is this. I let myself laugh at the gaudiness of the Golden Pavilion and the absurdity of how Kiyomizu-dera Temple, even when under renovation, is still beautiful. The city is arresting with its colors of vermillion red-orange Torii gates and brown woods and hills, and it is more so during Spring.
Fushimi Inari Shrine, a sunsent, and cherry blossom trees
The first signs of Spring shows itself on the Philosopher’s Path
Toji Temple, the five storied pagoda
Blossoms on the Shirikawa canal
A cherry blossom lane in bloom in Gion, Kyoto’s geisha district
Willow Tree in Fushimi Inari Shrine
A Guardian Fox, and a cat disturbed from resting
Pink sakura petals
Toji Temple reflected
A garden at Tenryu-ji Temple
You can simply walk on a street surrounded by kimono-clad people and old buildings in one minute, turn a corner and be unceremoniously greeted by skyscrapers and bustling city noise in the next. Kyoto is a repeat of one beautiful scene to another, so much so that I suspect there is not one ugly place in Kyoto.
Kyoto is ridiculously beautiful.
The cherry blossom lane in Osaka Castle Park.
Osaka is a city confused whether it should be cool, hip, or chill, and so it became all three. It is a favorite simply because I truly loved its atmosphere, pretentious that word may be. But some cities have personalities, and Osaka is one of those. It is the Chicago of Japan, so Attaché says. It’s nowhere as beautiful as Kyoto, but it is just as compelling.
Osaka is synonymous with food and so when my friends and I arrived in the Kitchen of The Nation, we ate. It’s easy to let Kuidaore (‘Eat ‘Till You Drop!’) be your guide, wallet be damned, when you go to Dotonbori (‘Dotombori’ in train station signs) and feast in king crab meat, melon bread with ice cream, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, kushikatsu, kobe beef. We let ourselves salivate over food we simply cannot afford or that we do not have the patience to wait-in-line for. Dotonbori is gritty, and so you let yourself be greeted by glitzy neon lights, the visuals that have no context, the stunning canal, the Glico Running Man, and the people you casually talk to while you eat. And if there’s a sale, you buy it because it’s cheaper than in Tokyo.
On spring, Osaka is stunning in its cherry blossom lane below the Osaka Castle. The City hijacks your money with its food, and you should also let it take your breath away. Their cherry blossom lane, when in full bloom, is white after white after white petals and trees. All you have to do is stand in the middle of it all and be blown away.
Of course, unmissable is the Universal Studios Japan, home to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Hold your hippogriffs for this is the time to be extra in Osaka. When we went there, people were dressed in yellow and denim to look like Minions. So be outrageous, dress outrageous, and buy a butterbeer for Merlin’s sake.
An origami crane is placed in front of the Atomic Bomb Dome
The A-Bomb Dome
The A-Bomb Dome
Yes, we went there, heading straight to the Atomic Bomb Dome and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum (and the eminent Hiroshima okonimiyaki after). There are fewer places on Earth where the messages for peace and nuclear disarmament are foremost than in Hiroshima.
On August 6, 1945, “Little Boy” was dropped over the city of Hiroshima causing massive destruction and death. I have to admit, until then I didn’t know the actual extent of the bombing. Rebuilt after the war, Hiroshima stands tall as a City of Peace and as a reminder of the first use of a nuclear weapon on human population.
Itsukushima Shrine’s The Great Torii.
From Hiroshima, we took a ferry and rode across a river to get to an island that was once called the Island of the Gods. The first sight to greet us was the famed The Great Torii, a giant tori gate that is imposing in its heights and seems to guard the island.
Once the ferry docks we took a walk towards the Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO site. The path is packed with people, roadside restaurants, and deer. If you want to eat, keep in mind that the roadside restaurants close early. I remember because I didn’t get to eat that ice cream I’ve been eyeing.
The Great Torii is beautiful when it floats in the water, and when the sun hits its orange shade, and when you stand looking at it from inside the Itsukushima Shrine.