Japan Travel

Hidden Japan: Sakura, Sayonara…

Cherry blossoms, goodbye.

The final stop on this Hidden Japan journey was the imperial city of Kyoto. Famous for its Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, beautiful zen gardens, narrow streets and kimono-clad women, Kyoto has so much to offer to both the first-time tourist and the returning traveller.

The weather was glorious when we arrived, so we dropped our bags at the hotel and headed back out into the sunshine, onto the subway and towards the last of the cherry blossoms.

Heian Shrine is a relatively “new” building – not quite 120 years old – and is very distinctive with its sunburnt-orange colours and the enormous gate or toori leading to the entrance. Heian Shrine has a beautiful, expansive garden wrapping around it. Cherry trees encircle a lake filled with water pumped directly from Lake Biwa, so given that the blossoms had been so perfect, I hoped it would be a glorious place to enjoy the last of the pink and white petals before they fell.

The blossoms were incredible. The shrine’s garden is filled with weeping cherry trees – we had only seen a few of these kind further south, so it was a real treat to see hundreds of them here with just a few petals having fallen. It was a magical setting. One of the group and I were so entranced by the blossoms that we lost the rest of the group and found ourselves relegated to the “naughty corner” for being the last back. Oh well, it was worth it.

That night we were lucky to have another unique experience as we capitalised on the wonderful weather. For about three weeks in early spring, Nijo Castle opens its grounds for a special night-time illumination, called “Light Up”. Our hotel was adjacent to the castle, so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. We headed across to Nijo and filed along with the throng of locals through the illuminated castle grounds and the groves of cherry and plum blossoms. Seeing the flowers by night is a completely different way to appreciate these seasonal miracles. There was one grove in particular that took my breath away – it was a huge canopy of blossoms, all glowing in the lamplight – backlit blossoms as far as the eye could see. The camera did not do it justice.

The next day the weather turned on us. “One hundred percent chance of rain” said the forecast. We tried to make the best of it, traipsing through puddles and huddling under umbrellas. I call it the “Curse of the Golden Pavilion” and blame myself completely for this turn in the weather. You see, I have a perfect record when it comes to visiting the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) in Kyoto. I have been three times, and all three times it has rained. My tour group has banned me from visiting it ever again. Still, despite the dreary conditions, we made the most of it, and as always my beautiful group saw the best in it – “wasn’t it wonderful to see the mist and the dark timber from the rain? And the way the gold glistened with the raindrops…” etc etc. Bless them! Never a complaint.

Our other main tourist stop for the day was Kiyomizu Temple – a wonderful Buddhist temple nestled into the mountainside in eastern Kyoto. I love this place – the view as you look back on the temple with the skyline of Kyoto below is really an incredible sight. The gardens also are beautiful – heavily wooded with cherry trees and maples, it’s a special spot in any season – the pinks of springtime, the lush green in mid-summer, the reds and oranges of the autumn and the white, snow-covered roofs in winter.

The rain didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of several groups of young women – both Japanese and other Asian nationalities – who donned kimono and geta (Japanese “clogs”) and tried to walk daintily in the wet around Kiyomizu Temple and its surrounding streets. There was nothing dainty about our group in our walking shoes and raincoats!

Our final stop were the narrow streets of Gion – also known as the Geisha district. Now the Japanese don’t actually refer to Geisha as “Geisha”, but rather use the terms geiko for the full-fledged entertainers and maiko for the apprentices or trainees. In times past, young girls could start training as a maiko in boarding houses from as young as nine years of age, however since World War II and the implementation of the American education system in Japan, the girls can’t commence their training until they are fifteen or sixteen years of age and have graduated from Junior High School (equivalent to Grade 9 in Australia).

Gion is filled with wooden tea houses, lane ways, narrow streams and stone bridges. There are a number of beautiful little shops and restaurants in the area and you could easily spend a few hours wandering around and getting lost in the maze of quaint streets and buildings. If you are lucky, you may even spot a maiko or a geiko coming out of a tea house. We didn’t have much luck in the rain that evening, but one couple from our group went back to Gion the following afternoon once the weather had cleared and got some wonderful photos of two maiko on the street. There are only about three hundred maiko and geiko in Kyoto these days, so you do have to be a little bit lucky to see them out and about.

The rain had stripped many of the cherry blossoms off their trees, so by that evening the ground was covered in a swath of pale pink petals. We were all very pleased that we had seen what we had seen and saw this rain and wind as a sign that all good things must come to an end, just as our Japanese journey was coming to a close.

So, thinking that the blossoms were no more, we headed about twenty minutes to the west of Kyoto to the area of Arashiyama and Sagano to visit Tenryu Temple and the Sagano Bamboo Grove. Imagine our surprise when we disembarked the tour bus, walked around the corner to the main street of Arashiyama and came face to face with an avenue lined with beautiful blossoms. Tenryu Temple’s zen garden also still had several trees full of flowers for us to enjoy. It was an unexpected delight I have to say!

The walk around Arashiyama, the temple grounds and then up through the bamboo grove was wonderful. I’ve wanted to visit this bamboo grove for many, many years now and it did not disappoint. However, the highlight for all of us was probably the simple walk from the end of the grove back to the hub of Arashiyama. The path takes you on a gentle stroll through the countryside, past everyday houses, vegetable plots, little tea houses and pottery shops, back past the bamboo and into the town centre. The colours, the architecture, the space and the simplicity (and the clearing skies) made for a really enjoyable experience.

And so we come to the end of our journey – ten incredible days exploring some relatively unknown jewels of Japan. The grandeur of Kumamoto; the fiery depths of Mt Aso; the wilderness of Gokanosho; the hospitality of the people; the complexity of a kimono; the rowdiness of karaoke; the sobriety of Hiroshima; the magic of Miyajima; the imperial history of Kyoto… and all bathed in the soft pink and white bloom of the cherry blossom.

This is Hidden Japan.

*****

Thank you to my fourteen beautiful travelling companions – you are the most open and embracing group that a tour leader could have wished for. Thank you for never baulking, never complaining, always being eager and interested and for your gratitude for each experience that we shared. Thank you for the laughter, the tears and the friendship.

Thank you as always to my family, especially my husband who is the engine room in Brisbane while I am away, and to Noller & Turner Travel Associates for allowing me to take our clients away and indulge in my passion for Japan.

*****

Next departure? Late March, 2014.
Email sonia_jones@travel-associates.com.au for details.

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