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March 15, 2010

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Enjoying cherry blossoms, hot springs and sakura cuisine

LATE March and early April are prime times to visit Japan because the sakura, or cherry blossom, flowers throughout the country during this period.

The sakura season is short: typically the opening of the first bud to falling of the petals is one to two weeks.

The brief and beautiful life of the cherry blossom is much appreciated by Japanese people, who enjoy not only the spectacular blossoming, but also the falling petals. The cherry blossom sums up the traditional idea of maximizing the peak of life in a short time, and then departing with no regret.

The brief flowering and fragility of the blooms symbolize the transience of life, and since trees bloom at the same time, they have been used as a metaphor for clouds. The carpet of pale petals is likened to snow.

I was surprised to see sakura zensen, or the cherry blossom front, on the local TV weather forecast when I first visited. It's similar to the weather map of Japan, but it's colored in different shades of red and marked with dates of the blooming around the country.

It tracks the cherry blossoms as a sign of coming spring.

Sakura starts blooming as early as January in the southern subtropical islands of Okinawa and as late as May on the northern island of Hokkaido every year. Since ancient times, it has been a sign of changing seasons.

A sakura tour allows visitors to enjoy this cultural symbol of Japan, in addition to other attractions. The cherry blossom season usually lasts from late March to early April and is one of the most pleasurable times of year for many Japanese.

Hanami, or flower-viewing gatherings under cherry trees, are common throughout the country. People commonly take their lunch boxes, and even dinner, for a relaxing picnic under trees in parks and shrines.

This year, the weatherman predicts the start of blooming in Tokyo around March 21. The week of March 28 is the best viewing time in Tokyo, when most trees are in full flower.

Visitors can enjoy both the cherry blossoms as well as a day or two at the hot springs on nearby Izu Peninsula of Shizuoka Prefecture. After cleansing body and soul, it's time to visit the historical city of Kyoto, where sakura blooms three days later than in Tokyo. Nearby Osaka is a good last stop for the last of the sakura.

Lost in Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the most dynamic and expensive cities in the world. It has a unique ambience that combines the historical traditions from the Edo Era (1600-1868) and the modern metropolitan lifestyle.

I was quite impressed at how the Japanese queue up and how they appreciate exclusive goods. I always see long and orderly lines wherever I go in Tokyo, at bus stops, in front of bakeries, in front of temples and other places. Special goods are all over the city, from seasonal exclusive snacks in small stalls at Metro stations to exclusive post cards in local post offices.

As in the film "Lost in Translation," it is quite easy to get lost in Tokyo - geographically because of its complicated Metro system and spiritually because of the never-ending night.

The Metro system is far more than public transport, it's an underground world unto itself. Most stations are packed with shops selling food, clothing, cosmetics and electronics. The major stations such as Tokyo Station, Ikebukuro and Shinjuku are underground mazes.

We stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel right next to the Tokyo Station, convenient for traveling anywhere in the country. The train station is just above the sprawling Metro.

Opened last year, the hotel offers rooms that are rather sizeable compared with the average in Tokyo, where typically everything is small.

Ueno Park, the oldest public park in Japan and the largest in the city, is known for the variety and beauty of its cherry blossoms. It is the place where many locals gather for hanami festivities.

A local friend recalls how he had to stake out a spot under one of those trees last year - and sit on a mat all day to keep it - to ensure space for his boss to hold a hanami party in the evening.

The area around the park has the city's largest concentration of museums and arts museums, such as the Tokyo National Museum, the National Science Museum and the National Museum of Western Art.

Asakusa is one of the city's oldest neighborhoods and home to its oldest temple, Sensoji.

The legend of the temple goes that two fishermen caught a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy and Infinite Compassion, in their fishing nets in AD 628. They gave the statue to their master, who recognized the goddess and rebuilt his house to enshrine the statue. The temple is on the exact spot of his house and the statue enshrined is said to be the one from the fishing net.

The small lanes leading to the temple are packed with all kinds of small shops and stalls selling souvenir and snacks.

I was most impressed with the famous Tsukiji Fish Market near the coast. The largest in the world, the market sells more than 2 million kilograms of seafood every day. The auction for fish from all over the world runs from 5:30-9am daily. It's an adventure, but visitors have to wake up early. Only one area is reserved for visitors and it's all the way in the back behind crowded stalls and shops. Narrow walkways are crowded with loading carts and it's possible to see shop owners cutting raw fish.

Inside the auction space are wholesalers, dealers and authorized buyers bidding for all kinds of seafood. Each fish is numbered and placed on the ground. The authorized buyers will take a flashlight to examine the flesh - the tail has been chopped off so buyers can ascertain freshness. As soon the sale starts, the auctioneer stands on a chair and yells out the fish numbers - buyers quickly raise their hands.

Auctions usually last a few minutes and move to another spot and it all happens so fast that it's easy to miss what's going. I was completely lost until I was told to focus on the buyers, who usually wear a hat with their company's name on it.

Warmup in Shuzenji

Izu Peninsula is renowned for its numerous hot springs and rolling, verdant hills. The peninsula is filled with thousands of Western and Japanese hotels offering springs. Some Japanese family spa inns have been operating for hundreds of years.

We went to small and quiet Shuzenji Town, one of the locals' favorite spa towns, about two and half hours from Tokyo by express train.

A priest known as Kobo Daishi (AD 774-835) passed by the town in the early Heian Era (794-1185) on his travels around the country to collect donations. The Buddhist master discovered the Tokko-no-yu hot spring in the town and opened Shuzenji Temple and spa. The temple became a famous monastery for monks and samurai and the town developed around the temple.

We stayed at the Asaba Spa Inn, managed by the Asaba family for more than 500 years. Their ancestors were among those who came to the town with priest Ryukei Hanjo, who restored the temple in early 16th century.

The inn is small but stunningly beautiful. Most rooms have a view of a pool at the foot of a mountain where bamboo grows. There are only a dozen of rooms, mostly Japanese-style ones with tatami. The inn offers two indoor spring spas and one outdoors.

During the sakura season, it is a unique pleasure to enjoy the spa, the cherry blossoms and the bamboo-covered mountain at the same time.

The inn also invites artists to play Noh regularly on a delicate Noh stage above the pool. The entire stage was dismantled and transported from Tokyo, and reassembled at the inn around 100 years ago.

Noh is a major form of classic Japanese musical drama that originated in the 14th century. Men wearing masks play both male and female roles.

Back to the past

Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan until the Meiji government transferred it to Tokyo in 1868. The city has a traditional Japanese ambience, owing to the numerous buildings that has survived war and earthquakes.

I was stunned when I encountered a geisha on a street - it was like watching an old Japanese movie.

She was about 20, wearing a kimono embroidered with bright yellow flowers and hair accessories of the same flowers to match the kimono. Her face was painted pale and she walked in tiny steps under the cherry blossoms that had just opened.

For a moment I was confused about past and present.

Some restaurants in Kyoto are set in traditional Japanese gardens and offer the delicate kaiseki ryori, which literally means "holding stone cuisine."

The cooking originated in the old times, when ascetic monks were not allowed to eat dinner. Instead they would have afternoon tea with delicious snacks, but they were not allowed to eat much. Thus, the monks placed a warm stone on their bellies to keep warm and reduce the hunger pangs.

The snacks were also arranged beautifully to please the eye. And that tradition has been carried on and developed into today's vivid kaiseki ryori.

Japanese's keen appreciation of the changing seasons is reflected in the cuisine. Seasonal ingredients from the area are selected.

Although the trees that bear the famous cherry blossoms are a different species from those that bear cherries, the blossoms are still edible and used in some Japanese cuisine.

I still remember a sakura course of kaiseki ryori that I once enjoyed in Kyoto. The chef arranged the vegetables and cherry blossoms into the shape of a Japanese garden on an earth-colored dish. The other dish, the soup, contained pink fish balls indicating the sakura floating on a river. The dessert was a carrot-flavored mochi, the Japanese rice cake, wrapped in sakura petals for color and aroma.

The full course is an art in terms of the food arrangement. Each single dish was simply too beautiful to be eaten - but we manage to force ourselves.

The last stop, Osaka, is known for its snacks and the city has numerous eatery streets. It is also the ideal last stop to enjoy sakura at Osaka Castle Park, the second largest in the city. It is the landmark of Osaka and a famous hanami spot, with around 4,300 cherry blossom trees.


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