A transformative two months in Elemental Japan

Cherry blossoms are synonymous with Japan. It was these ephemeral beauties that determined the starting date of March 23rd, 2018 for a two month trip to further explore the elements in the Land of the Rising Sun. The first month was spent with my sister Ruth. Together we saw Sakura in different phases of development, from gorgeous pink buds to trees mostly covered with leaves. The experience was magical, with the highlight the cherry blossom viewing party (hanami), next to Fushimi Castle in Kyoto. My solo travel spanned early Summer, a season of vibrant greens, Azaleas, Irises, the hint of hydrangeas and the flooding of rice paddies. Starting in Kamakura, the second month found me in Tokyo during Golden Week, travelling in southern and northern Honshu, and ending in Sendai to visit the 3/11 Community Memorial Centre.  Here I introduce some of the elemental themes and transformations that occurred over this stimulating two months with a focus on the flower that captivates a nation.

You know you’ve arrived in the height of the main Sakura Season in Japan when it takes over an hour to exchange your JR Railpass at Narita Airport Station! The last week of March is their busiest period as it turns out. Fortunately Ruth and I had this lovely tree to look at during our wait. It encouraged us to reflect on what might turn out to be the best sakura spot in the coming weeks we had travelling together.

With our Rail Passes in hand Ruth and I became cherry blossom connoisseurs over the coming weeks. We viewed the Sakura in various phases in Tokyo, Nagano, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Asuka, Kameoka, Yoshino, Imazu Town, Wani, many places in Shikoku and along the train routes we travelled. Not surprisingly I took hundreds of photos, a small selection which follows. These illustrate the transformation of some of the trees we saw and landscapes we travelled through.

The full moon provided a perfect backdrop for this large cherry tree, starting to bloom in Kanazawa at the end of March 2018. The Sakura season was a few days earlier than expected in 2018 so Ruth and I were fortunate to watch the buds turn to blooms over the few days we were there. The main reason for travelling to Kanazawa was to learn more about this city on the Sea of Japan, especially its role as the centre of gold leaf production. This is part of the story of metal as an elemental theme. The cherry blossoms were a real bonus.

The flowering of Sakura is tracked and reported on at the national scale, as described in my post ‘Space, time and flowers‘. The first blossoms I saw in 2018 were in Okinawa on January 18th. This was the start of the Sakura season in Japan which gradually makes its way up to Hokkaido over the coming months. The main ‘Sakura front’ usually reaches Kyoto in the first two weeks of April. Ruth and I were booked into an apartment near Nijo Castle over this period to immerse ourselves in the full cherry blossom experience. As attested by the photos of my Facebook friends in Kyoto and the surrounding regions however, the peak had passed when we arrived. This is what can happen when the prevailing weather, also known as the elements, affects the timing of the blossoms.

Spectacular sights could still be seen in Kyoto such as this weeping Sakura at Taizo-in, a Temple at the Myoshin-ji complex. The blossoms cascade over the modern Garden of Yin and Yang, making it doubly elemental. It was the gardens at the Temple I had taken Ruth to see, once again the cherry blossoms were an added and impressive attraction.

If one desires to visit a site in Kyoto specifically to see the Sakura, Google Maps conveniently illustrates where to find the best cherry blossom spots. As the image below shows the locations are marked by white cherry flowers surrounded in pink.

A local guide to cherry blossom spots was an unexpected feature when I looked at Kyoto on Google Maps on March 30th. Eight days later many of these sites had disappeared on Google Maps, except for the Heian Shrine and one or two others. Timing is critical when viewing Sakura, especially given the vagaries of the weather.

The late blooming of the Sakura at Heian Shrine fitted nicely with a trip I had planned there with Ruth. My purpose was to examine the design of the buildings and grounds that is based on the principles of fusui (feng shui), a dimension of Elemental Japan introduced in my blog ‘Fusui, the way of Feng Shui in Japan‘. This was one of many themes I was exploring during my two months in Japan. When we were at the Shrine the Sakura provided a beautiful setting for a Shinto wedding. It was another illustration of the significance of this flower to the people of Japan.

The ultimate in cherry blossom viewing is to be present on the day the flowers are at their peak. In another act of serendipity, Ruth and I visited the Miho Museum in Shiga Prefecture that very day. A corridor of perfect pink embraced us as we walked towards the museum. This photo was taken on the way back to the entrance.

While Ruth and I fell under the spell of the Sakura, the joy and delight that others found in these fleeting blossoms was even more enchanting. I am unaware of any other country where flower viewing captivates a whole nation and attracts a multitude of tourists. Everywhere you looked there were posters of cherry blossoms, music and parties under the cherry blossoms, special train trips, festivals, Sakura inspired events and cherry flavoured/coloured sweets, cakes and ice-creams. What a special time to be in Japan.

The highlight of the Sakura season for us was taking part in a hanami (flower viewing party) at Fushimi Castle in early April 2018, shown below. Our party was one of many in the Castle grounds. There was a sense of joy and light-heartedness in the air. It was a very enjoyable afternoon.

Keiji Okashima, sitting on the left, invited us to the hanami. He served us matcha in glass tea bowls that he had made. That added to the special nature of the occasion. These and other works made by Keiji were being exhibited at the gallery owned by Ms Toyoda, wearing the striped top. She provided the delicious food which Ruth (with the orange henna hair) is sampling. The photo was taken by Jorie Johnson who contributed the traditional red felt we are sitting on. Enjoying good company, food and drinking pink sparkling wine under the cherry blossoms  is an experience I would recommend. 🙂

Another captivating part of the Sakura cycle are the petals as they fall after their brief life on the tree. This is known as ‘snow’. Ruth and I experienced a wonderful example in Kameoka near Kyoto. Forming the shape of a heart to hold the soft, newly fallen petals felt perfect.

Yoshino, near Nara, is one of the most famous Sakura sites in Japan. Over 30,000 trees have been planted on the slopes. When Ruth and I visited on April 13th unusually only a few cherry blossoms were visible. Most of the trees had already put on their new green leaves as seen on the two hillsides in the image below. We were visiting Kinpusenji, a famous Shugendo Temple at Yoshino, to view the Zao Gongen – three impressive and powerful blue statues – only periodically on show. As described in my post on the winter pilgrimage I participated in, Shugendo has intimate connections with the elements.

As we travelled around Japan Ruth and I saw the cherry trees transformed from bare limbs (in Nagano and Kanazawa), to beautiful blossoms in spring (at many sites) and then a vibrant green canopy in early summer as seen here at Yoshino. Individual wild cherry trees  in the mountains stood out when blooming, then were lost in a sea of green for the rest of the summer.

Cherry blossoms are associated with impermanence and new beginnings in Japan. That equates with transformation. These themes were the subject of a blog that Ruth wrote on April 5th, the first year anniversary of the day her husband Peter died. The day was a special one which I was pleased to be part of. You can read Ruth’s personal and moving account here.

Ruth and I visited Kibune Shrine and Mt Kurama on April 5th. Cherry blossoms were there to greet us again in the mountains. The impact of Typhoon 21 which occurred in October 2017 was also felt on the mountain. I came across several places in my travels that these high-velocity winds had affected.

Ruth finally returned to Melbourne on April 24th. By that stage the Sakura tree at the JR East Centre at Narita Airport was in full bloom. I imagine that they would have taken it down shortly after as Japan moved into summer mode and the rainy season (tsuyu). Later in the year I would expect there would be an Autumn tree to greet you. Such is the love and celebration of the seasons in Japan.

In my month of solo travel after Ruth left I travelled further afield, as mentioned in the introduction. Originally I was planning to write about that period as well. That was optimistic! I have already written enough. What I can say however that both with Ruth and on my own I learnt a tremendous amount during the two months in Japan. Thanks goes to Ruth, my friends and colleagues who made it such a rewarding and enjoyable time. You made all the difference.

From watching ‘Sekigahara‘ on the flight to Narita, to the many examples of serendipity, I feel that these two months in Japan has taken my appreciation of the elements to a different level. Especially when combined with the lessons learnt on my winter trip in January/February this year (see here and here for my posts on winter in Japan). It has been a transformation. In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of the Sakura season, I have learnt more about elemental themes such as metal and fusui (identified above), fire, the management of natural disasters (before, during and after), gorinto (five element towers), religion, history, train travel, food, festivals, energy and the Meiji Restoration. Quite a mix! The latter is marking its 150th Anniversary in 2018 and has some fascinating connections to the elements. Over the coming weeks I will share my impressions of these different dimensions of Elemental Japan and my thoughts on the way they come together.

3 thoughts on “A transformative two months in Elemental Japan

  1. I really enjoyed reading your account of our travels, Jann. It brought back many fond memories of the places we visited, the sights we saw and the people we met. The serendipitous nature of the way our travels followed the blossoming of the cherry trees really was magical, as you have noted here.
    I was fortunate to have such a knowledgeable travel companion. 🙏🏻

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    • It was a pleasure travelling with you Ruth. Thank-you for your patience with my love of taking LOTS of photos of all things elemental. Having a new set of eyes and someone to share the experiences made the trip extra special. The post gives a sense of what we saw. There was so much more as you know.:-) You would be most welcome to write a guest blog on your experiences during our intuitive tour of Elemental Japan. Perhaps about Castles!:-)

      Liked by 1 person

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