Rikugien Illumination 2019

Shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree)

六義園

The illuminated cherry blossoms draw huge crowds to Rikugien every year with their photographically challenging beauty. This year, Nana had an idea to beat the crowds at this 16th Century garden dedicated to the six forms of Chinese poetry: arrive before dusk, enjoy the park and wait for dark.

It was a good idea except for the cold. The temperature never got very high yesterday, and it had fallen to about 8C when we arrived at the park at 4 p.m. Together with the lack of blue skies, it made for a pretty dreary afternoon.

Shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree)
Shidarezakura (weeping cherry tree)

The big draw for the illumination is the park’s famous shidarezakura, or weeping cherry tree (prunus pendula). This giant, planted shortly after the end of the Pacific War, is more than 70 years old and stands at 15m tall. Its branches span more than 20m across the garden.

This year, in the cold and waning light, the tree looked a bit sorry. The blossoms had yet to fully fill out, but the green leaves were already emerging. We took a few snaps and discussed the sorry state of the tree before hurrying on to see the rest of the park.

Tazu-no-hashi
Tazu-no-hashi

Rikugien is famous for far more than its cherry trees, including 88 stations based on scenes from Japanese poetry, several scenic bridges and tea houses, and two hills representing the male and female deities which gave birth to Japan.

Sakura at Rikugien
Sakura at Rikugien

There are several other cherry trees in the park, including another that’s taller than 15m at the opposite end of the park from the shidarezakura, near the site of Tsutsuji-chaya (tea house). By the time we’d reached this point, Nana and I were well and truly chilled and decided to have something hot to drink while we waited another hour for dusk to fall and the illumination to begin. We escaped the lure of the famous tea house and opted for warm sake and then electric kombucha and ryokucha at a simple pavilion.

As we sipped our hot drinks and nibbled on simple snacks, the approaching twilight brought more and more clients to the pavilion. We noted visitors of varying nationalities and tongues, all of whom were welcomed by the friendly staff even when they had to order via miming. Nana had just observed that no one was ordering draft beer on account of the cold weather when one younger Japanese man ordered and received a large chilled mug of frothy. Meanwhile, looking out the side of the pavilion to the benches under the open skies, I saw a young girl eating a matcha ice cream. Brrr!

Illuminated shidarezakura
Illuminated shidarezakura

At the stroke of six we decided we’d waited long enough. The lights were on and the crowds were growing thicker. Warmed by our drinks, we hurried back to the shidarezakura and found it transformed by the illumination. After getting a few snaps here we returned to the other giant on the far side of the park and found it bathed in light alternating from white to pink and then violet.

Sakura frocked out in colors
Sakura frocked out in colors

Rikugien is well worth the visit for the illumination in the spring or the maple colors in the fall, but be prepared for large crowds and a long wait to get in during these popular seasons.

Rikugien Illumination 2019

Nakameguro Sakura

Cherry blossoms in Nakameguro

中目黒

We visited Nakameguro on a weekday afternoon, hoping to avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, it seems at least 6 million other people had the same idea, and we were trapped in the midst of a jostling, multilingual crowd from the moment we got off the train at Nakameguro Station until we’d finished the visit and were pushing back onto another train to leave.

Cherry trees arch over Meguro river
Cherry trees arch over Meguro river

It was still early in the season, and the blossoms were only about half full. Still, in places the blossoms were packed so tightly it was like walking through a pale pink cloud. The only thing missing, as Nana voiced repeatedly, was blue skies.

Sakura and lanterns recede into the distance
Sakura and lanterns recede into the distance

Nakameguro Sakura

Kawazuzakura Festival

Kawazuzakura line the Kawazu river banks

河津桜まつり

Japan’s renowned cherry blossoms emerge, somewhat unpredictably, in late March through early April and are gone almost as soon as they reach their peak blooming. As such, they are a well-worn metaphor for the fleetingness of beauty and life.

At the southern tip of the Izu peninsula, however, the town of Kawazu is famous for a kind of cherry tree (one of more than 600 varieties worldwide) which is at once more intensely pink and longer lasting than the famed somei yoshino, and emerges much earlier. Typically, Kawazuzakura begin blossoming in early February and remain in bloom for the better part of a month, lining banks the eponymous Kawazu river with twin streams of pink.

Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura

This year Nana and I found ourselves in Izu at the right time, and we made the jaunt on a day that was forecast to be overcast and rainy. Much to our delight, the rain held off and the sun even emerged from the clouds during our visit.

Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura

Naturally, the Kawazuzakura Festival attracts large crowds, particularly on a weekend, and parking can be hard to come by. Some enterprising locals let out their spaces at ¥700, and some hardy souls simply park along whatever roadside doesn’t specifically forbid it. We chanced upon the happy solution of parking free at the nearby Kawazu Bagatelle Park (although we had to wait several minutes for a spot) and taking the (also free) shuttle bus down to the river.

Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura

Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura

Kawazuzakura
Kawazuzakura

Nanadaru: Seven Falls of Kawazu

Shokeidaru

河津七滝

A series of seven waterfalls along the Kawazu river cascades down a mountainside just a short drive north from Kawazu in Izu. Although it requires hiking more than 1km and some vigorous climbing to see them all, the natural beauty of the site is well worth the effort. Nana and I arrived in the mid-morning of a sunny and warm winter day, and started the series from the middle (as that’s where the route from the parking lot placed us).

Wishing rock
Wishing rock

In the riverbed en route to the falls lie two large stones surmounted by a circle of rope and other semi-religious accouterments. Visitors are invited to purchase three small pebbles from baskets at the edge of the walk for a nominal ¥100. After making a wish while holding the pebbles in their folded hands, the visitors throw the pebbles at the wishing stones. If a pebble lands atop one of the stones and remains, the wish is granted. However, the supplicant is admonished to return within the year to give thanks for the successful wish!

Shokeidaru and Izu no Odoriko
Shokeidaru and Izu no Odoriko

Just upstream of the wishing rocks, Shokeidaru fills a large pool next to a pair of statues illustrating a scene from Izu no Odoriko, a 1926 short story by Nobel prize-winner Kawabata Yasunari set in Izu. It’s one of the more impressive falls in the series (as well as being one of the easiest to access) with a 10m drop.

Hebidaru
Hebidaru

Next upstream from Shokeidaru is Hebidaru, the Snake Falls, so named for the scale-like appearance of the surrounding rock.

Ebidaru, the shrimp's tail
Ebidaru, the shrimp’s tail

Continuing upstream after a swaying suspension bridge or two is Ebidaru, which is said to resemble a shrimp’s tail. The best view is via another swaying suspension bridge reached after scrambling over a rather narrow stone path branching off from the main trail. Your humble narrator has no inkling to what extent the rhyming of “hebi” and “ebi” played in the imagination of those who named the falls (but if they’re anything like a number of Japanese he’s met, it can’t have been far from their minds).

From the bridge the visitor has the choice of advancing over the next rocky ridge or retreating back to the main path. Either route will bring them to the next sight, the 22m Kamadaru.

Kamadaru, the Iron Kettle
Kamadaru, the Iron Kettle

Kamadaru, the Iron Kettle, marks the upstream end of the series with its 22m drop. The impressive falls was once feared as the entrance to Hell. Now, visitors are invited to shout from the depth of their soul towards the falls.

Kanidaru
Kanidaru

Returning whence we began, downstream of the wishing rocks is the unprepossessing Kanidaru with a 2m drop. While the name is suggestive of a crab, it’s written phonetically so no certainty can be given to this interpretation (and the official website’s description doesn’t cast any light on the question).

It would be in keeping, though, with the seafood metaphor suggested by Ebidaru …

Passing downstream brings us back to the main road, with two more falls lying on the other side, and to an unexpected meeting.

Deaidaru
Deaidaru

The river continues to descend at this point and so must we, clambering down rough-hewn steps to find the next falls: Deaidaru, at the meeting of two streams, the first of which has fed all the falls we’ve seen to this point.

Deaidaru actually encompasses several distinct drops, and it’s difficult to say which particular one merits the name. It seems that the separate streams both sport a few moderate drops before they join in a pool.

Odaru
Odaru

We have to climb back up to the road and walk past the parking lot and cafés to reach the final, and largest, waterfall in the series: Odaru. The path to Odaru is flanked by a private spa, and the route may be closed on days the spa is in use. At the foot of the falls is a party pavilion and three separate but very close and public pools, leaving Nana and me to speculate whether the customers of this particular spa wore bathing suits or else were a particularly fun-loving bunch.

Joren Falls

Joren Falls

浄蓮の滝

Joren Falls lies at the upper reaches of the Kano River in central Izu and features a drop of 25m. According to legend, the falls is home to Jorogumo, a spider that transforms into a seductive woman. Several legends surround the Jorogumo, usually featuring a woodsman whose axe head has fallen into the pool beneath the falls. When the Jorogumo returns his axe head, the woodsman is captivated (and in some legends, captured).

The region is famous for its wasabi, and booths at the park entrance and near the falls feature fresh wasabi and goods made from wasabi — including wasabi ice cream. Wasabi is cultivated in the pool below Joren Falls.

Wasabi mascotWasabi
Wasabi mascot and wasabi
Joren Falls
Joren Falls

Oyakuen

Ochayagoten tea house viewed across Shinji no Ike

御薬園

Oyakuen was founded in the 14th Century and soon, with the encouragement of Ashina Morihisa, the local lord, became a medicinal herb garden for the community. The current landscape, meant to show nature in miniature, was designed by Meguro Jotei during the Edo period.

Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage
Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage

The garden surrounds a pond, Shinji no Ike, in the shape of the character 心 kokoro (heart), in the center of which sits the Rakujutei tea ceremony cottage. A larger tea house, Ochayagoten, adorns the near end of the pond and it was here that visiting nobles were formerly entertained.

Ochayagoten
Ochayagoten

Oyakuen was left in ruins after the Boshin war of 1868-9, but was restored to the point that it was named a nationally renowned garden in 1932.

Oyakuen「御薬園」

Exotic flora of inscrutable Japan

Possible oak leaf hydrangea

For me this was just a lovely flowering bush on my way from the cycle shop near my office to the train station. But it’s stumping the gardeners in my family. Oak leaf hydrangea? Does anyone know? (There were lots of more recognizable hydrangea in the neighborhood, and this is definitely the season.)

Mogusaen Plum Festival

Jushoubai plum tree

京王百草園 梅まつり

Keio Mogusaen is a park featuring 500 plum trees of more than 50 varieties. The park lies just over the Tamagawa river from Fuchu, in Hino, and is readily accessible from Tokyo on the Keio Line out of Shinjuku.

The centerpiece of Mogusaen is the magnificent Jushoubai plum 「寿昌梅」, planted by Ookubu Tadayo, restorer of Odawara Castle, to commemorate the death of Okazaki Saburo (Matsudaira Nobuyasu), eldest son of Tokugawa Ieyasu. This ancient living treasure dominates the park and challenges the photographer to capture its sprawling beauty.

Jushoubai Plum 「寿昌梅]
Jushoubai Plum 「寿昌梅]

Visitors to the park should be prepared for a challenging climb up the hillside from the station. It’s only a rise of about 60m, but at times it feels like pressing on towards the ninth stage of Mt. Fuji. It was particularly amusing to note the sign saying it was just “one more breath” to the top when it fact it was less than half way. But the persevering hiker will be well rewarded for the climb.

Mogusaen plum blossoms
Mogusaen plum blossoms

The park is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The festival runs from Feb. 3 to March 11. Admission is ¥300 for adults.

Mogusaen Plum Festival

Houkisugi at Nakagawa

Houkisugi 「箒杉」

箒杉

Houkisugi, a 2,000-year-old cedar, towers 45 meters above a bluff overlooking Nakagawa Onsen in the Tanzawa mountains of Kanagawa Prefecture. The tree, born about the time of Julius Cesar’s reign, measures 18 meters around at the root and 12 meters at eye level.

Houkisugi 「箒杉」
Houkisugi 「箒杉」

Locals revere the tree for having halted the spread of a conflagration in 1904. The tree still bears the scars of the fire. It is also credited with stopping a landslide in 1972.

Houkisugi measures 12m around at eye level
Houkisugi measures 12m around at eye level

According to Wikipedia, the name “Houkisugi” may refer to a place name, or to the fact the tree resembles a broom (houki). Houkisugi was designated a National Monument in 1934.

Houkisugi 「箒杉」

Hikawa Gorge

Hikawa Gorge

氷川渓谷

Hikawa Gorge is a natural formation at the confluence of the Nippara (日原川) and Tama Rivers (多摩川), easily accessible from Okutama Station on the Okutama Mukashi Michi (奥多摩むかしみち — Okutama Old Trail). The gorge lies just a few kilometers downstream of the Oguchi Dam which forms Lake Okutama, the source of the Tama River.

Hikawa River Gorge, Okutama
Hikawa River Gorge, Okutama

Hikawa Gorge

The gorge is a popular vacation spot throughout the summer, with picnicking along the banks, but the fall colors in late October and early November bring out the best in the scenery.

Hiking the Okutama Mukashi Michi is just a bit challenging, with some climbing and rocky paths that can turn slick in wet weather. We arrived following a late-season typhoon and found ourselves clambering over mud and rocks that had washed over the path where a tree had fallen down the slope. But the trail is well marked and for the most part well maintained, with many beautiful scenes along the way.

Access

From Shinjuku, the Chuo Line leaves about twice per hour, with a change at Oume (青梅). There is a “Holiday Express” runs direct a couple of times a day. It saves making a transfer, but takes the same time of about 1 hour 40 minutes to reach Okutama Station.

Hikawa Gorge 「氷川渓谷」