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

Myouhouji

Karahafu gable of Myouhouji

妙法寺

Myouhouji was originally a temple of the Shingon sect of Buddhism, but it converted to the Nichiren sect during the Genna Era (1615-1624). Since 1699, it has housed the spiritual images of Nichiren saints, and the temple has been famous since for warding off disasters and bad luck of all kinds.

Myouhouji
Myouhouji

Dragon font
Dragon font

More dragons under the karahafu
More dragons under the karahafu

Tetsumon

Tetsumon by Josiah Condor
Tetsumon by Josiah Condor

This iron gate, completed in 1878, is an important cultural asset. It was designed by Josiah Condor and melds Eastern and Western influences.

Myouhouji「妙法寺」

Sensō-ji (Asakusa)

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

金龍山浅草寺

Sensō-ji, also known as Asakusa for the neighborhood it dominates (and whose kanji it shares), is Tokyo’s oldest and most famous temple as well as one of the most popular temples to visit at the New Year’s holiday. The temple was founded in 645 to house a statue of bodhisattva Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) which legend has it was discovered in nearby Sumida River by two fishermen, the brothers Hinokuma Hamanari and Hinokuma Takenari, in 628. The temple and its various structures have been destroyed several times by fire and most recently by Allied bombing during World War II, and the current structures mostly date from the 1960s.

Kaminarimon, the Thunder Gate

Visitors flock to see the impressive Kaminarimon gate — 11.7m tall and originally erected by the military commander Taira no Kinmasa in 941, and moved to its current location in 1635 — with its statues of Fujin, god of wind, and Raijin, god of thunder, as well as the 4m tall paper lantern hanging in the center of the gate bearing the characters 雷門 (Kaminarimon).

Kaminarimon -- entrance to Sensoji
Kaminarimon — entrance to Sensoji

Kaminarimon paper lantern
Kaminarimon paper lantern

The reverse side of the gate features status of the god Tenryū and the goddess Kinryū, carved by master sculptor Hirakushi Denchū when he was 106 years old.

Tenryū, by Hirakushi DenchūKinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū
Tenryū and Kinryū, by Hirakushi Denchū

Shopping for Japanese kitsch in Nakamise-dōri

Nakamise-dōri, stretching 250m from the Kaminarimon to the inner Hōzōmon (Treasure House Gate), is home to about 90 shops offering lacquerware, painted fans, yukata and kimono (in various degrees of authenticity) and assorted Japanese bric-à-brac and kitsch such as Godzilla toys and maneki-neko figurines. The crowds are often at their thickest here, and it’s not unusual to encounter foreigners in rented kimono.

Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decorations, Nakamise-dōri

Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri
Shop decoration, Nakamise-dōri

Maneki-neko "beckoning cat" figurines
Maneki-neko “beckoning cat” figurines

New Year's shop decoration
New Year’s shop decoration

Uchiwa -- Japanese fans
Uchiwa — Japanese fans

Happy Year of the Boar!
Happy Year of the Boar!

Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building
Eaves of Nakamise-dōri shop building

Tengu, fox and other masks
Tengu, fox and other masks

Visitors often dress in kimono
Visitors often dress in kimono

Hōzōmon, the Treasure House Gate

Hōzōmon, the inner gate at 22.7m tall, was first built by Taira no Kinmasa in 942. It houses two enormous Nio deities and a pair of giant sandals. Because the gate in its current incarnation is built of fire-resistant materials, the second story is used to house the temple’s treasures, including a sutra that is designated a National Treasure.

Hōzōmon with pagoda in background
Hōzōmon with pagoda in background

To one side of Hōzōmon stands a five-story pagoda, and to the other are statues of two bodhisattva, including Kannon (Avalokiteshvara), the enshrined deity of Sensō-ji.

Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara
Bodhisattva Seshi and Avalokiteshvara

Approach to Hōzōmon
Approach to Hōzōmon

Detail of Hōzōmon
Detail of Hōzōmon

Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon
Jinrikisha guide points out Hōzōmon

Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

After Hōzōmon we come at last to Sensō-ji itself, a high-peaked structure dedicated to bodhisattva Kannon.

Sensō-ji, Tokyo's oldest temple
Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple

Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji
Ceiling mural in Sensō-ji

Priests inside the temple chant as clouds of incense rise among fabulous gilt decorations. Outside, visitors line up the steps to the portico to toss in their five-yen coins and offer their prayers. The large inner foyer, topped by faded and peeling murals, offers ample opportunities to purchase o-mikuji.

Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon
Sensō-ji with Tokyo Skytree and crescent moon

Jazz Tempura

Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP

I woke up yesterday prepared to bike to work, seeing as it was pretty much the only sunny day of the week and we’re expecting a typhoon on the weekend. But then Nana reminded me we had a reservation for a tempura restaurant in the evening.

We got to the restaurant in plenty of time, despite my having missed an express train at the first transfer. While it was just a few steps from Roppongi crossing, it was a small, old building, a bit run-down, and we were the only guests. The waiter showed us our seats at the counter and invited us to leave our bags in the washitsu「和室」, a sign they weren’t expecting many guests.

We ordered draft beer and the waiter brought us three different starters (one is the custom). We had some time to wait before our first tempura dish, enough time to look around and notice the master and the waiter and other chefs were all well past retirement age, and that the alcohol selection was a bit limited.

Tempura master frying a dish
The master at work

At last the tempura started arriving at our plates, and it was nothing short of amazing. Really top-notch tempura: hot, lightly battered and not oily in the least. We had eggplant, prawn, two varieties of whitefish, ginnan, squid, onion, anago. Uni was one neither of us had had before, not as tempura.

At some point in the midst of this feast, I had a double-take at the master’s bowl of batter — specifically his stirring implements:

Drumsticks used to stir tempura batter
Stirred with a pair of … ?

Of course I asked, and the master — taciturn until that moment — opened up about his hobby as a jazz drummer. We talked about our favorite genres and performers, and compared CD collections. They had a rather good collection behind the register at the restaurant, but as Nana confirmed, it wasn’t a patch on the one I’ve got at home.

Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP
Sweet potato tempura with Remy Martin VSOP

By the time we’d finished, a woman from a nearby establishment had dropped in to pick up two large platters of tempura, and another couple had arrived and been seated at the counter. The master’s finishing touch for us (apart from ochazuke rice and sliced pear for dessert) was sweet potato garnished with a few drops of Remy Martin VSOP. (I think this was part of the set and not just a gesture in response for our shared love of jazz.)

Tempura Mikaku house shochu
Tempura Mikaku house shochu

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

The study of Soseki Sanbo

漱石山房記念館

The Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum, located in Waseda-Minamicho, Shinjuku, houses a replica of the famous author’s study from his “Soseki Sanbo” residence, the ground of which it sits upon. (The residence was destroyed during World War II.) The museum also holds an exhibit hall, café, event hall and a library dedicated to Soseki’s works. In addition to the complete works and related materials, the library contains many foreign-language editions, such as a Spanish translation of Botchan and a Korean edition of the complete works.

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum
Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

Natsume Soseki (1867–1916) is regarded as the father of the modern Japanese novel, and is considered by many to be the greatest novelist of modern Japan. He was known for his humorous satire of public officials in the Meiji Era, and one of his recurring themes was ridiculing Japanese attempts to imitate Western society. Among his most famous works are I am a cat「吾輩は猫である」, Botchan「坊っちゃん」, and the trilogy Sanshirō「三四郎」, And Then「それから」 and The Gate「門」.

Soseki Sanbo
Soseki Sanbo

We were fortunate to visit during an exhibit of the author’s draft writings, newspaper clippings of the original serialization of many of his novels, and elaborate scrolls of Soseki’s haiku. The exhibit also contained many early editions of Soseki’s novels, with elaborately decorated covers, correspondence with publishers, a period photograph of Dogo Onsen, the setting for Botchan, and movie posters and stills from various productions of Botchan.

Natsume Soseki Memorial Museum

Surrounded!

Road work

Happy to report I was able to sleep in this morning despite the continual bang and clank of construction work coming through the window. When I finally got up, I went out on the balcony to locate the source of the noise. It took me a while to find it: a three-storey building across the river where a couple of workers were setting up scaffolding and nets prior to beginning remodeling.

When I finally got out of the house a couple of hours later, I discovered construction work on every side: a park on the corner, road paving in front of the building, and an office tower on the opposite side of the street.

Park under construction
Park under construction
More office space
More office space

Wisteriamania at Kameido Tenjin Shrine

Wisteria at Kameido Tenjin

亀戸天神社

Kameido Tenjin was built in 1646 to enshrine Sugawara no Michizane, a 9th Century scholar and politician who served Emperor Uda. Despite his service ending in disgrace, with accusations of plotting against the throne, a number of shrines to his memory sprang up from the 10th Century to appease his spirit when several years of catastrophes followed his death.

Ema prayer plaque
Ema prayer plaque featuring taiko bridge and wisteria

Kameido is a favorite spot of students studying for examinations. The students will visit the shrine and write their prayers on a wooden ema, which they tie to a stand just outside the shrine’s main entrance. Students who are successful may return with a gift: a live turtle to leave in the shrine’s central pond. While it’s uncertain when this tradition started, it’s undoubtedly a reflection of the shrine’s name: 亀 (kame) means “turtle” or “tortoise.” Even the temizuya reflects this theme. (The name comes from the village where the shrine sits.)

Kame temizuya at Kameido Tenjin
Kame temizuya at Kameido Tenjin

The shrine has several festivals throughout the year: plum in February, wisteria in April and May, and the Chrysanthemum Festival from late October through November. In addition, once every four years, the shrine hosts the Reitaisai. In this festival, a bull pulls a horen (portable shrine) through the neighborhood. But of all these, Kameido is probably most famous for the wisteria festival.

藤まつり — Fuji (wisteria) Festival

Wisteria at Kameido
Wisteria at Kameido

Kameido Tenjin is home to about 200 wisteria trees. These have all been planted since the end of the Pacific War, as the temple was destroyed. When the trees blossom in late April and early May, crowds throng to this modest shrine. News broadcasts feature images of blossoms, which adds to the popularity.

As the wisteria are spread throughout the shrine grounds, they may not all bloom at the same time owing to differing amounts of sunlight received. But don’t wait too long in an effort to avoid the crowds: the blossoms may wither quickly in May if the weather turns hot.

Turtles and Heron
Turtles and Heron

Right amidst the wisteria in the center of the shrine grounds, a greenish pond is home to numerous turtles, enormous koi, and at least one heron. As mentioned, students will leave live turtles as a way of saying thanks for a successful exam, with the unfortunate result that cheap and readily available Mississippi turtles now outnumber the domestic variety.

Taiko Bridge at Kameido Tenjin
Taiko Bridge at Kameido Tenjin

The shrine’s final attraction is its large red taiko bridges, unusual (if not unique) in Tokyo. The Men’s Bridge, representing the past, greets visitors just inside the entrance torii, while the Women’s Bridge, representing the future, brings them to the steps of the shine itself. (The current bridges are concrete reproductions as the originals were destroyed during the war, along with the rest of the shrine. See a 1911 photo of one of the original bridges here.)

Kameido Tenjin「亀戸天神社」

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

Tanuki totem pole

Tanuki totem pole

Spotted this in Aoyama today.

One of the little guys appears to be holding a keyboard, while another has a tablet representing 1,000 ryou (old-style Japanese currency).

Tanuku with keyboardTanuki with 千両
Tanuki with keyboard and 千両

Tanuki are often confused with raccoons, but are in fact a separate species, raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus). Tanuki were formerly thought to be tricksters and shape-shifters, but are now associated with generosity, cheer and prosperity. You can read more about tanuki and their place in Japanese culture at this post by The Senseitions: The Worst Christmas Present Ever, Revealed: It’s a tanuki!.

Typical tanuki kitsch
Typical tanuki kitsch