Tokyo Spring revisited

26Mar13
I finally made it to Shinjuku Park to see the cherry blossoms.

I finally made it to Shinjuku Park to see the cherry blossoms.

Editor’s note: The following is an updated version of the last blog post. This new version will be published as a column in the Tampa Bay Current. If you want to skip past all of the words, brand new photos from Shinjuku Park, along with snappy captions, are at the bottom of the page.

The song of spring is the death knell of winter, and so it is in Japan as in other moderate climates of the world.

Winter in Tokyo wasn’t terrible, with temperatures hovering around the 40s. There were exactly two snow storms that threw the entire city into a tizzy, but everything melted within a few days. Otherwise there was a steady drizzle for three months straight with few days of sunshine.

Then, of course, there was the day the smog blew over from China and the entire downtown area of Tokyo was blanketed in a yellow haze.

With the beginning of March, the skies finally started to clear up and the thermometer started to dabble in the 50s. Before we could get to the glory of spring, first we had to endure allergy season.

The sakura (cherry blossoms) at Shinjuku Gyoen (Park). "Hanami" is the word used to describe the event. It literally means "looking at flowers."

The sakura (cherry blossoms) at Shinjuku Gyoen (Park). “Hanami” is the word used to describe the event. It literally means “looking at flowers.”

Allergy season in Tokyo is horrendous.

I won’t describe my own symptoms, because that will end everything for everyone before we even get started. But for two days, it was bad.

For a week straight, I cut out alcohol and ate nothing but raw cabbage, bananas and sushi. I was sure to bathe every night, and use prescription eye drops and nasal spray before going to bed. I also wore one of those white surgical-like masks whenever I stepped out of the house.

Those things are as uncomfortable as all get out. Between the mask, my glasses and listening to music through earbuds, I texted Lisa one day to tell her that there were way too many things hanging off of my ears.

Anyhow, after a few days my body was right as rain.

For others, however, hay fever season ran for over a week. Miserable men and women stumbled throughout Tokyo – puffy eyes, runny noses, white masks encapsulating half of their face.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this in Tokyo. The story of allergy season is directly linked to government ineptitude, which is always a fun story to tell.

After World War II, the Japanese government decided the oaks and maples and other trees did not pull their weight, economically speaking. So in true bureaucratic insipidity, the government razed all of the native trees and planted Japanese cedar trees, which were deemed to hold more value. The wood and seeds were more utilitarian.

They're not cedar trees, but they are pretty trees.

They’re not cedar trees, but they are pretty trees.

Unfortunately, everybody, and I mean everybody, was allergic as hell to the cedar pollen.

You could almost compare it to germ warfare, only its your own moronic government dosing you with insidious allergens.

Once the pollen haze cleared, however, it was time for hanami season. “Hanami” literally means to “look at flowers.”

In particular, the latter half of March and the beginning of April is when the sakura, or cherry blossoms, are in full bloom. This year they came about a week early. March 20, the official first day of spring, also happened to be the first day the cherry blossoms were in bloom.

Not only that, but March 20 was a national holiday. It is Vernal Equinox Day in Japan, and everybody had the day off from work (including Lisa). It is a day meant for ”the admiration of nature and the love of living things.”

That’s what Lisa and I intended to do. We were going to go to Shinjuku Gyoen (park) which is known for its sakura viewing. However, it closes at 4 p.m. For most people, this isn’t an issue. But for Lisa and I, on our vacation days, we don’t get out of bed before 1 p.m.

The first day of hanami season was such a day. Still, we had three hours to make it, right? Wrong.

We made pancakes. We did laundry. We did dishes. We (I) screwed around on the internet. Stuff takes time.

By the time we left the house, it was 4 p.m. Too late to get to Shinjuku Gyoen.

Instead, we went to Rikugien Gardens. This was a very pleasant surprise. The garden stayed open until 9 p.m. and they illuminated their weeping cherry blossoms with floodlights. Because the cherry blossoms were blooming early, they opened the display two days earlier than they originally expected.

The exposition was breathtaking. (For photos of Rikugien, check out the last post)

Then the following Saturday Lisa and I took part in a more traditional hanami commemoration. We sat under a cherry tree in the park across the street and drank a beer.

A grove in Shinjuku Gyoen.

A grove in Shinjuku Gyoen.

The two most popular spots to look at cherry blossoms are the aforementioned Shinjuku Park and Ueno Park, with Ueno Park being the Disney World of cherry blossoms.

Now, I did not witness it first hand, but apparently the park (which is the size of a small town) is packed elbow-to-elbow with revelers. Drunk revelers who aren’t necessarily there to look at cherry blossoms, but really to hang out and be seen. Kind of like a Phillies baseball game.

Shinjuku Park, on the other hand, is a bit more subdued. Alcohol is not allowed. In fact, security guards check bags at the gate (also like a Phillies baseball game). There is also a 200 yen (roughly $2) fee in order to keep out the homeless and other riff-raff.

Of course, the entire city of Tokyo is littered with cherry trees, and in fact, every city ward has its own park with sakura. The park across the street from our apartment just happens to have a very nice trail lined with cherry trees. That’s where Lisa and I set out our lawn chairs and tipped back a few while taking in the scenery.

It’s a nice way to enjoy life.

Finally, this past Tuesday, while everybody else was supposed to be working, I trolled my way over to Shinjuku Park. It was quite lovely, but it was still quite crowded, even for a weekday. If they had allowed alcohol, it probably would have been more fun.

Now that all that reading nonsense is over with…

…let’s look at some pretty pictures.

I went to Shinjuku Park on a Tuesday afternoon thinking it wouldn't be very crowded. I was wrong. This is the throng of people at the entrance to the park.

I went to Shinjuku Park on a Tuesday afternoon thinking it wouldn’t be very crowded. I was wrong. This is the throng of people at the entrance to the park.

The park is in the heart of Shinjuku, which is the western hub of Tokyo, thus one of the busiest areas of the city.

The park is in the heart of Shinjuku, which is the western hub of Tokyo, thus a bustling area of the city. It is known for its shopping and entertainment.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of nature and metropolis.

I enjoyed the juxtaposition of nature and metropolis.

This is the NTT Docomo building, and it is actually located in Yoyogi.

This is the NTT Docomo building, and it is actually located in Yoyogi.

The tradition for hanami is to sit in the park with your loved ones and drink alcohol. However, alcohol is not allowed in Shinjuku Park. So all there is to do is sit.

The tradition for hanami is to sit in the park with your loved ones and drink alcohol. However, alcohol is not allowed in Shinjuku Park. So all there is to do is sit.

I mean, I guess you could talk to each other if that is your sort of thing.

I mean, I guess you could talk to each other if that is your sort of thing.

Some people were playing cards. Some people were painting, some were writing. I was snooping.

Some people were playing cards. Some people were painting, some were writing. I was snooping.

This girl found a nice quiet place to read, but she could not escape my zoom lens.

This girl found a nice quiet place to read, but she could not escape my zoom lens.

Whatever it is you do, hanami is an outstanding way to reconnect with loved ones.

Whatever it is you do, hanami is a superb way to reconnect with loved ones.

The foliage in various stages of bloom provided vivid color arrangements.

The foliage in various stages of bloom created vivid color arrangements.

DSCN0280

It’s like Bob Ross‘ paint pallet.

DSCN0218

Hanami means to look at flowers. Hanabi means to watch fireworks.

This is a picture of the traditional Japanese garden.

This is a picture of the traditional Japanese garden. Looks like your backyard, right?

This is a view of the garden from the other side of the pond.

This is a view of the garden from the other side of the pond.

This is an observation deck in the garden. I'm sure the building serves a grander purpose, but I don't know whatever it could. So I'm just gonna call it an observation deck.

This is an observation deck in the garden. I’m sure the building serves a grander purpose, but I don’t know whatever it could be. So I’m just gonna call it an observation deck.

I was pretty happy with the photos I was able to take from the observation deck.

I was pretty happy with the photos I was able to take from inside the observation deck.

This could be my favorite picture of the day.

This could be my favorite picture of the day. This lady was never even aware that I smacked her aside the head with excellence.

But this is absolutely my favorite photo of the day. At least, it's the picture I spent the most time setting up and the most time editing.

But this is absolutely my favorite photo of the day. At least, it’s the picture I spent the most time setting up and the most time editing.

Since the park was so damn crowded, the biggest problem I had was people wandering into my shot.

Since the park was so damn crowded, the biggest problem I had was people wandering into my shot.

For example, this lil ol' lady just meandered into my shot, so I took her picture too.

For example, this lil ol’ lady just meandered into my frame, so I took her picture anyway.

I was so happy with the framing of this photo, and I waited for like 5 minutes for all of the passerby to clear out for one split second, but then the jackass in the left stepped into the frame just as I clicked. After that I was like "fuck it" and I moved on with my life.

I was so happy with the framing of this photo, and I waited for like 5 minutes for all of the passerby to clear out for one split second, but then the jackass on the left stepped into the shot just as I clicked. After that I was like “fuck it” and I moved on with my life.

The only reason I include this photo is because there are (almost) no people. I found one corner of the park that nobody was particularly interested in, and I still waited for 2 minutes for all of the pedestrians to clear out so I could get one photo with relatively no people.

The only reason I include this photo is because there are (almost) no people. I found one corner of the park that nobody was particularly interested in, and I still waited for 2 minutes for all of the pedestrians to clear out so I could get one photo with relatively no people.

Most photographers avoided the overcrowding problem by just taking close up shots of flowers.

Most photographers avoided the overcrowding problem by just taking close-up shots of flowers.

I'm not really adept at close up shots and think they are rather boring, so I try to avoid them.

I’m not really adept at close-up pictures and think they are rather boring, so I try to avoid them.

Another technique I used to avoid stray passerby was just taking photos of the treetops.

Another technique I used to avoid stray passerby was just taking photos of the treetops.

The very last photo I took of the day was a close up shot, and then my battery died. So the close up flower shots killed my camera and are thus a bad idea in general.

The very last photo I took of the day was a close-up shot, and then my battery died. So the close-up flower shots killed my camera and are thus counterproductive.

Eventually I just gave up entirely and decided to start taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the flowers.

Eventually I just gave up entirely and decided to start taking pictures of the people taking pictures of the flowers.

These were the most vibrant flowers in the entire park and there was a flock of photographers surrounding this clump of bushes.

These were the most vibrant flowers in the entire park and there was a flock of photographers surrounding this clump of bushes.

About 50 percent had professional photography gear while the other half were using cell phones.

About 50 percent had professional photography gear while the other half were using cell phones.

This is the picture of somebody else taking a picture of the bald cypress. I know this is a bald cypress because it said so on the map.

This is the picture of somebody else taking a picture of the bald cypress. I know this is a bald cypress because it said so on the map.

In the end, the story of Shinjuku Gyoen is about hanami. Hanami includes the cherry blossoms as well as the people who enjoy them.

In the end, the story of Shinjuku Gyoen is about hanami. Hanami includes the cherry blossoms as well as the people who enjoy them.

The cherry blossoms only last for about a week. They bloomed last Thursday and today, Tuesday, the petals are starting to drop. The Japanese celebrate the hanami because like life, and many things in life, the cherry blossoms are fleeting. We can capture the moment with pictures, but it was also nice to put down the camera and cherish the experience with my own eyes, my own imagination and my own heart.

The cherry blossoms only last for about a week. They bloomed last Thursday and today, Tuesday, the petals are starting to drop. The Japanese celebrate the hanami because like life, and many things in life, the cherry blossoms are fleeting. We can capture the moment with pictures, but it was also nice to put down the camera and cherish the experience with my own eyes, my own imagination and my own heart.



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