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Enjoying Springtime in Tokyo

hanami

Toyohara Chikanobu (1838–1912)

There are two seasons that are truly wonderful in Tokyo: Spring and Autumn, and this blog focuses on the former. Spring is arguably one of the best times, and after an often miserable Winter with its dry air and lack of greenery, the warmer weather is a godsend (unless you are a heavy sufferer of Kafunsho (pollen allergies). The warmer weather, of course, also brings the cherry blossoms and the happy, joyful people under them.

Spring brings the Sakura

mtfuji2

Flickr, Reginald Pentinio

Without a doubt, cherry blossom (Sakura) season is a major highlight in Japan. It is interesting to note that sakura trees grow extensively in the East Asian region, and exist in China, Korea and Taiwan. However, the way the trees are often presented in Japan is special. Hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is a well-loved tradition and custom where friends, family members and sometimes even coworkers go out to eat and drink all together under the trees to look at the gorgeous cherry blossoms. Click here for a previous blog about viewing the cherry blossoms here: http://livingtokyo.net/uncategorized/2015-03-25/cherry-blossom/ and visit this site for a few more listings: http://www.gotokyo.org/en/tourists/attractions/fourseasons/sakura.html.

Commons, Jun of Kanagawa

Creative Commons, Jun of Kanagawa

For Tokyo, on average, cherry blossoms start to bloom around the 25th of March and should be in full bloom by the first few days of April. It seems for this year, 2017, the blossoms may arrive a little earlier in Tokyo, and the latest (the fifth) forecast shows possible start date of March 19th. The blossoms usually last about a week. Warmer weather sooner will bring the blooms earlier, while colder weather will delay the blooms; but it is always hard to gauge especially for travellers who need to plan ahead. A good site for tracking the Sakura forecast for Japan is by the Japan Meteorological Corporation : https://n-kishou.com/corp/news-contents/sakura/news2017.html?lang=en#section01

Spring palate bamboo, greens and pink

Joi Ito from Inbamura

Creative Commons, Joi Ito from Inbamura

Spring brings an assortment of new greens to the kitchen table. In Japan, people enjoy bamboo shoots, spring cabbage, asparagus, wild greens from the mountains, as well as certain types of clams and seafood. Unlike other countries that associate strawberries as a summer fruit, strawberries are widely available and considered seasonal in Spring as well.

Young bamboo shoots are used in cooking during the spring and summer seasons. It is usually served with rice or seasoned with a sauce, or can be eaten boiled with a topping of bonito flakes. Another seasonal delight are new potatoes, which give a distant flavor compared to the old spud.

Creative Commons, Katorisi

Creative Commons, Katorisi

The red sea bream (tai) is also considered best in Spring, and is popular as sashimi (raw fish) or stewed. Squid, although available all year, also becomes sweeter in this season.

It won’t be Spring without seeing pink-colored sticky rice cakes (Sakura mochi)  for sale in stores. Do note that the pink hue does not come naturally from cherry blossoms, but is rather colored to celebrate the season. This extends to other Sakura-marketed products and even the Sakura frappuccinos at Starbucks. To the best of this author’s knowledge, the pink blossoms from the cherry trees really don’t have much of a scent or taste; and even if some species do, it would be weak at best (unlike jasmine blossoms, which give off a strong scent, for example).

Creative Commons, Katorisi

Creative Commons, Katorisi

Spring mountain vegetables are prevalent from the later part of winter onwards. Called Sansai, they are essentially wild, edible vegetable from the mountainous areas of Japan. For more details visit: https://gurunavi.com/en/japanfoodie/2016/03/sansai.html?__ngt__=TT0ce0dba30001ac1e4ac20aFjAUoGt4r8gMJP83v-BonA

Springtime festivals and events

There are countless festivals taking place in Spring time, many of which are centered around the cherry blossoms, and provide food and drink at the same time. One of the major ones occur along the Meguro river in the Nakameguro area, where neighboring restaurants and bars come out with a food and drink stand selling items like sakura champagne and gourmet sausages. There are, however, other festivals of interest and here are a few listed below.

firewalkingThe Firewalking festival at Mt Takao : At the festival on March 12th, believers first pray for the safety of family, traffic and body and then follow yamabushi (Shugendo practicing monks) to walk barefoot over the sacred goma fire that is smoldering and still partially burning. The sight of yamabushi monks bravely walking through the flame while chanting is the event’s highlight. Visitors may also participate in the barefoot walking after the fire has been put out, and by that time, the actual temperature of the path they would walk is only slightly warm. For more info: http://www.takaosan.or.jp/english/index.html

uenoparkhanamiThe Ueno Sakura Matsuri: Ueno Park, is the host of one of many sakura matsuri that take place at the end of March or beginning of April (when the blossoms bloom). Ueno Park is especially welcoming for hamami, as people take up spots by the sakura trees. For this festive occasion, expect plenty of food stalls but also huge crowds. Nevertheless, Ueno Park is one of the best places to take a stroll with the cherry blossom trees.

yabusameYabusame at Asakusa: Yabusame is a type of horse-mounted archery in traditional Japanese archery. An archer shoots three special “turnip-headed” arrows at three wooden targets, while riding on a sprinting horse. This style of archery has its origins at the beginning of the Kamakura period. Taking place on April 15th, 2017, the free event lasts one hour from 11am. It is best to arrive early to grab a good viewing spot.

azaleaBunkyo Azalea Festival (Tsutsuji Matsuri): Located at Nezu Shrine, Bunkyo Ward, azaleas bloom for about a month. Home to about 3,000 azalea plants, the shrine will have Taiko drum and folk dance performances, usually around Golden Week. For more details (in Japanese): http://www.nedujinja.or.jp/main/k4.html

sanjaThe “Yakuza” Festival (Sanja Matsuri): Held in May, centered around the Sensoji Temple and Asakusa Shrine area (5-min walk from Asakusa station), the Sanja Matsuri is considered Tokyo’s biggest festival. It has a reputation for being somewhat wild and lively displaying many elaborate portable shrines (mikoshi). The festival lasts three days and attracts over 2 million visitors. Festivals featuring mikoshi tend to have an energetic intensity about them, as they’re essentially about feats of strength and endurance; and the Sanja Matsuri is considered one of the major ones in this respect.

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