Sumida Park – Tokyo Sky Tree and Sakura

One of Japan’s most famous symbols around the world is the cherry blossom. Between the end of March and the beginning of April each year, many varieties of trees open up their blossoms and reach full bloom. These cherry blossom trees are popular all throughout Japan and Tokyo is no exception. With many famous gardens and parks boasting wide varieties of flowering plants, there is no better place to check out the yearly sakura blossoms.

Let’s take a walk together to see Sumida Park, a good site to see Tokyo’s cherry blossoms. Nestled up against the Sumida River, there are many scenic photographic opportunities.

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After waking up early on Saturday, I was off to Kuritsu Sumida Park in the heart of Tokyo, right across the river from the famed Sky Tree. At this park, some varieties of trees were in full bloom while others were just beginning to bloom. I was not alone as many tourists and Japanese alike came to the park to check out the blossoms on this warm late March morning.  Sky Tree and hoards of Japanese enjoying their annual hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties made for an interesting start to the day.

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Above the walkway, many lanterns hung from wires and the trees. These pink and yellow lanterns sponsored by Asahi Beer were an interesting site and similar to the lanterns I observed last year in Nakameguro during night time cherry blossom viewing.

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Other lamps also were on the site, this one from Asakusa Station. DSC02058

As I continued down the walkway, many people gathered around (and under) a tree which was nearing full bloom.

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Albeit cloudy, there were ample opportunities to frame Sky Tree with the season’s blossoms.

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After walking for a few more minutes, I reached the north side of the park where a weeping cherry tree was already in full bloom. Surrounded at its base by some yellow flowers, this tree stood out from the rest in the park.

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After backtracking to the train station, the next stop along the way was Koishikawa Korakuen Gardens (小石川後楽園), right across the street from Tokyo Dome. Many beautiful sites were waiting for me. As I write the article, it is still hard for me to believe how this garden exists in the middle of Tokyo right next to such a huge sports complex.

The weeping cherry trees were already in full bloom compared to the trees at Sumida Park.

Sumida Park is one of many good places to see Tokyo’s cherry trees come to full bloom each March/April. More info coming on other places I visited in Tokyo last weekend.

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2015 Sapporo Snow Festival: Day 1

Festivals in Japan are some of the most interesting and unique events that take place yearly in Japan. Filled with pomp and circumstance, travelers from all over Japan (and the world) come to these world class events where street food is king. The Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo (largest city in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island) is no different. One of my friends and I made the journey up from the Kansai region last week to see why there was so much fuss surrounding this winter festival. After four days, we know why it is such a big deal.

Things all started off at Kansai International Airport with an afternoon flight bound for Chitose International Airport. After a brief delay, we were off and safely in Sapporo after a short flight. I was very excited because I finally made it to one of my two most elusive Japan travel destinations, Okinawa being the other. Once we stepped off the plane, we were greeted with a blast of cold air before hopping on the JR train for a forty minute ride to our capsule hotel, located between the two largest festival sites.

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After a short transfer, we boarded the Sapporo Subway which had impressively wide and spacious cars, joined by very large glass doorways. This is very different than anything I have seen on trains anywhere else in Japan. DSC01430

Next up was check-in at one of the famed Japanese capsule hotels. No matter what you have heard or read about them, the Hotel Refre in Sapporo was a cut above the rest. I have never stayed in a capsule hotel that was as nice as this one or had as many amenities as this one. After showing up with our reservations in hand, I navigated the Japanese-language check in and my friend and I were off to quickly put down our bags and head off to the Susukino Ice sculpture site after finding a bowl of hearty ramen along the way.  Things changed when we found out that the hotel had a very nice onsen, spa, sauna, and steam bath. We wandered the halls for a bit and then were off to start our adventures.

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Our walk for dinner greeted us with some familiar, yet unfamiliar winter things, mainly snow and ice. Having grown up in the Northeast and Midwest, we were accustomed to snow removal, snow plows, plowed streets, and clean sidewalks. Sapporo, as we were to find out, skipped the plowing and shoveling. They even skipped salting the walkways!

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Anyone who reads this website will quickly find out how much I love meeting new people when I travel and how much I enjoy sharing stories with them. Tonight was no different. As my friend and I approached Sapporo’s famous ramen alley, a soft, American, voice and a tap on the shoulder greeted us. We took photos for her and then she took this photo of us before parting ways a few minutes later. Little did I know, but we would be encountering her again later in the evening.

Ramen Alley on a blustery Thursday night in Sapporo.
Ramen Alley on a blustery Thursday night in Sapporo.

We walked past several crammed ramen shops, including one boasting that Anthony Bourdain had “come to the here” before settling on our final location at the end of this slice of egg noodle paradise.

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At our final destination, we enjoyed some frosty mugs of the Hokkaido-only Sapporo Classic beer and a bowl of spicy ramen. The bamboo stalks and hard boiled eggs which were a part of this broth are what made it the best ramen we ate on this street. The service was also very nice, too. Our server did his best speaking in English and we used Japanese to fill in any communication gaps. It is nice to know that as people come and go the good stores stay and continue to do good business.

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With a full belly and a mouth still hot from the spicy broth, we headed to the Susukino Site, home of the snow festival’s ice sculptures. The Sapporo Snow Festival is broken into three different sites. Odori Park, the most famous site, houses the snow scupltures which tower over visitors, some over 40 feet tall. The Susukino Site boasts many fantastic ice sculptures. Finally, the Tsudome site hosts many children’s attractions, a snow removal experience, and ice and snow slides for visitors.

Much to my surprise, the Susukino site was dominated by alcohol advertisements turned into fantastic works of art. They are surrounded by various anime characters, dragons, and other spectacular carvings and sculptures. Here were some of my favorite photos out of the set. We even ran into our new friend from California as we traversed this icy landscape.

I will never forget the two sculptures that were waiting for us at the beginning of this journey: The gate made of frozen fish, and the wall filled of frozen crabs and fish. I had never seen anything like this.

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We retreated to our hotel after a long day and prepared for what ended up being a very eventful second day at the snow festival. More to come soon.

The Kobe Luminarie – A Pearl of Western Japan

Certain places are always at the top of the list when it comes to travel and visiting Japan. Kyoto, Tokyo, Hokkaido, Okinawa, Osaka, and a few others are always mentioned as unique places to go or places to go during different times of the year to take in festivals or local cuisine. One town, Kobe, must be on you “to visit” list if you come to Japan in the winter. It is a beautiful place with such a unique history of interactions with the West, different architecture, and some historical gems, but one thing sets it apart from the rest of Kansai: the Kobe Luminarie. 

Last evening, I joined two old friends from Philadelphia and headed down to see the Kobe Luminarie, located in the central district of the port city. From the beginning, it was evident that the event would be a sight to behold for all. This was my first time to the Luminarie. It was even the first time for my friend that lived in Kobe several years ago. We were so excited for the event and the brisk cold could not dampen our expectations. Traffic was stopped in many different places in the city to make way for pedestrians heading waiting to see the Luminarie. Even the path heading to the Luminarie itself was lit with grandeur. I was a little homesick at this point, as the main street in my hometown lights its trees in a similar fashion. 

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After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 

After a few more minutes of walking, we turned a corner, and off in the distance we could see the front gate to the Luminarie. It was truly remarkable! The twinkling lights, the bright colors, and the gasps and gawking of other visitors was very memorable. I stopped to take a few photos, as well. Here’s the first glimpse of the gate. 

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As we neared the street shrouded in lights, even more interesting things came to light. Western-inspired Latin music plated through speakers, helping lead the tour of the Luminarie. The meaning and importance of both the Luminarie and music goes much deeper than the casual observer would know. Following the Kobe Earthquake of 1995, the Luminarie was established as a memorial of those that lost their lives in the devastating earthquake. The musical scores all centered around the theme of “light” and “continuation” towards a better and brighter future. The luminarie and music had quite the harmonious relationship as you approached the first segment of the Luminarie. 

After taking a few more photos, we entered the first segment of the Italian-built Luminarie. The lights lined the street for several hundred yards and helped create a unique scene in an urban center like Kobe. I certainly did not feel like I was in Japan during this whole adventure. All the while, one of the friend with me on this adventure told me that one of his family members was singing in the musical group which sang the official songs for the event!Image

After traversing the twinkling walkway, we made our way to what can only be described as a beautiful cathedral of light and sound. The next structure in the Luminarie appeared, to me, as a church-like memorial and work of art. European-inspired classical Latin music played in the vicinity and I felt like I was back in the streets of Montreal or Quebec City. Many fellow visitors had a similar sense of admiration when we approached the second component of the Luminarie structure. I have included a few photos of my favorite part of the Luminarie.

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As more elegant music played and the smells of fresh yakitori filled the air, we passed by the final exhibition in the Kobe Luminarie, a much more colorful and modern-looking work of art. 

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Other places in Kansai have Luminaries and light shows, but none can compare to the display in Kobe. The meaning and importance of the Luminarie coupled with its meticulous setup and musical integration make it an absolute must-see for those of you who may be in Japan next winter, before Christmas. Sharing this moment with two of my friends also helps make it memorable for me. 

The Kobe Luminarie is truly a pearl on the necklace of Western Japan. 

All images (c) 2013, Erik Jacobs. erikabroad.com

Into the Leaves: Kyoto at its Finest

As someone who grew up in Central Pennsylvania, I was always accustomed to the presence of beautiful foliage when the calendar started to hit November. Even though I was often forced into raking or mowing up the leaves on my yard, I have always had an appreciation for the changing of the seasons. In my youth, I read about the beauty of Kyoto’s leaves, but never thought the changing of the seasons would be very different than that of the interior Northeastern United States. I was about to find out how wrong that assumption was.

Kyoto is always towards the top of all travel destinations in all of the Japan-centric tour books, websites, magazines, etc., and for good reason. The city is truly beautiful. From the temples in far off Arashiyama to the often photographed Kiyomizudera to the shops and bamboo groves in between, Kyoto is a remarkable place for both traveler and Japanese resident, alike. Being this is my second time living in Japan but only my first time here in the autumn, I made sure to venture to one of Kyoto’s most famous events this weekend and take in the spectacle that is leaf viewing (Japanese: 紅葉 Kouyou).

My friends and I hopped into the JR train bound for Kyoto from Sannomiya, Kobe, early in the morning to start this day. After an hour on the fast and comfortable ride, we had arrived at our first stop on the day’s tour: Arashiyama. Arashiyama is west of Kyoto proper and is famous for its shopping streets near the Oi River, the Iwatayama Monkey Park, a host of temples, and a large bamboo grove. We were off to a few of the temples and to take in the view along the water. No monkeys today.

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We started the day off at Tenryuji to see what the famous temple and ponds would have to offer. Nearly as soon as we arrived, we were not disappointed. The grove of trees leading up to the ticket gate already had some trees sporting a full array of autumn colors. Ranging from light green to deep red, these trees were a sign of things to come for our day trip.

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Once we entered the official temple grounds, another iconic Japanese autumn scene was upon us. A room covered with tatami mats set in front of our eyes. As we peered over the tatami and envisioned tea ceremonies past, the foliage at Sogen Pond became visible. This whole scene was classic Japan, as far as I was concerned.

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We continued our way through the temple complex, gawking with hundreds of other tourists at the changing leaves, not knowing what to expect around the next turn. The photos outside showed Sogen Pond in its best state, but what could we possibly expect? There was no way the scene could look as good as presented on the ticket booth, was there? Here’s how the garden looked. Remarkable.

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With gargantuan koi swimming throughout the pond and a perfectly manicured Japanese rock garden in the foreground, we all took a second to take in this beautiful scene. The vibrancy of the red and yellow cast against the permanence of the evergreens helped make this photograph. If we had come here one day earlier or later, the colors would not have been as contrasting as they were today. Lest I forget, kimonos were in full force, as well.

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We continued onward, and upward, traversing more paths filled with vibrant leaves and tourists taking hundreds of pictures. With a mossy undergrowth to our left and right and changing leaves in front of a backdrop of pines and Kyoto, this location offered a unique view.

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After snapping a few more pictures, we continued onward to the river to see the leaves cast against the water and famous rowboats in the region. Little did we know, thousands of other tourists had the same exact idea.

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Amidst the rickshaws, children’s strollers, and masses of people, we ate some homemade karaage on the banks of the river before we continued onward to watch all of the boats on the water. Thee backdrop of boats on the river made the whole scene quite spectacular.

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After a long walk back to Arashiyama Station (and a few sweets and special Japanese drinks along the way), we were back on the train and headed to our next destination on this trip, Tofukuji. Tofukuji is famous for its bridge over a small brook that traverses the temple grounds. surrounding the bridge and an expanse between the other side of the temple are Japanese maples and other trees. These iconic trees were nearing peak color on Sunday and we were in for a real treat even though so many tourists were there at the same time. While monks waked down the stone paths amid the tourists, I stopped to take several photos of the leaves. Here is what I saw:

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Isn’t this a remarkable image? We were all taken back when we saw the leaves and could not believe the wide array of colors right in front of us.

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No trip to Kyoto is complete without visiting the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, so we decided to make this our last stop of the day. To facilitate ore visitors and an unforgettable evening, Kyoto illuminates the temple at night during leaf viewing season and the results are beautiful, to say the least. As soon as you exit the train station in Kiyomizu, there is a strong beam of light that goes straight through the nighttime sky, guiding you towards the temple. Everyone on the train from Western tourists to kimono-wearing Japanese headed towards the beam. Once you get close enough, here is what you see.

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The leaves were illuminated, as well.

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While not in perfect bloom, the colors in Kyoto this weekend made for an interesting and photogenic day trip. The combination of green, red, yellow, and orange is something I never saw before in such vibrancy back on the East Coast of the United States. If people are trying to see these leaves at their peak, I would suggest going to Kyoto as soon as you can. The nights in Kansai have been getting colder and the leaves have been falling off of the trees here in Kobe. You should take advantage of your proximity to Kyoto if you live in Kansai and go see these leaves if you have the opportunity.

I had a great time and recommend a similar day trip in Kyoto to anyone visiting Japan this fall.

All photos and content in this post (c) Erik Jacobs, November 18, 2013, erikabroad.com. All rights reserved. 

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A Vibrant and Glowing Kyoto

A Vibrant and Glowing Kyoto

I took this photo on Sunday evening at the famed Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto, Japan, with my point and shoot camera and a 100 円 tripod from Daiso (a cheap store in Japan). The temple, it surroundings, and changing leaves are often lit in the evenings during this time of year. This memorable photo proves a point and shoot can do just as well as any other camera.

Please enjoy the beauty and share with your friends.

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Monkey Business in Japan

Monkey Business in Japan

Have you ever been somewhere where you knew, for certain, that you would never return in the rest of your life? When I set foot in Arashiyama, Japan, two years ago with my study abroad program, I knew I would NEVER return to that city again. However, I was more certain that I would never go to the monkey park that is located atop one of the smaller mountains just across the river that traverses through Arashiyama.

I first went there with some friends during a trip to Kansai and was amazed by how many wild monkeys ran about freely without a fear of humans. You can feed the monkeys, take photos of them, and get very close without any fear of attack or something going wrong. I had the pleasure to return there on Saturday with a friend I met at language school last summer.

Aside from the amazing view of Kyoto from above, there are countless opportunities to capture priceless memories. Check out these monkeys drinking at the small pond at the top of the mountain while a koi feeds on a floating leaf. This picture is worth a thousand words.