Everything about this trip happened by chance, just as it did with Cambodia. Everything fell into place, bit by bit, that as I waited at the boarding gate bound for Tokyo, things still felt too incredulous for me to believe it’s all happening, that all of it is real.
It started with checking out sakura season in Japan. Turns out the weekend following my birthday is also the onset of sakura season in Tokyo. On the same dates, Taiwan also have 4 straight days of non-working holiday.
Then I got my annual company voucher, convertible to airfare. Then I tried and was able to book at Centurion. I secured all visa requirements in just two days and, in less than a week, got a gratis Japanese tourist visa.
Was there some sort of metaphorical message being given to me here? Is this really just heaven’s best birthday gift ever? Or am I simply destined to become a cardcaptor?
For this trip, I only had 4 days–not enough, but definitely not lacking either. 😉
It was a rainy Sunday and I reached Sumida park via the Honjoazumabashi MRT. Being pelted by rain on my first day of exploring Tokyo wasn’t what I had in mind. I’m sure I would’ve gone somewhere else had I not seen sakura the night before.
The first time I encountered a row of sakura trees in bloom was the night I arrived in Tokyo. I was so astounded I said “Oh my god!” and gaped at the tree. How often can a tree do that to you? It was so magical to see for the first time. I never knew flowers could light up a place just by being stunningly beautiful.
So there I was, more than 12 hours later, consulting Google maps in the rain, trying to find the best way to reach Sumida park. Friends told me it was the best place for sakura viewing so I decided to go there first and perhaps, be on my merry way after seeing what the sakura fuss is about. When they told me I could experience walking under sakura trees while there, I was like, okay. Great. Let’s do this for curiousity’s sake.
But nothing prepared me for the actual experience.
To be honest, I thought I’ll just see trees and greenery and a really clean park. But I got so much more, way more than my mind could ever think of. I got the exact same feels I had when I saw Angkor Wat for the first time. There was gratitude, joy, and contentment. They warmed me from the inside. I was in the moment. Thankful. Happy. I could only think of positive things and feelings as I walked under and marveled at all the sakura blanketing us, covering us from the rain. There are no exact words to describe the experience, really. You have to be there to know and soak it all up.
No wonder locals still take time to picnic under these trees. I spent an hour tracing the sakura paths, watching petals kiss the earth like snow, looking at happy contented locals, and fellow tourists in awe. It was all surreal. I noticed too that even birds were so carefree, they’re comfy enough to get close to people. I tried to walk beside a swallow and all he’s like was, “Hi there, what’s up? Got feeds?” 😛
Peace and beauty just envelopes you, it’s so tempting to stay there all day long.
That’s when I realized, nope. This is not going to be the end of this sakura sightseeing. In fact I’m going to do this all day and visit all the sakura parks my friends told me to see. I can go back for the other spots in Tokyo, anytime, but this sakura blooming happens just once a year.
I remembered my friend saying, “Hanami!” when I told her I’m going to Japan for sakura trees. At that time, I thought it was just another Japanese name for cherry blossoms. But after seeing Sumida, I understood it. You know how there are local words that simply cannot be translated into another language? Hanami’s one of those. You’ll say it’s just “viewing of flowers” but, nope. It’s one heck of a magical experience without going on a theme ride.
Since Sensoji temple was near Asakusa MRT, I decided to visit it after Sumida Park.
Aside from being the oldest temple in Tokyo, what also got me visiting Sensoji was the fact that it was built for Kannon—a Mahayana Buddhist equivalent of Avalokitesvara (my favorite boddhisatva). It’s pretty amazing to see how Shintoism fused with Buddhism in this temple. It’s historical eye-candy right before your very eyes.
Friends told me to visit Sensoji at night, to avoid the crowd, and also to glimpse it with the lights on. Upon reaching the temple, I couldn’t help but think they may be right. It was almost impossible to find a spot where you can take as many photos as you want. So I just videod the experience and thought, well, there’s always a next time. Maybe I’ll come back and experience it at night.
Whether in Philippines, Taiwan, or in Japan, seems like marketplaces are a staple sight near places of worship. Near Sensoji, it’s impossible to avoid Nakamise-Dōri and its crowds on the way to Asakusa MRT station. It’s a souvenir haven, though I think most of the items are a bit too pricey.
Ueno Park and Imperial Palace
Another recommendation friends told me was Ueno park, reachable via Ueno MRT, so that’s where my pilgrimage took me next.
However, there were more people in Ueno park than in Sumida. I think it’s because of several sights nearby—Edo, a museum, and a temple. I no longer went to these specific places but just focused on seeing the sakura trees and how it was planted in the area.The trees here were higher, more ornament-like than natural, yet still as magical with Japanese lanterns that probably lit them up at night.
I decided to do a side trip at Imperial Palace to see both the palace and, well, you guessed it, sakura! 😀
I was running on fumes around 3PM, so I just took pictures of whatever I saw with whatever’s left of my energy. I was supposed to check out Edo castle but no longer did since the thought of queueing up is no longer bearable. At that point I felt like my adrenaline + breakfast tank is being scraped off its last dregs of power. A person can only go so far on water and sakura air. At some point I’d need solids too. 😛
After taking a break and replenishing myself with solids, I decided to end my hanami at Meguro river. After Sumida, this was the one I looked forward to the most because it’s nighttime hanami.
I took the train to Meguro MRT and let Google maps guide me to where the sakura trees are. It’s in a tricky location, yet so worth it once you see those picturesque flowers lined up and lit along the Meguro river.
The photo possibilities are endless. And once you see your photos in a screen, it’s almost as if you did a painting and not just took a photograph.
Although sakura was difficult to capture in photos at night time, even as they were lit by lamps, I realized that it also taught me something important. Sometimes, the most beautiful things just have to be experienced and remembered. That’s all that truly matters. (insert drama theme song here hahaha)
Hanami got me charged up like a kiddo on a field trip. So the following day, I decided to see iconic shopping places in Tokyo. I’d actually recommend that you lump your shopping day in just one day since these places are strategically near each other. All you need to do is juggle your time wisely. And funds too.
I was actually in Shibuya the night before. I stopped here briefly on my way back to the hotel from Meguro river.
I mainly went here to see the iconic Hachiko statue, which you’d be led to from a special exit right off Shibuya MRT’s platform. Just shows you how beloved this dog is and it’s like an open invitation to be Ueno, eagerly anticipating the faithful Shiba Inu, Hachiko.
Aside from Hachiko, I also took the oppurtunity to walk around and experience the popular Shibuya crossing. Seeing it that night got me curious to see life on its crowded pedestrian lanes on a busy Monday morning. I wanted to see crossing business suits, just like how I saw it in Hachiko, in television, and in almost anything that mentions Shibuya.
It was such a treat to see employees all wearing a black blazer—young and old. Some donned a tie, while others were more casual and settled for a polo beneath their blazer. It was so cool and I felt like I was seeing everything I saw in movies/television live in the flesh!
Shibuya also reminded me of Nathan Road, but in a very Japanese way. Most shops are local shops and malls mostly housed brand names.
Next stop was THE Harajuku.
Harajuku is a neighborhood in Tokyo that probably inspired Ximending in Taiwan. Most people say it’s a place for youth shoppers, but I think it runs deeper than that. Harajuku is all about self-expression, being practical but fashionable too. In a nutshell, it’s street-style. This is where you can be yourself and not feel left out. I actually felt underdressed roaming it, with my usual jeans-shirt-hoodie-sneaks combo. Meanwhile, people around me were a mix of street-wear, goth, Asian fashion, oversized shirts, tattered jeans, and bright colors.
There are two places that’s worth visiting in Harajuku. From the MRT, enter Tsukete market which could be crazy-thick with tourists, especially on a Sunday afternoon. Then as you go further, you’d see a road that, when crossed, leads you to an alley that exits right on Omotesando—the high-end part of Harajuku.
Speaking of high-end, what Orchard is to Singapore is what Ginza is to Tokyo. It has its silent way of showing its classiness but make no mistake about it. Ginza is the ultimate shopping district in Tokyo, overflowing with brand names, both international and local. It’s strip after strip made up of malls and high end boutiques. Also looots of luxury car and sosyal people around!
I only stayed a few minutes in Ginza and went on to the my last shopping destination that day–Akihabara. To be honest, this is my favorite shopping district because…
TECH MECCA GUYS!!! I. CANNOT. EVEN!!!
It reminded me so much of The Big Hero’s San Fransokyo. It was like a pandora’s box waiting to be discovered. My love for tech and anime just exploded to rainbow colored confetti soon as I stepped out into this open space in Akihabara.
My mind was overwhelmed. Where do I start? SEGA? Should I look at a manga/anime shop? How about cameras? Do they have robots here? I was bombarded with so many possibilities I ended up circling the area in the same awestruck way I did when I first realized that sakura = hanami. Only this time, I kept my mouth shut. But my eyes were orbs of excitement. And I felt ike I’m home haha.
I ended up checking out SEGA and Akihabara Radio Center.
While exploring these places, I realized another amazing thing about Japan. I used to think that anime is just an East Asian equivalent of cartoons. But seeing so many people flock the game centers, and most of them business men who appeared to be relaxing from a day’s worth of work, I realized anime is actually a visual expression of Japan blended with individual Japanese creativity. It’s a reflection of Japan and its culture. It’s not merely fantasy. And the best thing about it is that it’s deeply ingrained among locals that anime, or being an otaku, transcends age. I bet even social class.
After checking out Akihabara Radio Center, I went to the ubiquitous heaven/hell (depends if you have a budget) on earth Yodobashi Akihabara.
It was a bittersweet moment, being on the 3rd floor. I can’t. I just. *breaks down into sobbing fits while holding lenses* (kidding! haha)
I suppose the emotional struggles of longing for camera after camera fueled my hunger. Haha. Soon as I heard my stomach grumbling while holding a Fuji XT10, I sheepishly returned the sample and didn’t dare look at the guy whom I suspect heard me. He was smirking. I am hungry. No wait, I think I was hangry from all the frustration of trying out lenses and whatnots haha.
Good thing I found a fast food vendo nearby. Or vendo fast food. Or literally fast food. You order, you show your slip, you wait to be called, you eat. Then you’re off your merry way again. Sayonara, hunger!
There’s a lot of places that I didn’t see in Akihabara because I didn’t have enough time. I also needed to go back to my hotel since the weather dropped to 13 degrees and I was only wearing a thin hoodie. In my mind, I knew I’d be back. Definitely. I barely scratched the surface of Akihabara and there’s so much more culture to discover!
On my way back, I decided to make a brief stop at Tokyo Sky Tree via Oshiage MRT. But since it was drizzling and I got there late, around 9:45 PM, I was no longer able to go up for a scenic city view of Tokyo. Next time, just you wait!
In closing, this trip more than blew my mind about Japan. I guess, adrenaline aside, I couldn’t believe how everything just looks clearer and prettier in Japan. Is it because of the sakura? Is it detoxifying the air? I have no idea what kind of sorcery is happening around me. It all feels unreal. Several times I get taken aback with the level of clarity Tokyo has. There’s no smog, there’s no haze. How is that possible?!
As I type this, I should be feeling a bit nostalgic and sad like I usually do when documenting a trip, but I’m not. Somehow, leaving Japan felt more like a brief departure instead of a final goodbye. I know I’ll come back again. Definitely. There’s still so much on my list that deserves a visit. And now that I’ve been friends with the Tokyo metro, it’s all good. 🙂
PS: If you want to travel during Sakura season in Japan, check out this website for specific sakura viewing schedules. Generally, sakura season happens from the last week of March to the whole of April, all over Japan.
And Hanami is one of those things in your life that you should definitely cross off your bucket list!