I had the amazing luck to be in Tokyo for sakura (cherry blossom festival) this year. I have been trying to get over to Japan for this event for years. The full blossoming of the cherry trees is astounding quick: from 3-7 days max – this year in Tokyo it started last Sunday and was already waning as I left yesterday, a week later. I got to walk along the Meguro River in Shinagawa and then went to the famous Ueno gardens where hundreds of Japanese had laid our tarps under the blossoms to have an after-work picnic and beer-drinking session. It was so cool. I learned from a friend living in Japan that the image of a cherry blossom in Japanese poetry and visual arts always signifies the passing of time. How apt for such a image of beauty that is so fleeting.
I had Saturday free so Friday night I took the Shinkansento Utsonomiya and the local train to the marvellous UNESCO city of Nikko. I stayed for the first time in a real ryokan complete with tatamis on the floor, amazing Japanese table d’hôte, and an onsen (hot spring bath).
Ten minutes after I arrived, the hostess brought me an enormous plateau with at least 10 different Japanese specialties. The room already had hot tea in a push dispenser on the floor so I had a really peaceful dinner in my room.
Afterwards, I got undressed and slipped into a kimono and sandals. By the way, a few rules if you ever do this experience (1) never wear the sandals in the room on the tatamis and (2) at the onsen, you must be completely naked. Behavior to the contrary is considered exceedingly rude. So, following the rule, I went downstairs to the changing room, put my kimono into a little basket and went through the sliding glass door into the hot tub.
I returned to my room to find that the table had been moved to the side and a futon with a comforter installed in its place. How cool! The next morning, breakfast was stored in another room in the hotel. You sit on the floor (oh, another rule in restaurants where you sit on the floor, it is extremely rude to stretch out your legs (I learned the hard way, trust me!)) and are served another plateau with about 10 different Japanese specialties – fish, udon, and lots of other stuff that I can either not recall or didn’t know what the name was anyway. It was sublime.
Nikko itself can be visited in a half day. My guesthouse was midway between the 19c imperial palace to the right
(beautiful all in wood and paper and a gorgeous garden that is actually the image used by the Japanese Department of Tourism to represent Japan!) and to the left up the hill, there is the sacred area with loads of temples –
in particular the monumental and beautiful Toshu-Gu as well as the memorials and graveyards for the first and third shoguns from the 17c, Ieyasu and Iematsu. I loved it. I had lunch in a little place specialising in a local delicacy made of very thinly rolled pieces of soy. I can’t recall the name but it was really interesting.
Can’t wait to get back to Japan later this year or next!