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Friday, April 8, 2005

JAPAN'S HOLY GRAIL

Sakura, where art thou?


Special to The Japan Times

Here's a quick introduction to the Hato Bus Company: They're Tokyo's oldest tour bus operator. They cart holidaymakers around the country -- sometimes to far-flung places, sometimes to Roppongi Hills. They're a wonderful way to palm off guests from overseas, at least for a day. They make you wear bright stickers, because sometimes you don't look conspicuous enough scuttling in a pack behind a flag-waving guide. They once offered a "hotpot and topless dancing tour." Really!

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Women clad in kimono at Tsurugaoka Shrine

I missed that one, but The Japan Times kindly booked me onto Hato Bus' inaugural English language hanami tour. We're going to Tokyo's most charming neighbors -- Enoshima and Kamakura -- followed by a visit to Yokohama's Sankeien Japanese garden. We're off to view Japan's revered cherry blossoms.

We won't have time to sit on tarpaulin and toast the scenery, but we're looking forward to seeing a trio of the most scenic spots in the area. My fellow sightseers include a pair of Australian siblings on a 10-day tourist trip, a very jolly Japanese trainee tour guide in search of some pointers, and a Silicon Valley computer engineer who feels indifferent about cherry blossoms, but is looking forward immensely to seeing the Great Buddha of Kamakura.

Then there's Narumi Ikezawa, our ebullient tour guide who narrates the journey to Enoshima, furnishing us with facts and figures about pretty much everything along the way.

She knows about the history of Hama-Rikyu Garden and the relative heights of the world's Ferris wheels and the science behind the earthquake-proofing of the Tokyo Tower and the influence of Zen on Japanese architecture and the story of the five-headed dragon's marriage to the beautiful goddess of Enoshima.

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A shrine at Enoshima

It seems Enoshima, our first stop, was once the domain of a merciless monster who enjoyed the taste of young children. The creature's reign of terror ended when he fell in love with the sandy island's resident goddess, who persuaded him to mend his ways.

Nowadays, Enoshima is a harmless stub of land in Sagami Bay, 50 km south of Tokyo. It is "The Miami Beach of the East" according to the promotional pamphlet. The island boasts a creepy cave, a botanical garden, a 120-meter-high observation tower and even a brand new and utterly incongruous spa resort, but the people must still be proud of their dragon as they've erected statues to him everywhere.

If you look very carefully, there are also hundreds of tiny tessellated triangle designs all over the island which, Narumi tells us, represent the big beast's scales.

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A statue welcomes visitors in Enoshima

Enoshima has a number of cherry trees dotted around its picturesque pathways. I know this because our leader identifies them. Today, sadly, they are bare of blossoms.

The tour was timed to coincide with last year's peak bloom. But though that may be bad for this writer, it's good for you. You still have time on your side. As Narumi chirps cheerfully, "Let's enjoy the branches." And so we head off to enjoy Kamakura's finest branches.

Japan's ancient capital has a famed avenue of cherry trees planted in the 12th century by Minamoto no Yoritomo, the first shogun of the Kamakura Period, who was praying for the safe delivery of his first child. Narumi leads us along the avenue to Tsurugaoka Shrine, another Yoritomo creation. At the entrance to the shrine, next to the red torii, is our Hato Bus tour Holy Grail -- a treeful of light pink blossoms.

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People stroll around Tsurugaoka Shrine.

Cherry trees, we learn, come in several different varieties, each blooming at different times. As the only early-bloomer in the area, this tree is receiving adulatiom worthy of a rock star: Beautiful young ladies jostle for positions, cameras and cell-phones are held aloft and an elderly lady leans in to fondle the bark. It's around this time that our Silicon Valley friend realizes the Daibutsu (Big Buddha), the reason he joined the tour, isn't on the itinerary.

Pink petals aren't proving much consolation to a man set on seeing the big bronze Buddha

Our third and final stop is Sankeien, a massive collection of cultural treasures in south Yokohama. In the Meiji Era, with Buddhism falling out of favor amongst Japan's leaders, there was a systematic demolition of historic temples and statues. Tomitaro Hara, a Yokohama businessman, recognized the value of these cultural assets and brought several of them, piece by piece, to his garden.

The Sankei collection includes a three-story pagoda from Kyoto, and one of the nation's few remaining feudal lord's residences. In hanami season the garden gates stay open until 9 p.m., with spotlights picking up the pagoda and, on this trip, yet more naked branches. Postcard-perfect scenery and absolute silence make this a prime location for nocturnal dating. Unfortunately I'm here with a score of strangers and a tour guide, but I'll be back when the flowers bloom, exploiting Narumi's tidbits for all their worth.



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