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Sunday, March 15, 2009

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now Is hung with bloom along the bough

Our travel writers pick their top cherry-blossom viewing spots in Tokyo and Kansai


By KIT NAGAMURA, SIMON BARTZ and PERRIN LINDELAUF

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It's sakura (cherry blossom) time again, and I've got three special spots to recommend beneath the pale, poetic petals in Tokyo. One will present you with a single starlit beauty, another will have you rolling around in an expansive venue of varied cherries, or if the spirit moves you there's a climb to a shrine that stakes out the floral high ground.

Early in the hanami (flower-viewing) season, head to Rikugien to catch this garden's one-trunk wonder, a massive shidare zakura (weeping cherry tree). Just outside Komagome Station are Rikugien's Somei gates, named after the somei yoshino variety of cherry. If they are open it means the blooming has begun; otherwise, the general admission gate is a 10-minute walk south (entrance fee is ¥300).

Completed in 1702 by feudal lord Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa, Rikugien was designed with poetic principles in mind, and is usually a quiet oasis of greenery, hillocks and ponds. When the famed tree is in bloom, however, crowds of paparazzi wait to get in and guests line up at Fugiage-chaya, the park's teahouse.

Way back when, Robert Graves (1895-1985) wrote in his poem "Cherry-Time": "Cherries of the night are riper/than the cherries pluckt at noon." Though plucking is a no-no, pick a night when the garden is open, and the trees are illuminated until 9 p.m., to celebrate its 17-meter-wide, 13-meter-high stunner.

If all you long for is luxuriant stretches of fawn-colored, petal-dappled grass, check out

Shinjuku Gyoen.

Approximately 1,500 cherry trees grace the 58-hectare national garden, and the dozen or so different varieties ensure an extended window of viewing time. Though usually closed Mondays, the park will open daily for a month following March 25, Tokyo's anticipated blossom peak.

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Blooming lovely: This is what all the fuss is about. © YASUFUMI NISHI / © JNTO

There are massive spaces for kids to run in, intimate corners for horizontal socializing (PG-13), and even the spooky "Mother and Child's Forest" area that's unfortunately patrolled by psycho crows protecting their nestlings.

There's an admission fee (¥200 for adults) and an early closing time (4:30 p.m.). If you're not bringing your own lunch, the garden has a restaurant and two tea houses. The setting is bucolic, but nonalcoholic — no booze is allowed here.

Atago Jinja on Atago-yama, the highest point of land in Tokyo's 23 wards, is a shrine that provides a romantic sanctuary from the surrounding hubbub of Toranomon and Kamiyacho (the closest subway stations). You'll get your heart racing from the start, climbing the 86 massive steps up. If you do it in one go, legend has it you'll achieve success, but if success in love is your goal, reserve seats at the summit eatery, Restaurant T. Specializing in slow cooking and locally sourced ingredients, T offers one of the prettiest treetop window views in town.

After lunch, stroll the gardens of Atago Jinja, a 1603 Inari (fox god) shrine, always open and free. Cherry blossoms droop delicately over a carp-quickened pond, and petals float in spirals onto the deck of a decorative boat-to-nowhere.

From behind the shrine you can descend the hill and visit two places that will have you saying "cheese," the NHK Broadcast Museum and Fromagerie Fermier, a well-stocked cheese shop.

Then, why not finish the trip on a soft note by stopping at Sowa for homemade ice cream (Toranomon 3-19-9, near Kamiyacho Station). Sowa churns out awesomely rich creations of ice cream with real salted sakura flowers, available only during March and April.

Need more inspiration to seize the cherry? Take it from A.E. Housman (1859-1936), who in his poem "Loveliest of trees, the cherry now" suggests that "to look at things in bloom/ fifty springs are little room." If you're over 20, God forbid, make room. (Kit Nagamura)




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I moved to Yanaka for one reason and one reason only: It puts me within striking distance of Ueno Park, which will be easily reached at the crack of dawn for this year's hanami weekend. Once there, I'll be able to joust bleary-eyed with the vagabonds — those who live there and lay out their blue plastic tarps in all the best blossom-viewing spots and then trade the space to latecomers for cash (once, I bought "a prime piece of real estate" off them with a crate of beer) — and the office juniors (who are strong-armed by their superiors to get there early to secure a spot under the most exuberant cherry tree).

When I lived in Ebisu, on Saturdays I always woke up feeling like a dirty dishrag, and, encased in a rock-hard hangover, I'd struggle to get to Ueno at 10 a.m. Too late! I'd end up settling beneath a sole, lonely twig, if lucky, and if unlucky, also next to a toilet — a locale that, as you can imagine, gets busier and thus stinkier as the day progresses, with its queue snaking through your picnic site and forcing you to reach between some drunkard's palpitating legs to grab another onigiri (rice ball) and refill your wine beaker.

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Double take: Kyoto's famous shidare zakura (weeping cherry tree) in Maruyama Park (top). Above: Blossoms tussle at Meguro River. PERRIN LINDELAUF; © Y. SHIMIZU / © JNTO

If you are new to Tokyo you may not know that Ueno Park is the most famous hanami party place in Japan, and if you haven't been there then you don't know what hanami is. On the big weekend the atmosphere is more like a bangin' rave than a tranquil, sequestered family picnic. People just let themselves go, and at some point you will see someone running naked with a small branch of sakura between their teeth. It won't be me, however, as I am currently teetotal. If you are a nondrinker, it must be the ultimate challenge to resist succumbing to the sauce at Ueno Park's hanami. Everyone's at it and I'll be surrounded on all sides by beer zealots. They'll yodel in my ear, offering me slurps, sips and swills and asking me who I am. I'll be tinned like a sardine, but tinless all the same. I will need to flee early, perhaps midafternoon. People will be blocking me at each turn. I will not walk down the main avenue to escape. I will crawl. Inch by inch.

After slowly dog-paddling out of this heady alcoholic gumbo, I will spirit myself away — hopefully with a date — to the distant but relaxing Nakameguro area. It's a testament to the potent pulchritude of sakura blossoms that a lack of green fails to bother the couples strolling beside Meguro River. Like Ueno Park, there's barely a blade of grass in sight, and you'll probably end up sitting on concrete (so make sure you have a plastic bin bag stuffed in your back pocket). But there's few experiences as romantic as walking beside a river under a dreamy sky of intoxicating pinkish-white — strolling hand-in-hand, whispering sweet everythings, slow caresses and soft kisses, looking at a river that's a thick pile carpet of fallen petals drifting on by (which is more than welcome as often it's a greeny-black oil color), before gazing into each other's eyes and proposing undying love, forever and ever, amen. Finally, this year I will return to my neighborhood and, being sober, will dwell upon death.

Yanaka Cemetery (next to Nippori Station) is at the end of my road, and has been the end of the road for many. There, too, I will sit beneath the blossoms, smoking and thinking about all my friends who tragically died young — and I'll quietly strum my guitar and sing a lament. Like the cherry blossoms, that last just over a week, their lives ended before they really began. Death is always an unwelcome visitor no matter how old its prize, but life is too short to miss Japan's spectacular sakura season. If I could choose where to enjoy my last whiff of life, it would be under a cherry tree in full bloom. What a spiritually satisfying way to move on. (Simon Bartz)




There are many pretty hanami spots across the country, but it's Kyoto that always steals the limelight, and rightly so, as hanami parties first gained their historical significance among Kyoto's nobility and military rulers. Of all of Kyoto's spots, the geisha entertainment district of Gion is the one best complemented by cherry trees. Traditional machiya (town houses) line the cobbled streets and the city's famous white-faced ladies can be seen slipping from taxis to enter exclusive tea houses and restaurants. Indeed, the number of hanami parties ensures a good chance of seeing one of these mysterious women.

The Shirakawa River's narrow canal cuts between the ancient houses of Gion, and much of it is lined with flower-laden cherry trees and the pendant branches of weeping willows. The sight of these flowers suspended over the Shirakawa's waters from within a traditional restaurant is nothing less than magical.

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Osaka is a city of big business and brash attitudes, so it comes as no surprise that one of its most famous hanami spots is a boisterous display on the grounds of The Japan Mint.

Constructed in 1871, the Mint was decorated with a feudal lord's collection of rare cherry varieties; there are 123 different types among the 363 trees planted along a 560-meter lane within the Mint, 80 percent of which are yaezakura (double-petal) types. In contrast to the five white petals of Japan's most popular variety, somei yoshino, yaezakura are an outrageous explosion of petals, sometimes up to 100 on one single blossom. Most profuse are the deep-pink kanzan variety, but some, like the benitemari, a cluster of flowers shaped like a handball, or the green-petaled gioiko, are extremely rare. Double-petal cherry trees tend to bloom late, often accompanied by leaves, which provides an attractive green or brown counterpoint. Also note that the route is one-way, starting from the south gate. If the crowds at the Mint are too much, however, stretch your legs among the 4,700 cherry trees of Kema Sakuranomiya Park, which runs past the Mint and lines both sides of the Okawa River.

In contrast to the hectic crowds of Osaka, the Shukugawa River Park in Nishinomiya, a suburb of Kobe, is a deserted idyll. Unlike many monoculture cherry parks, hundreds of towering pines were left standing along the river when the cherry trees were planted, adding an attractive contrast. The river is as concrete as almost any other suburban watercourse, but paths run along its edge, and its shallow, mostly clean waters reflect the trees draped over it beautifully. Unlike the heady profusion of the Mint, the trees here are all elegance. Somei yoshino and oshima zakura make up most of the 2,000-plus specimens along the 3-km park.

Somei yoshino's popularity may stem from the Japanese aesthetic: Its simple petals fall immaculate after a scant week's existence, reminding us all of the transitory nature of beauty and of life. Make sure to savor both this spring. (Perrin Lindelauf)



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