Wednesday, 1 April 2015

JVlog #12: Ueno Park, Tokyo - Sakura/Cherry Blossom Festival

Good Day Everyone,

On the weekend, Hubby & I headed out to one of Tokyo's most famous parks, Ueno Park, to see the cherry blossom trees, known as sakura in Japanese. The sakura/cherry blossom festival marks the arrival of spring and is celebrated by having picnics in the parks/gardens with family, friends and work colleagues.
There are often traditional tea ceremonies and it is quite common to see Japanese women in traditional dress. Viewing cherry blossoms is like a national event in Japan and the more well known parks get incredibly crowded, especially on the weekends, as we found out. The queues at the barriers just to get out of Ueno station at the park exit were 30+ people deep! Whilst on the lookout for somewhere to have lunch we ended up wandering through Ameyoko, a shopping bazaar to the south of Ueno station that had stores selling anything and everything, with vendors shouting over one another, vying for people's attention. It was then that we spotted a halal Turkish kebab shop, in fact there were several in the bazaar. Seeing some empty benches we took advantage of being able to have a quick sit down. The kebab was better than I expected and not like the processed donner meat where you can't actually tell what's in it. This was more like a shawarma with chunks of real meat and a generous layer of cabbage salad stuffed into a pitta bread.

We then followed the crowds into the park, which was opened to the public in 1873 and is free to enter. Ueno Park is very popular for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) parties as it has more than 1,000 cherry trees lining its central pathway. Many people bring their own picnics but there are also numerous food stalls in specific parts of the park selling a wide variety of snacks.

As you will see in the video below, this particular part of the park was unbelievably crowded, so much so that we couldn't bring ourselves to walk the length of the central pathway. We decided to explore the periphery of the park instead.
We took advantage of some steps that we noticed and climbed to the top to get a better view of the cherry tree lined central pathway and the endless stream of crowds trying to make their way along it. At the bottom of the stairs is a large bibbed Jizo Bodhisattva statue. Jizo is known as the protector of children, women and travelers.
A bibbed Jizo Bodhisattava statue

At the top of this somewhat hidden hill, known as Daibutsu yama or Great Buddha Hill, is a Chedi which is a symbol of Buddhism. We saw people offering prayers at the Chedi. Next to the Chedi is The Ueno Daibutsu which was a huge seated bronze buddha statue that stood in what is now known as Ueno Park from 1623-1923. The statue was destroyed in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake. The remains of the statue were left in the park for many years before the body was melted down for metal in WWII. As you can see in the photo below, the great buddha's face is all that remains now.
The face of Ueno Daibutsu
We then headed towards the Toshogu Shrine and along the way saw what little is left of Kaneiji Temple. Kaneiji Temple once occupied all of Ueno Park. It was built to protect Edo Castle from the northeast which is considered to be an unlucky direction. The temple was huge and consisted of numerous buildings, but the whole complex was destroyed during the Battle of Ueno, which was a battle of the Boshin War in 1868-1869. What remains today is the five storey pagoda which actually sits inside Ueno Zoo, in the middle of Ueno Park.
5 storey pagoda
Toshogu Shrine is one of Tokyo's most tastefully preserved shrines having miraculously escaped the disasters of the Battle of Ueno in 1868, the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the wartime bombings of Tokyo in 1945. There are large copper lanterns on the grounds leading to the shrine that have been donated by various warlords. In addition to the lanterns, there are several other interesting structures along the way to the shrine.

There is a place for visitors to cleanse and purify themselves using traditional ladles and water that flows out through a bamboo pipe. There is a plaque on a wall detailing the specific steps of the cleansing ritual.
Water and ladles for cleansing and purification

Next to the cleansing site and in front of the large lanterns is a display of ema. Ema are small wooden plaques upon which visitors/worshipers write their wishes/prayers. These are then left hanging at the shrines where gods/spirits receive them. As expected, most were written in Japanese but there were some written in English, as well as several other language. It was really lovely just to take some time out and read these. I captured a few close ups in the vlog including one that really touched my heart so you can read those by watching the above video :o).
Lots of ema plaques
Ema plaques with wishes and prayers
Across from the ema display is a very poignant display of The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The flame burns in the centre of the wing of the bird monument below as a peaceful protest against the use of nuclear weapons. We spent quite a few minutes reading the accompanying plaque and thinking about the harrowing devastation that the dropping of the world's first two atomic bombs, by US forces in August 1945, must have had... it truly is heart breaking and a moment that will stay with me forever.
The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

We then walked further along to take a look at the Karamon, a Chinese style gate built in 1651 at the front of the Toshogu Shrine. The gate is very ornate with two dragons carved on pillars at either side of the gate. The dragons are known as Noboriryu and Kudariryu which means Ascending Dragon and Descending Dragon. In the video you can see the praying ritual made by lots of people at the gate.

Karamon - a Chinese style gate
Ueno Park is huge! As well as Ueno Zoo, there are numerous museums including Tokyo National Museum, National Science Museum, and National Museum of Western Art, to name a few. We didn't visit any of the museums as we wanted to enjoy the wonderfully warm spring weather. As well as admiring the beautiful cherry blossom trees, we also enjoyed looking at the wonderful bamboo fences and gates. I love Japanese gardens!
Bamboo fencing
After several hours of walking, we were in need of liquid refueling and so we headed out of the park back to the main road to look for somewhere to rest our sore feet and grab a drink. After a short rest we headed to the southern end of Ueno Park to the Shinobazu Pond. There were little independent stalls surrounding the pond at one end selling all sorts of bits and bobs. I think most were selling second hand/used items, but there was everything from wooden cutlery and ornaments to old camera lenses and musical instruments, as well as jewellery and clothes.
Bentendo Temple Hall in Shinobazu Pond
The pond is split into three parts and at it's centre is Bentendo, an octagonal shaped temple hall. This particular part of the pond is especially lively during cherry blossom season with numerous food stalls. At one part of the pond you can hire paddle boats but I warn you, the queues are extremely long at this time of the year.

As the sun began to set, the night time cherry blossom illuminations were switched on. We took one final partial (it was still ridiculously busy lol) stroll down the central pathway of Ueno Park. The lanterns looked beautiful and their projecting light made it possible to still view the cherry blossoms.
Night time illuminations

And then we headed home feeling exhausted but incredibly blessed to have been able to enjoy the sakura festival for a second time.... remember we came to Japan on holiday this time last year, before we found out that we would be moving here :o)

I hope you enjoyed this blog post and do watch the embedded YouTube video as I think that will give a better feel for this amazing time of year in Japan.

Love Sheen xxx
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