Japan in Bloom

I was always curious about Japan. In my mind Japan was fast, futuristic and modern, with robots, speedy trains and neon light everywhere. During my trip to Japan this last spring I found out I was right, in a way. And wrong in so many more.

Japan is swayed by two great loves. Technology and Tradition. You get to see geisha walk through neon lit streets,  old, little temples nestled in between the highest of skyscrapers and demure clad business men playing games in endless arcade halls. Those two great loves meet most significantly in spring time, when the sakura trees bloom.

For about a month every year millions of Japanese people look up from their tablets and smartphones, and instead, gaze upwards to see soft little blush coloured petals emerge from their green cocoons. Every store sells suddenly something sakura flavoured (I still long for sakura flavoured Fanta whenever I see regular old orange flavoured Fanta in stores now) and pink is every-where.

But there is more to Japan then just the sakura season. We spent the first week in Tokyo and I couldn’t have imagined how quickly it would steal my heart. Tokyo snuck up on me with its endless malls, quaint little eight seat restaurants, six story arcade halls, gacha machines, super fashionable ladies and its love for anime. I wish I lived in Tokyo just so I could play games in the arcade halls every weekend!

Art supplies wise, Tokyo is a true treasure. I spent a full afternoon dragging my travel mates through the eight story art shop Seikaido, where they had every imaginable type of comic book markers, pens, paint, stickers and name stamps. A trip to Japan wouldn’t haven been complete if I hadn’t picked up some Copic markers, which they didn’t have in Sekaido, but I found at Tools in Lumine EST (not Lumine 1 or 2. Don’t make the same mistake as me) next to Shinjuku station. They are so much cheaper there, especially with the tax free benefits, than they are in the Netherlands.

After Tokyo, we went to Kyoto by bullet train. Tokyo and Kyoto are, for the most part, like day and night. Gone are the skyscrapers and extravagant stores, and instead you stumble over temples and tea houses hoping to catch a glimp of the elusive geiko/geisha that hold every tourist in its grasp. The Fushimi Inari Shrine, famous for it’s little red torii gates that wind their way up the mountain side, was a must see. Even though it will take you a few hours to go all the way up and down the mountain, you are rewarded with less and less crowds, the higher up you go.

As it is normally very hard to see geiko for longer than the moment it takes them to pass you in the streets of Gion, we felt very lucky to have tickets to the annual public  show, the Miyako Odori. The show was so beautiful, with the geiko dressed in flowing blue and red kimono’s, dancing gracefully to traditional Japanese music.

For the last part of our trip, we hopped on a plane to Hakkaido, Japan’s most northern island. We explored the beautiful countryside by car, and even though it was still snowy, it was an easy drive as the roads were wide, straight and mostly swept clean. We visited Japan’s famous beer brewery, the Sapporo beer museum, explored active volcanoes, caldera lakes and natural hot springs.

One of the most magical experiences of the trip was sitting in a rooftop hot spring (onsen) at night in the Shikotsu-Tōya national park. As the cool night air hit the hot water, it billowed upwards in strange shapes towards the starry night sky. I was so mesmerised, I must have sat there for hours.

Our beautiful journey came to an end in the sleepy little town Hakodate, where we stayed in a traditional Japanese inn. We slept on tatami mats on the floor for two days and my back didn’t thank me for it. As we enjoyed the night time view from Mount Hakodate and the peculiar Western-style neighbourhood, we said our goodbyes to a country that has stolen my heart and that I intend to return to as soon possible.