I really love hydrangeas, or あじさい (ajisai) in Japanese. June is the start of tsuyu, rainy season, where the beautiful weather of May turns to a rainy humid mess. It is probably the only month where Tokyo is wetter than London, as my British friends’ instagram posts are constantly reminding me. Ajisai are a wonderful consolation prize for the bad weather, and they’re certainly a symbol of June in Japan.
So I’m spending my weekends these days dragging my boyfriend on ajisai viewing trips because I’m that cool. There’s lots of spots you can see them in Tokyo itself but we fancied getting out of Tokyo last weekend so we looked up good hydrangea spots farther afield and decided to kill two birds with one stone and get some culture in by visiting Odawara castle.
Odawara castle was originally built in the 1400s by the Omori clan, but like every old thing in Japan it’s been destroyed and rebuilt more than once so what we actually visited on Saturday was a reproduction built in 1960. Still cool though, as they’ve incorporated many stylistic features from the Edo period. ¥500 gets you into the castle itself but for a couple 100 extra you can go into the surrounding exhibitions too.
In the castle building there are exhibitions on the castle’s history over 3 floors, before you reach the tower with a view of Sagami Bay and Odawara town. The day we went was really windy so I had to be careful not to lose my hat at the top!
After exploring the castle we went to one of the side exhibitions which is about samurai and has lots of cool swords and armour. For a price you can be dressed up as a samurai but it was a bit hot for that on Saturday so we gave that a miss. There are some monkeys kept in a cage outside this exhibition and they are really cute but I have to say I thought their cage was a bit small and lacking in stimulation for them.
Then onto the flower gardens. As well as ajisai there were some beautiful wisteria. As this was a sunny Saturday in June (a rarity) a lot of people were out and we had to wait a bit to take flower pictures sometimes. Perhaps this isn’t exactly the recipe for serenity but it’s nice to see everyone out and about enjoying the flowers.
Even in the UK, we all have that strange friend who can’t stand heat at all. The nutter who genuinely thinks British summers are too hot. When this friend announced she wanted to visit me in July I was a tad concerned. “You do realise, Tokyo summers are humid and sticky and horrible?” Seeing as this was the only time she could get away from work I thought it was best to flee north with her – to Hokkaido!
What was fun about Hokkaido was that I knew next to nothing about it before I went. It wasn’t on my ‘list of things to see in Japan.’ Perhaps my complete lack of expectations was a factor in why I fell in love with the island. I could only get away from work for 5 days so we decided to base ourselves in Sapporo, the largest city, and explore what we could with public transport. In that alternate reality where it’s easy to get more than a week off work, I would love to rent a car and stay in places across the region. I wanted to see the famous lavender fields in Furano for example but that’s a headache to get to if you don’t have a car. Despite this limitation, we had a wonderful time!
We flew from Tokyo Haneda domestic terminal to Sapporo New Chitose airport which takes less than two hours. It was my first Japanese domestic flight and I was slightly weirded out by the lack of checks and security (you technically don’t need your passport to fly, though I would advise bringing it just in case). From New Chitose you can get the JR Rapid Airport train to Sapporo station which takes about 40mins. The station building is the tallest building in Hokkaido and contains some great shops and restaurants. We walked about 25 minutes to the Guest House Nonaka. I’d left booking until three weeks in advance so this place wasn’t my first choice but actually it was great. Comfortable and clean, free coffee and run by a friendly middle aged couple who were patient with my bad Japanese and happy to recommend things.
Hokkaido’s July weather is beautiful, especially compared to the summer sweat swamp that is Tokyo. It’s not at all humid and the temperature ranges from a comfortable 20-30C. The first full day we were there the weather was amazing, the kind of level of freshness that makes you feel like a new person. I wanted to see summer flowers and so our first stop was Takino Suzuran National Park which you can get to by bus from Makomanai subway station. Walking around the flower fields with mountain air and perfect blue sky was divine. As well as flowers there are points of interest such as waterfalls and an observatory. There are paths of varying difficulty to follow for those interested in walking and ‘flower volunteers’ who will take you around the best routes, tell you about the flowers and (most importantly) take pictures of you 😉
In the evening we used the Hokkaido streetcar (very cute) to get to the Mt Moiwa ropeway. This is a cable car which will take you to an observatory on Mt Moiwa where you have a view of the mountains on one side and a stunning cityscape of Sapporo the other. On the viewing platform sits the ‘bell of happiness’ which you can ring to grant good fortune for your relationship or just for yourself.
I would recommend doing what we did and going in late afternoon to watch the sun go down and Sapporo slowing light up. Truly serene.
Check back soon for more about our trip to Hokkaido including Otaru, mountain onsens and Sapporo city!