Hydrangeas at Odawara Castle

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
Don’t be fooled this is not a cute pose, I’m just trying to stop my dress from blowing up and my hat from blowing away…

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.

hydrangea ajisai odawara castle

 

wisteria flower odawara castle park

 

 

Kyoto in the Spring

I took my parents to Kyoto because they came to Japan in the spring and where else would you rather be?

The first thing I will admit about the gateway to old Japan is that, yes, it is crowded during cherry blossom season. But if you are willing to step off the beaten track you can still find those hushed moments of zen like calm that the ancient capital promises.

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Dinner served to our room in the ryokan

I wanted my parents to stay in a traditional Japanese ryokan (hostel) and booking was a  nightmare even though I started the process early. Many ryokans aren’t on the internet yet so I searched for a place and booked through Japanese Guest Houses. To be honest their system isn’t super convenient but it may well be your best bet, especially if you don’t speak Japanese. We ended up staying in the Ischicho Shogikuen which wasn’t my first choice but was still lovely. I really recommend going for the full ryokan experience if you can – futons, tatami mats, sliding doors and Japanese cuisine served to your room. My parents had a couple of reservations about the food and my Dad sleeping on a futon with a bad back but they loved every minute.

I recommend walking between your destinations as much as you can because Kyoto is the kind of place where interesting things happen in between. There’s a small art gallery or a charming independent coffee shop on every corner.

The Famous Rock Garden at Ryoanji Temple.

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Ginkakuji (which I prefer to its more famous brother, Kinkakuji)
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Definitely walk along the Philosopher’s Path to get from Ginkakuji to Nazenji

 

It’s lovely walking around town as it starts to get dark. Oh and we did see a geisha- she was actually locked out of the building she was trying to get into, desperately ringing the bell and trying to remain graceful as the tourists crowded around her. I didn’t take a photo as it was actually quite alarming to watch the cameras swarm like flies and I felt sorry for her, so you’ll have to take my word for it that she was really, incredibly beautiful. Unfortunately I think hoardes of tourists goes with the Kyoto territory at this point but Kyoto was still able to capture my imagination.

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(Presumed) American in Japan

When I worked in a Japanese elementary school, there was a homeroom teacher who refused to believe I wasn’t from the USA. I told her again and again that I was British, but there seemed to be some kind of mental wall there.

“Tell the students about Christmas in the USA.”
You tell them, I’ve never been there and you spent the holidays in California.

I’m not so sensitive that this bothered me, but it was bizarre. I mean most Japanese people have heard of London. Why was it so ingrained that foreigner = American?

Most of the stereotypes of foreigners in Japan are based on Americans. I don’t just mean the Japanese stereotypes of foreigners being loud, friendly, large, and loving hamburgers. I also mean, perhaps more importantly for me, that the ‘foreigner in Japan’ narrative as told by the English speaking media presumes ‘American-ness.’ Many of the difficulties described and advice dispersed on websites like Gaijinpot and the Japan Times applied to someone culturally American and much of it wasn’t really relevant to me.

“Japanese flats are small.”
I pay half what I did for rent in London for a place almost twice the size.
“You will have to get used to living without a car in Tokyo. You can get the metro everywhere.”
Anyone heard of a thing called the Tube? I believe it’s the oldest subway system in the world…
“Japan is different to your country because it’s an island nation with four seasons and a long history.”
Come now, this is getting embarrassing.

 

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One of the scariest things to hear in a British office

When comparing Japanese, British and American stereotypes, I imagine a scale of 1 to 6, like the Kinsey scale. At 1 are the Japanese, indirect, super polite and reserved. The Americans are at 6, loud, assertive, direct and friendly. The British are probably sitting on a 4. Obviously we’re closer to the Americans, but those ‘Japanese things’ that I was told would bother me – indirectness, face saving, social awkwardness and only expressing our actual feelings when wasted – we do those too. And it’s for this reason that I think we sometimes adapt better to Japanese work culture than our friends from across the pond. It’s less of an adjustment.

 

Something strange has happened to me. Far from Japan making me more Japanese, I think Japan has actually made me more American. I’ve had British friends before saying that I may have the soul of an American, meaning I’m loud, assertive, overshare and I don’t embarrass easily. Nothing wrong with any of these traits, I just posses them more than your average Brit, especially your average British woman, so in the UK I would tone them down a bit. Now I’m in Japan I have very few British friends and spend my time surrounded by Americans as well as a host of other nationalities. I also am in an environment where this foreigner = American thing is the dominant narrative so people expect me to behave in an ‘American way,’ especially my Japanese friends. This is no bad thing as it’s nice to not have to restrain this part of my personality. Moreover, I genuinely get on well with the Americans I meet in Japan and mean no disrespect to your country. It’s just worth remembering that all foreigners bring something different to Japan and there’s no one ‘gaijin experience.’

I’ll leave you with a slide from the often amusing comic White Rice, which is about foreigners in Japan:

 

white-rice
Image credit: http://www.whitericecomic.com

 

 

 

 

Rikugien Gardens in 2016

I love Japanese gardens. In my first few days in Japan when I was jet lagged and frantically house hunting I found refuge in Kiyosumi Gardens near the hotel where I was staying. I’d recommend nearly all of the traditional landscape gardens in Tokyo – for a few hundred yen you can have a respite from city life and breathe in hundreds of years of Japanese culture and appreciation for nature.

My favourite garden has to be Rikugien. I first went on the recommendation of a school friend in February and loved it so much I’ve been back several times this year. It’s been a pleasure to see it in different seasons. The gardens were built around 1700 and Rikugien literally mean ‘six poem gardens.’ Accordingly, 88 spots in the garden reference Chinese history and famous Japanese waka poems. Of course I don’t get any of the references, but the idea is so charming.

2016-02-18 12.16.10.jpgIn February one of my oldest friends was kind enough to come to Tokyo for me. Proactive as ever, she came with a list of things she wanted to do and as Rikugien was relatively easy to get to it was one of the first places we went to. As a Brit, it still surprises me how dry and sunny Tokyo winters are despite being almost as cold as London. This day was typical and the garden felt a little barren but somehow serene and tasteful.

 

 

 

 

2016-03-26-11-57-23The next time I went to Rikugien was when my family came to visit in the spring. We’d just had some bad news that had really shaken us so it was nice to be together. We went to Rikugien just as the cherry blossoms were starting to bloom so everything was a lot greener and more fresh than in February. I seem to remember that I took them there just before we left to go to Kyoto and they got more excited after having a taste of Japanese culture.

 

 

 

Along came May and I thought Rikugien was the perfect place to drag yet another group of visiting Brits. The gardens were a lot more colourful and vibrant this time around and I really enjoyed the flowers. One of my favourite things about Rikugien is that there is a traditional tea house by the pond where you can really drink up the essence of the garden and I have happy memories of sitting there with my friends in May.

 

After taking yet another group of visiting friends in early Autumn my poor boyfriend was a bit fed up. “You go to this garden with literally everyone except me!” So on a sunny day in November we went to enjoy the beginnings of the autumn leaves together. This was a few days before I left Tokyo to go for medical treatment in London and I was filled with a lot of complicated feelings about leaving the city I love during this beautiful season.

 

 

明けましておめでとう!Happy New Year

Happy New Year! New Years is the probably the most important holiday of the year in Japan, fulfilling a similar role to Christmas in the UK as a day where people spend time with their family and practice religious traditions, whether or not they themselves are committed believers. At the moment Tokyo is very quiet – many people have fled the city to visit family in their rural home towns, shops and business are closed and many will remain so until the 3rd.

There are two main choices of New Years greeting in Japan. 明けましておめでとう(akemashite omedetuo) is what you say during the first few days of the year. Be careful with this one, it is often simply translated as ‘Happy New Year’ but it is incorrect to say it on New Years Eve, unlike its English equivalent. If you want a season specific greeting on NYE, try the more general よいお年を!(yoi otoshi wo) which means ‘have a good year.’

My friends and I were at Shibuya crossing at the turn of the year, counting down to 2016 with the huge crowds present. Everyone went a little crazy  at midnight, popping champagne cheering and running into the streets periodically a bit like a mosh pit. It was intense but a lot of fun. After that we went to Womb, a nearby club, and had a great time dancing the night away. A good thing about going out in Tokyo at New Years is that the trains run on all night at half hour intervals. One of my biggest complaints about Tokyo is that the last train is ridiculously early and there are absolutely no night buses. This combined with the sky high taxi fares makes a sensible night out virtually impossible – you have to commit to staying out until the first train at 5am which usually leads either to being extremely bored or someone chundering in the streets of Roppongi. I escaped either of these fates, thanks to the trains allowing me to go home at 3am like a normal human being.

The only places that typically aren’t deserted on New Years Day are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Quite the opposite in fact – when my boyfriend and I headed to our local Shinto shrine today it was so busy we had to queue for about an hour to get in. It’s traditional to either go to a shrine on new years day or midnight – which is probably why the trains run all night, not to cater to disreputable young gaijin like myself who fancy a dance.

shrine queue instaI’m glad we chose to go to our local shrine instead of heading to one of the massive famous shrines such as Meiji Jingu – whilst I’m sure that would have been an amazing experience, the intimacy of our local shrine felt almost magical. We arrived a little before sunset and queued for about an hour so we watched the sun go down on the shrine and the lamps being lit which was lovely.

fortune instagramAt the shrine we washed our hands with ritual water and queued up to throw ¥5 or ¥50 yen into a box (these coins have holes in them, which is good luck), ring the temple bell, clap and bow. We also bought おもくじ (omokuji) – paper fortunes which make predictions about various aspects of your life such as business, family and romance for the coming year. They’re rated from really lucky to a big curse and I got 小吉 (shou kichi) which means ‘small luck,’ so not too bad. I was told that I will achieve what I wish for – my 願事 (negaigoto) – this year, but it will be tough so I have to work hard. Sounds about right to be honest 😉 Along with many others I tied my fortune on the wires in the shrine grounds in the hope of improving it.

I’m a Christian but I didn’t feel uncomfortable taking part in these practices. This is because, although some Japanese are institutional Shintoists, Shinto is widely regarded as a religion of ritual practices which are an important part of Japanese culture, rather than a dedicated and exclusive belief system which governs ones life. I’m confident that some of the people at my local shrine today were atheists, Buddhists, even Christians or Muslims, taking part in the rituals because it’s tradition, rather than because they have any serious belief. Like how we burn Guy Fawkes in effigy on Bonfire Night in the UK but less… horrible and bizarre.

(I love Bonfire Night, but looking at your country’s traditions from the outside makes you see them in a new light)

I really enjoyed my first New Years in Japan and I wish you all the best for 2016!

me at lamp