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.
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.
In 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.
The 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.
Three weeks ago today, on my second full day in Tokyo, I was jet-lagged, dislocated and very, very anxious.
I had been for a meeting with my work the previous day and I knew I had a lot to do to get set up in Japan – a bank account, a phone contract, health insurance, registration with my local district office – and that I needed to do these things to allow me to be able to work, which I needed to start doing quickly as funds were very low. The problem was that I couldn’t start any of this until we had a place to live. My boyfriend had found a flat that we really wanted but we were waiting for the agonisingly large amount of paperwork to clear. Have you ever been in a hotel on the other side of the world where you barely speak the language, waiting for an estate agent to process the paperwork which will allow your life to start, terrified that they are going to refuse you and you will have to start the process again? I don’t recommend it (who am I kidding – of course I do if it gets you where you want to go). Every day I would go to the hotel reception and say mōippaku tomaritain desu ga… refusing to what would happen if they said no and I was turfed out onto the street with my huge suitcases.
Unable to take sitting waiting for news about the flat any longer, I went for a walk, hoping to find a green space to clear my head. I wandered in almost a random direction in the August heat and humidity, found a park and experienced the sound of Japanese cicadas. They are loud. I can understand why so many haiku poets write about the noise – it’s intense.
I wandered through the park, came to some gates and realised I had accidentally come across one of the most beautiful traditional gardens in Tokyo. Kiyosumi Gardens most likely originally belonged to wealthy merchant Kinokukiya Bunzaemon during the Edo period. They were then owned by a feudal lord and the founder of Mitsubishi before being donated to the city of Tokyo and opened to the public in 1932. Today they are a beautifully kept oasis for anyone who needs to escape the intensity of Tokyo – and my frenzied mind certainly needed some calming.
After paying a mere ¥150 to enter, you will come to an exquisite view of the pool and its three small islands. I loved walking across the isowatari – stepping stones set into the water. The wildlife is very tame so koi carp and adorable little turtles will come and say hello to your feet. A traditional resthouse appears to hover from the water, juxtaposed by the urban Tokyo skyline looming in the background which I think only enhances the view.
My first few days in Tokyo were intense – periods of overwhelming activity and anxiety-ridden waiting combined with moments filled with a sheer love of Japan. Walking around Kiyosumi Gardens I experienced the latter and I’ll always have a soft spot for the gardens as an elegant oasis in my frantic first days.