How to Plan for Japan’s Cherry Blossom Season

It’s approaching the cherry blossom season in Japan and if you’re planning a visit you’ll know that catching them in full bloom can be tricky. I planned my whole trip to Japan last year around the cherry trees and the hours spent tracking weather patterns paid off when I managed to photograph the beautiful blossoms in most of the cities I visited. I’ve condensed all my knowledge into this short 4 step guide just for you.

cherry_blossoms_arashiyama

1. As a general rule, the blossoms start in the South and sweep towards the North

Due to the shape of the islands, imagine the trees blooming in the South West first and the North East last.

japan cherry blossoms

2. Cherry blossoms start around March and end around May

The cherry blossom season changes every year – it depends on all sorts of factors like how cold winter was and how early spring starts. Generally the blossoms begin blooming in March and end around May in the North.

3. You don’t need to catch them in full bloom

Full bloom is the most beautiful, but it’s not essential. I saw the trees at various stages of their blooming and it was always exciting to find them. Plus… trees in the same town will be at different stages too, so one might be half blooming but then you’ll find another in full bloom and one that hasn’t even begun yet.

cherry_blossoms_miyajima2

4. Keep an eye on Japan Guide’s Forecast

Japan-Guide.com has an excellent cherry blossom forecast every year (which you can find here) but also quite handily they have cherry blossom reports from previous years, allowing you to see which years had exceptionally early or late blooms.

Based on these 4 factors I planned my 2013 trip as follows:

Osaka (19th March)
Hiroshima (23rd March)
Kyoto (26th March)
Fuji (5th April)
Tokyo (7th April)
Hakodate (14th April)
Tokyo (18th April)

Good luck!

sakura_cherry_blossoms_kyoto

 

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Don’t Take Away My Freedom, Jetstar!

Yesterday I experienced my first problem with being nomadic and not having a RTW flight ticket – Jetstar refused to check me into my flight to Taipei because I didn’t have a visa or a flight out of Taiwan arranged.

I explained that as a British citizen I can stay in Taiwan for 3 months without a visa, and that I have proof of funds to support myself and leave when my time is up.

Three staff members spent (wasted) 15 precious minutes at a computer reading information that confirmed I don’t need a visa, then told me that they would still refuse me unless I booked another flight immediately.

Thus began my first moment of stress so far – a mad panic to get my computer to connect to wifi (it wouldn’t for ages), hastily book a flight to Hong Kong then run back to check in before it closed. I didn’t even want a bloody flight, I wanted to go to Hong Kong by ferry which I can’t book yet.

Jetstar wrongly informed me I had to leave Taiwan within 30 days. Having done my research I knew they were wrong but they wouldn’t listen, so the flight I was forced to book is for sooner than I wanted to leave and I’ll have to pay $50 to cancel it. I was later stamped into Taiwan by immigration visa exempt for 90 days, no questions asked, no proof of flight needed.

I was too optimistic in thinking the staff would have knowledge and common sense (but I hear there’s a big fine for them if they wrongly allow someone to travel). The whole thing pissed me off greatly but I learnt a lesson – next time I go anywhere I’ll book a refundable flight out beforehand then cancel it as soon as I land. There’s a game to play in this travelling business and I’m learning the rules fast.

 

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Time to Think and a Challenge to Myself

The last few days have been spent on buses, trains, ferries and then in bed getting over a cold passed onto me by a sneezy commuter, so I’ve had a lot of time to read (I’m on my 21st book of 2013) and think.

Ever since Hiroshima weeks ago I’ve been thinking about the busker I saw, and about the awesome hammered dulcimer. I’ve been collecting musical instruments for years, always looking for ‘the one’ – the one that I’ll fall in love with and that will keep me interested for longer than a whim. I’m sure I’ve found it this time with this instrument I haven’t been able to stop thinking about.

hammered_dulcimer

It’s so versatile that it’s all my favourite instruments in one. I no longer need my banjo or ukulele or piano or guitar, and my dreams of playing the harp can be channeled into the dulcimer – it’s all of them in one.

It got me thinking – is it possible to learn a completely new musical instrument without being able to touch it or go near one? And in this case, without knowing what it feels like to strike the strings, without hearing how the strings react to different hammers or techniques, without knowing how different sizes and numbers of strings affect what you can play? I have a feeling it’s possible.

So here’s my challenge to myself: learn how to play the hammered dulcimer using the internet alone, well enough to be able to play scales, chords and simple tunes by the time I get home. Watch this space.

Reminds me of Joey learning the guitar without a guitar
Reminds me of Joey learning the guitar without a guitar

In other news, I’m currently sitting in Kansai Osaka Airport awaiting a flight to Taipei which I’m very excited about! New adventures and challenges lie ahead.

 

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Hakodate: A Different Side to Japan

Hakodate in the sunshine reminds me of a cross between San Francisco and Reykjavik, two of my favourite places on Earth. It’s a port town in Hokkaido, Northern Japan, and is peppered with colourful colonial buildings from when a fleet of American ships first discovered the port at the end of the 1800s and declared it a safe place to dock at.

hakodate_hokkaido

colonial_mansion_hakodate

I took a cable car to the top of Mt. Hakodate and marveled at the view of the mountains. It’s an incredibly windy town because of the sea that’s on both sides, and it’s still off-peak (the snow only cleared from the ground a week ago) so it’s pretty quiet at the moment but I like that.

mt_hakodate_ropeway

view_from_mt_hakodate

There’s a cluster of churches at the base of the ropeway, all in a medieval European style just like the ones I saw in Iceland, and I kept forgetting I was still in Japan.

church_hakodate

The Morning Market near the train station turned out to be a bit of a bonus and reminded me why I love markets – the traders are hustling and so they’ll actually say hello, which is really nice because I can’t speak Japanese and hardly anyone in Japan speaks English so I haven’t had chance to speak to people much. One youngish guy said hello and tried to start a conversation and we ended up having a good old laugh – he told me that my face is really small, then pointed at his mother and compared my tiny face to her massive face! She then chimed in saying HE had a massive face, and I was laughing because actually their faces really were huge and it amused me that due to the language barrier this is the conversation we’d ended up having.

These crabs were alive and moving a lot
These crabs were alive and moving a lot
hakodate_morning_market2
Not the people with the big faces

When the weather turned and the clouds rolled in I took a tram to the end of the line where I found a beach with just two others braving the dark skies that threatened imminent rain. I’ve always loved the seaside in the off season. I like the solitude, the sting of the bracing wind on my cheeks, the sound of nothing but the roar of the waves as they crash onto the shore.

beach_hakodate

When the rain finally came I dashed back to the tram and spent a warm hour or two in a dockside cafe reading and staring out to sea.

 

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A Disneyland Birthday in Tokyo

I’ve had two birthdays at Disney in the past so it felt only right to have another one when Disneyland Tokyo was just a short train ride away.

disney_parade

Taking the monorail brought back a lot of memories as classic Disney songs were piped in for added effect. The only difference is that they were all sung in Japanese which was, well, weird.

disney_monorail

mickey_monorail

I’d decided I would treat myself to whatever I wanted which manifested itself as pure gluttony as I polished off churros, popcorn, pizza, waffles, chips and anything else I saw. It was like I was 11 again, the day I was paraded around the breakfast buffet by Minnie the Mouse.

mickey_mouse_waffle

inside_space_mountain
Space Mountain

I managed to go on pretty much every single ride at least once, and finished the day watching the firework display over the castle.

disneyland_tokyo_fireworks

For the benefit of my family here are some pictures that will trigger memories from Florida…

space_mountain

its_a_small_world

its_a_small_world_inside
“It’s a small world after all”

polynesian

 

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Exploring Shibuya

As planned I trundled off to the Chinese Embassy this morning to sort out my visa so that I have some choice on where to go next. After filling out the form and waiting in the visa queue I was told that I can’t get my visa at the visa office, I must go to a travel agent. Great. I haven’t seen a travel agency anywhere and can’t read any signs nor communicate with anyone, so I gave up on that for today.

Instead I explored Shibuya which was a half hour walk down the road from the embassy. A Shibuya map I picked up listed a few record stores and I headed off to a world music specialist. I couldn’t find it, but instead found an interesting temple guarded by two wolf statues.

wolf_shrine_tokyo

My home for the day was Tower Records Shibuya, where I ended up for five hours, perusing the artwork on the CD cases and listening to album after album of new music, old music and weird eclectic music I’ve never heard of.

nomusicnolife_tower_records_shibuya

I realised that music has been missing from my life for the last two months. On long journeys I’ve been reading or sleeping and in the daytime I like to listen to the sounds of what’s around me rather than blocking it all out with earphones which is what I’d usually do.

tower_records_shibuya

tower_books

Since I have no way of playing CDs I didn’t buy any, but I had such a great day out that I went and spent my money in the cafe instead.

tower_records_cafe

On a screen in the cafe was a minute long Tower Records promotional video and on that video was none other than the hammered dulcimer player that I met in Hiroshima. It turns out that his band, Houribe Lou, are quite well known.

Tomorrow I’ll attempt to find a travel agency for my Chinese visa mission, then seek out the technology megastores that Tokyo is so famous for.

 

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