Beautiful Spring Blooms of Central Japan

[2009.05.03]

It was unfortunate that we chose to make this short trip to Tokyo during Japan’s Golden Week, notorious for crowds everywhere one turns. Incidentally it was also a great time to make day trips out of Tokyo for some spring blooms viewing. Since E and his girlfriend had signed up for a day tour, they asked us if we had wanted to join them. At 7,000¥ per pax, we were very tempted. While we were worried about not being able to understand what the Japanese tour guide would say on the bus, we thought sticking to them both should be quite safe.

We were right some, and wrong some. The Japanese guide talked aplenty as she briefed the bus-full of Japanese or people who understood Japanese perfectly. Me? Not much – my grasp of limited Japanese did not serve me well. It was worse for the mister since he only knew the basics. He completely spaced out, not bothered with understanding anything at all. I too, gave up after a while. We just made sure we knew what time to board the bus again by checking with our friends at each stop.

Before we had more time to worry about what we were missing from the briefing due to language barrier, we were each handed a bento お弁当 for lunch. That kind of gave us an indication of the distance we needed to cover for the tour, to the extent that they could not afford time for a lunch stop. While I had to admit that the bento looked exceedingly appetising, I didn’t touch most of the items. Just not very used to having cold food.

Hitsujiyama Park 羊山公園

This day tour had a total of 3 stops. Our first was at Hitsujiyama Park for the Chichibu Shibazakura Festival 秩父芝桜祭り. While many think that Hanami 花見 refers to the act of gathering with friends in a park, sitting under a cherry trees enjoying the transient beauty of flowers, Hanami is essentially more than that. We were schooled properly on this Japanese traditional custom when we arrived at the park.

I love how much pride the Japanese take in every single detail, including their entrance tickets. The guide handed each of us our tickets and we took off after ascertaining the time to gather again. We were in high spirits, expecting a beautiful view as seen on the tickets.

Except… this was what greeted us instead. 😦

Some background on these lawn flowers: Shibazakura 芝桜, also known phlox subulate or moss phlox, is a species of flowering plant that grows no more than 15cm above ground. Because the flower petals kind of resemble those of cherry blossoms (also known as Sakura 桜), they have since earned the title of ‘turf/lawn sakura’ in Japan. With a bloom period between mid April and early May (varies slightly from year to year), this is the typical kind of Hanami Japanese engage in during Golden Week.

We caught the blooms towards the tail end of their bloom hence the visible specks of green. Still a glorious sight to behold.

So said the hundreds of Japanese at the park that day, too. Everywhere we turned, we were greeted with sights of either camera-clutching Japanese or their posing counterparts. While we are both not too enthusiastic about taking pictures of ourselves, we were greatly amused by how much they love it. 😀

Chichibu Arakawa Riverside 秩父荒川

Next, we stopped at a local festival near Arakawa River 荒川. Having often seen and greatly enjoyed food festivals of the same sort at Yoyogi Koen 代々木公園 in Tokyo, we were overjoyed to be brought to one with such distinctive local flavour.

The sights, the sounds, the people… appealed to all our senses. We would have loved to take a seat and mingle with the locals, except that we don’t speak much Japanese. Also, there’s this other little problem: all the seats seemed to have been taken.

Even the food offered looked more interesting than the usual. We bought a skewer of Shiitake Mushroom to enjoy while standing around soaking in the festive atmosphere. Would have loved to buy and walk off, like what I would most likely do if this was a local Pasar Malam in Singapore, but Japanese generally frown upon eating while walking so… in Japan, do as Japanese do. Otherwise, known as immersion. Heh.

We walked on, following the crowd, not knowing exactly what to expect (remember: we couldn’t understand most of what our guide on the bus was saying). It wasn’t long before we realised we were headed for the riverside. The first thing that struck me was how this elderly couple were casually seated by the river at a higher vantage view, watching a young lady kayak in the emerald green waters while enjoying each other’s company in quiet companionship. It was as if time stood still, and nothing else mattered. Such a stark contrast to city life.

Watching the children play by the riverbank was such a joy. I could watch them the whole day, not knowing what their endgame was. That is the whole point of play, really – pure undiluted fun and learning amidst play, with meddlesome interference from adults.

However the singular activity that most visitors wanted to involve themselves in? The boat ride. The queue was immensely long with about 3-4 boats in total, carrying about 15-20 passengers at any one time. The excitement of the passengers was contagious; even we contemplated doing a ride. Except that we couldn’t, since we didn’t know how long we had to wait, and how long the boat ride would be.

I simply love how this shot turned out. ❤

We had to walk through a quaint neighbourhood street to get to our bus. Had a very interesting stroll amidst the Japanese who were admittedly much more enthusiastic about shopping at the stores than we were.

Ashikaga Flower Park あしかがフラワーパーク

The journey to our 3rd stop took way longer than expected because it seemed like every day tour bus was headed there as their last stop and the road leading to Ashikaga Flower Park was just so jam packed. We were really quite tired of sitting by the time we finally arrived.

As always expected, the entrance tickets were very pretty. Unfortunately at that point, I really needed a visit to the restroom so we hastily took a picture and moved on.

 

Now, I have to be honest about it: I am truly unfamiliar with flowers. Can’t recognise beyond the usual species even if my life depended on it, so much of this section onwards is just going to be all about ‘Wow the flowers are so pretty!’ The flowers that grew in a bunch, we came by near the entrance and they were really pretty! 😆

 

Then the mister and I walked by a canopy of climbing vines with purple flowers and he asked, “What flowers are these?”

‘紫藤花’, was my quick reply, since SHE’s song of the same name simply came to mind then.

I don’t know why I knew… but I was spot-on. The climbing vines we saw were wisteria vines blooming purple flowers. It was just so strange because I’ve never seen wisteria in my life, never knew how it looked like and well… I’m not into flowers.

The mister was duly impressed.

As we continued walking towards the heart of the park, we came by these neat rows of white/purple flowers. Very pretty, aren’t they?

We walked on, and came by this spot where I saw many professional-looking photographers equipped with their muscle cameras and sophisticated lenses busy setting up their tripods. Not wanting to miss a great angle (that I wasn’t able to spot), I squeezed my way through and hastily took one shot with my puny Lumix LX3. Till today, I still don’t quite understand the beauty of this spot. Perhaps they were attempting to capture the reflections in the pond too. To my untrained eye, the whole picture was just too… busy.

The highlight, and the grand dame of the park – this 140-year old Wisteria tree with its radiating branches cascading across the neatly-constructed trellis. Because of its age, this particular wisteria tree is also often referred to as the ‘miracle wisteria’. I’ve to admit I was secretly disappointed that I couldn’t get any nearer to have a closer view of this wisteria tree but I understand that it needs to be protected, given its age. This tree alone was well-worth the several hours of being cooped in a bus. If only there wasn’t such a crowd.

TRIVIAL:
Apparently, wisteria at Ashikaga Flower Park will bloom in the following order of pink, purple, white and yellow colours from late April to end of May (the period may differ slightly from year to year). It is said that viewing of the famous purple wisteria blooms is the most popular since its blooming always coincide with the Japanese’s Golden Week.