Monday, March 20, 2006

Manly men doing manly things

What a fabulous long weekend this has been, both productive (travel-wise) and relaxing at the same time, couldn't have been better! Sunday was spent chilling out with Yoshiko, watching a couple of movies and doing a bit of shopping, some well deserved alone time together was nice.

Hooked up with my homeboy Scotto Monday morning and while talking about recent culinary discoveries we made our way to the train station to go see some lovely flowering trees in Mito. While the above sentence may seem a little on the effeminate side, we are both perfectly secure in our heterosexuality that we find nothing wrong with making a trip to see one of Japan's truly beautiful places, Kairakuen.

Kairakuen is currently listed as one of the three top gardens in Japan, the others being Kenrakuen and Korakuen in Kanazawa and Okayama prefectures respectively. This garden's biggest attraction is the 3000 plum trees which were planted here in the early 1800s when Nariaki Tokugawa, the 9th Lord of Mito, decided he wanted a new place to party. It also became a place of enjoyment and education for the vassals under his umbrella of protection\taxation\servitude. Without a doubt, this is one of the most beautiful places East-Japan has to offer.

So this morning, Scott and I hopped on a train a little before 8 in direction of Oyama, where we switched trains for Mito. The total time to get to Mito was about 2 hours, and this officially makes it a sin for anyone living in Utsunomiya to not have visited Kairakuen, which many many people have not. Immediately upon disembarking in Mito, I could feel a difference between the cities, though they are similar in size and looks, as the picture below demonstrates. Mito's downtown seems to have a certain life that Utsunomiya seems to be lacking, possibly due to the slow death of the core and the migration of shoppers to the mega-shopping malls in the suburbs. Mito's downtown core seems vibrant, helped along no doubt by lovely lake Senba and Kairakuen being relatively close by.

Starting from Mito station, we started our walk by going around the lake, which would eventually take us right into Kairakuen. The weather was fantastic, skies were blue and the birds were out in force looking for some grub from the passers by.

There were lovely black swans all over the place, not too too shy.

The white ones were just as curious, so long as there was a chance of them being fed of course. You'll also notice a large swan in the middle of the lake... no it's not a pedal boat but seems to be some kind of pumping\purifying equipment cleverly disguised as a 400kg swan....

As we walked around the lake, I couldn't help but snap this picture of a couple enjoying the view near a newly blossoming plum tree. Across the lake and to the left, you can see Kairakuen.

And here she be, after about 30-40 minutes of walking, we came upon Kairakuen, luckily just in time to see the Joban Line train running through.

After grabbing some Yatai (food stall) grub and wolfing it down, we were surprised to find out that entry into Kairakuen was absolutely free... a nice change in a country where I've seen fees to take an escalator. (Enoshima) And it would have been worth the price, had there been one. We arrived shortly before the prime, but had we waited another week, many of the blossoms would have already been gone. Some were already falling in fact. Needless to say, the fragrance was amazing, very soft, not overpowering... very nice. Here you can see two types of plum trees, not sure of their names, but you've got the light pink ones and the darker pink ones... lol

And here are two plums of a different kind... the official city of Mito plum princesses, posing for some pictures.

As we made our way around this immense garden, we came across Kobun-tei, the love-shack erected (mind the pun) by the Lord of Mito. The "official" description states that this cottage was built as a place of education and amusement... but I would definitely say amusement was the primary reason. It was quite interesting to be walking around this house which was once filled with lords, ladies and samurais. In fact, I spotted one room which was called the "Escorting samurai waiting room" where the guards escorting whatever lord would wait one floor below while he partied with the ladies upstairs. Really a nice feeling to walk these halls.

The views from all sides were of course splendid, and I just love that whole straw roof thing, though not exactly fire proof. This reminds me of another factoid. The secondary purpose of this complex was to serve as a refuge for when the castle was on fire... obviously a frequent occurrence back in the day.

After Kobun-tei, we entered the plum forest proper and it was just great. One must stop to smell the flowers once in a while, and we sure did that on Monday.

In the lower section of the garden to the North, we saw these trees which were much darker than the rest, quite lovely.

We then headed back to the Yatai for more munchies, and had a seat in the grass to eat and relax for a bit. These trees were at 100% bloom.

Throughout the day, we also encountered countless very serious photographers, many with thousands upon thousands of dollars in photo gear. Caught one in the act here, trying to get the perfect shot of a blossom. Photography is one heck of a popular hobby here and one can usually get to where one needs to go just by following the gentleman with the large camera bags.

So after checking everything out, we took the path on the opposite side of the lake from the walk out and headed back to the station. On the way, spotted this swan bedded down in it's nest. The eyes popped open when I approached, but it stayed otherwise motionless.

Unfortunately, we were just a few minutes too late to hop the direct train to Oyama, and instead got on a local to Tomobe and were lucky with the rest of the transfers coming within 5 minutes of us arriving at Tomobe and Oyama. Got home a little after 4 and headed in for a shower and a change of clothes to get ready for phase two of my birthday. What's a trip in Japan without strange English? I can understand what they are trying to say, but it still didn't come out right. Maybe spend a little less money on colour and graphic design, and a little more on translation here folks... google language tools will only get you so far.

I was then picked up at home by my girl and taken out to a great Italian restaurant called Visconti which had the best Italian I've had so far in Japan. They even had Lasagna, something I've been craving for quite some time. After a wonderful meal, we headed back home and turned in for the night.

Today, we woke up relatively early and headed to Fukudaya and Movix to see Brokeback Mountain. It was in fact a heck of a good movie, and I can see why it picked up a few awards. Afterwards, we did a bit of shopping before heading back home to relax some more and where I was treated to tasty Japanese style fried chicken... mmm mmm good!

So that's about that, back to work tomorrow and plans to hit Ueno for cherry blossoms next weekend. The first blossoms in Tokyo bloomed this weekend, at Yasukuni shrine where we were last week. Due to the warmer temperatures we've seen, the cherry blossoms are about 7 days ahead of schedule and a full 10 days earlier than last year. This unfortunately means that the ones around Tokyo will be all but gone by the end of the month. Luckily Utsunomiya is a bit colder and ours are lagging behind a bit so we'll get plenty of chances to check them out here as well.

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Blogger JJP said...

I was intrigued by this same advertising series. The odd thing is the English message is a pretty faithful translation of the Japanese.

Very nice blog, very nice photographs. Best of luck with your marriage and going back to North America. My Japanese wife and I made the move to the US, and 6 months on, everything is going well. Hope it works out for you, too!

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