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LIKE A JAPANESE, UNDER THE CHERRY BLOSSOM TREES

It’s 5:30 am and my mobile phone just woke me up. Yeah, I know: I am enjoying a trip in Japan, why would I get up so early? Moreover, I almost wake up the whole dorm while I was looking for my phone in the semi-darkness… A quick glance at today’s weather: sunny day, clear sky, which doesn’t seem to be the case for the following days. Well, I’ll try once again to enjoy every single minute of sunshine while I can! Besides, the sun is already up, but it must be said that sunset in spring time is around 5-6pm, and sunrise at around 4-5am. Thus, early birds like me clearly have an advantage for morning visits!

I put aside the curtains of my bed and give an ear. Phew, it seems I haven’t awakened anybody, at least not in my bed neighbor whose snores can be heard easily. I quickly put on my clothes prepared the day before, put some order around my futon bed and climb down the wooden ladder that separates me from the floor. With my bag and all the necessary content for the day, I left the hostel on tiptoe, getting my shoes on the way out (in Japan, no shoes inside!). Just before leaving, I let my gaze wander over the garden of the hostel, a place I particularly like. All I can hear around are a few bird noises and light sounds far away. It is hard to believe that I am right in the center of a megalopolis of 30 million people… Yes, it’s still early, but you can be sure that Tokyo has awoken earlier than I did!

I cross the backgate of the hostel and head to Hibiya subway station, less than 50 meters away. On the way, I see one or two cyclists and as much pedestrians, but when I enter the subway station, I face a few dozains locals waiting patiently on the platform. I’d like to remind you that it is not even 6am! Anyway, the subway arrives, and I find without difficulty a place to sit for the next 3 minutes, just the time to get to Ueno Station. It is one of the main railway junctions of the city, including the Skyliner terminus arriving from Narita Airport I took when I arrived the other day. At the foot of the station are also the pedestrian street of Ameyoko, open-air bazaar where you can find everything, from food to T-shirts at sold off prices. I will spend an evening there with Japanese friends just before I’ll go back to Switzerland.

There is already quite a lot a people around here, so just try to imagine what it must be during rush hour! I take the nearest exit to the park and go slowly there, seeing here and there a few businessmen, dustmen who have just finished their job and even some motivated sportmen beginning their jogging. Such a motivation, you guys have my respect! Especially when the air is a bit cool, like today. Two or three series of steps and here I am at the south entrance of Ueno Park!

Opened in 1973, it was donated in 1924 by Emperor Taisho to the municipality of Tokyo, hence the name “Ueno-Onshi Koen” or “Ueno Park, Imperial Gift”. It houses several museums among the main ones in Japan, as well as temples and shrines, a zoo, and especially a large amount of magnificent cherry trees. These are the main reason for this early visit. At the foot of these trees, locals reunite during the cherry blossom season (best time to visit Japan) during which they drink, speak, laugh, eat and sing for the traditional spring celebrations (hanami). This area was among the first places we visited during our trip in 2010 and I have to say that I remember it quite well, although the cherry blossoms season was long passed at that time!

Before venturing further into the park, I would like to have some hot coffee to wake up and also warm up my hands a little. So I get closer of one of those famous japanese vending machines. Those who have traveled to Japan, like me, know: these machines are literally everywhere! At every street corner, in every metro or train station, on all floors of shopping centers, in public buildings, etc. In short, it is impossible to walk more than a minute without seeing at least one, but more often a few of them aligned.

They are very compact and can be installed almost anywhere, and even in some places downright eccentric. But we are in Japan, so not much to fear in terms of vandalism. Imagine how long will such a vending machine stay functional in Europe… A few hours at most, right? During my two trips in Japan, I never had the opportunity to see one of these machines in poor condition or even bearing the slightest tag or scratch.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is currently gradually renewing all vending machines to the new generation. No more buttons and lights: say hello to touch screen panels and contactless payment. Not to mention the biggest revolution: integrated facial recognition camera that scans your appearance, determines your sex, age and type of person (businessman, young casual, sportsman, foreign tourist, etc.) and suggests you different beverages based of the results. A businessman for instance will be offered coffee or an energy drink, while a girl will have probably get a calorie-free juice. For now, such machines can be only found in largest stations of the capital city, but the company in charge of them, Acure, want to make this new technology available to all everywhere in a few years.

Let us not forget that we are in Japan, the country where everything is possible! And talking about vending machines, there is one for all tastes: tea, coffee, beer, soda, energy drinks, vegetable juices, etc. Beverages can be hot or cold, available at any time of the day or night (a blue background is for cold drinks, a red for hot drinks). All machines take cash, but some also accept travel cards such as Suica. If this is the case, the logo of the accepted cards appear on the machine and it will just required you to pass the card in the terminal provided for this purpose. The average price of a drink is usually 120 yen and that is exactly the price of the hot coffee I’m about to taste!

Drinks of all kinds are of course not the only goods that are sold by those machines, but I’ll get back to this in a future article.

Once somewhat warmed an awake, I begin my visit of the park. One of the first things I’m facing is a bronze statue of 3.63 m, created in 1898 by Koun Takamura and representing General Saigo Takamori (1827-1877). Imperial forces officer, he led the imperial troops during the Boshin War and becomes one of the fervent leaders of the Meiji revolution. With other commanders, he managed to return power to the Emperor, but was later opposed to the policy of openness and modernization of power which he helped establish.

Saigo then resigned and return to Kagoshima. His “disciples” then took control of the region that it became practically independent. In March 1877, a rebellion broke out after an attempt by the government to disarm the region. In order to quell it, Tokyo mobilized more than 70,000 men. The defeat of the rebels that followed spelled the end of the Samurai. Cornered and wounded, Saigo decided to commit seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide. This war killed more than 15,000 people, wounded 25,000 others and cost over 42’000’000 yen, but it is his heroic death that made Takamori Saigo famous.

A little further away are the first buildings of the oldest and largest Buddhist center of Edo at the time of the Tokugawa, Kan-eiji temple. Only remains today few of the 36 originals buildings, pagodas and temples spread at the time on 62-hectare land that now forms the Ueno-Onshi Park, the largest in Tokyo and one of most appreciated at this time of the year.

The first temple on my way is Kiyomizu Kannon. It is not yet open, but the trees in bloom in its garden are already being photographed by locals equipped with cameras and tripods. The design of the temple, including a wooden balcony extending over a small hill, was inspired by the  Kiyomizu Dera temple of Kyoto.

The sun rises slowly and the brightness increases as well. I continue my way and decide to follow the main path through the park to get to the other end, near the Tokyo National Museum. It is then no less than 1000 cherry blossoms that can be admired in the sunlight, beautifully tainted with pink and white colors. And as locals and tourists are only but a few so early in the morning, I can enjoy this hatural show in silence.

Already, a few people are seated on blue tarps spread here and then under the cherry trees, probably reserving the spot for colleagues and friends. Skips and bins are also available and emptied regularly to ensure maximum cleanliness in the area.

Down the road, a surprise awaits me: locals of all ages are starting a morning exercise under the supervision of men dressed in white, indicating through loudspeaker the exercise to follow. Nothing complicated, so everyone can participate. And even if space is lacking around the “coaches”, one can always move away and follow the example of those located in front of them. And all this while listing to some nice music!

So here I am, in a pretty square with a large pool in its center. From there, I can see the Tokyo National Museum, the largest of its kind in Japan. It exhibits more than 100,000 pieces of ancient and medieval Japanese art and other East Asian countries. I will have the opportunity to visit this museum during a future rainy day, so I ‘ll get back to it in a future article. In the vicinity are also other museums such as the National Science Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Tokyo, the National Museum of Western Art, the Mori Art Museum and the Shitamachi Museum, not to mention the Ueno Zoo! This is the oldest zoo in Japan and has more than 10,000 animals from 900 species. Its stars are undoubtedly giant pandas. It is divided into two parts, Higashi-in and Nishi-in, interconnected by a monorail 300 meters long.

I then take advantage of wandering around the area. As it is not yet 9am, standard opening hours of most religious buildings in Japan, so all the temples and other shrines are closed, as is the case for instance for the Toshogu Shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu. We had visited this place during our trip in 2010 and I can only advise you to have a walk there. Indeed, the main sanctuary richly decorated, the five-story pagoda, and the paved path leading to the shrine lined with many stone lanterns and 50 bronze lanterns offered by the feudal lords of the whole country are worth it!

I walk back the path slowly, taking some pictures of the beautiful but fragile cherry blossom. A strong gale and hundreds of them fly around! This is why it is difficult to admire cherry blossom for more than a few days per year, as a one day of heavy rain and strong winds would throw all the petals to the ground, putting an end to this marvellous and natural show.

Back to Kiyomizu Kannon temple, I go down a few stairs towards Shinobazu pond, located below the zoo. This pond, covered with lotus that bloom in August, is a haven for ducks and several dozen types of migratory and sedentary birds whose numbers sometimes amounts to more than ten thousand. A dirt road divides the lake into three parts: the lotus pond, cormorants pond and boats pond. In the center is an island on which is located the Bentendo, an octagonal temple dedicated to Benten, the goddess of good fortune, wealth, music and knowledge. The place is crowded during the cherry blossoms season and many food stalls are present and open from midday.

Advantages and disadvantages to get up at dawn: few locals and tourists, but everything is still closed, but hey, you can’t have everything! This however is not a big deal, because we had already seen inside the temple during our first visit in 2010. The place is dotted with engraved stones and statues sometimes covered with caps, wearing bibs and sometimes small clothes. If you do not know the meaning of this, let me tell you the story of Jizō.

Jizō is an deity issue of the Buddhist religion dedicated to altruism. Historically, Jizō helps lost souls to find salvation. He gave himself the task of emptying the underworld, and when this will be accomplished, he can achieve perfect enlightenment, that is to say become Buddha. Of course, this task is impossible, and become Buddha is not an objective in itself. What matters is the path ahead and the actions needed to move towards this ideal. So Jizō is not quite a god nor an incarnation of Buddha. It is a bosatsu, who can be compared to the saints of the Christian religion.

Jizō exists in all countries that practice Buddhism. But in Japan, it has a slightly different and more specific role: he is the protector of dead children. And given the important place occupied by children in the Japanese culture, Jizō is one of the most beloved and revered figures in the country. To understand its role, you should know that according to Buddhist precepts, mortals must perform good deeds during their lifetime. This allows them to cross the divine river Sanzu. However, children don’t have enough time to accumulate sufficient merit in their lives to cross the river. Ttherefore, Jizō takes them under his protection and hides them in the folds of his dress.

Jizō has a boyish face as a reminder of its protective role of children. It is customary that mothers who lost a child make a red bib and cling it to a statue of Jizō. This tradition has the symbolic purpose of protecting the child from the cold on his journey to the afterlife. Jizō statues are therefore commonly found in cemeteries. It should also be noted that these statues are often grouped together. Indeed, there are sometimes dozens of Jizō statues, one after the other, so that every grieving family could pray from a specifically dedicated statue. Sometimes it is possible to see statues of Jizō without any bib, but with a toy at his feet. This donation is made by families whose seriously ill child has recovered. Jizō also gradually became by extension the protector of sick children and the toy is a form of thanksgiving for the blessings he brought.

Finally, travelers have also made Jizō their protector. Just as it helps children cross the river Sanzu, travelers are under its protection to face the roads full of danger, like abusers, thieves or demons. Thus, one can regularly see Jizō statues along roads in the Japanese countryside, which are quite often isolated. Sometimes on the main roads, small shrines were built and dedicated to him. Finally, firefighters have more recently make him their protector, by analogy between the flames of hell and fires against which they are fighting.

A little further is another path covered with cherry trees which reflect in the calm water of the pond. Here is also the favorite place for couples and families: boat and pedal boats rental spot. When the weather is good, impressive lines form here in hope of a few magical and romantic moments on the crystal clear waters of the pond. Again, it’s a bit early to see anyone waiting in line, but I must admit that this kind of activity is not quite what I’d like to do right now.

There is the dirt road surrounded by cherry trees. It is a lovely ballad that begins here as I do like the locals and other tourists: taking pictures of trees all around me. I could sit on a bench and enjoy this natural show all day, but I have other activities planned. I continue wandering around the pond to return after some time to my starting point.

Just before leaving towards Ueno station, I take one last look at the cherry trees alley and the nearby Bentendo. I see then another reflection in water, which summarize better than words this particular aspect of Japanese culture: a perfect blend of tradition and modernity, whose border is sometimes difficult to define. The rest of my day is planned with visits and discoveries. Initially after having joined Ueno station, I head via the Ginza line towards Harajuku, a few dozen meters from the main entrance of Meiji Shrine, next on my “must-see” list!