In conjunction with our "Chasing Sakura" mission, a visit to Japan will not be perfect if we don't step into any of their beautiful gardens especially during the spring season. For what? Of course for the great display of full blooming sakura. Other than being a place to view magnificent sakuras, people may go there for some peace of mind. In a hectic metropolitan like Tokyo, people always live under a stressful surrounding. Be it pressure at workplace or pressure from any other things in one's life, once in a while one needs to take some time out. Odaiba would be one of the options for relaxations for better earned Tokyoites as it provides places for entertainment and shopping but what I like about their gardens or parks is its ability to dispose stressful feelings and brings calmness and peace of mind. Above all, it only costs a lunchbox or even free if one's going for just a stroll. However, during sakura season, happens once a year, any parks, especially popular parks in Tokyo such as Ueno Koen and Shinjuku Gyoen are busy with people, both tourists and locals. They were chasing the beauty of sakura colors just like we were.
Ueno Park (Ueno-Koen)
This park is located somewhere in Taito Ward and can be easily accessed by a couple of minutes walk from JR Ueno Station. It was established in 1873 and was among the first group of parks being developed in Japan. This park was used to be part of Toeizan Kaneiji Temple during the Edo period.
After the emergence of Meiji government and the end of shugonate ruling, the old temple was destroyed in a local battle known as the Battle of Ueno. Then the temple grounds were made into a park. The park area covers about 540,000 square meters with more than 9000 tall trees planted. Somei Yoshino, Yama-zakura, and Sato-zakura are the types of cherry trees widely available here (more than 1000 trees). Other than cherry species, the park also provides ground for ginkgo, Japanese zelkova and lotus.
We entered the park from the Hakamagoshi square where a lone somei yoshino stands tall with a stone (like memorial or something) located nearby. I wasn't sure what it says as I read zero Japanese. Nil. But I believed that particular cherry tree is special because many locals were so involved in getting photographed with the tree.
A fountain of a frog is located not very far from where we stood. We then walked north along a path full of cherry blossoms on both sides. We really walked under a cloud of blossoms that afternoon. So did other people who attended Ueno Park during sakura in full bloom.
Since Ueno Park consists of a long walking trail and we had so little time to spare, we had to make a shortcut. I got to eat my late lunch somewhere in the park area before we made a u-turn. After I restored (stomach), we headed towards Shinobazu pond but didn't go further than the entrance to the Benten Shrine (Bentendo). A lot of people believed to be local tourists flocked the pond area. Some kind of boating activities were held that day and many food stalls were set up. From there we walked another 5 minutes before climbing uphill to Kiyomizu Kannondo. This is a Kannon (goddess of conception) temple that got inspired by Kiyomizudera in Kyoto. They both have a similar looking wooden balcony that extends from the hillside. This temple is popular among local women who believe the goddess would bless them with children.
As we walked towards the park's southern exit, we met a statue of Saigo Takamori, a samurai general who involved in the Battle of Ueno and local people recognized him as a local hero during Meiji Restoration. His statue was standing beside a dog which I believe to be his best friend. There are other attractions within the park area such as the National Science Museum, Tokyo National Museum, and Ueno Zoo but maybe we reserved these for our next visit.
Dubbed as one of the 3 most beautiful gardens in Japan, Korakuen, a garden located in central Okayama city is also a cultural heritage site. The construction of this properly planned garden took 13 years to complete before it was finally opened in 1700 with limited access to daimyo (feudal lord). The daimyo at that time was Ikeda Tsunamasa. Since it was located within the vicinity of Okayama Castle, it was used as a spa resort for daimyo and place to entertain important delegates and guests that came to visit those lords. Only in 1884 the ownership was transferred to Okayama Prefecture and later opened to public. The garden did suffer severe damage during the WWII but has been restored based on some Edo-period paintings and documentations left behind by then feudal lords.
We got here by first getting our asses on a shinkansen to Okayama city. It was a 4-hour long journey from Tokyo on a Hikari superexpress train. We spent a night in one city hotel before getting ourselves to Korakuen the next morning. Easiest way to get to Korakuen is by taking a streetcar (tram) and stop at Shiroshita and walk another 5 to 10 minutes to the park's south entrance. Tsukimi Bridge seems to be connecting Okayama Castle to Korakuen which is located in the middle of Asahi River. We bought our entrance tickets and walked past the entrance to see one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan.
As we entered Korakuen through the south gate we saw a row of cherry trees in full bloom as if they were welcoming the visitors to Korakuen. Great day (a Sunday), nice weather with some cloud formations in the sky, and cherry blossoms, what more could we asked for. Following the path built for visitors, we really enjoyed a new view at every turn of the path. Grass was off-limit to everyone. Lawns are vast with several ponds, streams, tea fields as well as tea houses combined to shape the landscape of Korakuen. Because of the size (huge) of the garden, we decided to spend more time on the west bank of Sawanoike Pond. Sawanoike Pond is the biggest pond in Korakuen and has 3 islets on it. Two of the islets, Nakanoshima and Minoshima have fishing palaces built on them while Jarijima islet is stunning for its white sand and pine trees. From the west, Enyo-tei House (main guesthouse) and Kakumeikan guesthouse became the background objects while the Sawanoike Pond provides scenic frontal when we walked towards the tea fields.
Resthouses and teahouses can be easily found across the garden area. Okayama Castle, which is located on a hill overlooking Korakuen can be seen from inside the garden. To me, the best view of the garden with the castle in the back would be from along a path in front of Jigendo Hall entrance.
This was proven true when several Japanese wedding couples were having their photoshoots from around these areas. We walked further west and stopped at a shop to find some possible souvenirs but didn't get any. Next to it is the tea plantation with beautifully trimmed tea trees planted in rows. It is said the tea planted in Korakuen is of ancient variety and possess a slightly bitter flavor.
From there we made haste to where we saw plenty of visitors, all locals, were sitting and having their lunches under rows of cherry trees. It was hanami picnic going on at cherry tree grove. We joined the crowd when wifey asked whether we could take our lunch there as well. I answered by looking at my watch. No doubt hanami was a lively atmosphere for the locals. They really enjoy it even when the sun is shining just above them.
We left the party for the south exit, the same gate we entered about an hour before. We passed by one species of plant that really got my attention - the cycad. I thought it maybe a breed of palm tree or something.
Not far from the cycad garden, we reached at Renchi-ken teahouse, Ikeda Tsunamasa's favorite teahouse in all of Korakuen. In front of the teahouse is a beautiful pond with koi fish and natural hot spring water coming out from a source underneath.
As we left Korakuen, we were glad to have experienced the beauty and tranquility of a famous Japanese Garden since the Edo Period. Other two gardens known among the 3 great gardens of Japan are Kenrokuen (Kanazawa) and Kairakuen (Mito). At Ueno Park in Tokyo and Korakuen in Okayama, we both had fulfilled our sakura dreams and enjoyed some peaceful moment away from hustle and bustle of Japanese cities.