Japan #01 - Hachioji, Cherry Blossoms and Karuizawa
Japan Apr 2023 - #01 Hachioji, Cherry Blossoms and Karuizawa
This travel-blog is for a 3 week trip we took to Japan at the beginning of April 2023. We started out staying in Hachioji (edge of Tokyo) with our son and his family but then spent 10 days on a National Geographic Expeditions tour covering an area on the southern side of Japan to the west of Tokyo more or less between Kyoto and Hiroshima.
This installment covers our trip from San Franciso to Tokyo, Cherry Blossom Festival in Fujimori and Show Memorial Parks, Karuizawa and Shiraito Falls, and Strawberry Picking.
Entire Trip map
San Francisco to Japan
We left from San Francisco on the evening of March 29th with the expectation that after an 11+ hour flight, a crossing of the international date line and 7 time zones later would arrive in Japan a bit after 2 pm on March 30th. But our airplane seemed to be in dire need of some sort of filter which had to be replaced before we could leave. Ok, you call up the maintenance hanger, tell them what you need and they drive one over to the airplane and stick it in. One would think. But, no – this filter exchange required the airplane to be towed to the maintenance hanger on the other side of the airport.
But wait, they aren’t allowed to do that since all the luggage had already been put on the plane. I guess they were worried that the possibility of some luggage falling out of the cargo hold was much greater than the possibility of it falling off of one of those luggage train carts you see roaming the tarmac. So, off came all the luggage. But now there seemed to be a lack of pusher trucks available to tow the plane to the hanger as they were all assigned to other jobs. But eventually one showed up and the plane left the boarding gate. But, United was quite apologetic about the whole thing and gave us each a $20 gift card that could be used at any restaurant (or bar) in the airport so that we could get something to eat while we waited.
An hour and a half later, the plane came back with a brand new filter and of course all that luggage had to be loaded back on. But, at least we had a usable aircraft and didn’t have to re-book on other flights or wait till they flew a plane up from Los Angeles or some such place. So we wound up taking off over 2 hours late for an uneventful flight. Of course this meant that we also landed two hours late which put is right in the middle of the Tokyo rush hours.
OK, let’s talk about Tokyo’s rush “hour”. The land area occupied by greater Tokyo is roughly the same as Los Angeles County. However, the population is larger than Los Angeles, San Diego, the entire San Francisco bay area, and Sacramento all combined – but only if you also throw in the entire rest of the state of California. And. as we all know, California has the highest population of all the states. So it is not hard to imagine why Tokyo’s rush hour is actually about 4 hours long.
My son and his family live in Hachioji on the western edge to Tokyo and Narita Airport is a bit out of town on the eastern side of Tokyo and he agreed to pick us up at the airport (with 3 of our grandkids along for the ride). With no traffic this is a 1:45 drive but at our new landing time this would be closer to 3 or 4 hours. After clearing customs it was nudging 6:00 PM so we decided to have dinner at the airport before heading out to give the traffic time to clear out a bit. Now, Narita Airport is the main international airport for all of Japan so it was a mystery why 90% of the restaurants in our terminal had already closed for the day. But we found an open Udon noodle place that also had some chicken dishes for take out and thus we entered the realm of Japanese cuisine.
Hachioji, with a population of around 561,000 has a downtown with some 8-10 story buildings but most of the are is residential with 2 story private homes and 3-5 story multi unit buildings. The buildings, including private homes pretty much take up the entire lot with, the front being right at the street and no space between houses. In other words no yards. Having a population density of 7,800 per square mile (compared to Tokyo proper with a population density of 16,480. it is certainly not metropolitan/urban like Tokyo proper but also is denser than what we’d call the suburbs. Our son’s house is somewhat of an exception. It is a two story house where my son, his wife and their 3 children occupy the 2nd floor (4 bedroom, 1 bath, combo living/dining/kitchen room). My son’s in-laws have the entire 1st floor. This house has been in their family for generations where the grandparents traditionally live downstairs and the work age parents live upstairs so they are following along in that tradition. But, unlike other homes we saw in the area, they have a modest yard with grass, a patio and a little Japanese garden not to mention a carport for 2 cars.
Addressing in Tokyo and surrounding cities
Finding an address in the Japan is quite a challenge unless you have an internet mapping tool like Google maps. In most countries, an address in a town or city starts with the street name and the buildings are numbered in order from one end of the street to the other end usually with odd numbers being on one side and even numbers on the other. Of course sometimes modifiers are used such as NE or SW to indicate which quadrant of the city the address is in. However, all in all it is usually quite logical and ordered.
But, in Japan throw all that out the window as they use a completely different scheme. First of all, and most surprising, is that street names are not part of an address at all. As best as I can determine, here is how it works. Each city or town is divided into named wards (Tokyo has 23 of them) which are each divided into named districts or neighborhoods called chome’s. These chome’s are then sub divided into numbered blocks called “ban” and each building within a ban has a number. So, an address is the name of a city, a ward name, a neighborhood (chome) name, a block (ban) number and a building number.
OK, not quite like our system but sort of understandable once you remember the Ward and neighborhood name, except for one thing. The block numbers and building numbers were assigned in the order they were created and entered into a ledger at city hall. So, block 7 might sit between blocks, 12, 3, 15, and 4. The same thing with houses. If your house was the first one built on your block, it is number 1, the next house built is number 2 even though it may be on the total opposite side of the block and so on. Okay, but the plot thickens. If your house burns down, gets blown up by a bomb during a war or had to be rebuilt for some other reason, you get a new number. So let’s say you live in house number 12 on a block and your house burns down. You then build a new house on the same plot of land with a new building permit. The new house is added to the end of the ledger and gets whatever number they are up to by then and you now have a new address for your new house.
So, before Google Maps and the like, how did people find places? It seems that every few blocks there is a mini police station with 3 or 4 officers which are called Koban’s. Sometimes these are not much more than a kiosk on street corner. You would go to one of these Koban’s and give the name of the person you’re looking for and they would draw you a little map to where that person lives and off you’d go. But, this required the officers in the Koban to know where everyone lives. To deal with that, twice a year the police would go around to every building in their jurisdiction, knock on the door and ask who lives there. In this way, the officers in each Koban would be reasonably up to date on who lives where. All in all, a very peculiar system, but they seem to make it work, so more power to them.
Cherry Blossom Festival Season
Cherry Blossom festival vender row under flowering Cherry Trees in Fujimori Park in Hachioji
Cherry blossoms (known as Sakura in Japan), are one of the most beloved symbols of Japanese culture you can find. Every year, people from all over the world descend on Japan (and other areas where they grow like Washington DC) to see the dazzling show. Cherry Blossom season is typically said to be around 2-3 weeks long (end of March through Mid April). But due to local weather in any year, and global climate change, the specific dates for any particular area are not much more than a wild ass guess. Now add to this that the blossoms in any particular area rarely last longer than around 5 days and many times less if a wind or rain storm comes through and knocks the blossoms off the trees.
So, when we started planning this trip last October, it was sort of a crap shoot if we’d be able to hit the right days. But, as it turns out due to some planning but mostly a fair amount of luck, we arrived in Tokyo at the right time. So, after a day recuperating from jet lag we ventured out to see the blossoms.
Cherry blossoms in Japan have been an important cultural symbol for centuries. The native cherry blossom tree (sakura tree) has been idolized in art, literature, and poetry throughout the centuries and over that time have come to represent the transience of life, and are often associated with the samurai, who saw the beauty of the cherry blossoms as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life. Due to the cultural reverence, the viewing of the blossoms has become a national event, much like our 4th of July weekend. In fact the viewing of the flowers with family and friends has its own name (hanami) and has been traditional in Japanese culture since the Nara period (710-794). Hanami involves gathering with friends and family under cherry blossom trees to admire their beauty and enjoy food and drinks.
This tradition is still in full swing not only for the Japanese themselves but for people from all over the world. In 2019 (before COVID-19) 63 million people traveled to and within Japan to partake in hanami. Now, I’m sure this is going to shock you, but there is no lack of commercial exploitation of this annual event. Hotels and restaurants are full, there are sold out trains, organized tours fill the streets with tour busses, popular viewing areas are shoulder to shoulder with people and prices go up. But, even so, it is a wonderful thing to behold.
After a day recovering from jet lag, we packed up the grandkids and went out to a local park in Hachioji called Fujimori Park. This is a mid sized city park, with tennis courts, kids playground, athletic field, inside gym, a little forest, and a semi-pro baseball stadium. And in honor of Cherry Blossom season, one whole walkway was lined with vender stalls selling take-away food, or offering carnival games for fabulous prizes. The vender stands lined up under an arch of Cherry trees were quite colorful. I couldn’t read of the signs saying what they were selling but as is typical of commercial signs in Japan (as well as china and Korea among others) compared to our signage in the US, it is very bright, colorful and to some extent overpowering – which all in all makes it quite impressive and photogenic. They were selling all sorts of fried things on sticks (most of which I could not identify) as well as other walk away food, and intermingled with these food stalls were a smattering of carnival games. You know the sort. Things like toss a coin on a plate, or pop a balloon with a dart.
Cherry Blossom Festival, Fujimori Park, Hachioji, Japan
Something similar to our Candied Apples?
Some sort of fried dough
In full flower
Showa Memorial Park
The next day, was a clear, beautiful, warm and sunny spring Saturday at the height of the Cherry Blossom season so we took off to Showa Memorial Park in the nearby town of Tachikawa. At over 400 acres, this is one of the largest parks in the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. It was created as recently as 1983 to mark the 50th anniversar4y of the reign of Emperor Hirohito which is also known as the Showa period. The park is a mix of formal gardens, more natural wooded areas, lakes, streams, large expanses of lawn, along with paved bicycle paths (with a median divider) which take different routes through the park than do the walking paths, and there is a lake where you can rent pedal boats.
To no one’s great surprise we were not alone. As mentioned hanami is a national phenomenon in Japan with literally millions of people trekking out to enjoy the magnificent show put on by the Cherry trees. And Showa Memorial Park is one of the best places in or near Tokyo to do so. Armed with this knowledge we planned to arrive at the park somewhat prior to 9:00 am when they open the gates to the parking lot. When we arrived around 8:45, the line of cars to get in was already miles long. But we persevered and got in before the lot was full.
Everyone enjoys hanami in their own way and I think we saw it all. There were photographers with wagons full of gear roaming around looking for that perfect tree in full flower. Several bridal couples in full wedding attire with their hired photography team. Families on bikes they brought from home or rented at the park tooled along the ‘bike freeways” in the park complete with overpasses where they cross the pedestrian pathways. One very popular plan is to not only bring a full picnic lunch and blanket to sit on but also to bring a camping tent to set up under the cherry trees in order to have a place to rest during the day or to change outfits as the mood dictates. But mostly people just strolled the grounds with phone camera in hand taking selfies and looking at the show of flowers and blossoms with frequent stops at the various food venders scattered throughout the park.
Bridge over creek among Cherry Trees
One popular area, especially for picnic and tent folks was to set up under a large grove of Cherry trees at the edge of a massive green lawn area. Here are some photos from this park.
Immense grass field leads to grove of Cherry trees
Spending the day under the Cherry Blossoms
Even though we spent most of the day in the park we were only able to see a small part of it and it was wonderful – even with masses of people. Of course some spots which were especially photogenic (even in that horrible mid day light) were quite crowded with both phone photographers as well as those with dedicated camera’s.
One such popular area was a planting of tulips in colored rows following a curved descent down to the shore of a lake and then re-appearing on the other side of the lake. The photographers (including myself) were stacked 5 deep from the edge of the path all vying to get that perfect perspective.
Tulips descending to a pond and continuing on the other side
Wedding party under the Cherry trees and among the tulips
Strolling the grounds
Boating on the lake
Hachioji to Karuizawa
Karuizawa is a mountain area in the Nagano Prefecture northwest of Tokyo. As you may recall the 1988 winter Olympics were held in the Nagano area but this was not the area we visited. We went to the town of Karuizawa. This summer resort area which is about a 2:30 drive from Tokyo by Mt Asama is a very popular destination for folks seeking refuge from the oppressive humidity and heat in Tokyo. It’s only about 3200 feet in elevation making for a somewhat extended summer season.
As far back as the lat 19th century westerners would come up to this area to escape Tokyo’s heat and humidity that they just weren’t used to. Over time upscale hotels and resorts sprang up all around the region and that coupled with the serene mountain scenery, hot springs, and hiking trails it’s no wonder that it remains popular today.
Our drive up to Karuizawa was quite pleasant on a modern highway. In our time in Japan I was constantly impressed by how many highway and train tunnels they bored through mountains to facilitate vehicle flow. On some legs of our journey, especially those on the Shinkansen (bullet train) it seemed like we were in tunnels more than outside of tunnels.
Karuizawa Shiraito Falls
One of the most popular attractions nearby is Karuizawa Shiraito Falls and as it was only a short distance from our hotel we decided to go have a look. Our visit was not during the mid summer peak so the parking lot was not very full when we arrived other than for two big tour buses. Of course two busses full of people at one modest waterfall can cause havoc when trying to make photographs – or use the restroom for that matter. So, after everyone in our little group of 7 used the facilities we headed up the short trail up to the waterfall. It’s only about 1/10 mile to the falls and the path is well groomed and wide enough for 4 or 5 people to walk side by side which I suppose is a testament to the crowds that flock here in the searing heat of mid summer.
A small stream gurgles down toward the parking lot next to the trail and a wooden bridge crosses the trail over to the other side. But even though there were those busses it was not all that crowded. Certainly people milling about and going up and down the trail but not what I would call crowded by any means.
Trail leading up to the falls – not crowded at all
As we leisurely strolled up the trail we passed some smaller cascades and falls along the trails as the water tumbled down from the pool below the main waterfall
Lower falls and cascades
With such a short trail, it wasn’t all that long before we arrived at the main waterfall. While quite lovely in its own right, at 10 ft tall it is not all that high but at 330 feet across it is quite wide as it forms a semicircle around a pool. Unlike most waterfalls, the water does not come from a stream falling over the edge of a cliff but rather the water just emerges from a horizontal slit on the side of steep hill and falls into the pool ten feet below. So, seeing as how there is no stream or river feeding the falls, the falls itself are the headwaters of the Yukawa River.
Rain and snow on nearby Mt. Asama (about 4 moles away) soaks into the ground and descends until it hits an impermeable layer that it can’t get through. Then, still underground, it flows along the top of this layer until it reaches the edge of the hill and flows out as this waterfall. They say it takes about 6 years to make that journey. This waterfall never dries up, even in the dead of winter it keeps flowing. This is partly due to geothermal heat along its underground route that heats the water to around 53 degrees Fahrenheit.
Water just flows out of a slit on the side of a steep hill forming Shiraito Falls
Even though there were people about I can’t say it was all that crowded. But even with people there by standing right at the edge of the pool I was able to get some pristine shots of the falls with Cherry blossoms above.
The lettering on the pole says “Shiraito Falls”
Small section of Shiraito Falls
But then I noticed something unexpected. I was all alone. The others in my party had gone on up the trail to the top of the falls and all the other tourists were just all of a sudden gone. I could hear some talking from people on the trail above me coming down who would be here in a few moments but for now not a soul was in sight. So, I grabbed a some shots, and then ran up the trail steps toward the folks coming down and just before we met, I turned around and got a wide shot of the entire falls area without anyone there.
Entire falls area with no peple
A few moments later the area was again inhabited with people. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Strawberry Picking and more Cherry Blossoms
On our way back to Tokyo from Karuizawa we stopped at the Komoro Nunobiki Strawberry Garden which is a U-Pick strawberry farm (among other things).
Japan is a major strawberry producer, going for quality over quantity. Different varieties are grown in different regions of Japan but for the most part, due to Japan’s climate, they are grown in greenhouses rather than open fields. This allows precise control of temperature and humidity resulting in very high quality fruit that can be grown year round. And, I must say the strawberries I had in Japan were excellent. Expensive, but quite good.
In Japan, the U-Pick experience is a bit different than it is in the US. In the US, you usually pay an entrance fee and they give some sort of bucket to wander around with. As you go along you eat as much as you can along with filling the bucket. Then at checkout, you pay for what you have in your bucket and take them home. But, here in Japan it is done a bit differently. First you pay your (much larger) entrance fee but rather than getting a large container to fill, you get a small tray. You can of course eat as you go but you are not permitted to take any of your pickings away with you. You must eat it all before you leave. What people usually do is spend their time finding a few perfect selections and then adjourn to some picnic tables and savor the selections.
In the case of establishment we went to, for your $20 entrance fee and cardboard tray they also give you a cup full of sweet dipping cream. But, it was a lovely experience. The family had a wonderful time. I choose not to go in but rather roamed the grounds with my camera.
Komoro Nunobiki Strawberry Garden
Two tiered strawberry growing racks
Mt Asama from ftrawberry farm
Cherry tree in picnic area near strawberry farm
Cluster of Cherry blossoms
A couple of days later we headed over to the train station with our luggage to catch a bullet train down to Kyoto where we’d meet our NGS tour group for the start of the formal tour portion of our Japan visit. Stay tuned for the next edition of this series for that portion of our trip.
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(Images by Dan Hartford. Info from Wikipedia, ChatGPT, other web sources, pamphlets gathered at various locations along the way guidebooks and commentary by the local guides)
Keywords: blog, Cherry Blossom, Cherry Blossom Festival, Cherry Tree, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogjapan2023, Fujimori Park, Hachioji, Japan, Japan Postal addressing scheme, Karuizawa Area, Showa Memorial Park, Straberry Picking in Japan, Tokyo area
thanks, Dan, for the great photos and history. Always wanted to go there and see them, but looks unlikely. I've seen the cherry blossoms in Washington DC - donated by Japan - and that will have to do. Wow, what a dense place....all of CA in that tiny and hilly land mass....d
Would love to see the cherry blossoms. Thanks for sharing your beautiful pictures.
Exceptional commentary and images from your Japan trip! Thanks for documenting and sharing!!! Love it all.
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