27 April-5 May 2018. It’s a long journey to get to the Shibazakura Festival. I take the metro from my hostel in Central Tokyo to Shinjuku Station. I wait half an hour for the Azusa Limited Express train for the one-hour trip to Otsuki. In Otsuki I wait another half-hour for the train to Kawaguchiko. Always I’m checking with fellow tourists that I’m in the right place, and on the right train. I can’t believe it’s taking so long. It takes another hour to get to Kawaguchiko. The highlight is a first glimpse of Mount Fuji through the train window.
On arrival in Kawaguchiko we all line up for another half hour to get the one-hour bus ride to the festival site. After five and a half hours I finally arrive.
I walk through the entrance gates and see before me acres of flowers: pink, purple, lavender, white, mauve; an ocean of moss flox covering the hillocks in waves, and surrounded by rolling green hills. It’s a beautiful scene
and yet I am disappointed; disappointed and teetering on the knife-edge of anger. Not again!
In 2016 we went to the white travertine terraces in Pamukkale, Turkey. The terraces are always advertised with photos that show them full of turquoise water, even on the official government website. It’s an arresting and beautiful scene – the pale terraces cascading down the mountainside, each filled with blue water. But the flow of water is controlled, and randomly released some days and not at all on others. In the nearly three days we spent there not once did we see water in the terraces. The photos seemed like false advertising and I felt disappointed and cheated.
So here I am at the Shibazakura Festival, and Mount Fuji is nowhere to be seen. All my research showed fields of flowers with Mt Fuji in the background. It is why I came. I wanted to see it for myself. I think that once again I’m a victim of false advertising.
I walk ahead for a few hundred metres, following the winding paths around the fields of flowers. Suddenly something makes me look over my shoulder and there it is! I am bowled over, stopped dead by its magnificence. There is not much in this world that can compare to the power and majesty of Mount Fuji on a clear day. I am stunned. It is everything I expected and more. I stand in awe for a few moments, and then make my way to the viewing platform.
But Fuji is a trickster, a phantom that comes and goes. I don’t walk more than a couple of hundred metres and it has gone again. I’m surrounded by flowers
and forested hills, but no Mount Fuji. I look and look in all directions but can’t see it anywhere. I’m in a kind of bowl and Fuji has disappeared from sight. I keep walking, turn a corner, and suddenly there it is again, in all its astonishing glory.
Mount Fuji has erupted 75 times in the last 2200 years. Toshitsugu Fujii, director of Japan’s Crisis and Environment Management Policy Institute, predicts there is an 80% chance that Fuji will blow again within the next thirty years. It has been dormant for 310 years and that is an abnormally long time.
With its frightening and forbidding power coupled with the beauty of its almost perfect symmetry it’s not surprising that Mount Fuji has been regarded as sacred since ancient times. More than 2000 sects and denominations have established places of worship in the foothills. It is perhaps the most iconic symbol of Japan, this mountain of ice and fire that dominates the horizon.
I stare and stare at it. It has a power and will that draws me in. I feel so blessed to be here on a rare clear day. Fuji and the flowers surround me in a daze of wonder.
The Shibazakura Festival of moss flox flowers is held every spring and it’s a big event. There are several food stalls, and after asking around a bit I get myself a plate of yakisoba and sit enjoying the fragile beauty of the flowers before the long journey home.
In the Kameido district of eastern Tokyo there is a Shinto shrine known as Kameido Tenjin.
The word kameido can be roughly translated as “turtle water well” and the shrine, which has a beautiful garden that includes a central pond, is known for its turtles.
Kameido Tenjin is also the best place in Tokyo to view the wisteria. I know I’ll be in Japan too late for the cherry blossoms, but according to my research I should be there at just the right time for the wisteria.
Alas it is not to be. After a ride on the metro and then a Japan Rail train and then a twenty-minute walk I arrive to find the wisteria has bloomed early this year. I catch the very tail end of it. Only one trellis out of fifteen still has a few tenacious blooms.
I am enchanted nonetheless, and happy to stroll around this peaceful place, a small oasis in the heart of Tokyo. There are turtles in the pond, a heron on the bank,
and a red bridge right out of a Japanese painting.
There is quiet, shade from the heat, bird song, purple azaleas in bloom, a cooling breeze, ema prayers to ponder,
and no crowds.
Wandering back to the train station I stroll a little way down one of the side streets of Kameido, noticing a couple of huge masks strung up high at the entrance to the street.
The street is festooned with koinbori or carp streamers in honour of the May 5th Children’s Day, one of Japan’s national holidays.
The colourful carp streamers draw me in and I discover a quiet suburban street with small stores. People come and go on foot or bicycles. It’s orderly, quiet, and peaceful. There is no hint of the madness of Harajuku on a holiday Sunday. Tokyo may be a city of 38 million people, which sounds daunting, but the individual neighbourhoods seem calm and liveable. I find the same in Fuchu, and in Jinbōchō where my hostel is located. There is none of the traffic madness and crowds seen in many of the iconic photos of Tokyo in Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Harajuku.
On the way to the station I pass a supermarket and buy strawberries, kiwi fruit, cherry tomatoes, and cheese so I’m eating more than meat and fish, noodles and rice. I also stop at a Starbucks for coffee with soymilk, a sandwich, and a chicken salad. With food for the day I head back for a lazy afternoon at “home”.
I’d read that the best view of Tokyo is from Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills. I don’t really know what that is exactly but later in the day, after dark, I take the metro to Roppongi Hills. I walk and walk, maybe for about 20 minutes, along a busy brightly lit main street.
Eventually I get to Mori tower, a 54-story skyscraper with a huge footprint of terraces and gardens, and many entrances. The building is mainly offices, but there are also stores, restaurants, and an art museum. You think you’re going to walk up to a building and find an entrance, or maybe two, but it’s not like that. I walk up some stairs, and along a path surrounded by formal plantings, and eventually into a spacious square with more greenery. I see an entrance under an arched roof and walk past what may or may not be a very classy bank: there seems to be a lot of men in suits behind a long counter, and a lot of glass and it’s all enticingly aglow under soft orange lights. Out the other side of this, through some glass doors, and into another part of the building, still with no clear idea of where I am or where the elevators are.
Eventually I find what I’m looking for, pay $20 for a ticket to the observation deck, and ride up to the 52nd floor. I think that’s probably the highest I’ve ever been in a building. The views are everything I’d hoped for. Apart from the beauty of the lights the thing that impresses me the most, the thing that is undeniable and leaves me agape, is the sheer size of the city spread out before me. I’m flabbergasted. And spellbound.
Next post: The madness of Tokyo: Shibuya, and Shinjuku at night. And the best ramen ever!
If your heart is a volcano, how shall you expect flowers to bloom? – Khalil Gibran
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.