Monday, March 9, 2015

There's Much More To Spring In Tokyo Than Just The Cherry Blossoms

Tokyo celebrates the arrival of spring with a cavalcade of festivals old and new which transform temples, shrines and city streets into buzzing centers of activity.
The city’s parks and riverbanks spring into bloom, most famously with the cherry blossoms. Of course in Japan, the seasons aren't just something to see – they’re something to taste, too, and one of the pleasures of visiting Tokyo in spring is sampling the season’s delicacies, like fresh bamboo shoots.
Spring cherry blossoms. Photo by Yohey Yamagata / Getty.Spring cherry blossoms. Photo by Yohey Yamagata / Getty
See cherry blossoms
Like someone took a paintbrush to the city, large swaths of Tokyo go from grey to blush pink come cherry blossom season. Parks like Ueno Onshi Park and Shinjuku-gyoen National Garden are famous for their sakura (cherry) groves and draw hundreds of revelers for sake-drenched cherry blossom viewing parties called hanami. Riverbanks, too, like the promenade along the Meguro-gawa in Naka-Meguro, erupt into canopies of blossoms.Sakura season, which begins in late March or early April is like Carnival – one collective, city-wide excuse to let go of daily cares and live for the moment. It’s a centuries-old tradition, inspired by the fleeting beauty of the blossoms, which last no longer than two weeks.
Eat bamboo shoots
Japanese cuisine is highly seasonal – the arrival of spring means takenoko (bamboo shoots) pop up on menus around the city. The tender, slightly bitter shoots are usually parboiled or steamed with rice (a dish called takikomi gohan). Other spring vegetables to look out for are fukinoto (butterbur buds), often served in tempura, and warabi (fiddlehead fern). Head to one of Tokyo’s many farmers markets, like the one at the United Nations University plaza, to see what these and more seasonal veggies look like before they land on the plate.
Daruma dolls. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly / CC BY 2.0Daruma dolls. Photo by Brian Jeffery Beggerly / CC BY 2.0
Visit the Daruma fair
The temple Jindai-ji celebrates the start of spring every year with a Daruma Fair, on 3 and 4 March. Daruma dolls, made of paper mâché and painted bright red, are symbols of luck and perseverance. Without arms and legs but weighted on the bottom, these round, roly-poly dolls always right themselves when knocked over. They’re sold without the eyes coloured in: tradition dictates that when you buy one, you set a goal and colour in one eye; you colour in the second when you achieve it. Goal-oriented visitors to Jindai-ji can browse the stalls of hundreds of doll vendors, choosing the one that inspires them the most.
Celebrate Buddha’s birthday
On 8 April Asakusa’s famous temple Sensō-ji celebrates the Buddha’s birthday, a festival known as the Hana Matsuri. Children from the local kindergarten join in the celebrations by pulling a paper mâché white elephant, an ancient Buddhist symbol, through the temple precincts. Hydrangea tea – another symbol of spring – is served free to visitors.
Walk on fire
Mt Takao is Tokyo’s very own mountain, located on the western outskirts of the city; like many sacred mountains, it has a Buddhist temple, Yakuo-in.  Every March, Yakuo-in holds a fascinating purification ritual, called Hiwatari-sai – which literally means ‘fire-walking festival.’ The event begins with a huge bonfire, during which supplicants rub their bodies with sticks, which are then fed to the fire. Once the fire dies down the main attraction begins: ascetic monks (called yamabushi) walk across the hot coals. When the coals cool down a bit more, spectators are welcome to follow in their footsteps.
Roppongi Art Night. Photo by Masashi Nishioka / CC BY 2.0.Roppongi Art Night. Photo by Masashi Nishioka / CC BY 2.0.
Stay up for Roppongi Art Night
One of Tokyo’s newest spring rites is Roppongi Art Night, an all-night annual celebration of the arts in downtown Roppongi. Colourful, large-scale installations are set up around the neighbourhood and dance processions wend through the streets. Galleries and museums host special programs and keep later hours; the Mori Art Museum, on the 52nd floor of a skyscraper in Roppongi Hills stays open all night for the event.
Go clam digging
It’s hard to picture Tokyoites foraging for their suppers. Yet, every spring, families head to sandy Odaiba Kaihin-kōen, on Tokyo Bay, with pails, rakes and rubber boots to do a little shiohigari (clam digging). Asari (Japanese littleneck clams) are commonly used to flavour miso soup. Clam digging is most popular in May and June.
Carp banners. Photo by OiMax / CC BY 2.0.Carp banners. Photo by OiMax / CC BY 2.0.
Fly a carp banner
Children are feted around Japan on 5 May, a national holiday known as Children’s Day. All over Tokyo, you can see koinobori, colourful banners shaped like carp, blowing from rooftops. Families fly one for each child. Because carp swim upstream, they’re considered a symbol of bravery and perseverance – what parents hope for their children. Like most festivals in Japan, Children’s Day has its own dishes, like kashiwa-mochi (rice cakes wrapped in oak leaves).
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