Flowers and manhole covers

I adore Japanese manhole covers. They are just so beautiful! Here’s the one for Toyota City:

toyota city manhole cover

Toyota City manhole cover

It features the symbol of Aichi prefecture in the middle, surrounded by sun flowers. Toyota City has adopted the sunflower as its symbol flower. Likewise, the manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for the city of Takayama.

takayama manhole cover

Takayama manhole cover with rhododendron flowers

In fact, I think almost every Japanese city has a symbol flower and a symbol tree. Additionally, each province has a symbol flower and even each month of the year has its own typical flower (see hanafuda card game).

hanafuda_cards

Hanafuda card set by Kelsey Cretcher

The importance that the Japanese attach to flowers is further illustrated by the following anecdotes: During my stay in Japan, I have often been asked what the symbol flower of Belgium is. Japanese people seemed quite surprised when I said there is none (as far as I know). I have also heard that during trips abroad, Japanese people will often ask their tour guide about a particular flower. Usually the tour guide doesn’t know anything about flowers and the response will be ‘that’s just a flower’, causing great disappointment to the Japanese tourists.

At first I was quite surprised by the Japanese fascination with flowers. But if you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising at all, considering that the Japanese elevated flower arrangement to a true art form (ikebana 生け花) and have developed an entire symbolic flower language in which words and codes are assigned to flowers (hanakotoba 花言葉). I guess I can only conclude that the Japanese sure do love their flowers!

Ikebana

Ikebana – image from Wikipedia

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A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment

Bunny on a leash

Apparently rabbits are the latest it-animal when it comes to pets. I can easily believe that because yesterday – yet again – I came upon a rabbit on a leash. It was being walked in the park underneath the cherry trees as if it were a dog.

rabbit on a leash and cherry blossoms in Japan

Walking their bunny underneath the cherry blossoms

Whereas most rabbits appear either completely blank and lethargic or downright in panic ready to make a run for it, this rabbit was neither. It was calm yet attentive, turning toward the camera as we were taking pictures. It’s possibly the most photogenic rabbit ever. Its nimble little nose was working overtime trying to determine who was the latest photographer.

Being in Japan – the land where ‘cuteness’ is almost a cult – I have gotten a lower resistance to all things cute, and this rabbit was cuteness overload! It was still a young rabbit (five months old according to the owners), it was wearing a little denim jacket and its fur was as soft as it looks. I was screaming ‘kawaii’ (cute) as if I were a Japanese high school girl!

bunny on a leash photomodel, Japan

Posing like a genuine model

bunny on a leash profile, Japan

Profile to show off its jacket

Spring is in the air

Ever since a week or two, we have had the first hints of spring in the air. The weather is definitely changing, with alternating days of rain and sun; as opposed to winter where almost every day is sunny. The temperature has been notably higher too, although this week there has been a plunge in temperature that has taken us straight back to winter weather.

But nevermind that, because along with the first wafts of spring came the first blossoms of the season: plum blossoms or ‘ume’. The plum trees typically flower in the beginning of March. Due to the cold winter however, the blossoms are a bit late this year. We still have to wait a little while longer for the cherry blossoms, which bloom in April.

First pring blossom in Toyota City, Japan

The first spring day and the first blossom of the season

There is always an unmistakable joy to spotting those first tender flowers, in Belgium as well as in Japan. But somehow I seem to enjoy the blossoms even more here in Japan. Is it the collective excitement that takes hold of the Japanese people as the first blossoms appear? Or are the flowers just more beautiful here? In any case they are more abundant. I see blossoms everywhere I go, even as I was walking through an abandoned industrial site the other day. The rusted up machines and the delicate flowers made for a beautiful contrast.

Ume or plum blossom with industrial background

Plum blossoms with industrial background

The ‘hanami’ or blossom viewing parties are held when the blossoms are at their prime. You can see how they advance in the pictures below.

Ume or plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto

The first of the plum blossoms at a temple in Kyoto, February 2012

Plum blossom grove

Plum blossom grove almost in full bloom, March 2012

The plum blossoms come in various shades of white and pink.

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom bright pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom soft pink

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

Plum blossom white

The sunny side of Japan

Yesterday it snowed in Toyota City. That’s a big deal because in this area of Japan it rarely snows. In addition to that, the amount of snow we had yesterday (about 15 cm) occurs only once every twenty years, according to my Japanese teacher.

Snow in Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace in the morning

A lot of snow in Toyota City, Japan

Snow piled high

Snow covered flowers in Toyota City, Japan

Snow covered flowers

I was surprised to see that everyone in Japan uses an umbrella when it snows. In Belgium, just brushing off the snow before entering a building always seemed to do the trick. But come to think of it, snow is of course precipitation just like rain is, and I did seem to feel slightly less freezing when the snowflakes were kept away from my face thanks to my umbrella.

Umbrella and snow in Toyota City, Japan

Braving the snow with an umbrella

Of course Japanese kids love the snow, as I imagine kids do all over the world. I came across different snow men all day long.

Snow man in Toyota City, Japan

Snow man at Toyota City station

Kids playing in the snow, Toyota City, Japan

Children playing in the snow

As you can see in these pictures, it wasn’t long before the sun was shining again. That is one of the great things about winter in this part of Japan: lots of sunshine! In Belgium people often suffer from the ‘winter blues’ due to lack of sunshine.

Sunshine during Japanese winter, Toyota City, Japan

The view from our terrace the next day. Blue skies and sunshine, the snow all but molten

In Japan, all along the Pacific coast (the area called ‘Omote-Nihon’), winter is sunny and bright. On the Japan Sea coast however (the area called ‘Ura-Nihon’), they always get lots of snow, even up to 4m high this year. This difference in winter precipitation is caused by a mountain range that runs across the middle of Japan from north to south. The humid air blowing inland from the Japan Sea is stopped at the mountains and deposits its humidity as snow or rain, causing the other side of the mountains to be virtually cloud free all winter long.

japan precipitation map

Japan precipitation map, showing precipitation only on the Japan Sea coast, Toyota City is at the red cross (map from the Japan Meteorological Agency, click on the map to go the their site)

Winter flowers

When returning to Japan after our two-week holiday in Belgium, we got our first taste of winter in Japan. It has gotten cold (maximum 5° C at midday) and it even snows occasionally. But I was very surprised to see flowers blooming even in this weather.

While I normally associate autumn and winter with barren trees and the withering of nature, I have encountered blooming flowers in Japan all throughout autumn and now also during wintertime. How wonderful to see those specks of colour in an otherwise gray winterworld.

Hedge blooming in December, Toyota City, Japan

Hedge blooming in December in Toyota City (December 26th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Takayama, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms in Takayama (November 14th)

Autumn cherry blossoms, Kōshō-ji temple, Nagoya, Japan

Autumn cherry blossoms at Kozoji Temple, Nagoya (November 11th)

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City, Japan

Flower at Kojakuji Temple, Asuke, Toyota City (November 13th)

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City, Japan

Iris blooming in November in Toyota City (November 17th)