An artist’s journey in cherry blossom Japan.
Japan and its culture has influenced my artwork and life for many years. When I was a teenager, I sought out and won a scholarship to study art, photography and Japanese Culture in Tokyo. Though the distant memories of living in Tokyo fade, merging with dreams, the country has stayed with me ever since. And one memory that has kept firm is the memory of Japan during Sakura – Japanese cherry blossom season (normally between the end of March and the beginning of April, depending on weather and location). It is a time of color, when winter is banished, and spring with all its life is celebrated with parties under canopies of cherry blossom – ‘Hanami’ flower viewing.
So, what better time to fulfill a very long held promise to myself to return to Japan, sketchbook in hand, than during Sakura. And where better to start my cherry blossom journey than Tokyo – capital, immense metropolis of 36 million people, and once, briefly, my home.
Once a fishing village known as Edo, and later the seat of power for Japan’s Shogunate, Tokyo has been the capital of Japan since 1869. When I last visited this city, so vast it was seemingly without end, I recall it being an intoxicating visual mix of a 24/7 neon future and a tranquil exotic past. At any point you could step off an illuminated street into a serene shrine, or temple. From the set of Bladerunner to Seven Samurai in one step. It was alien, and it was stunning.
As I landed in Haneda Airport, in Tokyo bay, I wondered how much of this memory had been twisted with time. Would Tokyo live up to it? And would the cheery blossom be out? I would soon find out.
Tokyo’s oldest temple (645), and the world’s most visited spiritual location (over 30 million a year), can be found in Asakusa. Though the Senso-ji Temple was destroyed in WW2, the main shrine and five story pagoda have been immaculately reconstructed. Visitors enter through the famous Kaminarimon – Thunder Gate. During my time there, I noticed many locals dressed in traditional kimonos taking selfies under the cherry blossom.
While sketching this, I experienced the first sign of Japanese love for art, as onlookers would happily come over to me and express their delight at my work.
Senso-ji Temple is dedicated to the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Legend says it was built near a location where two fisherman discovered a statue of Kannon in the Sumida river.
A digitally painted up version of my original sketch.
Ueno Park and the Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine
Home to Ueno Zoo, the Tokyo National Museum, the National Museum of Western art, and the Ueno Tosh-gu Shrine, Ueno Park is renowned for its cherry blossom, and is a magnate for Hanami parties during Sakura season. Most of the park’s original buildings were destroyed in 1868, when over 600 years of shogun rule finally came to an end, and the Emperor retook power, during Boshin war (Meiji Restoration). After the destruction, it was, in fact, a Dutch doctor ‘Anthonius Bauduin’ who lobbied for the site to become a park.
The Ueno Tosho-gu Shrine was built between 1627 and 1651, in memory of the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate ‘Togugawa Ieyasu.’ Since it was built, the shrine has remained mostly undamaged. The Tokugawa Shogonate was the last to rule Japan. The shrine is located within Ueno Park.
Located near Ueno Park, and built in 1915, the Meiji shrine is dedicated to the spirit of Emperor Meiji (122nd Emperor) and Empress Shoken, who oversaw the Meiji Restoration, and the modernization of Japan, from a feudal country. It was built in a location, they often visited.
The shrine is surrounded by a forest, with over 100,000 trees.
The shrine’s original buildings were destroyed in WW2, though it was impressively restored by public fundraising in 1958.
Often known as Ameyoko, the Ameya-Yokocho open air market can be found near Ueno Station and park. You can find hundreds of stores selling a wide range of things, from fish to fashion. With its typical Japanese visual flare, the market is a feast for the eyes.
Akihabara and Ikebukuro
Akihabara, in the Chiyoda district of Tokyo, is the area to head if you are interested in anime and manga, whether you’re just a casual fan of the art (from Studio Ghibli to Akira), or an ‘Otaku’ (anime / manga obsessive). Along with Ikebukuro (quickly growing as a center for all things anime and manga), these areas are a shrine to Modern Japanese art, in all its stunning craziness. Akihabara is also a Mecca for anything electronic. Anything digital, from cameras, to drones, to games consoles, Akihabara has it. After WW2, it gained the nickname Denki Gai ‘Electic Town,’ and it still lives up to that name today.
With 8 floors dedicated to manga, anime, retro toys, cosplay… the Madarake Complex in Akihabara is one of the largest manga and anime stores in the world. The manga floor is definitely worth a visit, if you are in any way interested in this style of art. It is a vast visual library, with book collections ranging from the utterly wacky to the classically epic.
Omotesando and Takeshita Street
Known as Japan’s Champs Elysees, Omotesando is Tokyo’s high end shopping district, with the flag ship stores of the likes of Dior, Luis Vuitton and Prada. It is famous for its architecture. It is considered an architectural portfolio of great architects. Ten of the areas’ buildings were designed by Pritzer Prize winning architects (the Pulitzer Prize of architecture). Near to Omotesando is Takeshita street. The street is packed with everything from youth fashion stores to candy floss sellers. It bright and brash, and it is no surprise that Lady Gaga is known to have shopped there.
Shunka-en Bonsai Museum
Funded by Bonsai Master Kunio Kobayashi (four times recipient of the Prime Ministers Award – the most prestigious award in Japan), the Shunka-en Bonsai Museum in Edogawa City is a delight to the eyes – a beautiful bonsai garden, with a forest of stunning bonsai tress, and even a tranquil koi carp pond. The staff are more than happy to guide you through the garden and facilities, passing on amazing information about the ancient trees and the craft. They also run a bonsai school on site, with apprentices coming from all over the world.
I was informed the Sargent Juniper tree I sketched was over 600 years old. Included in the entrance fee, is a cup of traditional Japanese tea – perfect accompaniment to a sunny sketch.
Known as a Shimpaku (Sargent Juniper), this mountainous tree is valued for the stunning patterns that can be realized with its whitened deadwood. This specimen was beautiful to behold, and a challenge to sketch, with its maze-like twisted branches. It is no wonder this type of tree is sometimes compared to a cascading waterfall.
Tokyo Edo Museum
The Tokyo Edo Museum tracks the history of Tokyo through the Edo period (1603 to 1868) right up to modern day. As soon as you enter you will immediately be faced will a full-size replica of the ancient bridge that lead into Edo (Tokyo’s original name). Beneath the bridge is also a full-size replica of the front of a traditional theatre. There are many scale models of the city throughout the museum. But the exhibits that most caught my eye where those focused on the traditional production and selling of Japanese art, such as Ukiyo-e (the style made famous in the West by Hokusai, and which went onto to influence the likes of Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh).
Built in 1888, and located on the site of Edo Castle (which burnt down in 1873), the Imperial Palace was also largely destroyed in WW2. The reconstructed Palace is mainly closed to the public, except for a few limited tours, on a small number of very specific days – be warned the queues for these days are huge. But don’t that let that put you off, you can still get a beautiful view of the palace’s main gate, and Seimon Ishibashi bride, without entering the grounds at all.
While I was in Japan, the country was in the process of a major transition. The Japanese Emperor ‘Emperor Akihito’ was abdicating the Chrysanthemum Throne in favor of his son, now ‘Emperor Naruhito.’ This meant a twice in a century change to Japan’s era (a naming of a Imperial era of time, a change to the calendar, and an important cultural / historical naming in Japanese society). The previous ‘Heise’ era has now been replaced by the ‘Reiwa’ era.
A digitally painted up version of my original sketch.
Tokaido Shinkansen Line and Mount Fuji
Beginning operations in 1964, the Shinkansen (New Trunkline, in Japanese. Known as the Bullet train in the West) is a high speed rail line, that connects most of Japan’s major cities. The trains can reach speeds of 320km/h (200mph). If you plan to travel a lot around Japan, consider looking into a JR rail pass. Visible from the bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka, Mount Fuji is the highest volcano in Japan, and is located 100km from Tokyo. The volcano has become a symbol of Japan, and has been popularized in world visual consciousness thanks, in part, to a famed set of landscape woodblock prints ‘Thirty six views of Mount Fuji’ by ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai.
On to Kyoto.
Kyoto, which was the capital before Tokyo, was going to be a new experience for me. When I was last in Japan, I only saw Tokyo, Yokohama, and Mount Fuji.
According the the cherry blossom forecast (yes, there is one), Kyoto was coming into full bloom a little later than Tokyo. I was in perfect time to experience Kyoto’s Sakura.
I had also heard if you wanted to experience ancient Japan, Kyoto was the place to go. It was home to the Japan’s Imperial Court between 764 and 1869. Boasting a total of 2000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, it was to some extent spared the effects of the WW2 bombing campaigns. It was even removed from the top of the Atom bomb target list by the American Secretary of War, who honeymooned there.
I have always loved Japanese shrines, temples, and gardens, especially their temples’ rock gardens (often known as zen gardens). So, with a sketchbook in hand, I set about exploring this ancient city.
Dating back to 1482, the Rinzai Zen Buddhist temple is commonly known as the ‘Silver Pavilion’ (Ginkaku), due to original plans for the central pavilion to be covered in silver foil. The temple’s stunning garden is thought to have been created by famed 16th century Japanese landscape artist Soami. Strangely, I noted signs at the entrance stating no sketching allowed, this wasn’t the last time I would see this in Kyoto. For some unknown reason, a few of the most popular sites in Kyoto are not exactly artist friendly, but luckily, less tourist heavy shrines and temples are more accommodating to artists.
Just two minutes walk away from the popular tourist Temple of Ginkakuji, I found an empty and tranquil shrine, known locally as the Yagami Shrine. This is not unusual, and one of the things I love about Japan – at any moment, if you allow yourself to explore, you can accidentally stumble across any number of beautiful and peaceful shrines and temples.
As I sketched in the dappled sunlight, the peaceful meditative moment was only occasionally broken by a few locals coming to pray – bowing and clapping their hands (warding off evil spirits, before making a prayer). This only added to the beauty of the experience.
This is a typical example of a Shinto shrine. Shinto (Way of the Gods) is Japan’s traditional religion. It is the worship of numerous ‘Kami’ (spirits, gods, divine energy, or spiritual essence). All forms, whether animate or not, such as rivers, trees, animals, rocks, people, even objects can contain Kami. Roughly 80% of the Japanese population currently practices Shinto worship. Shinto’s view of death (‘Kegare’ pollution) and the afterlife closely resembles Ancient Greece’s, with an underworld reminiscent of Hades. This may explain why it is not uncommon to blend Shinto with Buddhism, with those brought up from a young age with Shinto practices having a Buddhist funeral.
The Kinkaku-ji ‘Temple of the Golden Pavilion’ was built in 1397 and reconstructed in 1955, after a novice monk burned it down. The Zen Buddhist Temple is one of Japan’s biggest tourist attractions. So be warned, it gets a lot of visitors, which does lessen the visitor’s experience. As I mentioned before, especially in Kyoto, the main tourist attractions can be extremely busy, but don’t let influence your Kyoto experience. There are so many less tourist filled wonders to be found. I would recommend also organically exploring the city, rather than just following the common checklist of a small number of popular sites. After all the city does boast 2000 religious sites.
Kyoto Imperial Palace
Officially the home of the Japanese Imperial Court, since the 12th century, and used as such even before then, Kyoto Imperial Palace was only sidelined in 1869, after the Meiji Restoration. Just like many of Japan’s great historical buildings, the Palace has burnt down and been reconstructed many times in its history. This is an apparent issue when you primarily build in wood. Even though the last reconstruction was in 1855, it may have been the most accurate at capturing the original design of the first Imperial Palace, from the Heian Period.
Instead of the moat and high stone walls that surrounds the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Tokyo’s Imperial Palace is surrounded by an imposing wood wall, punctuated by large gates. And unlike the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, the grounds of Kyoto’s palace are open to the public. It is well worth a visit.
Sketched from a public seating area, set up to give shade to visitors. The Palace is surrounded by a large public park, blooming with cherry blossom, and perfect for a spot of Hanami.
Ryoanji ‘The Temple of the Dragon at Peace,’ dates back to 1450. This Zen Buddhist temple, of the Rinzai sect, contains of the most famous and revered Kare-sansui ‘dry landscapes’ in Japan. The design of the garden is open to interpretation of the onlooker. I had almost finished this sketch when temple security came over to me, to politely mention that there was no sketching allowed. So, unfortunately, I had to finish the sketch in a nearby cafe.
A digitally painted up version of my original sketch.
Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine
Located at the foot of Inari mountain, the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine, which dates back to 711, is most famous for its path of Torii gates. The path ‘Senbon torii’ contains over 1000 torii gates – which have been donated to the shrine since the Edo period.
Located inside the Daitokuji Temple complex, the Ryogen-in Temple dates back 1502. The temple is home to five gardens, including the Isshidan (a stunning stone garden), Ryogintei (a moss garden said to have designed by famed landscape artist Soami), and Totekiko (claims to be the smallest Kare-sansui).
Sketching in Ryogen-in Temple… an amazing feeling.
The Isshidan garden (Horai-style rock garden) is named after the founder of the temple ‘Ryozen-Isshidan-no-ken’, who was awarded the name by his Zen master after solving a riddle of zen. Unlike Ryoanji Temple, this temple was relatively free of tourists, and after sketching the garden from the ‘Hojo’ meditation hall (a meditative and serene experience), I sat in the sun and meditated, before one of the most beautiful gardens in Kyoto.
The centre rock of the Isshidan garden represents Mount Horai, and the other collections of rocks represent Crane Island and Tortoise Island, with the white combed sand standing in for the ocean.
Next stop Nara.
Nara was the third city, during my visit, to have held the title of being a permanent Capital of Japan, and it was the first of them to claim it (710). It was home to Japan’s Emperor, before both Kyoto (then temporarily Nagaoka) and then finally Tokyo.
Again I came to Nara, with very little preconceptions. I only expected, or hoped, to experience a small glimpse of Japan, before western eyes set sight on it. Though, like Kyoto, I was not the only one. But even with crowds of tourists, there were wonders, and even quiet tranquil beauty to be found in Nara – a UNESCO World Heritage Site (Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara).
Found theses beautiful flourishes of cheery blossom while walking around Kyoto and Nara. Many times the locals were either taking selfies under the vibrant canopies, while dress in tradition kimonos, or they were holding Hanami parties ‘cherry blossom picnics.’
Belonging to the Risshu Buddhist sect, Toshodai-ji tracks its history back to 759, and its founder a Jianzhen (a Tang Dynasty Chinese Monk). It is one of Nara’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara).
The architecture of the temple is considered a good example of ‘classical style.’ And unlike some temples in Kyoto, I found this one relatively peaceful. Though it is located someway from the centre of Nara, my long walk there revealed some amazing scenes of cherry blossom.
The founder of the temple ‘Jianzhen’(a Chinese Monk) was invited to Japan, by the Emperor, to improve the country’s knowledge of Buddhism.
Nara Park and Todaiji Temple
The Todaiji temple is home to the world’s largest bronze statue of Buddha (15 meters tall seated Buddha). The temple’s history can be traced back to 738. Stories tell of the temple being built by Emperor Shomu, to honor the short and troubled life of his first son ‘Prince Motoi.’ The main complex building ‘Great Buddha hall’ is massive, but surprisingly the original building was even larger. The temple is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nara Park sits adjacent to the temple complex. It is home to over 1,200 wild sika deer (once considered sacred, now demoted to national treasures), who are extremely friendly, and constantly seeking the food from tourists (in recent years there has been a large increase in visitors being injured by deers, while feeding them. They are after all still wild animals).
Because of Kyoto’s perfect location, both Nara and Osaka are just a short train ride away, I felt I couldn’t pass up a chance to explorer Osaka’s famous castle.
Osaka is Japan’s second largest metropolis, and an area in modern day Osaka (Naniwa Nagara-Toyosaki) was once temporarily home to the Japanese Imperial Court before even Nara, Kyoto, or Tokyo.
Built in 1583, Osaka Castle is one of Japan’s most famous castles, and has been at the heart of many of Japan’s key historical events. With this in mind, and knowing how often fire has repeatedly ravaged so many of Japan’s historical buildings, it is no surprise the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt many times over its life. The latest reconstruction, this time in concrete, was only completed in 1997, and it is now home to a museum. The castle was founded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (a peasant who would go on to unify Japan). Later, his wife and son were forced to commit ritual suicide, when the castle was successfully besieged and destroyed.
The castle has stared in film and television – ‘Godzilla Raids Again,’ ‘Shogun’ and the James Bond film ‘You only live twice.’
Took some searching to get this view, including a little climbing.
A digitally painted up version of my original sketch.
Back to Tokyo.
And finally I returned to Tokyo, to end my journey where it started, all those many years ago. So, had Tokyo, and Japan, lived up to my memories and hopes? Had my memories twisted?
Well, yes and no. The truth is a little more subtle than my memory, but no less amazing for it. But one memory that had stayed fresh was the cherry blossom. Throughout my journey the brilliant color of the cheery blossom followed. And so did the Japanese love of it. Japanese Cherry blossom (Sakura) historically holds an important place in Japan’s culture, maybe due to the transience of life it displays, which resonates with Buddhist teachings.
Even as my time in Japan ended again, people were still celebrating the blossom under the pink Sakura canopies. If you are going to visit Japan, there is no better time.
I leave you with proof that the intoxicating mix of Japan is still present, in all its visual beauty.
Night views of Akihabara and of Tokyo
Tokyo at night feels like a collection of movie sets, so vibrant, stylized and exotic. These are views from the top of Roppongi Hills Mori Tower, and from the streets of a wet and dazzling Akihabara.
Walk from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku
Images taken on a walk from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku. Sometimes, just taking an unplanned stroll through a city, like Tokyo, can reveal unexpected and stunning sights.
Zoshigaya Kishimoiji Shrine
The Zoshigaya Kishimoiji Shrine is a stunning and serene shrine that I discovered by accident, while walking from Ikebukuro to Shinjuku. Sometimes, to find your way, you first need to get lost.
Dating back to 1561, this shrine (dedicated to the easy delivery and raising of children) was once visited by Shoguns.
Tokyo Midtown and Mori Gardens Roppongi
Sakura Japan doesn’t end when the sun goes down.
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