NOV-DEC 2022


Click on photo or link to read the feature

Seasonal Secret: Design Festa: Your one-stop shop for predatory purses, zombie nesting dolls & more

Red purse with grinning vampire teeth

Twice a year, Design Festa takes over the Big Site convention center in Odiaba, and artists selling everything from zombie matroyshika to predatory purses gather to outdo each other…read more

The Thing I Learned Today: Why are those trees wearing placemats?

Pine trees wrapped in woven straw mats

Ever wonder why they wrap Japanese pine trees in those funny little mats in winter?Arboreal stomach warmer? The tree version of black tie for the holidays? Guess again. They’re actually…read more


Beyond Tokyo: Let’s go to the werewolf shrine!

Ema prayer plaque at the Mitsumine Shrine in Saitama

The Mitsumine Shrine sits high atop a snowy mountain near Chichibu, so far from any train station that you’ll be eligible for a senior citizen discount by the time you get off the bus. At first it looks like a typical Shinto shrine with fox messengers at the gate…read more

Nov-Dec 2022 Japan Swag Giveaway:
Genuine Sushi Food Model Fridge Magnet from Kappabashi Street

Ikura Sushi plastic food model fridge magnet

Yes, this month’s giveaway is one of those can’t-believe-it’s-not-real plastic food magnets they only sell on Kappabashi Street in Tokyo! All the lesser refrigerators on your street will…read more

Japanese Home Cooking: Miso-Butter Potatoes

Move over, french fries! You may think that potatoes don’t sound like an authentic Japanese dish, but at all the winter festivals, the stand selling hot miso-butter potatoes has a line a mile long, because they are awesome. Baked or mashed for a unique holiday…read more 

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Did you win the Sep-Oct Japan Swag Giveaway?

If you recognize your email, congratulations!

Attack cats gashapon winner

You just won a set of six limited-edition gashapon Attack Cats!

If you think this is you, shoot a message to JapanagramJonelle@gmail.com and tell me where you’d like me to send them! (Note: My apologies—I’m in Japan at the moment and the attack cats are in San Francisco, so I won’t be able to send them to you until mid-December, but I’ll get them off to you as soon as I get back on Dec 15th.)

If I didn’t pull your name from the hat this time, you might get lucky next time! In the next issue, I’m giving away some very choice Japan swag instead of a book!

Sushi magnet giveaway for Jan-Feb 2023
THe other refrigerators on your street will be green with envy

One lucky subscriber will be the proud new owner of this ultra-realistic sushi magnet, so check the Jan-Feb Japanagram to see if it’s your lucky day!

And if you’d like to be automatically entered to win each month’s giveaway, subscribe! Click here to get the Japanagram e-magazine delivered to your email every month

How I pick the winners: On the last day of the month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose one subscriber’s email as the winner of that issue’s giveaway. Then I publish the email in the next Japanagram (obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course!)

Know someone who might enjoy this Japanagram? Share it!

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Japan Swag Giveaway

Photo of ikura sushi refrigerator magnet

The Nov-Dec 2022 giveaway: Ikura Sushi Refrigerator Magnet

Yes, this month’s giveaway is one of those high-quality can’t-believe-it’s-not-real food magnets they only sell on Kappabashi Street in Tokyo. All lesser refrigerators on your street will envy yours.

Photo of plastic food models for sale on Kappabashi street in Tokyo
I bought this one at the most expensive food model shop on Kappabashi, because their food models are so real you really want to take a bite

On the last day of December, I’ll randomly pick one lucky Japanagram subscriber to get this choice piece of refrigerator swag. Be sure to check the Jan-Feb Japanagram to see if you won! All Japanagram email subscribers* who are signed up before December 31, 2022 are automatically entered.

And yes, I know it would be beyond mean not to show you the New Yorker cartoon I have on my own fridge, so..

New Yorker cartoon

*In order to win, you need to be a subscriber of the Japanagram issue that arrives by email on the first of the month—not a blog follower who gets emailed notifications of the individual features as they’re published—so f you’re not signed up yet and you’d like to be, click here

If you have a friend who would love a chance to win these beauties, send them this link and tell them to be sure to subscribe before December 31. It’s free!

How I pick the winners: On the last day of each month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose a subscriber. Then I publish their email in the next Japanagram (obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course) along with instructions for how to contact me to get your swag.

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Miso-Butter Potatoes

Miso-butter baked potato

Move over, french fries! You may think that potatoes don’t sound like an authentic Japanese dish, but the stand selling hot miso-butter potatoes at all the winter festivals has a line a mile long, because they are awesome. Miso makes everything you put it in taste deeper and richer (while also secretly being good for you!) and if you’re looking for a unique twist on mashed potatoes for your holiday feast, look no further.

Miso-Butter Baked Potatoes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 baking potatoes, scrubbed and poked with a fork

For the miso butter:

8 T. butter, softened

1 T. mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine for cooking)

1 T. red miso paste*

2 T. white miso paste*

Preheat the oven to 400°F then bake potatoes directly on the oven rack for one hour.

Mix the two misos and mirin together until it forms a smooth paste, then cream together with butter until smooth.

Split each potato lengthwise and put a dollop of miso butter on each.

*Red miso is salty/savory and white miso is sweet/savory. I like to combine them, but you can use one or the other or vary the ratio of red/white to your own taste.

Miso-Butter Mashed Potatoes

Miso-butter mashed potatoes

Serves 4

Ingredients:

4 boiling potatoes, peeled and quartered

Miso Butter (see above)

Cream (optional)

Put the potatoes in a pan with enough salted water to cover them and bring to a boil. Boil uncovered for 8-10 minutes until a fork goes in easily. Mash potatoes, then add miso-butter to taste. If you only want a hint of miso, put in just a spoonful, then add plain butter. For creamy mashed potatoes, add milk or cream and beat with a spoon until smooth.

Now you have seen my secrit holiday serving spoon, you may have caught a glimpse of the gatherings that occasionally occur at Chez Jonelle. If you have dinner at my house, it’s very likely you might find one of these by your plate…

Spoons with messages stamped on them
Guess which one was sent to me by a dear reader of The Last Tea Bowl Thief?

(These are nothing to do with Japan, but they do make awesome gifts! You can order silverware with custom messages stamped on them from Etsy. It takes a couple of weeks, but they’re surprisingly reasonable for a present that never fails to please.)

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Why are those trees wearing placemats?

Japanese pine trees wrapped in winter mats at Koshikawa Korakuen garden in Tokyo

Ever wonder why they wrap Japanese pine trees in those funny little mats in winter?Arboreal stomach warmer? The tree version of black tie for the holidays? Guess again. They’re actually old-fashioned, super-eco pest control!

It’s diabolically simple. The mats are girded around the trees as winter approaches, wrapped tightly at the bottom and loosely at the top. Insects crawl down from the branches and burrow into the temptingly warm straw mats, congratulating themselves on finding the insect equivalent of the Bahamas. They never suspect that before it’s warm enough to return to wreaking havoc, gardeners will swoop in and toss their cozy little roach motel into the fire, with them inside!

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Let’s go to the Werewolf Shrine!

Mitsumiya Shrine in Saitama prefecture

The Mitsumine Shrine sits high atop a snowy mountain near Chichibu, so far from any train station that you’ll be eligible for a senior citizen discount by the time you get off the bus. At first it looks like a typical Shinto shrine with fox messengers at the gate…

…but a closer look reveals the resident messengers-of-the-gods to be WEREWOLVES.

And how can you tell it’s a werewolf? Because it looks like a dog, but it NEVER skips abs day at the gym. Ever.

Unlike the shapeshifting Western versions who could use a good back hair waxing, the Japanese spirits that can take the form of men or wolves are known for choosing to either devour lost travelers or lead them safely home.

So, uh, if you’ve chosen a career as an evildoer? Best not to take a shortcut on this particular deserted road through the mountains.

Everywhere at the shrine, there are dog guardians instead of the foxes we’d usually expect to see.

But the most mysterious thing about the Mitsumine Shrine is that despite its seriously off-the-beaten-path location, the ō-kami do not seem to lack for generous donor action.

Check out how beautifully these buildings are restored!

The paint is so bright and new, it almost doesn’t look Japanese.

And gold leaf this shiny attests to how diligently the shrine’s supporters make sure the residents gods (and werewolves!) are not displeased with the size of their donations.

And why are they so devoted to this obscure shrine on the top of a mountain?

Because dragons.

Yes, this Werewolf Shrine is also situated in a renowned “power spot” (like the Fox Shrine To End All Fox Shrines in Kamakura) which is the home of a dragon spirit and associated with the element water. This combination is especially powerful in attracting business success, so it not only attracts boatloads of pilgrims with the spring thaw, it’s not lacking in corporate sponsors.

We’ll stop at the magnificent spring to purify our hands before paying our respects to the werewolves…

…and if the spring is frozen (as it often is, in winter) we can wave these wands made of cedar shavings over ourselves instead.

The ema prayer plaques at the Mitsumine Shrine are especially magnificent. Werewolves are believed to have the power to get people out of a tight spot, and they also specialize in curing loneliness.

Here’s where the Mitsumine Shrine is:

Here’s a more local map, showing where the nearest train station is:

Here’s how to get to the Mitsumine Shrine from Tokyo:

The easiest way is to drive (the Chichibu area is in Saitama prefecture, and it takes about two hours from metro Tokyo) but you can also take the train from Ikebukuro to Mitsumineguchi Station, then get on a bus from there to the Mitsumine Shrine. The bus ride is about 45 minutes each way. Here’s the bus schedule.

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and preferred arrival time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Ueno Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Design Festa: Your one-stop shop for predatory purses, zombie nesting dolls & more

Zombie nesting dolls at Design Festa

Twice a year, Design Festa takes over the Big Site convention center in Odiaba, and artists selling everything from zombie matroyshika to predatory purses gather to outdo each other.

Red purse with smiling vampire teeth by MaliciousX at Design Festa
Artist: MaliciousX

Get one in every color!

Blue purses with smiling vampire mouths or staring realistic eye by MaliciousX at Design Festa
Artist: MaliciousX

Or if that isn’t creepy enough for you, perhaps a crying baby head?

Plaster painted realistic crying baby heads at Design Festa

Or you can take blowing your nose to new heights with a Mt. Fuji-shaped fake fur Kleenex dispenser

Mt. Fuji-shaped tissue dispenser made of fake fur at Design Festa

Or up your mask game with this fox mask covered in rhinestones

Fax mask covered with rhinestones at Design Festa
Artist: @omen_kashimaya

Not sure what outfit might perfectly coordinate with this froggy coin purse…

Coin purses that look like frogs at Design Festa

…but a blue fox fur bracelet that can also be worn as a hat will surely go with EVERYTHING.

Blue fur fox head bracelet at Design Festa
Artist: Kaze-taka

Imagine the impression you’d make at your next zoom meeting in this hand-tooled leather cow skull mask

Tooled leather cow skull mask at Design Festa

Or concentrate instead on upping your Room Rater score with some giant felted goldfish…

Felted exotic goldfish at Design Festa

…or a realistic 3-d felt portrait of your beloved pet

Felted 3-d portraits of pet dog and cat at Design Festa
Artist: Futaya Kurumi

If those are a bit beyond your budget, there are always tomcat butt fridge magnets

Tomcat butt refrigerator magnets at Design Festa

And while the outlandish pieces steal the show, there are also some articles of great beauty tucked away among the vendors. These delicate glowing glass mushrooms mounted on rustic branches are truly lovely

Glowing glass mushrooms on log at Design Festa

And not all the art is for sale—these members of the Tokyo Zentai Club turn up at every Design Festa in their signature one-piece leotards to cheer up the masses and make friends

Tokyo Zentai Club members in colorful one-piece all-body leotards at Design Festa

And muralists are assigned blank walls between the booths to compete for top honors in creating a larger than life piece of art over the course of the event. This one is a collage made from thousands of snippets of printed paper…

Mural of a woman's face made of trash & receipts at Design Festa

…like coupons, receipts, and other throwaways

And some are paintings, like this killer dragon

Ink painting mural of a dragon at Design Festa

While others invite audience participation, like this one where onlookers can step up and contribute their own spirograph flower

Painting of a woman with people adding spirograph flowers at Design Festa

Design Festa is held every May and November. Information on the next one is here.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Ghosts of the Tsunami

by Richard Lloyd Perry

Cover of Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Perry

Setting & details: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Authenticity of Japanese characters & dialogue:
N/A
Represents real life in Japan: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Entertainment value: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
My recommendation:
Full of fascinating details and well worth reading

Ghosts of the Tsunami is a page-turningly readable piece of narrative non-fiction, written by the Asia Editor of The Times of London. And while it centers around a terrible disaster (Parry spent months reporting from the Fukushima area right after the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami), it’s anything but depressing. Instead of dwelling on the spectacle of destruction, the author delivers deep and poignant insights into the fascinating way that the Japanese deal with life, death, and what you do the day after your world is washed away. And he does it through compelling, personal stories.

For example, Buddhist priests found themselves in a very strange situation right after the disaster. They desperately wanted to help with humanitarian efforts, but people were reluctant to allow them to join the search for survivors. Buddhist priests have a close association with death (they perform all Japanese funerals), so rescue teams were worried they might jinx the chances of finding the missing alive. 

Instead, priests found themselves dealing with an avalanche of requests for rites they barely knew. Like…exorcisms. In the wake of the disaster, scores of people were seeing ghosts.

So many loved ones had been wrenched from life in an unexpected and untimely way, the living were having a hard time letting go of the dead and allowing their spirits to move on to the next life. Perry talks to a number of people who had vivid supernatural experiences in the wake of their loss, and through these eyewitness accounts, we begin to understand the relationship the Japanese have with their ancestors. Why a graveyard washed away by a monster wave leaves an extended family grieving for the dead as well as the living. Why haunting in Japan is the flip side of what happens in the West. And why so many Japanese died because they went back to rescue the ancestral tablets on their home altars as the wave loomed.
 
The author writes with a keen journalistic eye and the veteran reportage chops to winkle out the most interesting bits and deliver them with insight. I’ve found myself sharing things I learned from this book long after reading it, and I hope you will too.

If you’re already a Japanagram subscriber, you’re automatically entered in the March giveaway of Ghosts of the Tsunami, but if you’re not and you’d like a chance to snag a copy, sign up for Japanagram and check the April 2020 issue to see if you won! All subscribers are automatically entered to win.

How I pick the book giveaway winners: On the last day of each month, I load all the email addresses of Japanagram subscribers into a random name picker on the Web and ask it to choose subscribers to match however many books I’m giving away that month. Then I publish the emails in the next day’s Japanagram (all emails obscured in a way so only the subscriber will be able to recognize it as their own, of course!)

Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Get the best cherry blossom pix in Tokyo: Where, when & how

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Whether you’re an Instagrammer with a mega-following or just want to capture some of the pink magic to show your besties back home, snapping some envy-inducing photos is on every cherry blossom to-do list. But getting those perfect shots isn’t easy, especially if it’s your first time in Tokyo, so here’s how & where to snag the best of the best!

Special Tokyo tips & tricks for getting the best pix

Crowds are the bane of all cherry blossom photographers. Here are some Tokyo-specific tricks for getting’s how to get pictures of pink, not people…

Trick #1

Go early in the morning. Be there at first light (or when the gates open).

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Trick #2

Be patient. If you wait, focused and ready to shoot, you can take advantage of that brief moment after the pesky couple and before the chattering aunties

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Yoyogi Park

Trick #3

Find secret spots nobody else knows about (don’t tell, but here are my favorites!)

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

Trick #4

Take shots at night in the places that offer evening hours and spotlit trees. There will still be crowds, but they’ll be black silhouettes, not spoilers in orange jackets

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Nakameguro

Trick #5

Also, wind can erase those killer reflections, so go early in the morning (before 9:00 if possible)

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Trick #6

Don’t let the rain stop you. It keeps away the crowds, and droplets dangling from twigs and petals make stunning shots

Tokyo cherry blossoms in the rain

Next, here’s WHEN to see the four types of cherry blossoms:

Look up the cherry blossom forecast for when you’ll be in Tokyo (or elsewhere in Japan). The dates sitting next to the place names on the map are the predicted dates of peak bloom for sakura, the most traditional kind of cherry blossoms (pale pink, single petal).

You can snag fabulous photos of the flowers just opening from about three days before those dates, and catch them falling like snow for three to five days after.

And the famous type known as sakura aren’t the only cherry blossoms in town! There are three other varieties, blooming from two weeks before the dates on the map, to two weeks after. Here are the peak bloom times for all the types:

sakura (traditional, single petal, pale pink): Dates on map forecast
kan-zakura (early-blooming, single petal, vibrant pink): Two weeks before
shidai-zakura (early-blooming, weeping branches): 3-5 days before
yae-zakura (double petal, clustered, many shades of pink): A week to ten days after
 

Finally, here’s WHERE to get those turn-’em-green-with-envy pix!

Shinjuku Gyō-en National Garden

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen in Tokyo
Scroll on for the photos you can take at each numbered spot!

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken first thing in the morning, from the foot of the big pond

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken on the vast lawn that extends from near the main entrance through the park

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 3
Cherry types: sakura and yae-zakura 
You can see the late-blooming double type in full bloom here, and fallen petals of the traditional type that came from the tree that’s finished blooming behind it

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 4
Cherry type: yae-zakura 

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 5
Cherry type: shidai-zakura

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 6
Cherry type: kan-zakura (unusual pale pink variety)

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 7
Cherry type: yae-zakura

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Area 8
Cherry type: kan-zakura and…

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Cherry type: yae-zakura

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyoen

Imperial Palace & Chidori-ga-fuchi Moat

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace area in Tokyo

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken walking along the pedestrian boulevard atop the outer bank of the moat

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

This is what it looks like at night

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Taken from the bridge near Kudanshita Station

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Cherry type: sakura, shidai-zakura and yae-zakura
This was taken walking along the pedestrian boulevard along the top of the moat near Hanzomon Station

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken at the farthest end of the moat, after the petals begin to fall and turn it into a sea of pink

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Area 2
Cherry type: cherry type: sakura and shidai-zakura
All along the outside of the moat they’ve planted rare varieties of cherry trees which bloom at various times during the season

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Area 3
Cherry type: yae-zakura
This was taken on the walkway around the moat near Takebashi Station

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace moat in Tokyo

Area 4
Cherry type: yae-zakura
This was taken in the upper part of the Imperial Palace East Garden. Those things that look like hedges are tea plants

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace garden in Tokyo

Area 5
Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken in the Ni-no-maru garden, inside the Otemon Gate to the Imperial Palace

Cherry blossoms at Imperial Palace garden in Tokyo

Nakameguro

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Nakameguro area in Tokyo

Cherry type: sakura. 

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Nakameguro

And this is what it looks like at night

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Nakameguro

Asakusa

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Asakusa area in Tokyo

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
The trees lining the Sumida River are one of the most iconic cherry blossom views in Tokyo, and you can get even better photos if you stand in line for the waterbus and take them from the water

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asakusa

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura. 
This riverside park is filled with lovely trees, and never crowded, even though it’s right next to the busy Sumida River cherry blossom viewing promenade

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asakusa

You can take an excellent picture of Skytree with cherry blossoms from this park too

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asakusa

Area 3
Cherry type: sakura. 
This delightful little promenade is a secret neighborhood spot that’s never crowded and has nice benches for eating your lunch

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asakusa

Area 4
Cherry type: sakura and shidai-zakura
The secret garden of Denpo-in at the huge Senso-ji temple is closed to the public all year except during cherry blossom season. Go early to catch the trees reflected in the pond, before the breeze kicks up

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asakusa

Monzen-Nakacho

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho area in Tokyo

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura. 
This was taken from the traffic bridge that crosses the canal

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

The same spot, at night. The lanterns are usually lit from 18:00 – 21:00

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

This is the pedestrian path that follows the canal from the traffic bridge, on the right-hand side of the water. This is an especially excellent place, because it’s nearly always this uncrowded, and it’s an especially nice place to stroll at night, when the lanterns are lit

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

Area 3
Cherry type: yae-zakura
These especially gorgeous double blossoms line the walk to one of the sub-shrines at the venerable Tomioka Shrine.

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Monzen-Nakacho

Asukayama Park

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Asukayama park in Tokyo

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
As you can see, they’re even beautiful in the rain, and it’s deserted! This plaza is the most pleasingly designed park in all of Tokyo, with natural rock fountains and a meandering waterfall stream that kids can play in during the summer months

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asukayama park

Area 2
Cherry type: yae-zakura
There are an unsual number of different varieties of late-blooming cherry trees here, in the full array of pinks, whites, and even…green

Tokyo cherry blossoms at Asukayama park

Area 3
Cherry type: sakura. 
This jewel of a gorge is a secret gem, hidden from view unless you know where to look. You can go down to the stream level and enjoy the artfully “natural” rockscaping, which runs for several blocks

Tokyo cherry blossoms near Asukayama park

Showa Kinen Park, Tachikawa

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen park in Tokyo

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
Looking across the big central lawn, THIS. The trees at this park are especially huge and magnificent.

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

You can get a feel for how huge these trees are, and there are a lot of them, making for many fine compositions

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura. 
Fields of daffodils are also in full bloom as the trees are turning pink

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

The tulips are just starting to bloom along the “Serpentine River” as the cherries hit their peak

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

Area 3
Cherry type: shidai-zakura

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

Area 4
Cherry type: kan-zakura and sakura

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park

Shingashi River, Kawagoe

Map of where to see cherry blossoms at Shingashi River, Kawagoe

Area 1
Cherry type: sakura. 
It’s worth traveling to Kawagoe’s Shingashi River for two special reasons: The boat rides down the river under the cherry blossoms, and catching a glimpse of the entire river covered in fallen pink blossoms near the end of the season. Board the boat at the end near the Dokan Bridge

Cherry blossoms at Shingashi River in Kawagoe

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura. 
This shot was taken from the pedestrian bridge that crosses the river on the end nearest the Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine

Cherry blossoms at Shingashi River in Kawagoe

This is how it looks at night

Cherry blossoms at Shingashi River in Kawagoe

And from that same bridge, turn around and see these trees reflecting in the rive on the other side:

Cherry blossoms at Shingashi River in Kawagoe

Jindai Botanical Garden, Chofu

Map of where to see cherry blossoms in Chofu

Area 1
Cherry type: shidai-zakura and sakura

Cherry blossoms at Jindai Botanical Garden

Area 2
Cherry type: sakura
One place where it helps to have people in the shot for scale—look how huge these are!

Cherry blossoms at Jindai Botanical Garden

Area 3
Cherry type: sakura

Cherry blossoms at Jindai Botanical Garden

Bonus cherry spot: If you walk to the Jindai Botanical Garden from Chofu Station, you’ll cross a river lined with these awesome sakura cherry trees, a great place to picnic!

Cherry blossoms at Jindai Botanical Garden

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Jonelle Patrick writes mystery novels set in Tokyo, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

Let’s walk across red-hot burning coals!

Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Who can resist the opportunity to do a bit of firewalking? Once a year, they actually let you join in, at the Hiwatari Matsuri, just an hour outside of Shinjuku Station at Mt. Takao.

Procession at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Get there early, because the festivities start with a grand parade of ascetic mountain monks from all over Japan, and you’ll want to nab a good place to watch and take pictures. 

But first, you might want to buy a goma-gi to toss on the fire and cure what ails you. Purchase one of these sacred sticks for ¥200, then write your name and age on it. Tap it on parts of your body where you’ve got aches and pains, then give it to one of the priests charged with collecting them before the ceremony begins. (You’ll see them standing inside the roped-off sacred fire area.)

Prayer plaques at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

When your stick is tossed on the bonfire, your complaints will go up in smoke too.

Before you stake out the perfect vantage point, a little advice: Literally check which way the wind is blowing first – any ceremony involving the biggest bonfire you’ve ever seen also involves a shit-ton of smoke. There’s pretty much no camera setting than can filter out clouds of ash between you and the Instagram gold.

Let the ceremony begin! Before there are coals, there has to be fire. If you didn’t guess that the square block of stacked wood inside the roped-off area was all going to be burned in one massive inferno, guess again. When the prayers have been chanted and rituals observed, a posse of monks converge on the pyre with burning torches…

Lighting the bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Flame on!

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

It takes a while for that amount of wood to burn, but there are plenty of other things to watch after you’ve taken six or seven hundred shots of leaping flames.

First, they parade three giant red balls of talismans around the fire, to be blessed by the sacred smoke. (These get sold afterwards, so if you want a sacred souvenir, be sure to buy one on your way home afterwards)

Procession at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Then, sacred arrows are shot into the air in all four directions, and soon after, monks take turns tossing the stacks of goma-gi onto the fire (are you feeling better already?) and you can occupy yourself trying to calculate how much they rake in from this annual event (which is otherwise FREE).

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

The fire has to be carefully managed so it results in a nice hot bed of coals at the end, so monks are deployed to toss water strategically on the flames to damp them down in any spots that are burning too fast.

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

The mountain monks who take part in the Firewalking Festival (they’re known as yamabushi) all follow a rigorous form of Xtreme Buddhism (shugen-do) that requires they develop the purity and mental toughness to stand nude under freezing cold waterfalls in the winter, splash themselves with boiling water and (naturally) walk over hot coals barefoot.

While waiting for the flames to do their thing, you can see various bare-chested monks take turns dousing themselves with boiling water from cauldrons conveniently set around the bonfire for their spiritual superman needs.

Mountain monks at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Yeah, that guy with the bunch of bamboo is swishing it through the boiling water and just whipping it onto himself.

Meanwhile, the bonfire gets bigger…

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

And monks rake the coals to even them out and prepare for the firewalking.

Bonfire at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

Finally, it’s time for the most venerable monk to cross the coals. He stands on a pile of salt to purify his feet before crossing the sacred fire, then sets out, aiming for the pile of salt that’s waiting on the other side

Walking across hot coals at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

He’s followed by lots and lots and lots of monks (this part takes the better part of an hour) and while they’re doing that, anyone else who wants to walk across the coals lines up behind the last of the monks, and follows them across, one by one.

Walking across hot coals at Hiwatari Matsuri at Mt. Takao

I didn’t see anyone hopping around like their feet were being burned, so I suspect that after the monks all walked that path, the most dangerous heat had dissipated. But you can see coals still burning alongside the two tracks, which is how it all looked before the most venerable guy in purple walked across, so those guys are the real deal. They really do venture out while those puppies are still still red-hot.

Dates: It’s usually around March 13, but doublecheck that for the year you plan to attend by searching “Hiwatari matsuri” and the year. Tokyo Cheapo and Time Out Tokyo usually have reliable information.

Admission: Free

Here’s where Mt. Takao is:

Here’s how to get to Mt. Takao from Shinjuku Station:

I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and preferred arrival time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Ueno Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had