Today started off a bit more relaxed than our first two days here in Hakone. We were checking out of the hostel and heading to Tokyo, so we didn’t need to rush anywhere. We got up and packed our bags, which we are now pretty good at doing. I’m sure by the end of the trip, we will be able to do it blindfolded. After packing, we walked the 10 minutes to the bus stop and waited for our T line bus to take us back down to Odawara.
On the ride down the mountain, the weather got warmer and warmer. We could see the cherry blossom trees gradually becoming more and more full. By the time we got to the bottom of Mount Hakone, they were in full bloom. This made us so amped because we were nervous that we were going to be too early to see them bloom in all their glory. In Kyoto, they had signs for their cherry blossom festival that was going to be in two weeks (just after we left Japan). In Hakone (235 miles north), they were closer too full bloom but because of the mountain climate, it was still too cold for them to fully come out. But now, on our way to Tokyo (57 miles north of Hakone), we could tell that we were going to be right on time. We arrived at Odawara station a little before noon, got our bullet train tickets and were on our way to the last stop in Japan. The train into Tokyo only took 30 minutes, which was nice after the two and three-hour trains we had been taking.
I don’t think we were truly ready for Tokyo station and the sheer mass of people that we were about to be a part of. When we got off the train we were swept up in the crowds heading for the exit. It was only until we were outside of the station that we were able to regroup and figure out our plan. We either had a 30-minute walk (free) or a 10-minute subway ride (not free) and because we wanted to see the city and get our barrings we decided to walk. Plus, we had about an hour until check-in time. Just across the street from the train station, we were immediately met with our first glimpse of the beauty of cherry blossoms in Tokyo. The street had blossoms in full bloom, creating a tunnel over the road for several blocks. It looked like the iconic image you would get in a magazine or travel guide. After taking in the beauty and snapping some photos, we continued on the walk where we ran into two more streets like that and several small parks that seemed to be dedicated to cherry blossoms. They were just big enough to have one cherry tree and maybe a couple benches. After wandering through a tiny chunk of this breathtaking city, we arrived at our hostel. We checked in, put our stuff in our bunks, and ventured back out into the city to do some serious cherry blossom viewing. Plus, we really needed some lunch. We were planning on going to a well-known ramen restaurant with great reviews, but when we got there it had a huge line. We were too hungry to wait, so we just kept walking until we found something that piqued our interest. We ended up going to a cafeteria-style soba restaurant to get quick and cheap food. We grabbed a tray, picked out any sides we wanted (Haley got a ball of tempura veggies and I got a potato croquette and a tempura chicken tender), ordered our bowls of soba, paid, and picked a stool. Basically, it was the best cafeteria food we have ever had.
We headed to Ueno park because it was said to have paths lined with cherry blossoms as far as the eye can see. As soon as we got into the park grounds, we could see that they were not kidding. There must have been close to 100 cherry blossoms all in full bloom. What Google didn’t tell us is that there is a massive, unofficial festival once the cherry blossoms bloom. At least a thousand people set up huge picnics under the trees. Each group had anywhere from a 10 to 40 square foot tarp spread out. Then, they had fashioned tables and pads out of cardboard boxes. On top of the makeshift tables, they had takeout or homemade feasts lined up with sushi, yakisoba, pizza, ramen, and enough beer and saki to drown a small village. Farther into the park, we found a street food market selling just about everything on a stick. They had tempura spiral potatoes, skewers of chicken, beef, and pork, they had freshly candied strawberries and grapes and so much more. We imagined that this was an impromptu but annual event whenever the cherry blossoms were expected to bloom. After we made the rounds of the food stalls and got some snacks, we walked back into the main cherry blossom area. By now, the sun had set. The paper lanterns that were hung over the walking paths lit up blossoms in a gorgeous red/orange glow. We felt like we were experiencing something special and potentially once in a lifetime.
We walked around in this most romantic setting for an hour or so, and then decided we should head back towards the hostel. On our way back, we wanted to stop and get some drinks because we weren’t ready for bed yet. We stumbled upon a quiet market street where most of the vendors were shutting down for the night, but there was a handful of restaurants that were staying open for a while still. We popped into an Indian restaurant mainly because they had cheap beer, but of course, if we’re going to be drinking we are going to want some snacks. So, we ordered some freshly baked naan with butter chicken curry for dipping. After three drinks a piece and some delicious naan and curry, we continued to the hostel.
Back at the hostel we had a nightcap and ended up meeting a group of friends that are from Chicago. We bonded over talking about the University of Illinois (where Haley graduated from!) and our sightseeing plans for Japan. Overall, we had a really good time hanging out for an hour or so, and then we all called it a night and went to our separate bunk beds.
Until next time,
Justin and Haley
All photos by Justin Ruck