Shiga #4: Plum Bonsai Trees (盆梅)

It’s almost March… the air is slowly getting warmer, and it will soon be time for plum blossoms, which herald spring here in Japan. Today we’re heading down to the Kansai area to Shiga, a prefecture known for the famous Plum Blossom Bonsai, called Bonbai in Japanese. There are two postcards in the Postacollect collection depicting bonsai, the other being Kagawa Prefecture’s Pine Bonsai.

Bonsai are miniaturized trees which are carefully cultivated to stay small. These trees still flower however, and Shiga is the place to go to appreciate these cute but beautiful trees. Every year in Nagahama, the Keiunkan (a guesthouse built to host the Emperor Meiji on his way to Kyoto) features a show of about 90 plum bonsai of various shapes, forms, and sizes. It is one of the largest and longest exhibitions of its kind in Japan, and the quality of the exhibits, and the way each bonsai is showed to it’s full potential, is carefully thought out, giving the exhibition it’s famous reputation.

The Nagahama Bonbaiten can be visited from January through March 10th. It is close to JR Nagahama Station. Be sure to stop by the Tourist Information Center by the station for information and brochures! If you’d like to see the full-sized trees, at the Hokoen Park in Nagahama you can see a plum grove. Or if you’re not close to Shiga during plum blossom season, visit any bairin (plum grove), and you could very well find your own bonsai to see or even buy. I found some visiting my local grove called Akimabairin:

Aren’t they cute?

Akita #4: Snow Huts (かまくら)

Winters in the Northern regions of Japan are harsh and snow-filled, but in Akita Prefecture’s Yokote City, a unique winter festival brings fun and light to a few winter nights in February. The Yokote Kamakura Festival is today’s topic, just in time for 2015’s festival, held from February 14-16.

Kamakura are snow huts. They are often made by children after a big snow in regions across Japan, and are the main component of the festival. After building many of these huts around the city, an alter is set into each, to a water deity to pray for ample water in the coming months. Children often grill rice cakes inside the hut, and beckon passers-by with hot amazake and the cakes. Visitors accept the food by entering, and make an offering to the deity in each hut they enter.

Also during the festival are extended areas of the castle allowing night views of the city, making your own kamakura in Komyoji Park, and snow sculptures and food stalls around the city into the night.

Not able to make it in the winter months? You can still view a kamakura, kept cold at the Kamakuran Hall in a special room year round.

I’ve never been to the festival, but kamakura are made all around the country. These pictures are from one on the top of a mountain, which we found while snowboarding one year. They’re pretty fun!

Yamagata #4: Snow Monsters (樹氷)

We’re still exploring Yamagata today, this time heading up to the area around Zao Onsen, where every winter the harsh winter creates amazing sculptures every year, called juhyo, usually translated to “ice trees” or “snow monsters” or the like. Cold, wet wind from Siberia hits the evergreen conifers on a few mountains around the Tohoku region, creating these monsters over a period of time. December is usually the start, while in January they grow in size. February is considered the peak, then they slowly melt through March. On weekends in January, and through all of February, light ups of the mountains and trees are held.

I really enjoyed this video from NHK World’s Fudoki series, which details how they are formed and has some great footage of them. Also, if you’re interested in skiing and snowboarding, see here for information not only on the trees, but the slopes as well. Finally, Zao is not only famous during the winter… its onsen and crater lake can be visited year-round, and in fact is the subject of another postcard, this time on the Miyagi side of the mountain, so look for a post from the same place in the future!

Kagoshima #6: Izumi Cranes (出水のツル)

Kagoshima is famous for the droves of cranes that call Izumi, a city in the northwest corner of the prefecture, home during the winter. These cranes migrate from Siberia and China in huge groups, and the area can see upwards of 10,000 cranes during the peak in February. The cranes begin to arrive around late October into November, and begin leaving from the end of February through March, so can be seen at any time during this period.

The Izumi Crane Park Museum is a good place to start if you are interested in learning the history of the cranes in Izumi, and about the conservation efforts of the city since the 1950’s to increase the safety of the area for the cranes’ benefits. However the real jewel is probably the Observation Center, which is where you can glimpse the thousands of cranes as they search for food and do… you know, crane stuff.

For more information, please visit the wikipedia page on the migration grounds. This article by the Japan Times is also great reading, as it details the reporters visit to the area and gives an idea of what to expect. Finally, up-to-date information can be found on the Izumi City website. The page is in English.

In my area, we get a lot of swans, but not many cranes during the winter. I guess they’re all chillin’ in Izumi!

Hiroshima #4 – Lemons (レモン)

From the tip-top of the main island of Japan, Honshuu, to very near the bottom, today we travel down south to sunny Hiroshima. Most foreigners have heard of Hiroshima as one of the two cities America dropped the atomic bomb on during WWII. The Peace Park and A-Bomb Dome stand as shocking and humbling reminders of the ravages of war, and are a popular destination for tourists of all countries. Also in Hiroshima is Miyajima, with its picturesque torii gate that seems to float on water at high tide, perfect for photography if you get it at just the right moment.

But Hiroshima is famous for more than that, and while it might come as a surprise, is the top producer and exporter of lemons in Japan. Lemon harvest begins in the fall, when the lemons are still green, and continue as they yellow in the winter sun until spring. Even when lemons aren’t in season, you can find many different products using lemons, such as lemon cake, lemon bubble bath, lemon masks, lemon jams… well, the list goes on! If you’re lucky, you might even find the adorable heart-shaped lemons!

Hiroshima Lemons at my local grocery store

If you’re in Hiroshima from fall to spring, consider stopping by a farm and picking some lemons for yourself! Unfortunately, most of the information about lemon picking is in Japanese. If it is something you are interested in doing and want more information, please don’t hesitate to comment and I will find some farms and information for you!

Meanwhile, if you are in Tokyo but would like to sample some Hiroshima products, including lemons, head over to Ginza to the Hiroshima Brand Store TAU, where you can buy lemon products to your heart’s content!

Ehime #1: Mandarin Oranges (みかん)

Man, it’s cold. It’s full on winter here in Japan. I’m lucky that the snow in my area is to a minimum, but in many places its already reaching 2 meters and growing. This is the season where people pick and eat Mandarin Oranges (“mikan” in Japanese) in abundance to keep their skin healthy in the frigid air, and to stimulate tastebuds and appetites. I’m actually unable to eat most citrus fruits, but mikan is a happy exception to that rule… within reason. I have been known to consume 3 or 4 at a time and regret it, but usually up to 2 is okay. That is because mikan are quite sweet!

The leading producer of mikan is Ehime Prefecture, and this is Ehime’s first postcard. Ehime is one of four prefectures on the small island of Shikoku, one of the most rural places you can visit in Japan. I’ve never been there, though my parents have, and they’ve raved about the beauty of the area. I’m quite jealous over their visit!

If you are in Ehime or Shikoku during winter, head over to pick some mikan and enjoy not only these yummy citrus fruits, but many others… Ehime is the “king” of citrus in Japan, with tons of varieties!

But if you can’t make it down to Shikoku, don’t worry… you can pick these almost all over Japan! First, here is a website with some places to pick around Ehime and Wakayama prefecture (where you can get persimmon fruit if you recall an earlier post). If you are in or around Tokyo, head to Kanagawa for a nice farm experience, or further to Shizuoka. But really, mikan farms (and trees) grow all around the country, so you can find mikan close to you wherever you are.

Happy eating, and be sure to keep up that skin care!

Fukui #4: Daffodils (水仙)

明けましておめでとうございます, or Happy New Year as we say in Japan! I’m excited to start 2015 off with a card from a prefecture I’ve never visited, which hopefully means I will get to visit it this year. That’s right, home of Dinosaurs and Crabs, Fukui Prefecture is on the Sea of Japan side bordered by Ishikawa, Gifu, and Shiga. I have visited all three of those places, but Fukui somehow escaped. Soon.

Anyway, called suisen in Japanese and either daffodil or narcissus in English, these sweet-smelling pretty flowers are one of the first signs of spring, blooming in the cold January and February months when most flowers wouldn’t dare show their petals. A great place to see them in Fukui is at the Echizen Daffodil Village Park in Fukui City. At this park you can see both beds of daffodils from many different countries in the winter, and in the greenhouses year-round. You can even get the chance to pick some!

Another area is the Echizen coastline, which has both wild and cultivated daffodils. Don’t miss these sweet-smelling flowers at Daffodil Land. There’s even a Daffodil Festival from January 17th through 31st!

And if you can’t go to Fukui to enjoy these flowers, never fear… they grow all over Japan, so be on the lookout! In my area, they grow around February and March. Here are some pictures from previous years:

(By the way, the links above are Japanese only… I had a hard time finding any official information in English. If you’d like some help translating, please let me know in a comment below!)

Tottori #4: Mandarin Ducks (オシドリ)

Sorry for the missed post last week, I’ve been knocked down by two different illnesses in as many weeks. On the plus side, I’ve drawn up a posting list for the next three months, so watch out for new posts every Monday like usual!

Okay, so today we’re taking a trip down South to Tottori Prefecture. I haven’t made it to this prefecture yet, so I don’t have this or any other card, but it is high on my “want to see list” because Tottori is the only place in Japan with honest-to-god sand dunes. Yes, there is a postcard of them, but today I’m focusing instead on the cute and cuddly-looking creatures featured on the 4th postcard and also which happen to be Tottori’s prefectural bird, Mandarin Ducks!

These beautifully colored ducks head to the Hino River in Western Tottori for a winter rest during November to March. Tourists to this area can photograph thousands of ducks floating in the river. Locals feed the ducks, which brings them back every year. Normally these birds are not commonly spotted, being extremely shy… but in Tottori they’ll pose for the cameras!

There isn’t a lot of information in English on Tottori or these famous birds, and as I said I’ve never been there so I don’t have any pictures. But I found a really nice video on youtube here featuring a few of these ducks on the Hino River. Please watch and enjoy!