Ashikaga Flower Park – Wisteria in bloom

In the Kanto region, there is no more widely known botanical garden than Ashikaga Flower Park. Known in particular for its large collection of wisteria, which comes into full bloom in late April / early may,  it attracts droves of tourists from its own prefecture of Tochigi, its neighbouring environs, and even moreso from metropolitan Tokyo. This year, a new train station directly adjacent to the park opened, further easing day-trippers from all over the Kanto region to come and see the flowers in bloom. I was one such tourist, though I did have the advantage of living about twenty minutes from the park.

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Exploring Ashikaga shrines: Banna-ji and Orihime-ji

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Ashikaga city, an intersection near the Ashikaga station on the Ryomo line.

The city of Ashikaga lies on the boundary of the Gunma and Tochigi prefectures, on the Tochigi side. It was founded by a man named Minamoto no Yoshikuni, whose descendants would become the Ashikaga clan. This clan established one of Japan’s historical Shogunate, ruling over japan for just shy of 250 years. None of this information was known to me before I moved to Ashikaga, naturally, as my knowledge of the Kanto region (Tokyo and surrounding prefectures) is at this point rather sparse. But ignorance is just another name for an opportunity to learn, and I set out this day to take in some history in my new adopted home. One location I visited was deliberate, while another I came across entirely accidentally.

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The Return

Hurrying through the front doorway of the station, I hit my head for probably the dozenth time that week. Hard. Being a seasoned veteran of light head trauma by this point, I didn’t even break stride. The ticket gate attendant asked if I was alright, trying to keep from laughing (I didn’t blame him, it’s pretty funny when it happens to someone else). I assured him I was as I swiped my passcard and hustled through. If I missed this train I’d have to wait another hour before the next.

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Wat Chalong temple, Phuket, Thailand

Going from Osaka to Phuket was like heading from the frying pan into the fire. The air was as hot and moist as a steam room, even though the dark had concealed the sun hours before. After I stepped out of the airport I began to paw desperately at my pockets for one of my dwindling supply of Lucky Strikes, and I lit one up. I had been told by my contact here that the airports were semi-formal, so I should wear my teaching clothes to make customs that much easier.

My contact was a goddamn liar. T-shirts, sandals and shorts surrounded me, wearing a variety of people, all of whom got through customs just as fast as I did. And here I was, in a 3-piece wool suit on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far in Phuket.

On the upshot, cigarettes were even cheaper here than Japan.

After meeting up with my contact and heading to the house they’d be graciously hosting me at during my short stay, we immediately began to make plans for the coming week, determined to not waste any time and see as much as we could. The first on the list? Wat Chalong, one of the biggest, best-known Temples around. After an amazing breakfast at a local restaurant, we flagged down a nearby Bike driver with a sidecar, and he gave us a lift to the Temple.

 

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Entrance to the grounds is totally free at Wat Chalong, and the air was as thick with moisture as it was with TukTuk drivers selling tours around the city. The greenery in Phuket is, at parts, completely wild an uncontrolled. Unlike the carefully maintained and manicured plant life in Japan, The locals leave the plants to do here as they will. It’s not like a jungle, it is a jungle. There just happens to be a city in it.

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Kitano-Tenmangu: The shrine of scholars

Finally, after my previous stops in Kyoto, I came to the Kitano Tenmangu shrine. This shrine is noted for being dedicated to Sugawara no Michizane, a notable scholar who passed over 1000 years ago from manhood to godhood, and was deified. As a result, thousands of hopeful scholars come here to make their prayers and buy good luck charms to increase the effectiveness of their study – from middle school to university students.

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Kinkaku-ji – The Golden Temple

There are numerous facts about Kinkaku-ji which make it remarkable. Firstly, it’s fairly old, at just over 700 years since its completion. Then, it was nearly burned down in the Onin war in 1466-67, but was spared by the attackers, who razed every other building in the area. Then in the 1950s, it was actually burned down by one of its own monks who suffered from severe mental and emotional problems. Perhaps more remarkable is the beautiful garden surrounding it, with a serene pond teeming with Koi. Or perhaps it’s the way it’s constructed in three different architectural styles – one for each floor.

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But likely it’s most notable trait is that the majority of the temple is sheathed in real gold. Which tends to stick out, as features go.

 

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Arashiyama – Mountaintop monkey paradise

As Kyoto is historically the seat of imperial power for a sizeable period of Japanese history, it has amassed a plethora of noteworthy temples, memorials, shrines, and attractions. from the zen gardens of Ryoan-ji to the golden temple of Kinkaku-ji (of which I will write more later) to a stretch of train line that in Cherry Blossom season is walled on both sides by curtains of blooming pink blossoms, the city has many things to see. One such thing I had never heard of outside of Japan was Arashiyama Monkey Park. On what would be  my final trip inside of Japan, I travelled to Kyoto and saw several sights. The monkey park was definitely unique.

 

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While walking to the Monkey Park, you will likely come across the Togetsukyo bridge, which is a historic bridge offering a wonderful view of the surrounding mountains, revealing cherry blossoms in the spring and colourful foliage in autumn. As this was just before cherry-blossom season and well after fall, my view from the bridge was rather uninspired, though it still contained quite a few locals and tourists out and about for the day.

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