Friday, March 18, 2016

Favorite Places and Spaces: 6 Cherry Blossom Spots in Kyoto

At Kurama Temple
Cherry blossom season is almost here!

The Japanese have long loved the short-lived blooms and over the years have planted them everywhere, especially in Kyoto where the whole city seems to blush in pale pink around the first week of April.

I must say I love the cherry blossoms too. In a lot of ways it is the first joyful glimpse of light and color after the dull, dark winter. The pale pink Somei-yoshino  variety seem to glow with their own light when the sun hits them, and the sky turns a richer blue hinting of summer a few months away.

Visitors--Japanese and foreign--descend on Kyoto's most famous cherry blossom spots making the public transportation noticeably more crowded this time of year.

I feel like I went and did all the touristy and famous places stuff as an exchange student, and now a big consideration in choosing a place to look at the blossoms is whether it's going to be crowded or not. These days, I'd just like to walk around and take pictures slowly, or spread a picnic blanket in peace. So here are my favorite places for cherry blossoms rated on a crowded scale from 1-10 (1=able to take a photo with no humans in it, 10=walk at a snail's pace with other folks' body parts touching you as policemen with megaphones remind you it's very crowded). Even so, I visited these places on weekdays. I'm not quite brave enough for the weekends!

1. The Philosopher's Path 哲学の道 6

One of Kyoto's most popular destinations for cherry blossoms, the sheer volume of the blossoms at the start of the path will likely make you forget the crowds. This long walk along a canal thins out in terms of both crowds and blossoms as one goes south, but there are some great pictureseque views  and many shrines, temples, and cafes on the way. Keep following it through Nanzenji to the Biwako Incline and you won't be disappointed. 

2. Toji Temple 東寺 7

We had to wait in line about 20 minutes to get in on a weekday night for the light-up event, but once in it didn't feel quite so crowded. The grounds are spacious so people spread out, and perhaps the darkness helps create the illusion of a less crowded space.
We went when the blossoms were past their peak and blowing in the air like snow--breathtaking. 

3. Kurama Temple 鞍馬寺 3 

Miss the season in Kyoto? Don't worry, the blossoms in the mountains just to the north are still in full bloom! It's a little hard to access from the city center, perhaps one reason it wasn't so crowded. There weren't so many trees, but I loved drinking them in along with the clear mountain air. 

4. Kyoto Imperial Palace 京都御所 2

More than avenues of hundreds of trees the imperial palace is about one or two beautifully-shaped trees here and there. There are a couple different places around the expansive park to see cherry trees, so it never feels crowded. The twice annual opening of the inner palace to the public is quite another story.

5. Kamogawa and Takanogawa 鴨川と高野川 2

Kyoto is split by a large river Kamogawa which is joined by Takanogawa halfway through to form a Y shape through the middle of the city. Hundreds of cherry trees are planted all along it within the city--take a leisurely bike-ride along blossom-shaded paths or lay out a picnic. The conjunction of the two rivers at Demachiyanagi is probably the most crowded area; head north along either river for the best picnic spots. Along the bank of Kamogawa near Kitaoji street is an avenue of darker pink weeping cherries where there are also food stalls and music events on the weekend during the blossom season. I never grow tired of bird-, blossom-, and people-watching along this river. 

5. Matsugasaki Canal Area 松ヶ崎駅周辺の水路 1 

This was right outside my doorstep as an exchange student, a hidden little avenue of flowers and water from Lake Biwa. The sheer volume of blossoms rivals the Philosopher's Path, but few people seem to know about it. To find it, get on the Karasuma subway line heading north and get off at Matsugasaki station. Walk east along the street from the station until you see a canal of water flowing south. Follow it and you'll find the blossoms! 

So there you have the spots I recommend. Come with me and we'll go admire them together!

Monday, March 7, 2016

How Our International Marriage is Different...and How it Isn't

Dressed up for a wedding last month
Once after a work function where he met many new folks, Yuya flopped onto the bed and sighed: "I'm tired of talking about foreigners this and foreigners that. Everyone only talks about gaikokujin to me. Why?!"Apparently he'd forgotten his wife is considered gaikokujin, a foreigner, in this country!

In a way, these kinds of reactions from well-meaning people are a tough part of our marriage. Wow! A bird loving a fish! WHY?  is the tone behind their questions and comments, as if our simply being together necessitates an explanation. It's a bit hurtful after a while, though it only means they see our outside appearances are different so they assume the inner workings of our relationship are different too.

Every couple has to deal with the two sets of culture and expectations brought in by each other, and at least two sets of in-laws and two ancestral homes. International marriage is the same, just on a larger scale.

In college I took several classes on communication and international relations. Business and diplomatic relationships between countries and cultures are difficult. Culture shock and cultural adjustments are difficult. But my relationship with Yuya is a different story: I see him less as a representative member of "Japanese culture" that I have to somehow finagle shared meanings with in a 5-step jargon-y process, and more as simply the male human I married. And we happen to live in his country, which is not the country I was born and raised in.

And this is how I feel our marriage is "international" or "different"--it is not in our relationship per se as much as it is in the scale of typical problems, and the reactions of people around us.

Perhaps most American couples don't have to worry about living far away from parents who expect their eldest son's family to take care of them in their old age. Perhaps most Japanese couples only have to worry about the wife missing her hometown a $100 train-ticket away, and not a $2000 airplane-ticket away. Perhaps most couples whose partners are from the same country as each other just worry about bills, paperwork, and filing taxes instead of worrying about bills, paperwork, filing taxes, passports, and visas. Perhaps such couples just debate about which town, state, or prefecture to raise kids in instead of which country. Perhaps such couples just argue about money in one currency without having to bring up the dollar-yen exchange rate. Perhaps such couples don't have to always see raised eyebrows and answer questions about why? and how did you meet? and isn't it tough?  when they meet new people.

In the end, though, to me these are all small things. Details. Daily adult life we have to tackle together. The whole is other than the sum of its parts. Yuya and I, we don't categorize each other as "oh you are Japanese" or "you are American," though that is a part of our identities. To me, Yuya is Yuya. A unique human being, a man, a person I'm sharing my life with. The things we encounter in our relationship and in life due to our international marriage don't make me think "Ok so this is life with a Japanese person." I'm more likely to think, "Ok, this is life with Yuya."

What I want to say is, we are just two humans interacting. I don't think our marriage is anything different, special, exotic, tough, interesting, or what have you. It's just marriage! And as of March 1st this year, we have been in it for two years. Still just starting out, and excited about life will bring us next.