Prior to August 2009 when I arrived in Yokosuka, Japan, to serve my three years here with the U.S. Navy, I had not been much of a world traveler or travel blogger. A few months before that August, I got my international feet wet by taking a cruise to the Bahamas and then flying to Frankfurt, Germany; and then taking trains to Bruges, Belgium and Paris, France. In those days, I was still buying Lonely Planet, Frommers, Fodors and Rick Steves’ guidebooks to tell me what I should be seeing, where I should be eating and sleeping, and how to get around. Of course, I didn’t feel like these guidebooks were written for me. They were lacking something, they were void of that personal touch that I felt I wanted to learn about. That’s when I discovered a myriad of wonderful travel blogs.
These travel bloggers, many gifted in writing, photography, story telling and/or just being good people in general, showed me a new way to look at and experience travel. Rather than pick up a recent edition of Lonely Planet about Japan, I started reading blogs about the country I’d be calling home. In these blogs, I saw the places, festivals, foods and entertainment that I knew I wanted to experience fully during my time here. Of all these- from going to fish auctions, phallic festivals and staying up til 7am partying in Tokyo- seeing the sakura (cherry blossoms) in bloom would be the highlight.
The sakura bloom towards the end of March and early April in most parts of Japan (colder Northern prefectures like Hokkaido do not see the sakura bloom until late April) and only stay in bloom for less than two weeks. The sakura in bloom is a big event in Japan. Hanami- cherry blossom viewing- is big this time of year. At parks and along canals all across the country you will see large blue tarp laid about the grass as groups of friends, families and co-workers sit underneath the beautiful blossoms, eating, drinking, playing games and enjoying the sights and sounds of Spring.
Unfortunately for myself, my job as a Sailor in the Navy often means that I am away from Japan for six months out of the year. Every year since I’ve been here, I’ve missed the peak of the sakura in bloom. In 2011, we were scheduled to return to Japan in late March. That return did not happen until mid-April due to the Tohoku earthquake. I returned to a Tokyo still ravaged by the disaster, with daily aftershocks that made us wonder if the next “big one” was coming again. Our efforts to assist the Japanese people after the disaster were far more important and rewarding than my own personal desires to see the sakura though. Fortunately for us, the sakura- although now falling- were still in bloom for a few more days when we returned.
This year, our underway schedule again showed that we’d return to Japan in early April. I kept my fingers crossed. I also put in my request for vacation time. We’d only have two weeks in Japan before we would leave again for a two month patrol of our area of operations (presently out to sea going to Central Vietnam for a port visit). I began doing my research- like always, researching blogs and talking to friends- figuring out what areas would have the most blossoms in bloom and which cities I could see in the shortest amount of time. Without question, I knew I had to see the sakura in Kyoto and Nara: two of Japan’s ancient capital cities. Besides those cities and all the beautiful images of the sakura I’ve seen from them, there was one image that struck in my mind that I always wanted to see for myself: the cherry blossom trees in front of Mt. Fuji.
To see that image, I’d have to visit the city of Fujigoko, which is a two-hour bus ride from Tokyo. I was going to be in Osaka though and it would take an eight-hour overnight bus ride for me to make it there. No worries though, I was determined. My sakura forecast research told me that I would see them in full bloom in Fujigoko by mid-April. If I waited until the end of my vacation to go there, I should be just in time.
I arrived at Kawaguchiko station in Fujigoko at 8:30 am. As you leave the bus in front of the train station, there is snow capped Mt. Fuji right in front of you. On a very clear day in the Greater Tokyo Area, you may be able to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji’s majestic snow-capped peak. But most of the time, even the faintest hint of clouds or smog will block her from view. Here she was, right in front of me. What I did not see in front of me though were any cherry blossom trees in bloom. I asked an English-speaking and very kind woman at the information desk about that and was informed that I was about two weeks early for the sakura.
For most of the tour, I had been spot-on with my forecast, but now I was too early. “Well, I am here, might as well still enjoy it,” I said to myself. I went to the hostel I booked and rented a bicycle for the day. I figured I’d still get great scenery to shoot at Lake Kawaguchiko, so I rode there from the station. As I pedaled and enjoyed the clear reflection of Mt. Fuji in the lake, I looked up and there it was: the lone cherry blossom tree in bloom in the entire town.
I must have been the only one around me to notice it because the Filipino and Chinese tour groups in the vicinity were not taking pictures of it (at least not until they saw what I was photographing). I immediately dropped the bike to the ground, grabbed my gear, climbed up the small hill and started snapping away, relishing in my good fortune. I was getting the postcard view of Mt. Fuji during sakura season that I had seen so many pictures of. When I thought my luck was gone, here was the lone cherry blossom tree in bloom. I felt like she bloomed right then and there just for me.
I left Fujigoko that evening and with it, I felt like a man who accomplished a goal. I set out a week earlier to see the sakura in the country I love, mapping out a plan that in the end came to full fruition. It was worth every yen and every memory. Arigato Nippon!
Fidel C. Hart is a photographer, journalist and videographer in the United States Navy. Based in Yokosuka, Japan, he enjoys traveling throughout Japan, Asia and the Pacific region. He writes about his travels at Scene With A Hart (www.scenewithahart.com). You may also follow him on Twitter @ihartravel, Instagram (ihartravel) and Facebook (facebook.com/ihartravel). If you would like to contact Fidel directly, email [email protected]