Time Out Singapore: Japan Beyond Sakura (Feature)

Given the unpredictability of Japan’s cherry blossom season, it’s a challenge to be at the right place at the right time – fortunately, there are plenty of other spring festivals in the country to check out, as Gwen Pew discovers.

One of the 'Sea Hell' hot springs in Beppu, Japan.

One of the ‘Sea Hell’ hot springs in Beppu, Japan.

3 Apr 2013: Part of the beauty of Japan’s famous cherry blossom – or sakura – season is how shortlived it is, seeing as the whole process from blossoming to wilting lasts only about a week. Not all of them bloom at the same time, and flowering usually happens gradually from the southern side of the country to the north throughout the months of March, April and May. See www.japan-guide.com/e/e2011.html for a forecast of the major cities’ cherry blossom blooming time – although the website does warn that rain, wind and temperature changes can have an effect on the plants, so no promises.

April is still a fantastic month to visit Japan, however, as a slew of festivals take place during this time to celebrate the coming of spring. Here are four that you can admire, and if you’re lucky, you might just be able to catch these against a backdrop of pinkish-white falling petals.

Beppu Hot Spring Festival

When: 1-7 Apr
Beppu is famous for its eight major hot springs (onsen) – known locally as ‘the eight hells of Beppu’ (Hatto Onsen) and by which the city’s districts are divided – as well as hundreds of smaller ones that are fed by water from them. Hot springs, which are created when bodies of water are geothermally-heated by hot rocks from the Earth’s crust, are rich in minerals; many believe that they carry health benefits. Aside from the traditional hot water bath, visitors can also enjoy hot sand, steam and mud baths if they crave some variety. People give thanks to the onsen every year and many of the public baths are free to enter during the festival period. A map of where all the different springs are can be obtained from the tourist desk at Beppu station, but otherwise you can join the Hell Tour to make sure you see all of them.

Other attractions: On 6 April, another festival by the name of Ogiyama Fire Festival also takes place in Beppu, during which Mount Ohira is set alight by the burning of dry grass. The Wonder Rakutenchi, a quirky, old-school theme park, is one for those up for a laugh (although they’re more well-known for their duck races than their rides). Alternatively, opt to breathe in somefresh air at Mount Tsurumi.

How to get there: China Eastern Airlines (www.flychinaeastern.com) flies to Fukuoka from $760 return with one stopover. From there, look for the Fukuoka-kuko Kokusaisen Terminal bus stop (what a mouthful!) and take the Nishitetsu/Kamenoi bus for two hours all the way to Beppu, which costs around $40.

Festival of the Steel Phallus

When: 7 Apr
Commonly referred to as the Penis Festival – one of two penis festivals in Japan (the other being the Honen Matsuri, or Penis Fertility Festival, which is held in Komaki, Aichi prefecture during March) – Kanamara Matsuri began in Kawasaki during the Edo period in the 17th century. Legend goes that a young woman was inh

abited by a toothed demon who castrated her husbands on two wedding nights, and a blacksmith made her a steel phallus to break the demon’s tooth – hence the festival was born. It was a time for prostitutes to pray at the Kanamara shrine for protection against STDs, while other local folks would also visit for fertility, prosperity and harmony. While it is mostly known today for parading a giant pink penis called omikoshi around town as people eat penis-shaped candies, buy penis-shaped toys – or simply dress up as penises – the festival is also used to raise awareness for STDs and collect funds for HIV research.

Other attractions: Dedicated to the creator of comics such as Doraemon, the Fujiko F Fujio Museum in Kawasaki is fantastic for young and old fans alike – follow their audio guide (available in Japanese and English) around the place, and don’t forget to stop off at the Doraemon-themed café! The Nihon Minkaen Folk House Museum, which features more than 20 houses showcasing various architectural styles dating back to the 17th-19th centuries, also makes for an interesting trip.

How to get there Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) flies to Tokyo Narita Airport from $850 return with one stopover; Japan Airlines (www.jal.com) flies direct from $1,000 return. Take the Japanese Rail (JR) Narita Express (NEX) train to Shinagawa Station, and then transfer to either the JR Tokaido Line or the JR Keihin Tohoku Line to reach Kawasaki Station, which takes about an hour and a half and costs $43. Alternatively, you can also get to Kawasaki by a series of commuter trains on the Keisei Railway, Toei Asakusa Subway Line and Keikyu Line, which takes two hours and can get crowded, but only costs $18.

Takayama Float Festival

When: 14 & 15 Apr
Widely recognised as one of the three most beautiful festivals in Japan (with the other two being the Chichibu Matsuri at the Saitama Prefecture and the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto, both of which take place in July), the Takayama Float Festival is an annual event that dates back to the 17th century, held in the southern part of Takayama city’s Old Town. It is dedicated to the Hie Shrine – also known as the Sanno Shrine – and people traditionally pray for a successful harvest during this period, but the highlight here is without a doubt the 11 large, elaborate floats called yatai, which are displayed on the streets during the day and paraded around the city with lanterns in the evening by citizens in traditional Japanese dress. Each of the floats are
meant to represent a different district in Takayama, and some of them even carry mechanical puppets known as karakuri ningyo, which dance around the deck.

Other attractions: The Jinya-mae and Miyagawa morning markets are worth a visit for early birds (6am-noon), while the Takayama Jinya – an old government office dating back to the Edo period – also makes for an interesting stop. Alternatively, you can head to the Takayama Festival Float Exhibition Hall (Takayama Matsuri Yatai Kaikan) to find out more about the float festival.

How to get there: Asiana Airlines (www.flyasiana.com) flies to Toyama from $930 return with one stopover. From there, take the airport shuttle bus to Toyama Station (about 30 mins for $5), then hop on the JR Takayama Main Line train towards Inotani, and transfer to the JR Takayama Main Line train towards Inoota to reach Takayama, which takes two hours at around $21. However, another easier and quicker way from Toyama Station to Takayama Station is by the JR Hida Line train heading towards Nagoya – it’ll get you there in an hour and a half, but will cost you double (around $42).

Dances of the Old Capital

When: 1-30 Apr
Back for the 141st year, the traditional Spring Dance Festival gives visitors a rare opportunity to see geishas – highly skilled female entertainers – perform songs and dances in public in Japan’s former capital city, Kyoto. It originated in 1872 as part of the ‘Exhibition for the Promotion of Domestic Industry’ showcase three years after Japan’s capital moved to Tokyo, in an attempt to revive Kyoto’s declining status and attraction. The oldest and most established Mikyako Odori takes place at the famed Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre, performed by geishas who prefer to be called geiko, which means ‘a woman of art’. The show itself lasts about an hour and is divided into eight parts, and while the general structure remains the same every year, topics do vary and can be based on current events or political affairs. There are four daily afternoon shows (final show at 4.50pm); tickets range from JPY2,000- JPY4,500 ($26-$58) and can be bought at the theatre’s box office. See http://www.miyako-odori.jp/odori_en.html for more details.

Other attractions: Built in 1397 as a residence for General Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji) earned its name quite literally, as its exterior is entirely covered in gold leaf. Other popular temples in Kyoto include the Kiyomizu-dera and Ginkaku-ji, and the Sanjusangendo Hall is another grand example of Japan’s rich architectural heritage.

How to get there: China Eastern Airlines (see above) flies to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport from $780 return with one stopover. From there, board the Haruka Limited Express straight to Kyoto, which will take an hour and 15 minutes for $42. If you buy the one-day, foreigners-only JR West Kansai Area Pass (more info at http://www.westjr.co.jp/global/en), the train ride will only cost you around $26. From Kyoto Station, you can either walk to Miyako Odori, which takes half an hour, but there are also a number of buses close by that can take you there in 20 minutes for $3.

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