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  • Writer's pictureDorrie McDaniels

Take a Break from the Daily Grind and Enjoy 花鳥風月

The assignment to write about my personal "bucket list" adventure was an easy one. Japan is the place I want to explore. I've always been enchanted with the island nation and I jumped at the opportunity to explain why!

The Japanese expression 花鳥風月 translates to “the beauties of nature.” This expression certainly reins true with a culture dating back 15 million years, home to 100,000 shrines, 80,000 Buddha temples, and 200 public gardens.

By: Dorrie McDaniels

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Traveling the world, experiencing customs and cultures completely different from your own. We all have a bucket list. Some write it down while others keep it in the back of their mind. Japan is a country I’ve longed to explore, with the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, the picturesque scenery of the Senmaida Rice Fields, plus the seasonal festivals. What’s not to love?

Here's a list of reasons why Japan, the often overlooked gem, is worth exploring.

Bring on the Snow

Get ready to celebrate the New Year like you’ve never had before. Japan's New Year's is similar to America's Christmas. Virtually the entire country shuts down as everybody partakes in New Year's traditions. So don't be shy and join in on the fun.

Gather with friends or family and eat Toshikoshi soba an hour before midnight; this traditional bowl of plain noodles symbolizes the “crossing over from one year to the next.” Right before the clock strikes twelve, put on your heaviest winter coat and experience Hatsumōde with the locals. Hatsumōde is an important part of Japanese culture, representing the year's first shrine visit. While at the shrine, make sure to purchase an omikuji or (fortune slip). Finally, to round off the festivities, purchase an Osechi-ryōri (traditional New Year's feast), which is considered the most important meal of the year as each dish serves as well-wishes for the coming year.

These photos are courtesy of the

If you can’t make it to Japan for New Year's, do not fret. The Winter season offers plenty of other beautiful sights to behold. For instance, the Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival is a four-day celebration hosted annually in early February. Upon entering Hirosaki Park, you will be transported into a winter wonderland decorated with a few hundred snow lanterns, snow sculptures, plus a lotus pond surrounded by nearly 300 candle-lit igloos known as Kamakura.

Besides winter festivals, Japan is also home to enchanting nighttime illuminations. In big cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto, it's possible to see the stars, so for a few months, enjoy the thousands of twinkly LED lights that fill the night sky. Here is a list of the top five wintertime illumination, Nabana no Sato Winter, Roppongi Hills, Hanatouro, Kobe Luminarie, and Sendai Pageant of Starlight.

If you truly want to immerse yourself in the beauty of nature and view some pretty unique wildlife, head to Jigokudani Yaen Koen (Snow Monkey Park). Home of the Japanese macaque monkeys, and if you're lucky enough to visit during the winter months, you’ll have the chance to see these monkeys soaking in the area's hot springs to keep warm.

Bask in the Beautiful Sakura

The most popular time to visit Japan is in the spring when their national flower, sakura or (cherry blossoms) is in full bloom. Although it is now possible to view sakura worldwide, there are traditions and customs unique to Japan. Sakura's cultural importance runs deep, not just for its overwhelming beauty but as a symbol of life, death, and renewal. But if you wish to experience the magic of sakura, you have got to be quick because, as we all know, the life of these beautiful flowers is short-lived.

The Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival is an annual celebration taking place from late April to early May in Hirosaki Park. Home to 2,600 sakura trees, some of which are over 300 years old. The sheer about of cherry blossom trees in Hirosaki Park allows for a remarkable sight. Don't forget your picnic blanket if you plan on attending any Cherry Blossom Festival. Underneath the cherry blossom trees, you'll see hundreds of locals sprawled out on picnic blankets with sake-filled glasses, bento boxes, and sweet mochi, taking part in the ritual of hanami or cherry blossom viewing.

Sakura viewing is just one of many opportunities in Japan for locals and tourists alike to witness the beauty of nature's rebirth. Another popular springtime attraction is the Kawachi Fujien Wisteria Garden, made famous for its two 100-meter-long tunnels of wisteria. The two tunnels don’t just consist of purple wisteria but blue and white as well. The peak wisteria blooming season is late April through Golden Week.

If you manage to drag yourself out of the famous Japanese gardens, make sure to explore the historical sites of Japan. Himeji Castle, one of the country's twelve original castles, is widely considered Japan's most spectacular castle for its imposing size, beauty, and well-preserved castle grounds. The castle's pure white-plastered walls resemble a dancing white heron—known locally as a Shirasagi—with wings outstretched, earning it the nickname Shirasagi-jo Castle. Whether you view the castle from the ground or up above, Himeji Castle resembles a labyrinth comprised of over eighty buildings spread across multiple baileys, connected by a series of gates and winding paths. Not to mention unlike many other Japanese castles, Himeji Castle was never destroyed by war, earthquake, or fire.

Here Comes the Sun

A colorful backdrop of matsuri (festivals) featuring: night illumination in the form of bright floats, dancing, fireworks, and lanterns is what awaits you if you travel to Japan in the summer. Some of the biggest and best festivals include Awa Odori and Nebuta Matsuri. So what are you waiting for? Put on a yukata (traditional Japanese summer kimono), and head to one of the thousand summer festivals. Where you can find authentic Japanese street food such as taiyaki, okonomiyaki, dango, and kakigori

Traditionally called minazuki, "the month of water," June gets more rainfall than other months as the rainy season sets in. For most people, rain is often a deterrent, but there lies a hidden gem worthy of being seen. If cherry blossoms are the flower of spring, then hydrangeas are the flower of Summer. Here are the top two hydrangea viewing sites for the month of June.

Meigetsuin Temple was founded in 1160 and is the final resting place of Hojo Tokiyori, one of the most powerful men in Kamakura's history. The hydrangeas which call this temple home are incredibly voluminous and bountiful, earning the nickname Hydrangea Temple. Besides hydrangeas, the temple is also famous for its irises in the inner garden. However, this area is kept closed to visitors except in June.

Something magical happens when you enter Hattori Hydrangea House. You are no longer on Earth but in a place full of wonder and enchantment. Located on mountainous slopes the garden spreads out across 18,000 square meters. Hattori Hydrangea House boasts over 10,000 hydrangeas of around 250 species. The hydrangeas bloom in a variety of shades of blue, purple, pink, and white, creating a spectacular contrast to the greenery covering the hilly slopes. Walking paths allows visitors to enjoy a 360-degree view of the blossoms.

During your travels, learn how rice, the lifeline of Japan's populace, is farmed. Shiroyone Senmaida is a scenic hillside of tiered rice paddies, situated along the Noto Peninsula. Funny enough, while most people consider rain a negative attribute, it is thanks to Japan’s rainy season that the rice paddies flood creating an infinity pool effect with the sea as the backdrop. So take your time and enjoy the fields from different perspectives. Whether it be walking down to the ocean or through the small paths that wind through the paddies. To see this beautiful site we recommend traveling by car.

If you're planning a trip to Japan, you'd be remiss not to visit Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is now known as the heart and soul of Japanese culture. While in Kyoto, don't forget to visit one of its most iconic sites, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Although the path through the bamboo grove is short, the feeling you have while immersed in the emerald green forest creates a memory to last a lifetime. For maximum effect, approach the grove from the side gate of Tenryu-ji Temple. Residing at the top of the grove is Okochi-Sanso Villa, with magnificent gardens showcasing some of the best views of Kyoto. Make sure not to rush through the grove, for if you do, you might miss the part where the forest extends to the nearby Nonomiya Shrine. Regarded as the most important shrine in Japan, Nonomiya Shrine was where daughters from the Imperial family used to purify themselves before becoming shrine maidens at Ise Jingu.

Look Out and See a Sea of Crimson and Amber

Brisk air, clear skies, and radiant autumn foliage beckon you to explore more. Japan welcomes you to a world full of harvests, festivals, outdoor excursions, autumnal hikes, and art. The leaves changing colors is the star attraction of the autumn season. Mountain and lakeside areas are popular destinations, but you can enjoy the colors practically anywhere. Most shrines and temples have attractive grounds with their fair share of maple trees. Since autumn is the optimal harvesting time food tastes great! In the Niigata region try some Japanese pears, persimmon fruit, rice, soba noodles, and sake. Lastly, autumn is traditionally considered the time for the arts in Japan, so many of the biggest and best exhibitions begin in October.

While Americans have Thanksgiving, the Japanese have harvest festivals. One of the most famous of which is the Takayama Autumn Festival. A grand event to give thanks while also marking the beginning of preparations for winter. The Takayama Autumn Festival takes place over two days, October 9 and 10. The festival features eleven colorful, ornately decorated floats. Some floats are topped with marionettes, which at set times, puppeteers make them perform traditional dances. Once the sun goes down on October 9th, Takayama is bathed in the soft glow of lantern light. The evening festivities begin with a 100 lantern-lit float toured around town.

If you or anyone you plan on traveling with is a fireworks fan. Then this is a can't-miss event. Japan's leading fireworks technicians gather for the Yatsushiro National Fireworks Competition Festival on the third Saturday in October. This competition allows pyrotechnicians to showcase their techniques on a large scale. Set on the riverbed of the Kumagawa River, approximately 15,000 fireworks are launched, illuminating and coloring the autumn night sky. The Yatsushiro National Fireworks Competition offers Japan's highest level of "light and sound art," All the fireworks are synchronized with music to create an incredible scene.

** Dorrie McDaniels is a journalism student at Quinnipiac University. She is currently an intern at Heintz Media Group and is a staff writer for TravelAnne. **

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