Two weeks ago, the day of Setsubun (Feb. 3rd) marked officially the start of spring. Since then, more and more trees are blossoming up. Today’s focus is on Ume (梅), the early bird blossoms of the Japanese plum. Most people are familiar with blossoming Sakura, the Japanese cherries, but in my opinion, Ume are superior, and I will tell you why.
Ume trees were a staple for decorating Japanese gardens during the Heian period, because of their grandiose appearance and strong fragrance. Gradually, as the samurai cast started to gain power, the more gentle Sakura stole the spotlight. Although I am aware of the concepts associated with the temporariness of falling petals drifting in the wind and the thoughts it generates regarding the impermanence of human life, the same analogies can be drawn for Ume. Plus, it smells nice and you can turn it into umeshu sweet liqueur. That is a good enough reason for me, I’m a man of simple pleasures.
Ume start blossoming earlier than Sakura, usually in the middle of February. In Taura, a neighborhood of the city of Yokosuka, there is an annual Plum festival lasting three weeks in February. The festival is held at the top of a steep hill featuring an Ume grove. There is also a small Inari shrine on the side of the hill as well as a Sakura grove close by. Normally, the Ume festival includes events such as Ikebana exhibitions and food stalls, but this year -you guessed it- it was canceled. We still decided to go, since no mortal can cancel the blossoming and have a casual picnic under the much welcome warm sun.
Although it is the middle of the February, the grove was not in full bloom yet. Probably next week it will be even prettier. The trees were carefully planted and treated, with fences not allowing to get too close, until you reach the flat area on the hilltop. You can easily make sure that the blossoms are indeed Ume: the petals are round, easily distinguishable from Sakura petals that end in a V-shaped slit.
The park has an observatory to enjoy the view of the park and the Tokyo Bay in the background. It also has a large sign imitating the famous Hollywood sign, with the less prestigious name “田浦梅の里” (Taura Ume-no-Sato). It is a popular destination for families with children and pets and ideal for weekend relaxation (if you can survive the consecutive staircases that take you up there).
After the picnic, we decided to walk towards the American Navy base in Yokosuka (self-described as “the largest overseas U.S. Naval installation in the world and is considered to be one of the most strategically important bases in the U.S. military.”). It was not the smartest of decisions; because of the hilly landscape, we had to cross at least 5 tunnels and my voice almost closed from screaming to be heard underneath the mask. The surrounding structures were interesting, with newly constructed mansions immediately next to collapsing old houses. After tunnels and more tunnels we reached the gate at Izumi wharf (逸見波止場衛門) marking the entrance of the Verny park. These gate towers are a reminder that the area used to be a port of the Japanese navy in the past.
Verny park is commemorating some French guy (who probably was important in the area) and there is also a small museum built in French style. In front of it there is a torpedo recovered from a Japanese shipwreck. This port offers a view to a couple of destroyer ships as well as a submarine. In the back, Agatsuma island is also visible.
We continue moving and the landscape feels increasingly foreign. What surprises me most is that almost all signs are in English and even the architecture style of the buildings seems alien. The ratio of American flags per shop facade is increasing dangerously. Yokosuka is on par with the American Village of Okinawa.
Walking around, I notice two things that I have seen before. Firstly, seemingly every place sells a special Japanese curry called Yokosuka Kaigun Curry (よこすか海軍カレー), which means naval curry. I have bought that prepackaged curry before, it tasted kinda average, but apparently it is extremely popular. The second thing I noticed was a poster of the “Muscle Idol” of Kanagawa outside the post office. The marketing skills of the Japanese when it comes to mascots and idols never cease to amaze me.
We walk a bit more (we should have been walking for 1.5h by now) and reach Mikasa park. Here there is another museum, on top of a ship that was used during the Russo-Japanese wars. If you are a history freak, the area of Yokosuka is an ideal destination to learn about naval history. Additionally, you can take a ferry and cross to the nearby Sarushima, an island that was used as a defense base and has numerous caves and bunkers. My friend had been there before and says it is gorgeous and untouched, with a tiny but crowded beach that is nice in the summer. I am planning to get there to see for myself in the coming weeks. For the time being, we hanged around the fountain that had a water show under the tune of swing and the Yokosuka city anthem.
Slowly, we start heading back towards Yokosuka station, but we first stop at Dobuita street. The name Dobuita (どぶ板) describes wooden lids that cover sewers and were placed in front of shops in the past. This street, again, is obviously American in aesthetic and a famous destination for bar-hopping. All shops have English signs and the staff tries their best to offer their services in English, which I guess is a byproduct of the proximity to the American navy base.
Something you can find here is military or military-style equipment. A lot of jackets in true Top Gun fashion, boots, pants, helmets, Japanese imperial flags (that spread terror in SE Asia, but are still used in the modern navy), an occasional SS Nazi hat (avoid that) and coin pouches shaped as grenades (not smart either). I’m pretty sure that if you are well versed on the subject you might find weirder stuff, not necessarily good. There is also a knife shop selling a couple of ninja-style shuriken (手裏剣) throwing blades for the price of 1900JPY.
Apart from tacos and shops with used military equipment, the other two souvenirs from the area are sukajan bomber jackets and dog tags. The flamboyant silk-like jackets with herons, the rising sun and tigers on the back side originated here in Yokosuka at the end of WWII and are officially described as sukajan (スカジャン). It seems the style started from american soldiers re-using textiles from parachutes into making jackets and together with the Sukaman (Yokosuka-Mambo) fashion movement became a street style for the youth and a characteristic of “bad boys”.
Dog tags are again associated with the military, but I especially liked that the example tag displayed information about the most famous Japanese actor, Takeshi Kitano (you know him at least from Battle Royale).
The final attraction of dobuita street is the most American thing of all: burgers. The biggest one is probably Tsunami, with a wide range of burgers named after American presidents. The Biden burger was lame at best and the Trump burger had the unusual option of peanut butter. I ordered a Ronald Reagan burger because it was rich in mozzarella and mushrooms, but too large to finish. The Obama burger looked nice, but had onion rings on top instead of a bun, so it would be impossible to eat properly.
So, that was what a day in Yokosuka looks like. During my time there I felt lost because the ratio of foreigners to Japanese was insanely out of the usual range, but it is an interesting and entertaining neighborhood. I’d like to go there again, after the end of the emergency period, for karaoke in the Phillipino bars and see what the nightlife looks like. In the meantime, I will keep you posted about visiting Sarushima.
Read more about Yokosuka here:
Ένα από τα πράγματα που ανακάλυψα πηγαίνοντας στη Γιοκόσουκα ήταν ότι είναι η πατρίδα του “σουκατζάν” (スカジャン). Τα σουκατζάν είναι πανωφόρια σε στυλ bomber jacket, από μεταξωτά πολύχρωμα υφάσματα και έντονα κεντημένα σχέδια με θέμα την ιαπωνία και την ιαπωνική καλλιτεχνική παράδοση. Στα αγγλικά συχνά αποκαλούνται…
Today we will talk about Sarushima, an “Uninhabited island in Tokyo Bay”. As the name hints, no people live on the island, and no monkeys (Saru-shima means monkey island) for that fact. The area of the island is approximately 55.000 km, equivalent to 4 times the area…