Nature Observations (lockdown 2021)


We often talk about time as if it is real, yet according to Albert Einstein and many scientists, time is only an illusion. Time is subjective and personal, and everyone has their own concept of time. In Zen Buddhism, the founder of Soto Zen, Dogen Zenji (1200–1253), also wrote about time or ‘uji’ in Japanese, which is usually translated as ‘Being-Time’. The most common interpretation of the two kanji characters is: “time is existence and that all existence is time.” According to Dogen, we are time, and time is us. Time is a complex subject, and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, but personally, the lockdown has made me become more aware of my relationship with time.

During the pandemic, my digital calendar and paper planners were mostly blank for about 2 years. I had no work events or social engagements to attend, and no upcoming holiday to look forward to. I am sure that many people experienced some sort of anxieties when all the short and long term plans suddenly came to a halt. And with so much ‘time’ on our hands, how were we going to spend it?

Perhaps for the first time in life, I did not have to check my watch, clocks and calendar frequently. I stopped planning, and after a while, time became ‘insignificant’. I could ‘waste’ it day after day without feeling guilty about not being productive enough. When I finally let go of ‘time’, I felt liberated. I learned to slow down and live each day as it comes.

Instead of obsessively checking the clocks for time and calendar for dates, I began to observe time through plants and flowers when I went out for walks during the lockdown. Nature became the measuring device for me.


Perhaps it is a misconception to think that flowers do not bloom during winter. In fact, there are many evergreen shrubs and flowers that thrive in the winter like Snowdrops, Hellebores, Eranthis, Primrose, and Viburnum tinus Eve Price etc. During my lockdown walks, I would come across some blooming flowers despite the cold weather. With less distractions and stimulations, I found joy in identifying unknown plant species during my strolls around London.

Hedera colchica  Algerian irisHelleboresjapanese skimmia  Iris foetidissimaFirst left: Hedera colchica/ Persian Ivy; First right: Algerian iris; 2nd row: Hellebores; bottom left: Japanese skimmia; Bottom right: Iris foetidissima

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of winter plants or flowers are the array of vibrant colours. There are bright pinks, reds, violets, and yellows – these are colours normally associated with spring/summer, yet they can be seen during the winter too. Time passes quickly when you place your focus on the surrounding nature rather than on yourself – the lockdown probably created an environment for introspection, yet too much of it would make us too self-focused due to less interactions with the outside world.

Red twig dogwoods  red maple leavesimg_5079Eranthis   Mahonia Viburnum tinus Eve PriceViburnum tinus Eve Price  HelleboresFirst left: Red twig dogwoods; First right: maple leaves: 2nd: snowdrops; 3rd left: Eranthis; 3rd right: Mahonia; 4th & Bottom left: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; Bottom right: Hellebore

Euonymus europaeus  ChaenomelesChaenomelesWEIGELA PINK POPPETMagenta HebeFirst left: Euonymus europaeus; first right & 2nd: Chaenomeles; 3rd: Weigela Pink Poppet; last row: Magenta Hebe

Crocus tommasinianus 'Ruby Giant'Erica carnea, the winter heathClematis armandiiPrimrose – Primula vulgarisFirst: Crocus tommasinianus ‘Ruby Giant’; 2nd: Erica carnea/the winter heath; 3rd: Viburnum tinus Eve Price; 4th: Clematis armandii; Bottom: Primrose (Primula vulgaris)

My favourite time of the year is autumn and spring. Around late February and early March, the day light hours would last longer, which means spring is in the air. The gradual increase of sunshine and day light makes a huge diference to the ecology and humans. We start to notice daffodils blooming everywhere, and seeing the golden yellow colour covering the parks immediately uplifts our moods and spirits.

daffadils  daffadilsdaffadilsdaffadilsdaffadilsDaffodils

On the grounds, there are daffodils, and when we look up, we would see seas of sumptuous white and pink magnolias over our heads. Magnolia shrubs seem to be ommonly planted in people’s gardens in London as I tend to see them a lot when I walk around my neighbourhood.

Magnolia  Magnoliapink magnoliaMagnoliaWhite and pink magnolia

For those (including me) who yearned to go to Japan but couldn’t for the last few years, the joy of viewing cherry blossom seemed to have become a distant memory. Yet London is also a good place for sakura viewing; even though it is not as spectatular as Japan, the number of Japanese cherry trees being planted in the U.K. have been increasing over the years. As far as I am aware, there is only one white-flowering cherry tree (Prunus x yedoensis) standing alone the middle of an open field in Hampstead heath, and when it blooms, it is quite stunning. The next obvious place to view sakura would be Regent’s Park, both inside and on the outer ring.

cherry blossomcherry blossomcherry blossomcherry blossomA white-flowering cherry tree/ Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis) in Hamspstead heath

cherry treecherry blossomcherry treescherry blossomCherry trees in Regent’s park

The lesser-known sakura viewing spot is the residential neighbourhood, Swiss Cottage. The open space in around Hampstead theatre and Swiss Cottage library features rows of white-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x yedoensis) and pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’). When the flowers are in bloom, they do look quite spectacular and make you feel you are in Japan for a second. Since it is a recreation space, it may even be possible to have a viewing picnic party there (weather permitted).

cherry blossomcherry blossom  cherry blossomcherry blossomcherry blossomThe stunning pink-flowering cherry trees (Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis Rosea’) in Swiss Cottage

In spring, we would often see a lot of beautiful camellias in various colours, especially Camellia japonica, which is the predominate species of the genus. Besides that, we might be able to spot some ravishing rhododendrons or azaleas ( particularly at Kew Gardens) blooming in people’s gardens.

Camellia Japonica  img_5512 camelliaimg_5643  img_5321-minimg_5727Camellia – Top & 2nd rows: Japonica Camellia


buddleiaprimroseFirst: rose; 2nd & 3rd: Rhododendron; 4th: buddleia; botton: primrose

If you are not a fan of showy ornamental plants/flowers, there are plenty of wild spring flowers that are captivating too. Personally, I am quite fascinated by gorse/ulex (commonly seen around the UK especially in Scotland), which is an evergreen shrub with bright yellow pea-like flowers and spiny leaves. The flowers are eible and can be used as a medicinal tea, as well as a natural dye, producing a yellow colour on the fabrics.

ForsythiagorseTop: Forsythia; Bottom: common gorse

Spring is also the season to enjoy various lilac/blue/violet flowers like Ceanothus, Periwinkles, wisteria, lavender and bluebells. Ceanothus are popular garden shrubs in the UK, and their lilac flowers are particularly impressive.

However, when it comes to popularity, wild bluebells certainly rank quite high up on the list. Besides cherry blossoms, the bluebell seasons are highly anticipated by many too. It is quite easy to spot bluebells in spring, but the best places to view are still in the woods. Whenever I see a stunning carpet of blue in the woodlands, I would feel instantly quite ecstatic. There are two main types of bluebells in the U.K.: the British bluebell, (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) and the Spanish bluebell (Hyacinthoides hispanica), and the native ones are being protected by law as they are under threat now.

Ceanothus Yankee PointCeanothus Yankee PointbluebellbluebellsbellflowerTop & 2nd: Ceanothus; 3rd: Periwinkle; last three: bluebells

When I immerse myself in nature, I could see the cycles of nature and life. Flowers bloom, wither, and are replaced by other species as the seasons change. When there is a beginning, there will be an end… though the cycle will continue to repeat itself indefinitely. It does not matter if we can’t figure out what ‘time’ is, the more important thing is to live in the present. We are now living in a more precarious and unpredictable world, hence we ought to enjoy each day as it comes. If you feel down/ stressed/ anxious, why not head outside and spend time in nature to get lost in time? I highly recommend it.


Kenrokuen – is this the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan?


Kasumiga Pond


Kenrokuen is considered one of Japan’s three most beautiful landscape gardens alongside Mito’s Kairakuen and Okayama‘s Korakuen. Located in central Kanazawa, the once-private garden covers an area of 11 hectares (almost 25 acres) next to Kanazawa Castle. The original garden named Renchitei is said to have been created by the 5th Maeda lord, Tsunonori Maeda around 1676. The garden was burnt down in 1759, but was restored in 1774, and in 1822 the garden was renamed Kenrokuen. This name can be translated to “garden of six elements”, which refers to the six features mentioned in a classical Chinese poem for a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, flowing water and panoramas. The garden was not opened to the public until 1874, and now it is one of the most popular sightseeing spots in Kanazawa.






There are two main entrances to the vast garden and it costs 310 yen to get in. It is easy to feel disoriented here because of its size, but if you are not in a hurry, you can easily stroll for a few hours while admiring the nature and landscape here.

There are roughly 8,750 trees, and 183 species of plants at this garden. The garden offers something different for every season, but it is particularly popular in spring because of cherry blossom.




Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en



Some of the main features at the garden include the artificial Kasumiga-ike Pond; Yugao-tei tea house on the Hisagoike pond which dates from 1774 and the oldest building in the garden; and a bronze statue of a legendary hero, Yamato Takeru was erected in 1880 to commemorate the deaths of 400 soldiers from Ishikawa Prefecture who died helping to suppress a rebellion in Kyushu. 





Kenroku-en  Kenroku-en



There is also stone with a poem inscribed on it by the haiku poet Matsuo Basho who visited Kanazawa in 1689. The poem reads:

bright red burning
bitter sun…
but autumn in the wind

Since I am no expert in traditional Japanese landscape garden, I can’t say whether this is the most beautiful landscape garden in Japan or not. However, I was very impressed by the ancient pine trees at this garden, and I think they are definitely some of the most beautiful trees I have ever seen. The tallest one is called “Neagarimatsu”, meaning “a pine tree with its roots going up”, is about 15 m in height and it was planted by the 13th lord Nariyasu about 200 years ago. It is an absolutely magnificent and stunning tree (see the third one below).









Although the garden was quite busy during my visit, but due to its size, it was easy to avoid the crowds and enjoy some tranquil spots. The garden also offers a panoramic view of city, so I guess these are all the elements that make this one of the best landscape gardens in Japan.







A perfect spring day in Nara


Sunny and warm afternoon at Nara park


My trip began in Osaka, though I barely spent any time there except for the evenings. My good friend has recently moved to Sendai (we originally met in London) flew over to Osaka to meet me before I continued on with my journey. And I suggested that we take the train and spend the day in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan (before Kyoto).

Yet we started off the morning getting lost at the confusing and maze-like Osaka train station (just like Shinjuku and Tokyo stations), and it took us some time to find the right track and train to go Nara, which is about 45 mins to one hour away depending on the trains.




nara writing paper  img_8295-min


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It was a relief to get away from the hustle and bustle of Osaka. Even though Nara is also popular with tourists, it is much more relaxing, probably due to the expansive Nara park in the middle of the city. Most of the famous temples like Todai-ji Temple and Kasuga-Taisha Shrine are located within the park, so it is easy to spend a full day wandering around the park, which was exactly what we did.



Lunch was Kamameshi, a traditional aromatic cooked-in-an-iron-pot rice and vegetables with seafood or meat.


The park is huge and has over 1000 hungry and aggressive deer roaming around for food. These deer would do anything to get food, including bowing (they are Japanese after all)! The warning signs in the park are hilarious and quite acurate (see below).


img_8306-min  img_8324-min

deers nara




Todai-ji Temple

Todai-ji Temple


During our visit, we were blessed with sunny and warm weather, accompanied by the beginning of the cherry blossom season. Although they are not fully bloom yet, it was still lovely to see rows of cherry trees around the park.



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Matcha dessert at Mizuya Chaya


Kasuga-Taisha Shrine


Kasuga-Taisha Shrine




Kofuku-ji Temple

Kofuku-ji Temple


At the end of the day, we completely lost track of time… although we were exhausted from all the walking, we couldn’t believe that the sun was about to set, and that we had to return to Osaka. We both thought it was a perfect day – a relaxing day in a picturesque setting, I mean what more can you ask for?


img_8375-min  img_8379-min

Osaka’s Dotonbori


The transition from tranquil Nara to hectic Dotonbori in Osaka was almost too overwhelming for me. I did not enjoy being in central Osaka at all. Yet I knew this would soon pass because I would be heading off to Koyasan, Japan’s sacred mountain on the next day…


I.M. Pei’s Shangri-La – Miho Museum



“The Peach Blossom Land” was a Chinese fable written by poet Tao Yuanming in 421 CE about a fisherman’s discovery of a hidden valley – an ethereal utopia where contented people lead an ideal existence in harmony with nature, unaware of the outside world for centuries. It is similar to the mystical and harmonious valley Shangri-La described in the novel “Lost Horizon” by British author James Hilton. Interestingly, human beings have always longed for an utopia like Shangri-La, yet we never seem to be able to live harmoniously with nature, and we have irrefutably destroyed countless of Shangri-Las since human civilisation.

If Shangri-La does exist, what would it look like? Chinese/American architect I.M. Pei created his version in the mountains of Shigaraki about an hour outside of Kyoto. A friend strongly recommended the Miho museum to me years ago, but sadly it was closed for months during my last visit to Kyoto a few years ago. During this trip, I met up with a friend who was spending a few months in Kyoto, and she was keen to return to the museum despite having visited it a few weeks earlier. She told me that the museum’s famous cherry blossom was the reason for her to return to the museum, and suggested that we depart early to avoid the crowds. (N.B. the trip to the museum requires a train journey followed by another 50-min bus ride).





It turned out that other visitors had the same idea, so we had to travel with heaps of tourists heading towards the museum. The bus usually departs from the train station at every hour, but due to the unprecedented numbers of visitors, additional buses were deployed to cope with the mass numbers. Several buses full of visitors heading up to Shangri-La was not what I expected, and I doubt Mr Pei would have foresaw this either.




Opened in 1997, the museum was commissioned by the controversial heiress Mihoko Koyama and her daughter Hiroko to house her private collection of Asian and Western art and antiquities. Mihoko Koyama was the founder of the new religion movement Shinji Shumeikai, which is widely regarded as a cult group. From the museum, visitors can see the headquarters of the group and a bell tower, also designed by I.M. Pei in 1989. I am surprised by Mr Pei’s decision to work for a suspected cult leader, but I guess nothing is quite black or white in our complex world.







Perhaps Mr Pei was impressed by the site, which is located in a stunning nature reserve. There were many challenges that Mr Pei had to overcome, and one of them was to create harmony between the building and its surrounding environment and topography. And he succeeded this by burying eighty percent of the museum beneath the surface of the mountain. The museum itself is reachable through a tunnel and a suspected bridge, and the sight of the cherry trees is spectacular during the cherry blossom season. It is no wonder that so many tourists would make their way out of Kyoto to visit this museum.




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The museum collection is not huge, but it is remarkable and fascinating. Best of all, it is complemented by the equally impressive architecture that emphasises on natural lighting and geometric forms – elements that is often seen in Mr Pei‘s works (e.g. Louvre’s Pyramid). I think the elegant and understated style resonates with the traditional Japanese aesthetics. Personally, I think this is Mr Pei‘s masterpiece, and one of the most stunning museums that I have ever visited. It felt like a discovery experience because you are never quite sure what you would encounter next.








After spending some time wandering around the museum, the crowds started to disperse and we were able to enjoy the space more. At lunch time, our stomachs were rumbling and we headed to the restaurant only to be told that lunch had sold out already! The waitress apologised politely and suggested that we go to the cafe near the parking to try our luck. Unsurprisingly, there was a long queue at the cafe and so we ended up buying some bread (not sandwich, but plain bread with no butter or filling) at their bakery as there was nothing else nearby. I was flabbergasted by how ill-prepared the museum was in regards to the high numbers of visitors, and got more agitated when I saw the long line of people waiting for the bus. Packed like sardines for almost an hour, we were transported to the train station, and I felt relieved to finally get away from other tourists.

It was a shame that my visit to the museum was tainted by the overwhelming of numbers of visitors – I think I would have enjoyed it more during the off-peak season. When I remembered my pilgrimage hike in Kumano Kodo just the week before, I realised that I had already found my Shangri-La – it is a tranquil and unspoilt place where nature rules. If men can learn to respect and listen to nature more, then we can see that Shangri-Las are everywhere, and it is not a special place that we have to seek.


‘Kanko kogai’ (tourism pollution) in Kyoto


philosopher's path  sakura

The usually tranquil Philosopher’s path was full of tourists with selfie sticks during the cherry blossom period


I have been warned and I knew when I struggled to find accommodations three months before my trip, yet I still went to Kyoto during the sakura season. It was not my plan to visit Japan during the sakura season, but due to the timing of the indigo dyeing workshop, I reluctantly ended up in Kyoto during its peak season – something I would normally avoid as much as possible. I don’t know how the residents cope with the mass tourism during the cherry blossom season, but I totally empathise with them since London also struggles with mass tourism in the summers. These days, mass tourism is having a negative impact on the infrastructure and environment around the world, and governments need to take measures to tackle this modern-day phenomenon to minimise further environmental and other damages.








According to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), around 28.7 million tourists from abroad visited Japan last year, and with the 2020 Olympics coming up, the numbers are likely to surpass 40 million. Some Japanese media even dubbed this issue as ‘kanko kogai‘, or tourism pollution. Even though tourists from around the world flock to Kyoto during the cherry blossom period, the most notable ones are from China. It is hard to ignore the rise of Chinese tourists around the world in the past decade, and Japan is one of the their favourite destinations partly due to the proximity between the two countries. Now more than six million Chinese tourists visit Japan annually, and they are not all welcome by the Japanese because of the differences in etiquette and behaviour. What is worse is when they rent kimonos and roam around Kyoto/Tokyo in non-Japanese manners; it is not hard to understand why the Japanese are secretly rolling their eyes.




The famous Ginkakuji temple was almost congested at 10am


My advice is to avoid Kyoto during the sakura season, because it is unpleasant and stressful. I have previously visited Kyoto during the winter, and it was relatively warm and sunny, with few tourists and better services. After spending days hiking in forests where I saw only trees and few humans, it was like a shock to my system when I arrived in an overcrowded Kyoto. Four days in Kyoto turned out to be a quest to try and get away from crowds and tourists, which was a challenge and it completely tarnished my views on Kyoto. I made a mistake of visiting the Philosopher’s path and Ginkakuji (where I visited about 12 years ago) in the morning, and it was completely packed. The cherry blossom was beautiful, but being surrounded by tourists taking selfies with their selfie sticks was hardly tranquil. Previously, when I visited the Philosopher’s path in the summer, we were able to stroll and enjoy the sights and shops along the path at a leisurely pace and with few tourists around us. Those were the days…








Streets of Kyoto


Many of us would rather be seen as a traveler than a tourist, but is there a difference between the two terms? I think so. Years ago, I read the novel by American writer, Paul Bowles‘ ‘The Sheltering sky’ (and watched the films many times), and the protagonist distinguishes the difference as follows:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home… Another important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.’

According to the above paragraph, a majority of us would be considered as tourists in Paul Bowles‘ eyes, but this was written in 1949, so I am not sure how many ‘travelers’ still exist today. I would love to be a traveler and just drift around the world for years, but this lifestyle is probably reserved for the more privileged. Yet the last part of the paragraph seems to imply that travelers are more thoughtful when they travel, and they would question and compare rather than just follow the crowds.


kyoto  kyoto

Kyoto at night


Personally, I felt that my 5-week journey around Japan was unlike my previous ones, because it revolved around craft and nature. And most of the local people I met during my journey appreciated that I wasn’t just there to visit famous sights or to eat and shop. All the artisans and craftsmen I met were very proud of their craftsmanship and traditions, and they welcome visitors who would take the time to try and understand their culture beyond the surface.

Perhaps the definitions of the two term are not that important, the more important point is the attitude and mindset. If we want to be likable tourists/travelers, we have to respect other cultures and etiquette when we are there. Let’s all try to be responsible tourists/ travelers from now on.








Cherry Blossom in London

sakura London


Believe it or not, but you don’t have to travel to Japan to view sakura/cherry blossom! These photos of sakura were taken in London’s Swiss Cottage!

I wasn’t aware that the Camden Council had planted rows of cherry trees between the Swiss Cottage Library/leisure Centre and Hampstead theatre, so I was slightly in awe when I encountered a sea of pink as I was walking towards the library one day.


sakura London


Nature, like life, is ephemeral and unpredictable. Last year in Tokyo, I missed the peak bloom of sakura by a few days when rain, wind and a sudden drop of temperature hit the city. It was a tremendous disappointment for me, but it also made appreciate the few remaining flowering cherry trees that withstood the sudden weather fluctuation.


sakura London

sakura London  sakura London


Yet this year, the sight of cherry blossom in London took me – and other passerby – completely by surprise. I never expected to see rows of pink cherry trees in this part of London!

I was aware that within days, the pinks petals from the flowering Prunus trees were likely to drop and wither away, but the fleeting scenery still had a profound psychological effect on me as it indicated that the long and depressing winter has finally ended.

As the saying goes, the best things in life are free. Sometimes joy and pleasure happens when you least expect it, and since these moments rarely last, it’s best to enjoy them before they disappear!


sakura London  sakura London  sakura London



Spring blossom in Tokyo

tofuya ukai tofuya ukaicherry blossomcherry blossom cherry blossom

The last days of cherry blossom in Tokyo’s Shiba park


Due to all the traveling, I have been slacking on the blog writing lately. The next few entries will be on my trip to Japan last month…

This year, sakura/cherry blossom arrived in Tokyo at the end of March, as predicted by the forecast. Unfortunately, it was cut short by strong wind, rain and a sudden drop in temperature, hence I missed the full bloom and only caught the end of the party.

Yet it didn’t upset me too much as I didn’t have much expectation beforehand. I avoided the peak season knowing the city would have been packed with tourists as well as locals, so I was fairly grateful to have caught a fleeting glimpse of the iconic natural phenomena.


cherry blossomcherry blossom P1130019-compressed flower flower


In fact I was more bothered about the erratic weather; even though I am used the British weather, I didn’t expect to experience three seasons within 10 days!

A cold front hit Tokyo upon my arrival, followed by heavy downpour for days, and so it was a huge anticlimax as my activities were restricted by the rain. Finally the sun reappeared again a few days before my departure, and I was able to enjoy some outdoor activities at last.


tokyo blossomflower P1120901-compressed


Being able to stroll outdoor and enjoy nature was joyous for me. And even without endless cherry trees in sight, a delightful array of lush flowers could be seen everywhere in the city. Aside from efforts by the city official to enhance the streetscape, local residents are also keen to show off their green fingers.


tokyotokyotokyo tokyotokyo spring blossomtokyotokyotokyo


The Japanese love nature and flower viewing, and cherry blossom is only the beginning of the flower viewing season in Japan. There are numerous flower festivals throughout the country at different times of the year, and currently there is the Fuji Shibazakura Festival, where 800,000 stunning pink moss phlox can be seen near Lake Motosu and Mount Fuji.

If endless consumption is not your cup of tea, then head for some flower viewing in Japan next time… you will be amazed by what this country has to offer for everyone!