Not only was I treated to splendid weather and cherry blossoms at near bloom while in Japan, but the Imperial Palace grounds and gardens were open for touring, a rare event that not even many Japanese have experienced.

Fearing Disney ride-esque queues we were thrilled to have to wait not more than a few minutes on this final full day before going through security and entering the grounds. Past the palace and among the manicured gardens we were queued ever so politely, with staff on hand to answer questions and to point out ideal places to snap photos. Rather civilized, and entirely a treat.

From the Imperial Gardens we headed next to Ameryoko Market for the energetic buzz and to have lunch at “this little place near the funny sign” that JF recalled. And what fun we had trying to find it, weaving past people and more people, pausing for photos of just about everything and then trying hilariously to slip back into the stream. In between, “Oh, look, another temple tucked behind some clothing shops!

We soon found the sign; and then, “the little place.” Edamame; seared Ahi Tuna slices (oh, my word!); Tempura “Shrimp” that were more the size of Mediterranean Langoustines; and a sashimi plate that we devoured with unabashed ecstasy.

Where else to walk off our meal but Ueno Park. Cherry Blossoms, and beneath them, everyone from businessmen sitting on their briefcases with their bento boxes to moms and children sprawled on blankets, soaking up the sun and celebrating the pink and white flowers. The happiness was contagious, too: we grabbed two scoops of Cherry Blossom ice cream and wandered, past so many Ohanami picnics and past the street food lane leading to Toshogo Shrine and the grilled squid-on-a-stick and the pink, green, and white Mochi (also on sticks) and the…corn on the cob? not on a skewer but on two chopsticks, and wishing that we had perhaps not indulged so much at lunch.

In Ueno Park, The Flame of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With just a couple of hours remaining in our day, JF suggested Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple. Though we as a family had previously visited I replied, “Of course!  I’ll get some updated snaps!”  Wow, ten years can add a lot of tourism to a destination, but in trying to dodge a tour group we discovered that one of the related structures was hosting an exhibit of rarely-displayed art from the temple, along with an opportunity to walk in the also rarely-open temple gardens. So, not only did Japan make the sun shine and cherry blossoms bloom; and open the Imperial Gardens; but the country also opened their oldest temple’s art and gardens for me to explore! So few tourists were in the gallery and the gardens. Too bad for them, but not for us!

At the temple one can request a fortune. Mine turned out to be a good fortune; but for others, perhaps not.

By this point in the day we were exhausted, yet somehow still wanted to eat dinner. JF suggested we head to Ginza, where we could connect with her husband. I was enamored with the eateries beneath the train tracks in the area (a la Midnight Tokyo), but the group vote was for Thai food. I went rather vanilla with my order of Pad Thai, but, just as any Italian restaurant worth its salt should be able to prepare a perfect Spaghetti Aglio e Aioli, so should a Thai place be able to prepare their national noodle dish correctly, right? Well, the odds were ever in my favor; the dish had been prepared by someone who knows.

A “late” start of 0900 on my final morning. JF and I, and Kawagoe friend, walked about her neighborhood which has been featured in the movie and anime series, Sangatsu no Lion (March Comes in Like a Lion). Honestly, this half day was just as I had wanted, something not at all touristy. We began our walk with the Sumiyoshi Shrine, dating to the 1600s, small but important to the people of this Tsukudajima neighborhood and its history as a fishing village. There is also a remnant of the ferry dock piling; the ferry transporting passengers across and back over the Sumida River until 1964, when a bridge was built in time for the Olympics. As we were approaching the historical description board, an elderly Japanese man came up and motioned excitedly for us to read it because, as he said, “There is English for you.”

Nearby, the beautiful bright red bridge, Tsukuda-ko Bridge sits amidst old houses and boats and is a popular spot for artists.

Even more tucked away down a nondescript lane is the Buddhist Tsukuda Tenzai Jizoson, the “Guardian Deity of Children” built entirely around an old tree.

Walking around this village that sits beneath the towering residential skyscrapers is a little bit like stepping back in time. The public bathhouses are still maintained; and it is quite common to see elderly Japanese going to and from in the mornings (we saw several). The shops are small, most unlabeled to the naked eye; and some not always attended during the day: it is expected that the honor system will be regarded. At one corner is the neighborhood funeral director, often seen walking his 30 year-old tortoise, the child he never had.

At another corner, a trendy Owl Café, where non-perfumed visitors (perfume upsets the owl’s sensibilities) can enjoy coffee in the company of rescued birds of prey. JF did not know of my love of raptors, or otherwise we would have made time for a coffee, alas. Next time.

And that is that. A taxi to Tokyo Station and then the Narita Express to the airport. Two hours at Incheon and the six-hour haul to Singapore (on an A380, so, no complaints). An overnight, or whatever one calls “sleep” in a pod-like airport hotel between the hours of 0200 and 0700. Another leg to Dubai; and with three hours to waste there, why not get a manicure and a sweet snack?

From Dubai it was homeward bound to Vienna. Tony greeted me at the airport, a bouquet of flowers in hand to welcome me home.