The joys of spring: a different view of Japan’s cherry blossom
If you want to catch the upcoming cherry blossom season in Japan, but don’t fancy the festival-sized crowds in urban centres, try a more sedate alternative in Chugoku, writes Steve John Powell
HANAMI IS INVARIABLY translated as “flower viewing”, but that is quite inadequate to convey the true spirit of cherry blossom time in Japan. There is no word in English for “getting gently inebriated under a tree and sharing scrumptious food with friends while contemplating the transient beauty of the blossom”.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” wrote the poet Keats. For the Japanese, joy derives from the fleeting nature of sakura. The season triggers a nationwide fervour, spanning all ages and classes, that is typically seen elsewhere before royal weddings and football finals.
Blossom watching began more than 1,000 years ago in the Heian period (794-1185), when hanami parties were strictly for the aristocracy. As horticulture developed, cherry trees were planted in public parks, temple gardens and river banks.
Solitude is unfortunately not on the agenda when blossom viewing, but at these destinations in Chugoku, the western part of the central island of Honshu, the atmosphere is warm and the crowds will include lots of locals.
Fukuyama and Onomichi
Stately Japanese castles make the perfect backdrop for blossom viewing, and Fukuyama’s white-walled, fivestorey castle (built in1619) in eastern Hiroshima prefecture is no exception.
Its 500 trees look particularly fetching after 6pm, when dozens of red and white paper lanterns are lit, casting an ethereal glow over the cherry blossoms.
Fourteen kilometres south of Fukuyama is “the most beautiful view in Japan”. Back in 1711, that was how Korean envoy I Pan-On described Tomonoura, the best-preserved Edoera port in Japan. Film director James Mangold must agree, after filming scenes for The Wolverine here in 2012.
Be prepared for charming old back streets, ancient wooden stores selling Homeishu, a medicinal sake made with 12 herbs, and an unbeatable view to Sensui Island.
Onomichi, 20 minutes west from Fukuyama by train, is such a lovely little town that German film directorWim Wenders published a book about it, Journey to Onomichi. The town is famous for the literary figures who’ve lived here, and for having more temples than any Japanese town besides Kyoto.
Take the ropeway, a 15-minute walk from the train station, to the top of Senkoji-yama for vertiginous views of the town and inland sea. Stroll down the winding Path of Literature, lined by giant boulders inscribed with poems, to the vermillion-lacquered Senkoji temple, dating back to 806.
The flowers from about 10,000 cherry trees illuminate the mountainside each spring, in a glorious display that ranks among the top 100 hanami sites. Don’t leave without trying Onomichi’s renowned ramen.
Mount Noro, near Kure City
Less than an hour’s drive from Kure City stands Mount Noro. At 839 metres, it’s the second highest mountain in the Seto Inland Sea National Park.
The view from the peak across the water to the endless misty islands is said to be the best in the entire park.
Also, at this altitude, the blossoms are just opening when the lowland flowers are falling, thus extending hanami season by a week or so.
It’s worth heading here just for the drive up the twisty mountain road, past rice terraces and dense forests. The way is lined with cherry trees.
Check the big wall map in the Alpine-style visitor’s lodge for things to see on the mountain. For a short hike, head for the temple and follow the trail through the ancient creaking cedars and giant boulders. Notice the dozens of statues of tiny Jizo, a deity revered as the protector of travellers and children.
The city boasts two Unesco World Heritage sites: the island of Miyajima, famed for its floating shrine and red torii gate rising out of the sea, and the Peace Memorial Park, on the banks of the Motoyasu River. If you can stand the crowds, the 1,300 cherry trees around the Miyajima shrine look sublime.
But to get a real feel for the pulse of the city, it pays to get a little more adventurous. Hiroshima Castle is a good starting point, with cherry trees lining its broad moat. A short walk takes you to the banks of the Ota River, which stretches in a virtually unbroken corridor of blossom from the Peace Park all the way to Ushita. After dark, the banks transform into a surreal cotton-candy grotto.
Expect to see people dressed as animals, enjoying hearty barbecues and the occasional portable karaoke machine.
If you want experience it all from the water, can treat yourself to a river taxi and view the blossoms from a motorboat.
Haji Dam and Yachiyo Lake, Akitakata
A vast reservoir in the mountains of Akitakata, north of Hiroshima, Yachiyo Lake is known for its open-air kagura dramas, an ornate folk theatre performed at harvest time. In the spring, the reservoir is surrounded by the blooms from 6,000 cherry trees.
The route to view the blossoms passes through deep gorges, rice terraces and mountain hamlets. The sight of the lake floating in a fluffy pink cloud of blossom is magical, especially at dusk with lanterns glowing and tangy smoke wafting from the food stalls.
The lake is broad and feels spacious even when it’s crowded. Facilities here include bike and canoe rentals, a miniature railway, and hiking trails. You’ll also find some lovely old sights, such as the Itsukushima Shrine.
Keep quiet and you might glimpse a deer or wild boar.
Want to walk in the footsteps of the samurai? Across the border from Hiroshima in Yamaguchi prefecture is the castle town of Iwakuni. The hanami activity here is centred on the Kintai Bridge, a five-arched wooden structure spanning the Nishiki River.
The first bridge was built in1673 without using a single metal nail. Back then, only samurai could cross it. These days, for 250 yen (HK$19), you can cross over and take a look at a white snake enclosure. These reptiles are unique to Iwakuni and are believed to bring good luck. Restaurants on the built-up side of the river serve Iwakuni’s layered sushi.
How to hanami
Just grab a bento box and some beverages from a supermarket or convenience store, head for a park or riverbank, and join in the fun. If you run out of supplies, fear not, you are sure to find all manner of stalls nearby selling beer, green tea and all manner of hot food from whole squid on a stick to grilled fish and chicken, takoyaki octopus dumplings or taiyaki buns filled with sweet red bean paste.
When to go
The blossom front moves south to north at about 30 kilometres a day. On Honshu, blossoms peak from late March to early April. The exact date varies from year to year with the weather. Watch the TV news for daily regional updates, with blossom maps detailing the best viewing areas.
Hiroshima, Fukuyama, Onomichi and Iwakuni can all be reached directly by bullet train, the Shinkansen, from Tokyo and Osaka. For Mount Noro and Haji Dam, a car is the best option.
All urban areas have a wide range of Western-style hotels, but for an authentic Japanese experience, seek out a ryokan, a traditional inn. Tourist information centres, in or near train stations, can help you with bookings.