Cherry blossoms in the Tsukuba area have ended their short existence and now in the latter part of April and early May it's time for the Azaleas. One variety of cherry tree, however, what is called "Yaezakura", does bloom later in April, with the most spectacular displays being along the entrance to the Meteorological Research Institute (next to the 210 meter observation tower) and just off the southern entrance to Tsukuba University off of Higashi Odori. The azaleas are everywhere, with no obvious first choice of sites.
Japan is famous for its beautiful gardens, though the typical image of Japanese gardens is more centered on shape and form than raw color, as in western gardens. Nevertheless, Japanese love flowers, and now is the time to see some really spectacular displays in and around Tsukuba.
Flower Park in Yasato on the backside of Mt. Tsukuba is probably the most spectacular, as it has rows upon rows of various flowers blooming throughout the Spring months. Roses are its speciality, but they don't bloom until late May. Nevertheless, brightly colored tulips, azaleas, etc. abound from late April on. It costs 600 yen to get in, but is well worth it. To get there, drive along route 125 about half way between Tsuchiura and the northern boundary of Tsukuba until you come to the road that leads over the mountain ridge. You will be able to see the road leading over the mountain. The park is easy to find, being on the left side of that road a few km after you've crossed over the mountain.
Another much closer garden you'll want to take a look at is the peony flower garden in Kukizaki. It specializes in "botan" (peony) flowers, which can be as big as 20 cm. across. They are at their peak during Golden Week in early May, but there are lots of other flowers as well. To get there, proceed down Science Odori towards the Yatabe Interchange, and turn left at the light just before Science Odori crosses over the expressway. There is a gas station on the left-hand corner. Proceed down this road over the expressway and straight on for about 2.2 km. (If you come to a fork in the road, you have gone a little too far). Turn right (signs on both sides of the road). The peony gardens are located a couple hundred meters ahead next to a cemetery. If you continue on the main road another couple of km, you'll come to the Takasaki Shizen no Mori in Kukizaki. Its speciality is fields of poppies which bloom from early May. It's located just past a large hospital on the right.
Tulip displays can also be spectacular, with three separate parks on the south shores of Lake Kasumigaura featuring tulips that bloom from mid to late April. The nearest is the Kasumigaura Sogo Koen on the shores of Lake Kasumigaura just south of Tsuchiura Station. The entrance to the park, which also features a Dutch style windmill, is about 1 km from the junction of route 125 and the road leading south from the station. Though more distant, the displays in Miho and Sakuragawa are even bigger, with the latter boasting 230,000 tulips in bloom! The Miho display is in the Kihara Castle Park (just northwest of the Texas Instrument Plant), while the Sakuragawa display is in the Wada Park on a little peninsula jutting out into the lake on the east (far) side of the town. It is a bit off the beaten path, and so you'll need a map to figure out which unmarked back road to take.
The Kasama Azalea Fair; held from late April to mid May, features 35,000 azalea bushes in bloom peaking around early Golden Week. It is located to the east of downtown Kasama (famous for its pottery). Ask for "Tsutsuji Koen." The Kasama Pottery Festival will also be taking place from May 1 - 5, and so the two would be a nice combo during Golden Week (though beware, the traffic during certain periods of Golden Week won't make you feel very "golden"!). The city of Kasama is also developing "Geijutsu no Mori Koen" ("Forest of Art Park"), a 54-hectare park featuring art displays, "hands on" art, etc, in a nature preserve atmosphere. Much of it is complete and now open, and it promises to be quite an attraction. Like many such facilities, it is closed on Mondays (or if that is a holiday, then the following day). The entrance fee is 300 yen. In years past, numerous hillsides were planted with wild flowers that were at their peak in early May. Definitely worth exploring. It is located a few km due east of Kasama Station off of route 355.
The Ryujin Carp Streamer (Koi Nobori) Festival will be held 4/21 - 5/ 13. Along Japan's longest suspension walking bridge (375 m.), there will be 300 giant "koi nobori" suspended above Ryujin Lake. It is located north of Mito, about a 2-hour drive from Tsukuba, not far from the famous Fukuroda Falls, one of the most spectacular in Japan. Both are well worth a visit during Golden Week. To get there, drive up the Joban to the Hitachi Minami Ota Exit and turn left onto Route 6. Then turn left again on Route 293 (a few hundred meters up Route 6). It's about 5 km from there to the junction with Route 349 (in Yamashita Town). Keep on 293 for another 2 km until it bends sharply to the left. Exit 293 at that point by going straight ahead for another km or so until you come to a main road. That is the road you want. It's called the Hitachi Ota - Daigo Sen. Turn left and proceed about 20 km. The dam, lake and bridge are on the left. Fukuroda no Taki (waterfall) is located about 15 km farther to the north. Turn left at the first main road (about 12 km up) and go across the pass. On your way home, you might want to stop in at the new hot springs resort "Santa no Yu". Totally unrelated to the fat man in the red suit, "Santa" refers to a brave giant of Japanese folklore, and this new resort takes its name from its "giant" size. Located in Yamagata Machi, just south of Daigo Machi and the Fukuroda Falls. It costs 700 yen on weekdays and 1000 yen on weekends and has numerous different baths to try out. Closed first and third Mondays. If you like hot springs, it looks like a winner. Tel. 0295-57-4126. Bon voyage!
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