Adapted from an article by Bruce Lambert in the April 1991 ALIEN TIMES
The blooming of the cherry blossoms, a welcome sign of spring, will take place soon. It is likely that someone will soon solemnly inform you that Japan has four seasons, and that most Japanese people are very fond of the cherry blossoms.
There are over 300 species or varieties of cherry trees, but the most common in Japan is the "Edozakura", a popular variety developed in the 19th century toward the end of the Edo Period. Cherry trees are often planted in school yards, where their blooming roughly coincides with the start of the new school year.
In the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, cherry trees bloom beginning in February, but for most of the country, they begin to bloom sometime between the end of March and the beginning of May. The opening of the flowers is keenly monitored by the media, and a national "cherry blossom front" is closely charted for many weeks as it slowly moves up the Japanese archipelago.
The lovely blooming of the cherry blossoms, however, lasts for a very short time. After about a week, and just at the peak of their beauty, the light pink blossoms fall to the ground. Thus, they are often compared to the tenuousness and brevity of human live. Especially poignant is the image of young soldiers going off to battle, to be cut down in their prime. As they march away, the quietly falling cherry blossoms seem like frail tears from nature. There is thus the hint of tragedy mixed with the beauty of the cherry blossoms.
It is common during the cherry blossom period for various groups of friends, office co-workers, etc., to gather in the parks, lay down some mats, and party under the trees. People eat, drink, sing, dance, and enjoy general merriment at such "0hanami" parties. TokyoÕs Ueno Park, especially crazy during this period, is well worth a late afternoon/evening visit in order to see Japan at play.
In Tsukuba, there are a number of excellent places to enjoy the cherry blossoms, including:
The Kokai River walk is especially nice. Weekend evenings are a bit too noisy for my taste; at dawn it is quiet and peaceful (you may find revellers leftover from the night before). Dress warmly, bring something to sit on (it is often muddy), and pack a picnic. Blossoms are expected to be somewhat early this year and will probably be at their best around the first weekend of April.
If you donÕt mind going farther afield, Shimotsuma, Mito and Hitachi also have excellent trees. Located about 30 minutes to the northwest of Tsukuba on Route 125, Shimotsuma is known for its Sanuma Sun Beach, a great summer fun spot, but the entire Sanuma Lake itself is surrounded by cherry trees, making it a nice spring outing as well. To find it, continue on 125 past the junction with Route 294 for about 2 km., and turn to the right at the corner with all the stone lanterns, etc. ItÕs on the right a few hundred meters up.
Kairakuen in Mito is one of the most famous gardens in Japan and is especially well-known for its plum blossoms in early to mid March. There are, however, plenty of cherry trees as well. HitachiÕs Kamine Park, located just north of Hitachi Station, has a very nice amusement park and a small zoo, all surrounded by about 1000 cherry trees. There is also an interesting festival on April 11 and 12, including giant floats and the famous Sasara Lion Mask Dance. Definitely a good family outing.
Another kind of "hanami" well worth a trip is the "Suisen (Daffodil) Fantasy '98" being presented at the Hitachi Seaside Park on the coast just east of Mito. With 700,000 daffodil bulbs of 102 varieties together with 30,000 hyacinth bulbs and other flowers, it should prove to be spectacular. The festival runs from March 28 through April 18. Hitachi Seaside Park also includes an amusement park with 24 different attractions. Beware, however, that it is closed on Mondays.
Hot Air Balloon and Peach Blossom Festival
At the "River Field Park" along the banks of the Watarase River in Koga (about an hour's drive from Tsukuba in western Ibaraki), hot air balloons will be lifting off April 3, 4 and 5. In the past, up to 80 balloons have participated, and some offer flights for a fee on the final day (4/5).
From those lofty heights (or just on the ground) you can get a good view of the 2000 peach trees in bloom, some dating back 350 years.
To get there, just travel west on route 125 until you get to Koga. The River Field Park is located just to the south of the bridge (route 354) across the Watarase River, and the peach trees are in the Koga Sogo Park in the southwest quadrant of the city (below route 354 a short ways from the river).
After the Cherry Blossoms come the Azaleas and Tulips
The glorious spring flower displays continue into the latter part of April and early May with the blossoming of the Azaleas. 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 back side of Mt. Tsukuba is probably the most spectacular, as it has rows upon rows of various flowers blooming throughout the Spring months. It costs ´600 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 youÕve crossed the mountain.
Another much closer garden youÕll 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.
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 April 20 - May 15, 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. 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. 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 4/25 - 5/ 10. Along JapanÕs longest suspension walking bridge (375 m.), there will be 300 giant Ōkoi noboriĶ 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). ItÕs 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. ItÕs 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. Bon voyage!
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