After the whirlwind cherry blossom season has swept across Tokyo, leaving only fond memories of streets blanketed in pink and perhaps a throbbing head from one too many drunken hanami parties, we remember that a world does indeed exist outside of our beloved city.
Tokyo is bordered by four prefectures: Chiba to the east, Saitama to the north, Yamanashi to the west and Kanagawa to the south. As the spring warmth knocks on the door of the towns throughout these prefectures, awakening the cherry blossoms as it goes, our attention is brought to some extremely beautiful areas. This year, I followed the sakura trail to three different areas, all of which I highly recommend.
Kumagaya and Kawagoe, Saitama
1. Shinjuku to Kumagaya: 1 hour JR train
2. Kumagaya to Kawagoe: 1 hour JR train (change at Omiya)
3. Kawagoe to Shinjuku: 50 min JR train
The first of my sakura day trips took me to Saitama Prefecture. The cherry blossoms here reach their peak only a day or two later than Tokyo.
The spectacle I went to see was along the banks of the Arakawa River, just a short walk from Kumagaya Station. Like smoke billowing from a bushfire, the row of giant sakura trees seemed to engulf the field of canola flowers in front of it. The blue sky, pink sakura, yellow blossoms and green stalks – it was such a striking contrast of colours.
This strip of colours stretched as far as the eye could see in both directions. Swarms of people waded waist deep through the flowers, sometimes disappearing completely! Peeking under the sakura branches revealed a whole community of picnickers. It was like two worlds – one on top and one underneath.
After dusting the yellow pollen off my pants, I hopped on the train and made my way to Kawagoe. This is one of the most popular day trip destinations from Tokyo, no matter the time of year. It’s commonly referred to as Koedo or Little Edo because it has a beautiful historical quarter full of merchant houses from the Edo Period.
On the outskirts of town is Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine i.e. the shrine of love! Couples come here to pray for happiness, and others come to pray they find their perfect match. You can go ‘fishing’ for a fortune-telling fish, and hang up an ema (plaque on which you write your wishes) in the much-photographed tunnel of ema.
Behind the shrine is a small, tranquil canal. Lined either side with cherry blossoms, it really is one of the most stunning places to come to in spring. There are many picturesque canals around Japan, but one thing unique to this place is its old-style boat rides. Men dressed in traditional happi coats and straw hats use long bamboo sticks to push the wooden boats down the petal-filled waterway.
I couldn’t get enough of the warm afternoon sun lighting up the clouds of sakura. It was like the whole world had turned rose gold. At dusk, the festival lanterns flickered on, and the flowers glowed deep red. Have you seen a more romantic sakura spot?!
Odawara Castle, Kanagawa
Shinjuku <> Odawara: 1 hr 20 min Odakyu train
My second day trip from Tokyo was to the prefecture directly south of Tokyo: Kanagawa. I’d seen the roof of Odawara Castle poking out from the trees many times either from the train on the way to Hakone or on the shinkansen travelling further south, but I’d never gotten off at Odawara Station let alone gone to the castle.
The only thing I knew was that it had a lot of cherry blossoms. And as often happens when you have no expectations, I was surprised at how impressive it was—and not just the flowers!
The castle tower is a 1960 reconstruction and the inside is a museum where you can learn about its history, watch videos and see things like 16th century samurai armour. From the top floor, you get a spectacular 360-degree view of the sea, the coastline, the city and the mountains. I loved looking down at all the cherry blossoms scattered throughout Odawara town. In fact, the castle is ranked in Japan’s Top 100 sakura spots!
They have also done a lot to restore the rest of the castle grounds. Although today we can just go through the back gate, the original gates (which have been reconstructed) were a maze around the different moats, making the castle very secure. At one point in history, it was one of the largest citadels in the country.
1. Shinjuku to Shimoyoshida: 2 hr JR train
2. Shimoyoshida to Kawaguchiko: 13 min Fujikyu train
3. Kawaguchiko to north shore of lake: 10 min bus
4. Kawaguchiko to Shinjuku: 2 hr 25 min Fujikyu and JR trains (change at Otsuki)
My final day trip was to see the one and only Mt Fuji. The Fuji Five Lakes area is at a much higher altitude (around 800-900m), so the cherry blossoms usually bloom here two weeks later than Tokyo.
My first stop was Chureito Pagoda at Arakurayama-Sengen Park, which can be accessed from Shimoyoshida Station. I did go here last year, but the conditions weren’t great so I was determined to try again. I did a lot more planning this time, checking the sakura progress, the weather and the air quality forecasts! It paid off. The flowers were in full bloom and the sun was out, and the sky was clear.
Lake Kawaguchi is a short train and bus ride from the pagoda. The north shore has a long row of beautiful cherry blossoms, but I don’t think there was anyone actually having a hanami picnic – everyone was too busy taking photos! It was nice to stroll along the path under the blossoms. I’m so thankful I’ve been able to see Mt Fuji framed with momiji and sakura now. It was the perfect way to end my 2018 sakura season.
If you could see the cherry blossoms anywhere in Japan, where would you go? Recently, I have been hearing a lot about spring at Hirosaki Castle up in Aomori. The pictures look absolutely breathtaking, so for me, that’s where I’d go.