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Hirosaki Castle moat Image: Aomori Prefecture

Chasing cherry blossoms in Tohoku


Spring is coming, and of course in Japan that means only one thing: cherry blossoms galore. This year skip the crowded city parks, and head up to the vast lands of northern Japan, to make your sakura season last as long as possible.

Here is a quick primer on some of the best spots to visit, starting with the three top hanami spots in Tohoku, which attract visitors seeking to experience a full immersion in the romance of pink and white blossoms.

Cherry blossoms in Hirosaki Image: Aomori Prefecture

While some cherry blossom spots do not live up to the photos one sees of them, Hirosaki in Aomori Prefecture is the opposite. Considered one of the top three cherry blossom spots in the entire country, Hirosaki Park and the castle within are lined with 2,600 trees of over 50 different varieties.  The Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival 2022 is set to run from April 23 to May 5, with peak bloom around the 28th to 30th, but be sure to check for any updates on their site.

Once you have spent a few hours under the extraordinary pink canopy in the park, be sure to stop by the nearby Fujita Memorial Japanese Garden, which houses a retro Taisho period tearoom where you can sample a wide variety of apple-based desserts, a nod to the prefecture’s most famous product. Getting to Hirosaki Station is easy and takes about four hours. Hop on the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station, then switch to the JR Ou Line at Shin-Aomori Station.

By the way, between Akita and Aomori Station (including Hirosaki) you can book a ride on the Resort Shirakami train, a special scenic ride that takes you past the vast panoramas of the Sea of Japan and the Shirakami Sanchi mountains, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There are a few different versions of this train, but we recommend the Buna, which has a beautifully decorated car where you can buy local ekiben and craft beers to enjoy on the ride.

Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture Image: Akita Prefectural Tourism Federation

Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture looks like something out of "The Last Samurai" and during the spring, it goes technicolor with cherry trees in bloom. Founded in 1620, the town is split between the merchant district and samurai district, which boasts some of the best-preserved samurai architecture in Japan. Around 400 weeping cherry trees line the retro streets, the deep pink blossoms contrasting dramatically with the dark wooden buildings. Along the nearby Hinokinai River, a two-kilometer tunnel of cherry trees is romance itself.

The blooms in Kakunodate are predicted to last from April 20 to May 5, and this year the evening illuminations of the cherry trees will be taking place.   As always, be sure to check for updates on the events before riding the Akita Shinkansen, which will take you from Tokyo Station directly to Kakunodate Station in about three hours.

A horse-drawn carriage ride under the cherry blossoms in Kitakami Tenshochi Image: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization

The final member of the award-winning trio is Kitakami Tenshochi in Iwate Prefecture. Along the Kitakami River around 10,000 cherry trees of 150 varieties stretch over 2 kilometers from the Sangobashi Bridge. The Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival, which is usually held from mid-April to early May, celebrates the long tunnel of fluffy blossoms that enchants visitors from all over Japan. In addition to the blooms, you can also enjoy the 300 carp streamers that flutter over the river in celebration of Children’s Day on May 5, pleasure boat rides on the river, and the iconic cart horse-drawn carriages that take visitors for a leisurely spin below the cherry trees.

The dates for the festival are not announced yet, but the flowers should be at their peak from the middle to the end of April. Keep an eye on their website for updates. Can’t make it? In May thousands of red and white azaleas in bloom are also a splendid sight.

However, these three northern beauties are certainly not the only places worth visiting, as there are many famous cherry blossom spots all across Tohoku. For instance, one still hidden gems (that also happens to be pretty close to Tokyo) is the appropriately named Hanamiyama Park, near Fukushima Station, which is under two hours by Tohoku Shinkansen from the capital.

Despite being just a short bus ride from the station, this farming area has plenty of rural charm and great views of the Azuma Mountains. Local farmers have spent decades planting ornamental plants and flowering trees on the hillsides around their land, and opened it to the public in 1959. Thanks to the wide variety of cherries and other flowering trees/bushes, this park has many different shades of spring colors. The earliest blossoms start appearing in February and extend all the way to mid-May, so this spot has one of the longest blooming periods thanks to the plant diversity. There are several walking trails dotted with flowers and cherry trees in the area, so pack your hiking boots and go exploring.

Hitome Senbonzakura in Miyagi Prefecture Image: Courtesy of Miyagi Prefecture Tourism Promotion Division

Another nearby cherry blossom spot is Hitome Senbonzakura, which is just 35 minutes by train on the JR Tohoku Line from Miyagi Prefecture’s major hub of Sendai Station. Living up to its name, which means “1,000 sakura trees at a glance,” here you can see around 1,200 blooming cherry trees lining the banks of the Shiroishi River for eight kilometers, against the backdrop of snow-capped Mt Zao in the distance. The long stretch of blooming trees gives the impression of a never-ending cloud of fluffy pink flowers.

The peak blooming times are usually from mid- to late April, and you will want to make sure to pick up some snacks and drinks from the yatai stalls for a picnic below the trees, gazing at the reflection of the blossoms in the river.

Two professional shogi players battle it out on a massive board in Tendo, Yamagata Prefecture. Image: DMC天童温泉

For something extra special, consider taking a train ride up to the city of Tendo in Yamagata Prefecture, about three hours from Tokyo to Tendo Station on the Yamagata Shinkansen. The Ningen Shogi (human chess) games are the highlight of the spring festival, and are scheduled for April 16 and 17 this year (with number restrictions as a COVID-19 preventative measure). Surrounded by 2000 cherry trees in Tendo Park, you can watch two professional shogi players battle it out on a massive board, moving their “pawns” who are dressed in full samurai armor or period kimono.

Stroll down to nearby Tendo Onsen, where besides a number of ryokan that offer dips in their hot springs, you will also find the Kurazu River, which is lined on both sides with 1.4 kilometers worth of dramatic weeping cherry trees. The Dewazakura sake brewery is also located in town, down a lovely street lined with retro-style buildings.

If you are a foreign passport holder (both visitor or resident) you can see all these spots and more for a flat 20,000 yen for adults and 10,000 yen for children thanks to the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area). The pass gives you five consecutive days of travel on JR train lines in the designated area, including shinkansen and special trains such as the Resort Shirakami. This is a total bargain, and definitely the best way to see all that Tohoku has to offer. You don’t need to book or apply in advance, so you can keep your travel plans flexible based on blooming times and the timing of various sakura-related events.

Image: JR East

Let us know in the comments what cherry blossom spots you look forward to visiting this year.

Source: JR East

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Another Hanami tourist season goes begging! Open the hell up !

1 ( +4 / -3 )

I've taken photos in a few of the locations featured in this article; some of them from almost exactly the same spot. And ever since the J-Gov shut down tourism from Canada, I've been really pissed, almost to the point of swearing I'd never return. But, after a few trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, I'm ready for some more hanami.

But, obviously, not this year.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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