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Sakura Report 2023: My sakura-hopping journey across Japan

Sakura Report 2023: My sakura-hopping journey across Japan

This year's sakura (桜) season in Japan peaked a little earlier than usual in late March, initially making me worried as I would arrive only in the first week of April. Moreover, the first leg of my 2-week cross-country trip was in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and the sakura there was expected to bloom only in May! But as I journeyed to the Tohoku Region after three days in Sapporo, the transient cherry blossoms became visible as I moved further south.

 

1) Ishiwarizakura, Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

My first sakura encounter was at Morioka City (盛岡市 Morioka-shi) in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken). The city recently earned the number two spot from the New York Times list of "52 Places to Go in 2023" and is home to Ishiwarizakura (石割桜) or “The Rock-Splitting Cherry Tree”. Said to be 400 years old, this tree grew out of a crack in a granite boulder in front of Morioka's district courthouse. When I arrived, the famous tree was in full bloom, to the delight of tourists and locals alike. To get around the tourist sites such as Ishiwarizakura, hop on the Denden-mushi loop bus at the terminal beside the JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅 Morioka-eki). 

 

Ishiwarizakura (石割桜)
Address: 9-1 Uchimaru, Morioka, Iwate 020-0023
Nearest station: JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Access: From Morioka Station (East Exit, Boarding Area 16), take the Loop Bus Denden-mushi (clockwise direction), get off at “Chuodori 1-chome” where the Ishiwarizakura is 1-minute on foot / 20-minute on foot from the station. 



2) Morioka Castle Site Park, Morioka City, Iwate Prefecture

Sakura Report_CastleRuinsMorioka .jpeg (1.07 MB)

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

Meanwhile, more sakura trees were blooming at the Morioka Castle Site Park (盛岡城跡公園). If the weather is fine and you want to stretch your legs, you can take a 15-minute walk from Morioka Station to the park. The kind staff at the nearby Morioka History and Culture Museum gave me a map highlighting the locations of some of the trees. According to them, there are about 200 trees around the castle ruins and the museum area. 

 

Morioka Castle Site Park (盛岡城跡公園)
Address: 1-37 Uchimaru, Morioka, Iwate 020-0023
Nearest station: JR Morioka Station (盛岡駅)
Access: From Morioka Station (East Exit, Boarding Area 16), take the Loop Bus Denden-mushi (clockwise direction), get off at “Kencho Shiyakusho Mae” where the park is 2-minute on foot / 15-minute on foot from the station.
Opening hours: Open 24 hours
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81 19-681-0722

 

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

On my walk from the park back to Morioka Station, I also saw cherry blossom trees along the Kitakami River (北上川 Kitakami-gawa), which features a majestic Mount Iwate (岩手山 Iwate-san) backdrop. 

 

3) Jodogahama Beach, Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

From Morioka, my next destination was Jodogahama Beach (浄土ヶ浜) in Miyako City (宮古市 Miyako-shi), one of the towns along the Sanriku Coast (三陸海岸 Sanriku-kaigan). 

 

I took the 106 Express Bus from the terminal beside Morioka Station to get there, but if you’re equipped with a JR Pass or JR EAST PASS, you can also take the train service from Morioka Station to Miyako Station (宮古駅 Miyako-eki) via the JR Yamada Line (山田線) that runs four return trips (per day) on weekdays, and five during holidays.

 

Aside from taking long walks along the beach and the yummy “Italian-Style” ramen at the Jodogahama Rest House, I also enjoyed snapping pictures of the blooming sakura trees around the area. Jodogahama Beach is a part of the Sanriku Geopark, which covers the area from Hachinohe City in Aomori Prefecture, through the coast of Iwate Prefecture, down to Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture. 

 

Jodogahama Beach (浄土ヶ浜)
Address: Hitachihamacho, Iwate 027-0001
Nearest station: JR Miyako Station (宮古駅)
Access: From JR Morioka Station (East Exit, Boarding Area 7), take Express Bus 106 (Morioka → Miyako/Yamada) and get off at Miyako Station. Iwate Kenpoku Bus operates 1-2 buses per hour between Miyako Station and Jodogahama. All buses stop at the Jodogahama Visitor Center (15 minutes, ¥180 one way), and selected buses go further to the actual beach at the Oku-Jodogahama Bus Stop (20 minutes, ¥230). Many of the buses also stop at the Minato Oasis Michi no Eki Roadside Station.

 

4) Matsushirojō Castle Ruins, Nagano City, Nagano Prefecture

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

My subsequent sakura encounter was in Nagano City (長野市 Nagano-shi). I rode the Hayabusa Shinkansen from Morioka Station to Omiya Station and transferred to another Shinkansen (Hakutaka) to JR Nagano Station. With a day pass, I took a 30-minute bus to Matsushiro (松代町 Matsushiro-machi), a samurai town famous for the Matsushiro Castle Ruins (松代城跡 Matsushiro-jōseki) and several cherry blossom viewing spots.

 

(GIF credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

Despite the cloudy (with a bit of wind and rain) weather that day, the sakura blooms were glorious, with the wind scattering the petals. 

 

Matsushiro Castle Ruins (松代城跡)
Address: 44 Matsushiro, Matsushiro-machi, Nagano, 381-1231
Nearest station: Nagano Station (長野駅)
Access: 30-minute bus ride from Nagano Station. From Nagano Station (Zenkoji Exit), board the Alpico Bus (No. 30) bound for Matsushiro at Boarding Point #3. Get off at the Matsushiro-eki stop and walk 5 minutes.
Opening hours: All year round except for 29 Dec – 3 Jan.
Admission fee: Free
Tel: +81 120-691-792

 

The streets between Zenkoji to Nagano Station were lined beautifully with sakura trees. (Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

In Nagano City, sakura trees in full bloom dot the route to Zenkōji Temple (善光寺). The deep pink of the flowers provided a spectacular contrast to the vivid blue afternoon skies and adorned historical buildings along the way to Niōmon Gate. I used the 1-Day bus pass to get to the temple, but one can also opt for a 30-minute leisurely stroll from the station to the temple. 

 

Incidentally, on top of getting a 14-day JR Nationwide Pass, I signed up for a free membership with JR Hotel Members and stayed at HOTEL METROPOLITAN NAGANO which is conveniently located next to the station. Being a JR Hotel Member meant that I got to enjoy discounts on JR Hotels during my 2-week holiday. I found this to be not only cost-effective but also convenient because I got to stay in hotels that were located within or beside JR train stations, making my trips hassle-free. And best of all, I earned points which I can use on future bookings.

 

5) Kiso Valley, Nagano Prefecture

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

My next destination was Kiso Valley to experience the famed Nakasendo Trail (中山道). From Nagano Station, I boarded the JR Shinano Limited Express to Nagoya Station via Matsumoto Station, which stops at several stations in Kiso Valley. I alighted at Nagiso Station (南木曽駅 Nagiso-eki), where I headed by bus to Tsumago-juku (妻籠宿), one of the surviving post towns from the Edo Period and part of the ancient Nakasendo route that connected Tokyo and Kyoto during that time. From Tsumago-juku, I trekked the 9km-road to another old post town, Magome-juku (馬籠宿). 

 

Weeping sakura trees outside Ichikokutochi Tateba Tea House. (Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

The journey was challenging. I passed steep inclines and cypress forests with waterfalls and bells trekkers need to ring to scare off bears that may be roaming the forested paths. 

 

But the journey was made more memorable with sakura trees along the way! Most notable were the sakura trees at the Ichikokutochi Tateba-Chaya (一石栃立場茶屋 Tea House for Travellers). Here, travellers can take a break under the shady trees and enjoy complimentary tea from the owner while taking in the peaceful surroundings. From Magome-juku, I took a bus to Nakatsugawa Station for another JR Shinano Limited Express train back to Nagano Station. 

 

Ichikokutochi Tateba-Chaya (一石栃立場茶屋)
Address: 1612-1 Azuma, Nagiso, Kiso-gun, Nagano 399-5302
Nearest station: JR Nagiso Station (JR南木曽駅)
Access: 10-minute taxi ride from JR Nagiso Station
Opening hours: 9am–4pm (April–November), 10am–3pm (December–March)
Tel (Kiso Tourism Association): +81 264-23-1122

 

6) Kobe City, Hyōgo Prefecture

Meriken Park. (Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

After Nagano and Kiso Valley, it was off to Kobe via a Shinkansen ride to Tokyo Station. Then I transferred to a Hikari Shinkansen (ひかり) for the journey to Shin-Kobe Station. 

 

 

(GIF credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

The journey from Tokyo to Kobe was extra special because Fuji-san was spectacularly visible! I was glad to have reserved a window seat and taken photos of Mount Fuji's majesty. 

 

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

Meanwhile in the port city of Kobe, it was brimming with sakura blooms in both Meriken Park (メリケンパーク) and Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens (神戸布引ハーブ園). Hopping on Kobe’s City Loop Bus was convenient because it stops along many Kobe's tourist attractions. The bus service is also well-connected to two of Kobe’s major railway stations: Shin-Kobe Station (新神戸駅 Shin-Kobe-eki) and Sannomiya Station (三ノ宮駅 San’nomiya-eki) where the latter is considered Kobe's central transportation hub as it links the JR lines and Kobe's municipal subway, the Hankyu Railway, Hanshin Electric Railway, and Port Liner. 

 

Aside from sighting more sakura blossoms, I also had a delectable Kobe beef teppanyaki lunch at a famous steakhouse near Sannomiya Station. For those unsure which restaurant serves certified Kobe beef, the Tourist Information Office inside Shin-Kobe Station provides a Kobe Beef Official Restaurant Guide and Map.

 

7) Shukkeien Garden, Hiroshima City, Hiroshima Prefecture 

(Image credit: Millette Manalo-Burgos)

 

Lastly, my sakura quest brought me to Hiroshima City (広島市 Hiroshima-shi). I hopped on a Hiroshima Meipuru-pu (めいぷるーぷ) Sightseeing loop bus at JR Hiroshima Station (広島駅 Hiroshima-eki) to get to one of the city’s famed sakura-viewing spots, Shukkeien Garden (縮景園). This hop-on-hop-off bus is free if you show the driver your JR Pass. 

 

At Shukkeien Garden, the kanzan (関山) were in a full bloom, which typically bloom about two weeks after the common somei yoshino type. Kanzan is a variety of yaezakura (八重桜), or "double blossom" sakura, which includes any sakura flower with more than five petals per blossom.

 

Shukkeien Garden (縮景園)
Address: 2-11 Kaminobori-cho, Naka-ku, Hiroshima 730-0014
Nearest station: JR Hiroshima Station
Nearest tram station: Shukkeien-mae Station
Access: (By bus) From JR Hiroshima Station Shinkansen Exit, take the Hiroshima Sightseeing Loop Bus "Hiroshima Meipuru-pu" and get off at the Prefectural Museum of Art (Shukkeien-mae) / (By tram) From JR Hiroshima Station South Exit A, board trams at Platform 1, 2, 6 → Transfer to "Hacchobori" → Get off at "Shukkeien-mae" on the Shirashima Line.
Opening hours: 9am–6pm (16 April–15 September), 9am–5pm (16 September–15 April)
Admission fee: ¥260 (Adult), ¥100–¥150 (Student)
Tel: +81 82-221-3620

 

While my sakura viewing in Hiroshima was limited due to a tight schedule, you can be sure I will be back to explore more sakura-viewing spots next season! 

JapanRailClub

April's theme: Spring Beginnings. (Image credit: JAPAN RAIL CLUB)

In the meantime, here's something to look forward to while waiting for the next sakura season: JAPAN RAIL CLUB is offering sakura-themed snacks in their latest Omiyage Snack Box this April 2024! Titled "Spring Beginnings", this seasonal Japanese snack box is filled with snacks that are reminiscent of your time viewing the sakura and ume blossoms in Japan. Get your hands on JAPAN RAIL CLUB's Omiyage Snack Box by 30 April 2024 and enter this exclusive promo code "SPRING14" to enjoy USD33.25/SGD 44 off when subscribing to the 6-month Snack Subscription Plan. Enjoy sakura at the comforts of your home!

Writer’s profile: Millette is in love with Japan's rail system. Her motto is: "Have JR Pass, will travel".

 

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