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Pretty pink paradise: Michinoku’s top 3 sakura spots

Pretty pink paradise: Michinoku’s top 3 sakura spots

Updated as of 28 January 2024
Originally published on 21 May 2021

 

Mention “Tohoku” (東北) and images of rich, beautiful nature that change with the seasons come to mind. As many would agree, Tohoku shines brightest in spring, when the delicate cherry blossoms are in full bloom, creating a pretty pink paradise. Given its vast land area, Tohoku has countless spectacular sakura spots, but today we will check out three of the most classic and exceptional spots, known as the Top Three Sakura Spots of Michinoku  (みちのく三大桜名所 Michinoku sandai sakura meisho), which definitely cannot be missed when you talk about sakura in Tohoku. 

 

Map of Michinoku's three famous sakura spots. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Michinoku (みちのく) is an old name for the Tohoku region, and the three famous sakura spots are Kitakami Tenshochi Park in Iwate Prefecture, Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street in Akita Prefecture, and Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture. The best time to see sakura at these places is usually from mid-April to early May, visiting in the order mentioned above. Each place has different atmospheres and settings which provide unique experiences, so definitely do check all of them out if you can. Are you ready? Let’s go!

 

Kitakami Tenshochi Park (北上展勝地公園)

Viewing period: mid to late April (varies each year)

View of Kitakami Tenshochi Park from Jingaoka. (Image credit: 東北観光推進機構)

 

The first of the three spots is Kitakami Tenshochi Park (北上展勝地公園 Kitakami Tenshо̄chi Kо̄en) in Iwate Prefecture. 2021 marked 100 years since the park’s opening. Well-loved by locals, this sprawling park has over 10,000 sakura trees of 150 varieties spread over its 293-hectare grounds, and you are usually able to catch cherry blossoms blooming between mid-April (someiyoshino variety) to late April (kasumizakura variety).

 

The name “Tenshochi” comes from a combination of words which when put together mean “view with picturesque scenery”. The view refers to the one that you can see from Jingaoka (陣ヶ丘), a small hill in the vicinity.

 

Take a horse-wagon ride under the tunnel of sakura. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Kitakami Tenshochi Park has a 2km walking path that is lined with cherry blossom trees on both sides, creating a romantic sakura tunnel for visitors to stroll under. One unique way of experiencing the cherry blossoms here is by taking a horse-wagon ride under the trees, which costs around ¥500/adult per ride. With the steady click-clack of the horse’s hooves and a canopy of blooming pink sakura above, a horse-wagon ride is sure to be a memorable activity!

 

Koinobori decorations along the river. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Yearning for another special experience? Take a 5-minute boat ride from JR Kitakami Station across the river to get to the park, a ride that’s only available during the sakura season. Normally, you’d have to walk around 30-minutes from the station to the park. For a longer boat-riding experience, there are also pleasure boats that go along the river.

 

The Kitakami Tenshochi Sakura Festival usually lasts until Golden Week, of which 5 May is Children’s Day. In line with this, around 300 koinobori (こいのぼり carp streamers), traditional Children‘s Day decorations, can be found along the Kitakami River, gently swaying as the wind blows. 

 

SL train on display at Kitakami Tenshochi Park. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Something special for train fans: there is a retired steam locomotive (SL) train on display at one end of the park. Recently reopened to the public in 2019, the C58 342 SL train is free for visitors to explore, and you can even enter the cab to have a detailed look at the equipment!

 

Kitakami Tenshochi Park (北上展勝地公園)
Address: 10 Chiwari Tachibana, Kitakami, Iwate 024-0043
Access: Walk from JR Kitakami Station (北上駅)
Night illumination: 18:00–21:00

 

Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通)

Viewing period: late April to early May (varies each year)

Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

Over in Akita Prefecture’s Semboku City (仙北市 Senboku-shi) is Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り Kakunodate Bukeyashiki Dо̄ri), which is also known as the Little Kyoto (小京都 Shо̄-Kyо̄to) of Tohoku. Looking stunning against a backdrop of old samurai residences, the sakura here are the dramatic dark pink shidarezakura variety (しだれ桜 weeping cherry blossoms), with branches that fall downward.

 

Along the streets, you will find some cherry blossom trees that originated from Kyoto. The atmosphere here remarkably resembles that of Kyoto, hence the nickname “Little Kyoto of Tohoku”. Of the many samurai residences in the area, six are open to visitors. Inside, you can view exhibitions of samurai items from the past. Some residences require an entrance fee, while some are free of charge.

 

Enjoy the cherry blossoms while riding a rickshaw. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

For a unique experience, enjoy a ride through the district on a rickshaw (人力車 jinrikisha). Fun fact: the English word “rickshaw” originates from the Japanese word “jinrikisha”, which literally means “human-powered vehicle”. The friendly rickshaw puller will give you a guided tour of the samurai district, explaining some history while showing you the best views.

 

Night illumination at Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

If time permits, I highly recommend staying until the evening, when the sakura trees around the samurai houses are illuminated, creating an impressive view that’s quite different from what you see during the daytime. I first saw Kakunodate’s sakura at night, and it was one of the first night sakura (夜桜 yozakura) I ever experienced. I came back again in the morning, and the contrast in views really left an impression!

 

If you’re not staying overnight at Kakunodate, please look up the last shinkansen departing Kakunodate ahead of time to avoid any mishaps.

 

Enjoying sakura along the Hinokinai River. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

A 10-minute walk from the Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street is the Hinokinai River (桧木内川 Hinokinai-gawa), which is lined with light pink someiyoshino cherry blossoms and daffodils (水仙 suisen). Here, you can take a break and gaze at the scenery.

 

Snacks are best when they’re easy to eat on-the-go. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

During the sakura season, you can usually find many yatai (屋台 food stalls) by the river, selling grilled local delights like tanpo (たんぽ pounded rice wrapped on a stick), and sweet treats babahera ice cream (ババヘラアイス babahera aisu), a nostalgic favourite in Akita. “Baba” means “old lady” in the local dialect, while “hera” means spatula, the tool that the vendors (usually old ladies) use to scoop out the ice cream. Munching on snacks while enjoying the scenery by the river is a great way to spend a day, don’t you think so?

 

Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street in autumn. (Image credit: KrobkruengJapan)

 

Kakunodate is well-known for its sakura, so much that the train station entrance is even decorated with sakura patterns. However, Kakunodate is also an exquisite place to visit during autumn, which you can read more about in our friends Bonny and Pom’s article here.

 

Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street (角館武家屋敷通り)
Address: Higashi-katsurakucho, Omotemachi, Kakunodate-machi, Semboku-shi, Akita 014-0331
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Kakunodate Station (角館駅)
Night illumination: sunset – 22:30

 

Hirosaki Park (弘前公園)

Viewing period: late April to early May (varies each year)

Hirosaki Castle atop the stone foundation. (Image credit: Hirosaki City / JNTO)

 

Last, but certainly not the least, is the splendid Hirosaki Park (弘前公園 Hirosaki Kо̄en) in Aomori Prefecture, which houses Hirosaki Castle, the only original castle keep (現存天守 genson tenshu) in Tohoku. The image above is the castle’s original position, but as the stone foundation was in need of repair works, currently the entire 400-ton castle keep has been moved 70m away. For more about the castle, you can read my previous article on Japanese castles here. It is estimated that the castle will be moved back to its original position earliest in 2025.

 

Hirosaki Castle rising above the cherry blossoms, with Mount Iwaki in the background. (Image credit: Hirosaki City / JNTO)

 

Along with Takato Castle Ruins Park in Nagano Prefecture and Mount Yoshino in Nara, Hirosaki Park is considered one of the Top Three Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan, and its scenery is truly incomparable. There are so many amazing views to experience!

 

Firstly, techniques taken from apple cultivation (which Hirosaki is renowned for) have been adapted to grow denser and more beautiful cherry blossom trees, which number at around 2,600 at the castle park. You can get a marvellous view of the castle, a dense sea of pink flowers, and the snow-capped Mount Iwaki in the background.

 

Cherry blossom carpet. (Image credit: Hirosaki City / JNTO)

 

Next, another captivating sight is that of the cherry blossom carpet (花筏 hana ikada), which happens slightly after the full bloom period, when the petals fall off and accumulate on the still waters of the outer moat to form a pink carpet. If you’re lucky, you might even spot some ducks swimming through the carpet of sakura.

 

I have been to Hirosaki Park twice during the sakura season, and both times were around the beginning of the full bloom period. So although the cherry blossoms were flowering beautifully, I have yet to experience the sakura carpet. But that’s a reason to visit the park again; they say the third time’s the charm!

 

Night illuminations at Hirosaki Park. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Perhaps one of the most magical sights of all, and certainly one of my favourites, is the night sakura at Hirosaki Park, especially around the Western Moat (西濠 nishibori). Both sides of the moat are lined with sakura trees, forming tunnels which you can leisurely stroll under. The lower-hanging branches are meticulously trimmed so that the flowers bloom at around eye level.

 

At night, the stretch of sakura trees are illuminated, and their reflection in the moat is magical. If you’re adventurous, you can even take a boat ride on the moat, and row yourself along it.

 

View of the moat during the day and at night. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The views at Hirosaki Park during the day and at night create vastly different atmospheres, so I highly recommend visiting twice to fully relish the experience. Hirosaki Park also has a large selection of food, drink, and game stalls that liven up at night, creating an enjoyable and festive atmosphere.

 

Hirosaki has delicious apple pies. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa and Japanmase)

 

While you wait for day to turn into night, why not explore the city and check out some of Hirosaki’s delicious apple pies? There are dozens of stores selling freshly baked apple pies in Hirosaki, so much that the local tourism office even made an apple pie guide map pamphlet. In addition to photos and prices, the pamphlet even rates the sweetness, sourness, and cinnamon flavour of the apple pies, so you can search for something that suits your preferences.

 

Heart-shape in the canopy of flowers. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

See if you can find this special place in the park! A heart-shaped stump on the ground will give you a clue when you’re nearby. When the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, the branches make a heart shape when viewed from a certain angle.

 

Hirosaki Park (弘前公園)
Address: 1 Shimoshiroganecho, Hirosaki-shi, Aomori 036-8356
Access: Take the Dotemachi Loop bus from JR Hirosaki Station (弘前駅) to Shiyakushomae Bus Stop and walk 5 minutes to Hirosaki Park. Alternatively, walk 25-minutes from the station.
Food stall hours: 09:00–21:00
Night illumination: sunset – 22:00

 

Getting there

Exterior of Kakunodate Station. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

With so many beautiful views, it goes without saying that all of the Top Three Sakura Spots of Michinoku are also on the list of Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots in Japan (日本さくら名所100選), a list curated by the Japan Cherry Blossom Association. One great thing about these three spots their proximity to each other. All places are easily accessible via rail, especially when staying at a centralised location like Morioka, the capital of Iwate Prefecture. Only 2.5 hours by bullet train from Tokyo, Morioka is great as a base to chase cherry blossoms as it’s right in the centre of northern Tohoku.

 

Kitakami Tenshochi Park:

  • From Morioka Station (盛岡駅), it’s a 20-minute ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Kitakami Station (北上駅). Alternatively, you can take the Tohoku Main Line (50 minutes). Kitakami Tenshochi Park is a 30-minute walk from Kitakami Station.

 

Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street:

  • From Morioka Station, it’s a 50-minute ride on the Akita Shinkansen to Kakunodate Station (角館駅). Kakunodate Samurai Residence Street is a 20-minute walk from Kakunodate Station.

 

Hirosaki Park:

  • From Morioka Station, it’s a 50-minute ride on the Tohoku Shinkansen to Shin-Aomori Station (新青森駅), where you transfer to the Ou Main Line for a 40-minute ride to Hirosaki Station (弘前駅). Hirosaki Park is a 10-minute bus ride or 25-minute walk from Hirosaki Station.

 

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka

Hotel Metropolitan Morioka.jpg (63 KB)

Twin room and hotel exterior of Hotel Metropolitan Morioka Main Wing. (Image credit: JR East Hotels)

 

Wondering where to stay in Morioka? A JR East group hotel, Hotel Metropolitan Morioka (Main Wing) is directly connected to JR Morioka Station, as well as to the station mall Fesan. Alternatively, there is also Hotel Metropolitan Morioka (New Wing), which is just a 3-minute walk from the station.

 

Lobby of Hotel Metropolitan Morioka New Wing. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

The convenient locations make Hotel Metropolitan Morioka perfect as a base for your travels around the northern Tohoku region. The friendly front desk staff are always eager and ready to help with food and sightseeing recommendations!

 

If you do base yourself in Morioka, don’t miss out on trying their Three Great Noodles: reimen (冷麺 cold noodles in a spicy broth), wanko soba (わんこそば all-you-can-eat soba served in bite sized portions), and jajamen (じゃじゃ麺 noodles with blackbean sauce).

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you are visiting Tohoku, check out the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 5 consecutive days at only ¥30,000. You can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) can be used for automatic ticket gates, and foreign passport holders living in Japan are also eligible to use this pass.

Enjoy sakura at home with JAPAN RAIL CLUB

JapanRailClub

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

Hungry for more? Look out for sakura-themed snacks in JAPAN RAIL CLUB's April 2024 Omiyage Snack Box! Titled "Spring Beginnings", this seasonal Japanese snack box is filled with snacks that are reminiscent of your time viewing the sakura blossoms in Japan. Get yours by 30 April 2024 and enter this exclusive promo code "SPRING14" to enjoy USD33.25/SGD 44 off when you subscribe to the 6-month Snack Subscription Plan.

Header image credit: Hirosaki City / JNTO

 

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