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Sakura Series #1: Cherry blossom spots with snowy mountain backdrop

Sakura Series #1: Cherry blossom spots with snowy mountain backdrop

Japan is a land of four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. The seasons are one of the main pull factors for travellers all over the world yearning to travel to Japan repeatedly, whether it’s to experience pink-hued spring, the green season of summer, crimson-covered autumn, or snow-white winter. More so for those from Singapore, a tropical country that experiences no seasons at all (unless you consider summer as its only season throughout the year).

 

Cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) are synonymous with Japan for spring season, so much that the country can be regarded as the "country of cherry blossoms" itself. Cherry blossoms bloom almost everywhere throughout the country in spring, but there are selected areas specially for people to view them. In these areas, people can witness cherry blossoms with a snowy mountain in the background, an exceptionally contrasting view that can be enjoyed only in a few places. And it might interest you to know that most of the snowy mountains introduced here are listed in the "100 Famous Japanese Mountains" (日本百名山 Nihon Hyaku-meizan), a book composed by mountaineer Fukada Kyuya (深田久弥) in 1964.

 

Locations of cherry blossom viewing sites with mountain backdrops in eastern Japan. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

For this article, I will share some special spots where visitors can marvel at this exquisite contrasting view of two concurrent seasons, which is possible only in countries with the four seasons such as Japan. Cherry blossom viewing (花見 hanami) is one of Japan's favourite pastimes for spring season, but it's particularly exquisite to see cherry blossoms with a mountain backdrop. It’s an understated scenery that can only be seen at the right place and at the right time, so let’s see where you can see them!

(Note: this is part one of the four-part Sakura Series, specially focusing on the upcoming spring season in Japan. Take note that the cherry blossom periods below are subjected to weather conditions.)

 

① Hirosaki Park (弘前公園)

Hirosaki Park in spring. (Image credit: JNTO)

 

First up, we explore Aomori Prefecture (青森県 Aomori-ken), the northernmost prefecture in Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō), where we can find one of the most picturesque cherry blossom sites in the region: Hirosaki Park. Located in the city of Hirosaki (弘前市 Hirosaki-shi), this park is home to the imposing Hirosaki Castle (弘前城 Hirosaki-jō) and the main venue for cherry blossoms viewing in the city. Local and foreign visitors flock here for spring every year to take part in the annual Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival (弘前さくらまつり Hirosaki sakura-matsuri), where pinkish-white cherry blossom petals carpet the entire park. 

(Note: I’ve wrote several articles on Hirosaki before, so if you’re planning to visit the city, be sure to check them out so that you won’t miss out on anything!)

 

Cherry blossom period: Late April–Early May

 

Backdrop: Mount Iwaki (岩木山)

Mount Iwaki. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

On a clear day, visitors at Hirosaki Park can see Mount Iwaki in the far distance. It is a stratovolcano located in the western side of the prefecture, and is also the highest mountain in Aomori with an altitude of 1,625m. Interestingly, because of its resemblance to the all-famous Mount Fuji (富士山 Fuji-san) for its similarly symmetrical cone shape, it is also called Tsugaru Fuji (津軽富士), with Tsugaru being the historical name of the western region of Aomori.

 

Access information

Take the JR Ou Main Line (JR奥羽本線 Ōu-honsen) from JR Shin-Aomori Station (JR新青森駅 Shin-Aomori-eki) to JR Hirosaki Station (JR弘前駅 Hirosaki-eki). Take the Dotemachi Loop Bus on the west side of the train station and drop off at Shiyakusho-mae bus stop. Hirosaki Park is a 5-minute walk from the bus stop.

 

② Seishi Park (勢至公園)

Seishi Park in Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

In the city of Nikaho (にかほ市 Nikaho-shi) in Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken) is Seishi Park, a sprawling 28-hectare park where visitors can witness up to 1,000 cherry blossom trees. It's a popular spot for flower viewing in spring, and many people come here to have a relaxing time while gazing at the cherry blossom petals blanketing the area. But unlike other cherry viewing spots, this one offers a majestic view of a particular mountain in the distance over the Kannon Lagoon (観音潟 Kannon-gata).

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Mount Chokai (鳥海山)

A snow-covered Mount Chokai in the background. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Mount Chokai is yet another stratovolcano that is recognised as one of Japan’s 100 famous mountains. At a height of 2,236m and facing the Sea of Japan to the west, it is also the highest mountain in Tohoku Region. It also has the honour to be known as Dewa Fuji (出羽富士), which translates as "Fuji of Dewa" (Dewa is the historical name of a province located between Akita and Yamagata), and like Mount Iwaki, its shape also resembles Mount Fuji.

 

What’s interesting about Mount Chokai is that it has other names, depending on where visitors look at it from. Because of its resemblance to Mount Fuji, and also its straddling geographical location, it is called Akita Fuji (秋田富士) for those looking at it from Akita, or Shōnai Fuji (庄内富士) from Yamagata’s point of view. Plus, it is one of the few mountains that is designated as a National Historic Site of Japan (記念物 Kinenbutsu), a subcategory of the country’s Cultural Properties (文化財 bunka-zai). Either way, visitors wouldn't want to miss this grand view when in Akita, especially during spring.

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Inaho (いなほ) from JR Akita Station (秋田駅 Akita-eki) to JR Kisakata Station (JR象潟駅 Kisakata-eki), and then switch to the JR Uetsu Main Line (JR羽越線 Uetsu-honsen) to JR Konoura Station (JR金浦駅 Konoura-eki). From there, it's a 5–10-minute walk to the park.

 

③ Koiwai Farm (小岩井農場)

A solitary cherry blossom tree sits at Koiwai Farm. (Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)

 

Koiwai Farm (小岩井農場 Koiwai-nōjō) is a privately owned farm that many visitors visit every year. With over 3,000 hectares of land, this sprawling farm is where visitors can take part in fun activities such as milking cows and riding horses. They can enjoy some delicious foods made from local products, such as milky soft-serve ice creams and omu-rice made with eggs from the farm itself. But interestingly, many come to this farm for one particular reason: to witness an artistic view of a solitary cherry blossom tree with the grand Mount Iwate as the backdrop.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Mount Iwate (岩手山)

The imposing Mount Iwate. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Koiwai Farm offers an unobstructed view of Mount Iwate, the highest mountain in Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken) with a height of 2,038m. This majestic mountain is a stratovolcano that is classified as one of the "100 Famous Japanese Mountains".

 

Mount Iwate is also known as Nanbu-Katafuji. (Image credit: Iwate Prefecture)

 

There are two fascinating trivia about Mount Iwate: firstly, it is also called Nanbu-Katafuji (南部片富士), which translates as "half-sided Mount Fuji of the Nanbu area" because the gentle slope side of the mountain vaguely resembles Mount Fuji. Secondly, it is also known as Ganjusan (巌鷲山), which translates as "Rock Eagle Mountain" because when the snow on the mountain starts to melt in early spring, and the mountain rocks become exposed, a silhouette is formed that resembles an eagle!

(Note: Mount Iwate is not far from Morioka, the capital city of Iwate. If you're planning to visit the city, be sure to check out my earlier article on what to see and eat in the capital city of Iwate Prefecture, including useful info for Muslim travellers.)

 

Access information

Take the bus from JR Morioka Station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki)’s East Exit Boarding Area #10 (Koiwai Line), get off at Koiwai-nōjō Makiba-en bus stop, and walk to the farm. The bus ride takes around 30 minutes and costs ¥710 per adult.

 

④ Sagae Park (寒河江公園さくらの丘)

Sagae Park in Yamagata Prefecture. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Sagae Park is an idyllic place located in Sagae City (寒河江市 Sagae-shi) in the mountainous prefecture of Yamagata (山形県 Yamagata-ken). Here, people can take it slow and enjoy the natural surroundings where around 1,000 cherry blossom trees fill up the park. Here is where visitors can see something truly special: a row of cherry blossom trees with a backdrop of a particularly sacred mountain.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Mount Gassan (月山)

Mount Gassan viewed from Sagae Park. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

Mount Gassan is one of the three mountains that make up Dewa Sanzan (出羽三山 Three Mountains of Dewa), which play an important role for followers of Shugendō (修験道) The mountains are regarded to be particularly sacred, and followers of the religion embark on pilgrimages to express gratitude or seek enlightenment, and Mount Gassan is the highest among them at a height of 1,984m.

 

The majestic mountain makes for a magnificent backdrop during spring, where visitors at Sagae Park can witness the mountain in the far distance amidst the row of cherry blossoms along the riverbank. The cherry blossom trees stretch for as long as 2.8km along the riverbank, and the view of the trees and a snow-capped mountain looks just like a mesmerising painting, making for an unforgettable experience for anyone coming to Yamagata for the cherry blossom season.  

(Note: if you like to know more about Mount Gassan and Dewa Sanzan, check out the article here.)

 

Access information

Take the JR Aterazawa Line (JR左沢線 Aterazawa-sen) from JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅 Yamagata-eki) to JR Nishi-Sagae Station (JR西寒河江駅 Nishi-Sagae-eki). From there, visitors can walk for 15 minutes to the park.

 

⑤ Hitome Senbonzakura (一目千本桜)

Hitome Senbonzakura is something you don’t want to miss. (Image credit: U-Media)

 

When discussing the best cherry blossom viewing sites in Tohoku, the name Hitome Senbonzakura would pop up from time to time. Translated as "View of a Thousand Cherry Blossoms in a Glance", it is located along the Shiroishi River in the town of Ogawara (大河原町 Ōgawara-machi) in Miyagi Prefecture, and nearly 1,200 cherry blossom trees of different kinds are lined along the riverbank. As visitors take in the blooming cherry blossoms around them while enjoying snacks and drinks from the stalls (屋台 yatai) during the local spring festival, they can see a majestic mountain in the far distance if the weather is clear.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Zao Mountains (蔵王連峰)

Zao Mountains, one of the most iconic mountain ranges in Tohoku Region. (Image credit: U-Media)

 

If there’s one mountain that particularly stands out in Tohoku Region for most people, it would probably be Mount Zao. But to be clear, Mount Zao isn’t a single mountain / volcano, but a collection of them officially known as Zao Mountains that stretch across prefectures Miyagi and Yamagata. Mount Zao is known for many things: home to amazing hot springs, the venue to the famous snow monsters (樹氷 juhyō), a recommended destination for skiing and hiking. But another thing it’s for known is making for an amazing natural scenery, especially during the transition between winter and spring.

 

To witness Mount Zao covered in snow amidst the many cherry blossom trees along the Shiroishi River is a magical experience that visitors must experience in their lifetime. What's more, they can drop by Funaoka Joshi Park (船岡城址公園 Funaoka-jōshi kōen) where they can take a retro slope car up and get a bird's-eye view of Hitome Senbonzakura.

 

For anyone visiting Sendai and other nearby areas during spring, be sure not to miss this priceless view!

 

Access information

Take the JR Tohoku Main Line (JR東北本線 Tōhoku honsen) from JR Sendai Station (JR仙台駅 Sendai-eki) to JR Ogawara Station (JR大河原駅 Ōgawara-eki), and then take a 15-minute walk to the park.

 

⑥ Hanamiyama Park (花見山公園)

Hanamiyama Park is the best place to view blooming cherry blossoms, with Mount Azuma-Kofuji in the backdrop. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

When it comes to one of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken), Hanamiyama Park is bound to be a popular choice. Here, visitors can witness not just different kinds of cherry blossom flowers, but also those of plum blossoms (梅 ume), weeping forsythia (連翹 rengyо̄), lily magnolias (木蓮 mokuren) and more. It's known to be a paradise for flower lovers, and the name itself is a clear indicator of what visitors would come here for ("Hanamiyama" literally means "flower-viewing mountain").

 

What's more, there's a big surprise awaiting people coming here especially during spring season...

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Azuma Mountains (吾妻連山)

The Azuma Mountains in Fukushima Prefecture. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

The Azuma Mountains are a volcanic group stretch along the border of prefectures Fukushima and Yamagata, and is one of the best mountain views in Tohoku. One of the mountains is Mount Azuma-Kofuji (吾妻小富士 Azuma-Kofuji), a stratovolcano that bears an uncanny resemblance to Mount Fuji. Mount Azuma-Kofuji is another addition to the list of majestic snow-capped mountains in Tohoku, and its name is attributed to its uniquely symmetrical cone shape that resembles Mount Fuji (“Kofuji” means small Mount Fuji).

 

The mountains are a popular destination for tourists for its hiking trails and many hot spring resorts within the area—including Takayu Onsen (高湯温泉)—and one of the best ways to enjoy the sheer beauty of the area is via the Bandai-Azuma Skyline (磐梯吾妻スカイライン) which runs through the Azuma Mountains. Perhaps most interestingly, it is known for a peculiar trait: when the snow melts in spring, a white rabbit is said to appear on the side of the volcano. This rabbit is known as “seeding rabbit” to the locals of Fukushima, signalling the arrival of farming season.

 

For those wanting to see the contrasting view of scattering cherry blossom petals with a snowy mountain backdrop, they should mark Hanamiyama Park on their map. It's a haven for sakura enthusiasts, and is one place they wouldn't want to miss. 

 

Access information

Take a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from JR Fukushima Station (JR福島駅 Fukushima-eki) to the entrance of the park (available only during cherry blossom season). Do note that this shuttle bus service is available only during the cherry blossom season, and costs ¥250 per one way.

 

⑦ Takada Castle Site Park (高田城址公園)

Takada Castle Site Park is one of the popular sites for cherry blossom viewing. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Moving on to the Shinetsu Region (信越地方 Shin’etsu-chihō), we move next to the coastal prefecture of Niigata Prefecture (新潟県 Niigata-ken). As a prefecture directly facing the Sea of Japan (日本海 Nihon-kai), Niigata is perhaps one that most people may not associate with cherry blossom viewing. Unbeknownst to them, Niigata is home to Takada Castle Site Park, a scenic park in the city of Joetsu (上越市 Jōetsu-shi), where the former Takada Castle built during the Edo Period (1603–1868) once sit. The park has been one of Niigata Prefecture’s popular cherry blossom viewing sites, and on a clear day, visitors can witness Mount Myoko in the distance, approximately 50km south of the park.

 

Backdrop: Mount Myoko (妙高山)

Mount Myoko with cherry blossoms. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

In Niigata, the most famous mountain would be Mount Myoko, another stratovolcano that basically defines the prefecture. Mount Myoko is also listed as one of the "100 Famous Japanese Mountains", and because of its resemblance to Mount Fuji, it is also locally known as Echigo-Fuji (越後富士). Like many other mountains, it also features a number of hot spring resorts at the base and is a popular destination for winter sports.

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Shirayuki (しらゆき) from JR Niigata Station (JR新潟駅 Niigata-eki) to JR Takada Station (JR高田駅 Takada-eki). The park is a 15-minute walk from the station.

 

⑧ Oide Park (大出公園)

Oide Park offers some of the best views of the Hakuba Three Mountains. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Next we move over to Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken), where we can find the awe-inspiring Northern Alps (北アルプス Kita-Arupusu) that spans from prefectures Nagano to Toyama (富山県 Toyama-ken). Nagano is famous for many things: the venue to the historic Winter Olympics in 1998, home to amazing fruits, and one of the most popular places to be in Japan for winter sports and activities. Another thing it’s famous for? Unparalleled natural beauty of the surrounding mountains.

 

Oide Park is an idyllic park located not far from Hakuba Station (白馬駅 Hakuba-eki), and is along the Hime River. Amazingly, it offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains with cherry blossom trees lined up along the river, and visitors can enjoy the view in quiet surroundings, and simply take in the atmosphere to their hearts’ content. Among the mountains visible from the park is Mount Shirouma.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Hakuba Three Mountains (白馬三山)

The magnificent Hakuba Three Mountains in the far distance. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

The Hakuba Three Mountains are synonymous to Nagano Prefecture, and they are made up of Mount Shirouma, Mount Yari, and Mount Shakushi. The mountains are one of the most sought-after views in the prefecture especially during winter, but perhaps unknown to many people, the view of the mountain with cherry blossom petals is equally impressive. An iconic sight of Hakuba and whole of Nagano Prefecture, the contrasting view is something different for people who recognise the village only for its winter activities.

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Shinano (しなの) from JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki) to JR Matsumoto Station (JR松本駅 Matsumoto-eki), and then switch to the JR Oito Line (JR大糸線 Ōito-sen) to JR Hakuba Station (JR白馬駅 Hakuba-eki), and then take a 15-minute walk to the park.

 

⑨ Arakurayama Sengen Park (新倉山浅間公園)

Chūreitо̄ Pagoda (right), with Mount Fuji in the background. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Our last spot is a fan favourite among cherry blossom enthusiasts, and is a place closer to Tokyo. Arakurayama Sengen Park is in Yamanashi Prefecture (山梨県 Yamanashi-ken), and this is perhaps one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing sites in Japan. Here, visitors can visit the recognisable Chureito Pagoda (忠霊塔), together with the most iconic mountain in Japan, makes for a picture-perfect view known throughout the world.

 

Cherry blossom period: Early April–Mid April

 

Backdrop: Mount Fuji (富士山)

Arakurayama Sengen Park in Yamanashi Prefecture. (Image credit: Fujiyoshida City / JNTO)

 

And here it is: the much exalted and world-famous Mount Fuji. People from all over the world visit Japan just to experience the sheer magnificence of this majestic mountain / active stratovolcano, which is regarded as one of the country's most definitive cultural icons. It is also classified by the Agency of Cultural Affairs as one of Japan's Special Places of Scenic Beauty (特別名勝 tokubetsu meishō) and also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Fuji Excursion from JR Shinjuku Station (JR新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) directly to Shimoyoshida Station (下吉田駅 Shimoyoshida-eki). The park is a 10-minute walk from the station.

 

When it comes to finding the perfect spot for viewing the mountain with cherry blossoms, Arakurayama Sengen Park is often considered as a prime candidate. What makes this park particularly special is how it offers the best spot to fit three of Japan's cultural icons into one shot: the view of the pagoda, blooming cherry blossom flowers, and Mount Fuji right in the centre. People have most likely come across photos of Mount Fuji taken at this specific angle, and this is where visitors can come and see it for themselves.

 

Closing

It’s the winter season in Japan right now, and spring will arrive in a few months’ time. Most visitors both local and foreign would visit Japan only during the peak season itself, whether it is in February for winter or April for spring. As they look forward to gazing at snowy mountains or blooming cherry blossoms, it might not occur to them that seeing both at the same time is perfectly possible, if only they know where and when. Make sure to catch this surreal transitional view only in selected areas the next you make your way to Japan for the seasons!

(INSIDER TIP: get the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can hop on the trains mentioned above to valid areas within Tohoku for free. The same applies for the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), if you're heading to Nagano or Niigata. If you have the JR TOKYO Wide Pass, you can travel on the Limited Express Fuji Excursion for free.)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

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

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit the Tohoku Region from Tokyo. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥27,000, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit Nagano and Niigata from Tokyo. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

JR TOKYO Wide Pass

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At ¥15,000, you can use it to travel from Tokyo to Shimoyoshida and many other places within the designated areas, such as Nikko, Karuizawa, GALA Yuzawa and more. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

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

 

Header image credit: U-Media

 

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