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Sakura Series #3: Cherry blossom spots with a castle backdrop (Shinetsu edition)

Sakura Series #3: Cherry blossom spots with a castle backdrop (Shinetsu edition)

Cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) signify new beginnings for Japanese people, a symbolic time when they look forward to a fresh start in the upcoming months. Japanese people and foreign visitors enjoy witnessing the fleeting beauty of these flowers, for they last only for one to two weeks. Because of that, many people from all over the world repeatedly visit Japan to witness this, and cherry blossom forecasts play an important role in their travelling plans.

 

Eastern Japan is home to some of the best cherry blossom viewing (花見 hanami) spots in Japan, and many people would visit these hotspots time and time again. Some would go the extra mile to find certain special hanami spots, such as those with a majestic castle in the backdrop for an added exquisite to an already mesmerising view.

 

Locations of cherry blossom viewing spots with a castle backdrop in Shinetsu. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

My Sakura Series continues with this article, where I will focus on cherry blossom viewing spots with a castle backdrop again. Previously I wrote on those located in Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chihō), a region with plenty of history and culture, as well as beautiful, "Instagram-worthy" places. This time we will be looking at those in the Shinetsu Region (信越地方 Shin’etsu-chihō), which is made up of prefectures Nagano (長野県 Nagano-ken) and Niigata (新潟県 Niigata-ken). And like those in Tohoku, most of these spots are also among the 100 Fine Castles of Japan (日本百名城 Nihon Hyaku-Meijō), a list curated by the Japan Castle Foundation.

 

Witnessing cherry blossoms blooming in the midst of a castle backdrop is a magnificent scenery that can be hard to put into words, so visitors to Japan especially during spring season would not want to miss this temporal opportunity.

(Note: this is part three 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 Matsumoto Castle Park (松本城公園)

Cherry blossom period: Early April–mid-April

Matsumoto Castle Park in spring at night. (Image credit: Matsumoto City / JNTO)

 

We begin with Nagano Prefecture in the city of Matsumoto (松本市). When it comes to cherry blossom viewing spots in this historical city, many would choose Matsumoto Castle Park as one of the top candidates. Cherry blossoms would bloom gloriously in spring here, with their petals carpeting the still waters of the outer moat of the outstanding piece of architecture standing tall in the centre of the park.

 

Backdrop: Matsumoto Castle (松本城)

Matsumoto Castle located inside the park. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture / JNTO)

 

Matsumoto Castle is widely regarded as one of Japan’s most significant and outstanding historical castles. Not only is it considered as one of the country’s finest examples of Japan’s feudal structures from the Sengoku Period (1467–1615), but unlike many other castles, it’s a hirajō-style (平城) where the castle is built on a flatland instead of on a slope or hilltop. Interestingly, the locals refer to it as the "Crow Castle" (烏城) because of its black exteriors, and how the roofs resemble spreading wings.

 

Matsumoto Castle is one of the five National Treasures of Japan (国宝 kokuhō) for castles, and is one of the most sought-after spots for cherry blossom viewing. In fact, every spring it hosts events such as the Nighttime Cherry Blossom Viewing (夜桜会 yozakura-kai) and the Corridor of Light (光の回廊 Hikari-no-Kairō), where a row of cherry blossom trees leading to the castle would be lit up at night, both of which are normally held for 8 days from 3 April annually.

(Note: due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the events above have been cancelled for 2021).

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Azusa (あずさ) from JR Shinjuku Station (JR新宿駅 Shinjuku-eki) to JR Matsumoto Station (JR松本駅 Matsumoto-eki), and then take a 15–20-minute walk to the park.

 

② Takato Castle Ruins Park (高遠城跡公園)

Cherry blossom period: Early April–mid-April

Takato Castle Ruins Park's Ōunkyō bridge. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Approximately 60km south of Matsumoto is the city of Ina (伊那市 Ina-shi), which is home to what is considered to be one of the top cherry blossom viewing spots in Japan. Takato Castle Ruins Park is the go-to for seeing cherry blossoms blooming in spring, and many people would go to a specific arched bridge named Ōunkyō (櫻雲橋 Cherry Blossom Cloud Bridge), which is said to be one of the best spots to see cherry blossoms in the park. One interesting fact to note is that the cherry blossom trees at the park were planted in the Meiji Era (1868–1912). One interesting thing to note: this park is one of the top three places in Japan for night sakura (日本三大夜桜 Nihon-sandai-yozakura).

 

One special thing that visitors can see at this park is a type of cherry blossoms that bloom here: the Takatо̄ Kohigan Zakura (タカトオコヒガンザクラ). Unlike the more common Somei Yoshino (ソメイヨシノ Yoshino cherry) that people often see in most places, this variety is denser with more flowers per branch, and the colour is more saturated with a darker pink colour. These flowers are sometimes referred to as "the best cherry blossoms in the world" (天下第一の桜 tenka daiichi no sakura) too!

 

Backdrop: Takato Castle (高遠城)

Takato Castle Ruins Park, illuminated at night. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Originally built sometime in the Sengoku Period, Takato Castle was once known as Kabuto Caste (兜山城 Kabuto-jō). However, after the end of the Edo Period (1603–1868), most of the castle structures were demolished and the remaining gates were donated to nearby temples. Today, the park features an eclectic mix of the remaining castle ruins and newer structures such as Taiko-yagura (太鼓やぐら), a drum-shaped tower that offers a splendid view of the surrounding park, and the Shinshu-Takato Art Museum.

 

Access information

Take the Limited Express Azusa from JR Shinjuku Station to JR Chino Station (JR茅野駅 Chino-eki). From there, you can take a JR bus that runs from Chino Station to Takato Bus Stop. The park is a 15-minute walk from the bus stop. Take note that this bus service is available only during the cherry blossom season and departs every 2–4 hours, and is also fully covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).

 

③ Matsushiro Castle Park (松代城跡公園)

Cherry blossom period: Early April–mid-April

Matsushiro Castle Park. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Tucked in the historical samurai town of Matsushiro (now part of Nagano City) is Matsushiro Castle Park, a spot that locals know is one of the best spots for viewing cherry blossoms. Cherry blossom trees are plentiful here, and more people come to visit here year after year just to see them. Perhaps most importantly, the park is famous for one special reason…

(NOTE: if you like to know more about the town of Matsushiro, you can check our earlier article that specially focuses on the town.)

 

Backdrop: Matsushiro Castle (松代城)

Matsushiro Castle’s moat and reconstructed gate. (Image credit: Nagano Convention and Visitors Bureau)

 

Matsushiro Castle is the centrepiece of the whole town, a hirajō-style castle built during the Sengoku Period. Formerly known as Kaizu Castle (海津城 Kaizu-jō), the castle witnessed many battles throughout generations, and was demolished in the advent of the Meiji Era. The main gates and moats we see today were reconstructed using traditional methods to preserve its authenticity, and the cherry blossom trees are located in the castle’s former inner courtyard.

 

Access information

Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Nagano Station (JR長野駅 Nagano-eki). From there, you can take the bus bound for Matsushiro at Bus Stop No. 3 from JR Nagano Station’s Zenkoji Exit, and alight at Old Matsushiro Station Bus Stop. The park is a 15-minute walk from the bus stop. Take note that the bus departs every 20–30 minutes.

 

④ Ueda Castle Park (上田城跡公園)

Cherry blossom period: Early April–mid-April

Ueda Castle Park filled with cherry blossoms in spring. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

In the northern side of Nagano Prefecture is the quiet city of Ueda (上田市), where up to 1,000 cherry blossom trees bloom in spring. It’s one of the popular cherry blossom viewing sites in the northern part of Nagano, and like Matsushiro, Ueda is famous for its feudal history. The park is home to remnants of yet another important castle in the prefecture.

 

Backdrop: Ueda Castle (上田城)

One of the remaining structures of Ueda Castle. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture)

 

Perched on a hill overlooking a branch of Chikuma River (千曲川 Chikuma-gawa) below is Ueda Castle, another important landmark also from the Sengoku Period. The castle belonged to a powerful samurai clan back then, and over the years it has experienced many battles. Like many other castles, most of the castle structures were torn down during the Meiji Era, with a few being reconstructed and maintained in the 20th century.

(Note: Speaking of Chikuma River, you have a look at this article to know more about Togura Kamiyamada Onsen, a hot spring town located along the river).

 

Access information

Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Ueda Station (JR上田駅 Ueda-eki). Upon arrival, they can take a 10-minute walk to the park.

 

⑤ Komoro Kaikoen Castle Ruins Park (小諸城址懐古園)

Cherry blossom period: Early April–mid-April

Kaikoen in spring. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture / JNTO)

 

Our last cherry blossom viewing spot in Nagano brings us to Komoro Kaikoen Castle Ruins Park, or Kaikoen for short. The name "Kaikoen" (懐古園) means “nostalgia park”, and locals (and increasingly, foreign visitors too) recognise it as one of the best places to view Yoshino cherry blossoms blooming in spring. The sprawling garden features various attractions, such as the Komoro City Zoo, Fujimura Memorial Museum, and several memorial halls. But perhaps most importantly, there’s a historical relic located right in the heart of the park.

 

Backdrop: Komoro Castle (小諸城)

Komoro Castle’s San-no-Mon. (Image credit: 小諸城跡 懐古園)

 

Komoro Castle is a historical landmark from the Muromachi Period (1336–1573) that has witnessed and endured many battles since its establishment. Like many of its castle counterparts in the region, most of the castle structures were demolished or donated to nearby temples at the start of the Meiji Era. Only a few original structures remain of the castle, including the gates Ōtemon (大手門) and San-no-Mon (三之門), both of which have been designated as Important Cultural Properties (重要文化財 jūyō bunkazai).

 

Interestingly, Komoro Castle is known for its unusual layout. Unlike most other castles which are built on a hilltop or highland, this castle is built on a lowland with an elevation lower than the surrounding town, so visitors can actually see the inside of the castle compound from the outside. And instead of a traditional moat filled with water, the castle uses the surrounding deep valley as an empty moat, and the cliff of the nearby Chikuma River on the western front serves as a natural defence against invading enemies in the past.

 

Access information

Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Sakudaira Station (JR佐久平駅 Sakudaira-eki), and then transfer to the JR Koumi Line (JR小海線 Koumi-sen) and get off at JR Komoro Station (JR小諸駅 Komoro-eki). Upon arrival at the station, visitors can take a 3-minute walk to the park.

 

⑥ Takada Castle Ruins Park (高田城跡公園)

Cherry blossom period: Mid-April–late-April

Takada Castle Ruins Park filled with visitors at night. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Next, we move over to the prefecture of Niigata where we find a park famous as a venue for viewing gorgeous cherry blossoms in spring. Takada Castle Ruins Park, located in the city of Joetsu (上越市) in the southern side of Niigata, is a park that throngs of visitors come to see over 4,000 cherry blossom trees blooming in spring, and the main highlight is Sakura Road, which is a tunnel of cherry blossom trees that are illuminated at night. Another sight to catch here is cherry blossom trees lit up by lanterns reflecting on the still waters of the surrounding moat. And, you might be interested to know that this park is also one of the top three places in Japan for night sakura, just like the Takato Castle Ruins Park mentioned above.

 

Backdrop: Takada Castle (高田城)

Takada Castle’s three-storied tower at night. (Image credit: Niigata Professional Photographers Society / JNTO)

 

One of the most fascinating sceneries at the park is the view of a three-storied tower that belongs to Takada Castle, a historical relic of the region’s feudal past. The hirajō-style castle was from the Edo Period, and it has endured many disasters such as two earthquakes in 1665 and 1751, and two major fires in the 19th century. Many of the castle structures were dismantled during the Meiji Era, and the central and western portions of the castle grounds were converted into Takada Castle Ruins Park.

 

Interesting facts: the iconic tower that we see at the park today is actually built in 1993 as a reconstruction of the original structure, and the iconic Gokuraku Bridge (極楽橋), one that spans from the park to the inner castle compounds, underwent restoration in 2002.

 

Access information

Take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Jōetsumyōkō Station (JR上越妙高駅 Jōetsumyōkō-eki), and then switch to the Myōkō Haneuma Line (妙高はねうまライン) by Echigo TOKImeki Railway (えちごトキめき鉄道 Echigo TOKImeki Tetsudō) to proceed to Takada Station (高田駅 Takada-eki). The park is a 15-minute walk from the station. Do note that the Echigo TOKImeki Railway (only between Naoetsu Station (直江津駅 Naoetsu-eki) and Arai Station (新井駅 Arai-eki) is covered by the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area).

 

⑦ Shibata Castle Ruins Park (新発田城址公園)

Cherry blossom period: Mid-April–late-April

Shibata Castle Ruins Park in daytime. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Lastly, we have Shibata Castle Ruins Park located in the city of Shibata (新発田市) in the northern side of Niigata. The park is home to some of the best views of cherry blossoms and is a popular place for recreation and relaxation. One of the sights to catch during spring is traditional paper lanterns illuminating the castle in the park.

 

Backdrop: Shibata Castle (新発田城)

Shibata Castle’s keep at night. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Sitting in the middle of the park is Shibata Castle, our final castle on this list. Also formerly known as "Iris Castle" (菖蒲城 Ayame-jō), this castle was built during the early Kamakura Period (1185–1333) and was rebuilt several times throughout the years after withstanding several battles and fires. The oldest original structure that remains to this day is the main gate (表門 Omote-mon), which dates back to 1732. Furthermore, the gate and Ninomaru Sumi Yagura (二の丸隅櫓), one of the castle towers, are designated as Important Cultural Properties.

 

Interestingly, many of the sites of Shibata Castle are not accessible to the public because they currently belong to the Japanese military. In fact, it is said that the castle is nicknamed “Sengoku Self-Defense Force Castle”!

 

Access information

Take the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Niigata Station (JR新潟駅 Niigata-eki), and then switch to the JR Hakushin Line (白新線 Hakushin-sen) to proceed to JR Shibata Station (新発田駅 Shibata-eki). Upon arriving at JR Shibata Station, visitors can take a 20-minute walk to the park.

 

Closing

Castles play a symbolic role in Japan, for they embody the country’s rich history and heritage. Together with cherry blossoms in spring, they form a unique identity for Japan, one that draws millions of visitors from all over the world annually. Shin’etsu is one of the regions that is home to some of Japan’s best sites for viewing these beautiful flowers, and to see them with a castle in the backdrop is something everyone should experience.

 

Stay tuned for my next (and final) Sakura Series article, where I will explore a uniquely exquisite view that can be seen only during spring: the lone cherry blossom tree.

(INSIDER TIP: get the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and you can travel on the trains mentioned above for free!)

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The new 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.

 

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

 

Header image credit: Niigata Prefecture

 

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