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Sakura Series #2: Cherry blossom spots with a castle backdrop (Tohoku edition)

Sakura Series #2: Cherry blossom spots with a castle backdrop (Tohoku edition)

When it comes to imagining Japan during spring, the image of cherry blossoms (桜 sakura) would immediately spring to mind for most people. It’s an image that has become almost synonymous with Japan, a picture of pink and white petals that carpet the ground and scatters in the sky. For Japanese people, the flower also symbolises new beginnings, and many would gather with their families and friends and rekindle their relationships under the cherry blossom trees.

 

As the “country of cherry blossoms”, Japan abounds with cherry blossom trees. People would come to these places to simply view the blooming cherry blossoms (花見 hanami), and many would have picnics underneath the trees. But there are some cherry blossom viewing spots with unique backdrops: for some, snowy mountains can be seen in the distance. For others, it's a majestic castle in the backdrop which makes for a picture-perfect scenery that visitors can't get anywhere else.

 

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

 

My article this time round will be about spots where visitors can witness cherry blossoms amidst the view of a historical castle in the background. Tohoku is home to some magnificent castles scattered throughout the region, remnants of the country’s rich history and culture, and to witness them with cherry blossoms all around is an experience that’s hard to put into words. Perhaps more interestingly, most of the following castles are also listed as among 100 Fine Castles of Japan (日本百名城 Nihon Hyaku-Meijō) by the Japan Castle Foundation.

 

To see a castle and cherry blossoms in one view is perhaps something distinctively Japanese, so visitors paying a visit would definitely want to visit them while in Japan.

(Note: this is part two 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: JR East)

 

In the northern prefecture of Aomori (青森県 Aomori-ken) is Hirosaki Park, one of the most popular cherry blossoms viewing spots in Tohoku Region (東北地長 Tōhoku-chihō). This sprawling 492,000-sqm park is home to more than 2,500 cherry blossom trees, and many people visit this park time and time again to marvel at the scattering cherry blossoms petals. Equally amazing is the scenery at night, when spotlights shone on the surrounding trees makes for an even more spectacular view.

 

But if there's one scenery visitors shouldn't miss here, it's the "cherry blossom carpet" (花筏 hana ikada), where cherry blossom petals completely cover the still waters in the outer moats, resulting in literally a carpet of flowers.

 

Cherry blossom period: Late April–early May

 

Backdrop: Hirosaki Castle (弘前城)

*Hirosaki Castle located inside the park. (Image credit: Hirosaki City/JNTO)

 

One structure particularly stands out in Hirosaki Park, and that is the Hirosaki Castle. Built in the 16th century, it is a classic example of a hirayama-style castle (平山城 hirayama-jō), where the castle is built on a mountain, hill, or an elevated land. It has undergone restorations over the years, with one in the 18th century and another within the last decade. One interesting fact: the castle tower (天守 tenshu) is the only one in Tohoku Region that is built in the Edo Period (1603–1868 AD)!

I wrote in further detail about Hirosaki Castle in an earlier article, so have a look at it if you like to know more.

(*Note: Hirosaki Castle is currently under major renovation, which involves reconstructing its foundation stone walls. The process is estimated to be completed earliest 2025 or onwards. This view of the castle can be seen only after the renovation is completed.)

 

Hirosaki Castle at night. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

② Senshū Park (千秋公園)

Cherry blossoms in full bloom at Senshū Park. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Next, we move on to Senshū Park, located in the centre of capital city Akita (秋田市 Akita-shi) in the northern prefecture of Akita (秋田県 Akita-ken). Beautiful Japanese gardens adorn the park, with up to more than 1,000 cherry blossom trees blooming in spring. Selected as one of Japan’s top 100 cherry blossom viewing spots, the park also features a number of shrines that give the park a historical Japanese feel, such as the Hachiman Akita Shrine (八幡秋田神社) and Iyataka Shrine (彌高神社).

If you like to know more about this park, JR East's Akita branch wrote more in detail about it in an earlier article, so do have a look at it.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–late April

 

Backdrop: Kubota Castle (久保田城)

Kubota Castle at Senshū Park. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Perched on the slopes of Senshū Park is Kubota Castle, which was originally built in early Edo Period. What’s interesting about this castle is that it had several other names throughout the times such as Yadome Castle (矢留城) and Kuzune Castle (葛根城). It underwent several restorations throughout the years, including in 1989 for the castle’s scaffolding, and in 2001 for the front gate.

 

③ Morioka Castle Site Park (盛岡城跡公園)

Morioka Castle Site Park. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

The Morioka Castle Site Park is the go-to park for those residing or visiting Morioka City (盛岡市 Morioka-shi), the capital of Iwate Prefecture (岩手県 Iwate-ken). It is one of the city’s main venues for cherry blossoms viewing usually held in late April, and is a favourite for visitors yearning to see not just the city’s spring colours but also those of other seasons.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Morioka Castle (盛岡城)

Morioka Castle’s remaining stone walls. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

In the backdrop of Morioka Castle Site Park is the namesake castle itself, or what’s left of it. Morioka Castle was built in 1597, and was formerly known as Kozukata Castle (不来方城 Kozukata-jō). However, the castle was demolished in 1874 towards the end of the age of samurai, and only some of the original stone walls remain. The park became quiet for many years after the castle’s demolition, but was revived and renamed as Iwate Park in 1906. It’s only in 2006, during the park’s 100th anniversary when it was renamed to what we now know as Morioka Castle Site Park.

Also, I’ve wrote about this park in a separate article. Have a look at it here.

 

④ Kajō Park (霞城公園)

Kajō Park in spring. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

Located right in the heart of Yamagata City (山形市 Yamagata-shi) in the mountainous prefecture of Yamagata (山形県 Yamagata-ken) is Kajō Park, where up to 1,500 cherry blossom trees filled the area. It is one of Yamagata’s most popular cherry blossom viewing spots, and the park features structures both old and new, such as a sports complex and historical buildings.

 

One prominent historical remnant is the Old Saiseikan Main Building (旧済生館本館), a hospital building built in 1878 and renamed/reopened to the public as Yamagata City Local History Museum (山形市郷土館 Yamagata-shi Kyōdokan). What’s unique about this building is its tetradecagonal (14-sided) shape, and how it exquisitely marries Western and Japanese-style architecture. It’s also designated as an Important Cultural Property (重要文化財 jūyō bunkazai) of Japan.

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Yamagata Castle (山形城)

The moat around Yamagata Castle. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

The centrepiece of Kajō Park is the Yamagata Castle, which is one of the oldest castles on this list. Built in 1356, the castle was also known as Kajō Castle (hence the name Kajō Park). Interestingly, it’s unlike other more prominent ones in Japan because it doesn’t feature a castle tower or massive stone walls. However, with a total area of 235 hectares based on the castle’s outermost region, it’s Tohoku Region’s largest castle by area.

 

Aerial view of Yamagata Castle and surrounding areas. (Image credit: Yamagata Convention Bureau/JNTO)

 

Cherry blossom trees were planted around the castle grounds in 1906 to commemorate the Russo-Japanese War, and the site was renamed to Kajō Park after World War 2. The city also plans to restore the castle to its former glory by 2033.

 

⑤ Tsukioka Park (月岡公園)

Tsukioka Park in spring. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

The next cherry blossom viewing spot brings us southward in Yamagata Prefecture, to the quiet city of Kaminoyama (上山市 Kaminoyama-shi). One of the favourite cherry blossom viewing spots is Tsukioka Park, where visitors can witness up to 100 cherry blossom trees blooming.

 

One interesting thing to note is the types of cherry blossoms that visitors can see: one is Yoshino cherry (ソメイヨシノ somei-yoshino), the most common type seen throughout Japan in spring, and the other is weeping cherry (しだれ桜 shidare-zakura). Couple these with a panoramic view of the city below, and you get a wondrous and unforgettable spring scenery.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Kaminoyama Castle (上山城)

Kaminoyama Castle overlooking the park below. (Image credit: Yamagata Prefecture)

 

Overlooking the park below is Kaminoyama Castle, which was also known as Tsukioka Castle (月岡城 Tsukioka-jō), hence the park name. The original building was constructed back in 1535, but it was demolished during the Meiji Era (1868–1912). In an effort to boost local tourism, an Edo-style castle tower was constructed in place of the original demolished building which we see today, and it houses a local history museum inside.

 

Interesting thing to note: Kaminoyama is also known as a hot spring town! When paying a visit to this city for spring, it would be a great idea to indulge in a footbath (足湯 ashiyu) found in some places here as you gaze at the scattering cherry blossom petals.

 

⑥ Kasumigajō Park (霞ヶ城公園)

Kasumigajō Park seen from afar. (Image credit: 二本松観光連盟)

 

In the northern side of Fukushima Prefecture (福島県 Fukushima-ken) is the city of Nihonmatsu (二本松市 Nihonmatsu-shi), where we explore the next cherry blossom viewing spot: Kasumigajō Park. It’s a popular place for recreation for locals, but visitors are increasingly taking notice of this place as a site for seeing cherry blossoms. With over 1,700 cherry blossom trees, it’s a floral paradise that has enchanted many people for many spring seasons.

 

Backdrop: Nihonmatsu Castle (二本松城)

One of the remaining stone walls of Nihonmatsu Castle. (Image credit: 二本松観光連盟)

 

A relic of northern Fukushima, Nihonmatsu Castle is part of the local history that stretches back far as the 14th century. Built in 1341 and rebuilt in 1643, the castle was also known by other names: Shirahata Castle (白旗城 Shirahata-jō) and Kasumiga Castle (霞ヶ城 Kasumiga-jō, hence the park name). Most of the castle’s structures were destroyed during the Meiji Restoration, and the remaining ones we see today include some of the stone walls and the Minowa gate.

 

 ⑦ Tsuruga Castle Park (鶴ヶ城公園)

Tsuruga Castle Park in spring. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

For another famous cherry blossom viewing spot in Fukushima, we head over to the historical city of Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松市 Aizu-Wakamatsu-shi) in the western side of the prefecture, where we find Tsuruga Castle Park. The scenic park is home to approximately 1,000 cherry blossom trees blooming in spring, and many visitors flock here to witness cherry blossom petals carpeting the entire complex.

 

Cherry blossom period: Mid April–Late April

 

Backdrop: Tsuruga Castle (鶴ヶ城)

Tsuruga Castle. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

Towering over the park is Tsuruga Castle, a prominent landmark of the city’s historical past. This imposing castle was originally built in 1384, and has been known to be an impregnable fortress throughout generations. Despite enduring many wars, the original structure was torn down in 1874, and replaced by the castle tower we see today built in 1965. Only the stone walls and moats surrounding the tower are the original structures that remain to this day.

 

Interestingly, this is the only castle in Japan that features red tiles for its roofs. Another interesting fact is that this castle is also known by another name: Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle (会津若松城 Aizu-Wakamatsu-jō).

 

Tsuruga Castle illuminated at night in spring. (Image credit: Fukushima Castle)

 

Just as how cherry blossoms are part of Japan’s identity, so are their castles which embody their rich history. Although cherry blossoms are commonly found in many places throughout the country, it’s particularly amazing to witness them with a majestic structure in the background. Magnificent castles can be found in Tohoku, so be sure to capture this fleeting scenery when you make a trip to the region in spring.

 

Stay tuned for my next Sakura Series article, where I will explore cherry blossom viewing spots with a castle backdrop, this time in Nagano/Niigata!

 

More details on the cherry blossom viewing spots

Hirosaki Park: the park is located in the city of Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Visitors can take the JR Ōu Main Line (JR奥羽本線 Ōu-honsen) from JR Shin-Aomori Station 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. The train journey from Shin-Aomori to Hirosaki takes 40–50 minutes and costs ¥590 per adult. For the bus ride, it’s ¥100 per adult and the journey takes 10–15 minutes.

 

Senshū Park: the park is located in the capital city of Akita in Akita Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Akita Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Akita Station (JR秋田駅 Akita-eki). Upon arrival, they can take a 10-minute walk to the park, located 500m northwest of the station. The journey from Tokyo to Akita takes approximately 3 hours 40 minutes, and the fare is ¥17,780.

 

Morioka Castle Site Park: the park is located in the capital city of Morioka in Iwate Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Morioka Station (JR盛岡駅 Morioka-eki). Upon arrival, they can take the loop bus service (Central Loop Bus, counterclockwise direction) from JR Morioka Station’s East Exit Boarding Area 16 to the castle grounds (takes around seven minutes). Alternatively, visitors can take a 15-minute walk to the park from JR Morioka Station. The journey from Tokyo to Morioka takes approximately 2 hours 15 minutes, and the fare is ¥14,810.

 

Kajō Park: the park is located in the capital city of Yamagata in Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Yamagata Station (JR山形駅 Yamagata-eki). Upon arrival, they can take a 15-minute walk to the park, located 1km north of the station. The journey from Tokyo to Yamagata takes approximately 3 hours, and the fare is ¥12,090.

 

Tsukioka Park: the park is located in the hot spring town of Kaminoyama Onsen in Yamagata Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Yamagata Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Kaminoyamaonsen Station (JRかみのやま温泉駅 Kaminoyamaonsen-eki). Upon arrival, they can take a 11-minute walk to the park, located 850m northwest of the station. The journey from Tokyo to Kamiyama Onsen takes approximately 2 hours 30 minutes, and the fare is ¥11,210.

 

Kasumigajō Park: this park is located in the city of Nihonmatsu in Fukushima Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Kōriyama Station (JR郡山駅 Kōriyama-eki), and then switch to the Tohoku Main Line (東北本線 Tōhoku-honsen) to JR Nihonmatsu Station (JR二本松駅 Nihonmatsu-eki). Upon arrival, they can take a 20-minute walk or a 5-minute taxi ride to the park, located 1.2km north of the station. The journey from Tokyo to Nihonmatsu takes approximately 2 hours 15 minutes, and the fare is ¥8,580.

 

Tsuruga Castle Park: the park is located in the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu in the western region of Fukushima Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tohoku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Kōriyama Station, and then switch to the JR Banetsu West Line (JR磐越西線 Ban'etsu-sai-sen) to JR Aizu-Wakamatsu Station (JR会津若松駅 Aizu-Wakamatsu-eki). Here, they can take the loop bus (Haikara-san or Akabe bus) to Tsurugajo Kitaguchi bus stop or Tsurugajo Iriguchi bus stop, and walk 5 minutes to the park. The journey from Tokyo to Aizu-Wakamatsu takes approximately 2 hours 50 minutes, and the fare is ¥9,440.

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

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (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 areas. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for those planning to visit the Tohoku Region. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.

 

Click here for more information on the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area).

 

Header image credit: Yamagata Prefecture

 

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