• Alyce Bender

Japan in Spring: Sakura


Cherry blossoms, known as sakura, are a sure sign of spring. Here in Japan, they are a national treasure and everyone looks forward to hanami, an annual tradition of picnicking in the park under the blossoms. I have been so lucky to be in country the last two springs when the blooms hit peak. The two areas with the largest concentration of cherry trees that are close to me are Hirosaki Castle Park, Hirosaki and Tenshochi Park, Kitakami.

Now, both Kitakami and Hirosaki bloom within a day or two of each other. That makes for a busy week for photographers hoping to get multiple days in both locations. The blooms only last about a week. Timing is everything as it takes about five days from first bloom opening for each location to reach peak (where the majority of the blooms are open). Peak only lasts about a week before the petals fall and are replaced by new spring leaves. Photo tip: check out the Japanese Cherry Blossom forecast (yes, that is how serious it is here) when planning your trip. Cherry tree opening estimates are predicted by the Japan Weather Association.

When I first arrived in Japan last year, just a few weeks before the cherry blossoms were suppose to open, all I wanted to do was get out and find THE spot to visit. Most of the spots marketed for foreigners were all down in Tokyo, Kyoto, and those southern cities. Where I live, Misawa, is about a ten hour drive from Tokyo and it costs several hundred dollars in tolls to get there. Crazy, right? Anyway, so I was determined to find spots up here in the northern part of Japan, commonly referred to as the Tohoku region. Everyone here told me about Hirosaki and some of the small city parks right in Misawa. Then, I found Tenshochi Park on Google Images.

Tenshochi Park, located in the city of Kitakami, is about three hours south of Misawa via the toll road. A beautiful park, it has over 10,000 cherry trees planted next to the Kitakami River. The majority of the trees in the park are planted along a two kilometer path.

Unique to the Kitakami Cherry Blossom Festival, is a horse drawn wagon that takes visitors up and down the lane. The iconic red canopy over the carriage, makes for a beautiful contrast against the white blossoms overhead.

Last year, I was honored to capture two geisha conducting an interview and photo shoot while there at the park. Fully adorned from head to toe, they were stunning. To have them poised under the full blooming sakura, was a full stroke of luck. My only part in this was that I had blocked out the entire day for me to wonder the park, shooting whatever I happened to see and taking it all in. This was my reward.

Getting back from Kitakami, I then turned to Hirosaki, one of the top three cherry blossom viewing spots in all of Japan! Again, only about a two and a half to three (depending on traffic) drive from Misawa, there is a reason it is in the top three. With over 2600 cherry trees, many of which are over 100 years old, motes that fill with petals, a three story castle tower, and beautiful red bridges, this is a photographer's dream.

Photo tip: walk along the outside of the park for long mote views and use a telephoto lens to capture images like the one below.

Hirosaki Castle Park is a full day trip. Make note of where you leave your car and which of the massive gates you enter, then just get lost. There is something around every corner and down each path. Sakura are not the only blooming plant here either as the park is also home to a large botanical garden.

Wandering around gives you time to compose unique images and work around the hoards of people who will inevitably be there. During much of the blossom season, there are vendors who serve a wide array of delicious food. Make sure you try some while there as working on an empty stomach is never a good time.

As the day wears on, don't pack up your bag too quick. I made that mistake the first year I visited. As night falls, the park lights up and the sakura take on a new magical appearance. While there are plenty of reflecting pools around the park, my favorite is the West Mote. Visitors can take out row boats on this section of water for, yet another, way to enjoy the natural beauty. Come night, using a long exposure, I was able to smooth the water, make the boaters disappear, and capture the glowing beauty of sakura at dusk.

Photo tip: for this view, get to the West Mote bridge early and claim a spot at the rail. Many locals visit the park after dark once they have gotten off work, so even mid week, this time of day can be very crowded.

Well, I hope you found this informative and helpful if planing a visit to the north of Japan during sakura season. Let me know if you are going to be in the area! Next up, I will be reliving my most recent trip to bring you photos, locations, and tips from Arizona, USA.

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