|Travel Reports by Aaron Chong||view profile of Aaron Chong|
|Note: The opinions and views expressed in this user report are those of the individual author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of japan-guide.com.|
April 27, 2015 - Hanami 2015 Day 1 - Shibazakura in Chichibu
The hanami season in Japan is about to start soon and I'm in the mood to share with you all my first hand experience hunting those elusive sakura blossoms two years ago.
My colleague Alan had always wanted to visit Japan and asked me whether I could take him there and show him around. Since hanami was on my travel bucket list, I decided to take him with me to the land of the rising sun during the most spectacular season. Flight tickets to Japan during the first two weeks of April were astronomically expensive, so I decided to take the less road travel by booking cheaper flights on the last week of April and go sakura hunting in the Tohoku region.
After studying the blooming patterns through past sakura reports from japan-guide.com, I made my initial plan by moving gradually north, visiting Aizu-Wakamatsu, Sendai, Hiraizumi, Kakunodate and Hirosaki with the aid of the JR East Pass. I was hoping that this would increase our chances of witnessing the full bloom of the sakura in case if the season became early or late.
One month before the trip, it seemed that our plan was coming along nicely as the sakura was forecast to bloom during the time of visit. However, two weeks before the trip, I looked at the Kakunodate tourism website and was shocked to find out that the sakura there had begun to bloom. A week later, Kakunodate was swathed in brilliant pink. Apparently, certain places in the Tohoku region reported record-breaking early blooming, beating the historical yearly average by up to 12 days due to the strange warm weather! I had no choice but to revise my travel itinerary.
While purchasing the JR East Pass at the JTB, Alan found a brochure showcasing the Shibazakura in Hitsujiyama and wondered if we could go there. I looked up the Chichibu tourism website and it seemed that the full bloom could happen a week earlier than usual, coinciding with the time of our visit. I made revisions to my plans by making Chichibu as our first stop in our hanami visit.
After spending a night at Narita after landing, we woke up early next morning to catch the train bound for Tokyo at 6.30am. At Tokyo, we boarded the Shinkansen to Kumagaya, where we had planned to store our backpacks and board the Chichibu Railway to Chichibu.
During the Shibazakura season, one day free passes for the Chichibu Railway were available, granting us some significant discounts when making a return journey between Kumagaya and Chichibu. We also managed to buy admission tickets to Hitsujiyama Park from the ticket counter at Kumagaya and paid an additional JPY200 for the one way express train service to Chichibu.
We got off at Hanabatake station, the closest station to Hitsujiyama Park, and walked about 30 minutes to get there. We braced ourselves as we enter Hitsujiyama Park and stood in awe at the magnificent view of the Shibazakura covering the foothills of Mt Hitsujiyama like a fluffy carpet of pink, white and blue.
After we were done with the Shibazakura, Alan wanted to check out the river that he had seen from the train. With the aid of the travel brochure picked up at Hitsujiyama Park, we took the train to Nagatoro, a tourist area in Chichibu where we could pay for a boat tour down the Arakawa River. Alan wasn't interested in the boat, so all we did was just chilling out on Tatami Rock while admiring the beauty of the river and the forested gorges.
After spending some time in Nagatoro, it was time to take the train back to Kumagaya to board the Shinkansen to our next stop - Sendai. At the JR ticket counter in Kumagaya, we were told that the Hayabusa trains bound for Sendai were fully booked and we had no choice but to board the slower Yamabiko train at Omiya to get there. There were no seats available in the train and we had to stand for about an hour until some seats were freed up after reaching Koriyama.
We finally arrived at Sendai at about 5pm and it was here that I made a painfully embarrassing mistake of boarding an incorrect train.
We were supposed to take the Senseki Line to Nigatake where we would check in at a backpacker's hostel called Umebachi before we head off to Shiogama to catch the final moments of the Flower Festival at the Shiogama Shrine. At Sendai station, I boarded a train bound for Ishinomaki, thinking that it was the Senseki Line, until I had that funny feeling when the train had been running for about 15 minutes without stopping at any station.
I asked a passing conductor whether the train would be stopping at Nigatake and to my horror the conductor explained to me that the train was a non-stop service all the way to Ishinomaki! Fortunately, the conductor understood our plight and was gracious to stop the train temporarily at Matsushima station so that we could board the next train back to Sendai there. We were also ensured our safe transfer back to Sendai when one of the staff at Matsushima station came up to us to verify that we were the foreign passengers who boarded the wrong train. I thanked my lucky stars that I have used my basic Japanese skills to good use especially in a region where English was hardly spoken.
Due to this blunder, we had to give the festival a miss but to console ourselves we went to Shiogama anyway to have a decadent sushi dinner at Sushi Tetsu. There were not many people at the restaurant and we had an intimate conversation with the chefs there. Alan's first full day in Japan felt like a week and already he was wondering what could top today's amazing trip to Chichibu in the days to come.
For more photos of this trip, visit my Flickr album at https://www.flickr.com/photos/124829205@N08/albums/72157651922175938