April 5 – 6, 2015
Our great start in Himeji didn’t last. Rain poured nonstop over the two days we were in Okayama Prefecture, ruining our visits to two of the supposedly finest hanami sites in Japan. Doing hanami in the rain is like watching a grainy version of the Game of Thrones on live stream – technically the visuals are all there, but it is impossible to differentiate the subject from the background. Still, even though the weather didn’t cooperate, Okayama Prefecture does boast some quality hanami spots that are different than what Kyoto has to offer. (Again, click here for Part I and Part II of my Kyoto trip)
Kakuzan Park, Tsuyama 津山鶴山公園
Tsuyama is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It is a 1.5 hr drive from both Okayama and Himeji. From Osaka it is 2 h 15 m. So when my Japanese friend heard I was going to Tsuyama for sakura, he smirked and said, “You know, there are sakura everywhere in Japan. Literally.”
But Tsuyama’s Kakuzan Park is unlike anywhere else I have been. No, I am not talking about its status as one of the top 100 sakura spots voted by the Japanese Cherry Blossom Association, a list that’s an absolute crapshoot. What’s impressive about this park is its sheer number of cherry trees. When the old Tsuyama Castle was demolished in 1873 following an ordinance by the Meiji Government to abolish unnecessary castles, the city planners went all in and planted a freaking cherry forest over the ruins. How many to be exact? Try 5,000. For reference, Ninna-ji has around 200. Heian-jingu? 680. Even Daigo-ji is home to just a thousand.
This determined planting spree makes Tsuyama arguably the top hanami spot in Chūgoku (the westernmost region of Honshū that includes the prefectures of Hiroshima, Okayama, Shimane, Tottori and Yamaguchi). Besides its massive quantity of sakura, what’s unusual about Kakuzan Park is how the cherry trees are allowed to be planted all over the old castle walls. Typically such as with Himeji Castle, sakura is seen as a compliment to the historic site, but here it is clearly the other way around. The result is multiple layers of sakura where the blossoms can be seen when look up, straight, or down.
Ambience is a big part of the hanami experience and clearly people love this place. We bumped into giddy day trippers, local teenage cosplayers and kids performing taiko. Kakuzan Park ranks as one of my favorite hanami spots despite the gloomy weather.
Sakura Index: 5/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 22:00
Admission fee: ¥300
Address: 135 Sange, Tsuyama, Okayama Prefecture 708-0022, Japan
Daigo Zakura, Maniwa 真庭市醍醐桜
Japanese are obsessed about top threes. They practically have a top three ranking for everything, from castles and mountains to rather obscure ones like lanterns and cemeteries. You bet they have a top three ranking for thousand-year-old cherry trees, which are Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima, Gifu’s Usuzumi Zakura and Yamanashi’s Jindai Sakura. A fourth one with much less recognition called Daigo Zakura is located on top of a hill in Maniwa about an hour drive west of Tsuyama.
Do a quick google search and you will find one of the most impressive cherry trees anywhere on Earth. I didn’t get to see that version of Daigo Zakura. Even though Hanami Walker forecast the tree was about to approach full bloom (~70%) on our day of visit, in reality we were greeted by mostly green sprouts. The tree is treated almost like a deity – a tiny shrine rests next to its giant roots and a few feet away is a cemetery of a clan.
Check this local website for more up-to-date information. If the tree is not in good condition, don’t make the long drive to Maniwa; there are too many other sakura options elsewhere.
Sakura Index: n/a
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Address: Bessho, Maniwa, Okayama Prefecture 719-3157, Japan
Kōraku-en, Okayama 岡山後楽園
Just like Himeji and its castle, the only reason to visit Okayama is for Kōraku-en, one of the “Three Great Gardens of Japan”. The garden was built by the lord of Okayama Ikeda Tsunamasa in 1700 and got its name from the Confucianism concept of “grieve earlier than others, enjoy later than others”.
The 133,000 square meters garden has all the expected elements of a classical Japanese garden, with a large pond, artificial islands, numerous streams, tea houses, a few hills and, most importantly, 300 cherry trees. Unfortunately more petals were found scattered on the ground than remained on the branches after days of relentless raining. Okayama has several other famous hanami spots like Asahi River Cherry Road and Handayama Botanical Garden, but the damp weather killed all of our enthusiasm to linger.
Unless you are a big fan of Japanese garden who is determined to visit all “Three Great Gardens of Japan”, I would suggest not bothering with Okayama. Further afield in Shikoku is a less-heralded but much more photogenic garden that I will cover later.
Sakura Index: 2/5
Opening hours: 7:30 – 18:00
Admission fee: ¥400
Parking: ¥100 per hour
Address: 1-5 Kōrakuen, Kita Ward, Okayama, Okayama Prefecture 703-8257, Japan
Bikan Historical Area, Kurashiki 倉敷美観地区
Although not a hanami spot, this is arguably the most visited attraction in Okayama Prefecture. Kurashiki was an important rice distribution port in the Edo period and an industrial center during the Meiji Revolution. Kurashiki is so synonymous with the rice trade its name can be roughly translated as “town of storehouses”.
The Bikan Historical Area is renovated from the old merchant quarter and contains the main section of the former canal system. Things to see include Japan’s first Western art museum, the Ohara Museum of Art, along with many of the town’s iconic white-walled and black-tiled warehouses that are converted into museums, restaurants and shops.
This area is especially photogenic at night, when the warehouses and willow trees are lit up by floodlights and their reflections glow on the canal’s dark water. The few cherry trees add a welcome tint of pink to the composition, like a piece of dried plum in a bento.
There is not much to do in Kurashiki, but its central location at about the midway point between Osaka and Hiroshima makes it a convenient base to explore the Chūgoku region. It is also a logical resting point for drivers before crossing the Great Seto Bridge onward to Shikoku.
Sakura Index: 1.5/5
Opening hours: Open 24 hrs
Admission fee: Free
Transport: 10-minute walk south from Kurashiki Station through a shopping arcade