Please-let-there-be-blossoms. Please-let-there-be-blossoms. Please-let-there-be-blossoms…
I was holding my breath on the drive from the airport to the hotel in Osaka. Tokyo had bloomed a full two weeks ahead of schedule, so I was hoping to God that the rest of the country had stuck with the forecast and that a year’s worth of planning was not all about to go out the window because Mother Nature couldn’t read a calendar.
Then I saw it. A lone cherry tree on the edge of a parking lot… and it was covered in pale pink blooms. I squealed like an excited child – “CHERRY BLOSSOMS! OVER THERE!” As we moved out of the industrial area and towards the city, the trees began to multiply, and the blossoms continued to appear – white, pale pink and the rarer darker pink. Not at full bloom – about 70% – which was a great sign for us. Well, at least I knew that we would see some blossoms at least! I didn’t have to worry about having a cherry blossom-less Cherry Blossom tour now. The relief was enormous.
Our evening arrival at and our early morning departure Osaka meant that those first glimpses of cherry blossoms from the bus was as close as we would get to them in the city. Our next sightings were at 300km/h from the window of the Sakura bullet train, dotted across the Japanese countryside as we headed south for three and half hours to Kumamoto City on theisland of Kyushu. The perfectness of the train’s name was no lost on me – sakura in Japanese means “cherry blossom”.
The further south we headed, the fuller the bloom became. Our local guide was grinning as he met us as we got off the train. “I’m so happy – there are blossoms everywhere, it’s perfect!” Music to my ears.
Our first stop was Kumamoto Castle – ranked as the No.2 castle in Japan. I absolutely love how the Japanese rate everything – Best Castle, Most Iconic View, Best Place for Cherry Blossoms, etc. Well, Kumamoto Castle is an amazing castle both in its appearance and in its structure. You can climb to the top of one of the original towers for a commanding view over the castle and its grounds. The top floor of the castle itself also offers some fantastic views across Kumamoto.
We arrived at the castle entrance and were immediately surrounded by blossoms. The breeze was tossing the petals about in the air and they were drifting down to the ground like snowflakes, covering the ground in a fine pinkish dusting. The fine, pink flower against the dark exterior of the castle was a breathtaking sight.
The relief that I felt was overwhelming. It worked. We were here, at the peak of the blossoms, with a fine blue sky creating the perfect background to enjoy the floral spectacle.
An afternoon of pink and white delight followed as we soaked up the atmosphere that surrounded Kumamoto. Saturday afternoon + sushine + cherry blossoms = plenty of hanami (cherry blossom watching parties – groups of people sitting on mats beneath the trees, eating and drinking and celebrating this one-a-year phenomenon); young women dressed in kimono; groups of dancers performing traditional routines; young families making the most of the festive atmosphere. It was a wonderful experience to immerse ourselves in the noise and colour around us.
After the castle we ventured to Gyobuten, the former residence of the samurai Hosogawa. It’s a traditional home filled with artefacts from the family and gives a really interesting insight into how the warriors lived. To me, it really captures the concept of outside-in living – you can see the garden from almost any point in the house, and the furnishings and the building all flow into the open space beyond. It gives you an incredible feeling of calm as you stand back and take it all in.
Finally we drove out to Suizenji Garden on the edge of Kumamoto’s city centre. This park was originally the tea house for the Hosokawa clan. The garden was designed to replicate the road from Kyoto to Tokyo – complete with a mini Mt Fuji. The blossoms here was wonderful as well, and in the fading afternoon night the white blooms particularly appeared translucent and almost glowing. It was a wonderful way to end out first day of Hidden Japan.
Some images of our first day…