This is part of a series that will look at how to enjoy hiking in Japan at all times of the year
Beautiful plum blossom in Atami. Photo: Alison Beale
As winter draws to a close there is an almost imperceptible change in the wind and the first flowers start to appear in the mountains. From about February you can see natural displays of blossom that arguably rival the famous Japanese ‘sakura’ or cherry blossom in terms of intense beauty. Primary amongst these are the plum blossom, but the peach, apricot and apple trees also offer an incredible spectacle to mark the start of spring.
Here I will introduce some areas for walking where you can discover early blossom.
A wonderful place to appreciate the plum blossom is Atami which is easily accessible from Tokyo by JR express train or Shinkansen. The MOA Art Museum is a short bus ride from the station and home to artist Ogata Korin’s masterpiece the Red and White Plum Blossoms screen, which is usually on display at this time of year. Seeing this work will give you a great sense of the aesthetic of the plum blossom in Japanese culture. Small and elegant, the blossoms look delicate and discreet scattered on the powerful trunks of the trees that move dynamically out of the work.
Ogata Korin’s Red and White Plum Blossoms. Photo: MOA Art Museum
After you have appreciated the screens, you can then walk through the plum trees in the garden of the museum with its long views over the Pacific, or visit nearby Atami Baien (plum garden) to see the real thing. Plum blossom come in red, white, pink and weeping varieties, have a gorgeous scent, and also attract many birds. The combination of blossom, fragrance and birdsong leaves you in doubt that spring is here.
Mt Tsukuba in Ibaraki prefecture is a great mountain to climb. There are a number of paths through ancient forest up to the mountain’s graceful twin summits from where there are long views over the Kanto plain. Getting here is easy - take a Tsukuba Express train to Tsukuba terminus and there are frequent buses from there to Mt Tsukuba. If you do not want to walk up, there is a ropeway that takes you most of the way to the top.
View from Mt Tsukuba’s plum garden over the Kanto plain. Photo: Alison Beale
After scaling the mountain you can finish your day at the beautiful Tsukubasan Shrine, and from there it is a short walk to the Tsukubasan plum garden on the lower slopes of the mountain. As the plum trees are on an incline, standing at the top of the garden provides a beautiful wide vista of the Kanto Plain over a canopy of blossom. If you are here in the late afternoon and the conditions are right, Mt Fuji sometimes emerges on the horizon against a dramatic red sky.
The ‘kawazu-zakura’ variety of cherry blossom appears in February and offers spectacular and early ‘hanami’ opportunities particularly in the onsen resort of Kawazu on the Izu Kyuko line, just over two and a half hours from Tokyo. The Kawazu river is a short distance from the station and cherry blossom line the banks of the river for over two kilometres. An alternative to walking from the station if you want a more serious hike is to visit on the way back from nearby Mt Amagi. This will involve a bus ride from Amagi pass.
Cherry trees lining the Kawazu River. Photo: Alison Beale
The Kawazu cherry blossoms are slightly darker pink than the cherry blossom that come out around the rest of the country later on. The early season means that they coincide with the bright yellow rapeseed (‘nanohana’) of this time of year, and the contrast of the yellow and pink is stunning. The weather is often still stable at this time of year and you may get to see the Kawazu cherry against clear deep blue sky, which is more difficult for the varieties that come out in March.
Kawazu-zakura against the yellow rapeseed. Photo: Alison Beale
Japan Hiking & Trekking
About the author
Author: Alison Beale
Originally from the UK, Alison Beale spends her weekends outdoors exploring the geography, botany and mycology of Japan. Convinced that Tokyo is the foremost outdoor capital of the world, she is a self-professed evangelist about the beauty and richness of the nature of Japan.