Chuugoku 1: Iwakuni and Yamaguchi

I left my job at the end of March, and as I don’t start my new one until the end of April I had a few weeks off to fill. I tried to get back to England for a bit, but my new job requires changing my visa type which due to Japanese bureaucracy takes time to process during which I wasn’t sure whether I was actually allowed to leave the country or not.

As such, I found a cheap flight to Hiroshima and headed west for a few days to an area of western Japan known as the Chuugoku region. The name itself is a little confusing, as it is exactly the same as the Japanese word for China (the kanji 中国 meaning ‘central country’, as it lay between the early settlements in Kyushu and the old capital in Kyoto).

I started in Hiroshima, a city I first visited 5 years ago. As I’d been there before, I didn’t spend much time there this time; however I did drop in at Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima island to see the famous red torii gates, which last time was under construction after suffering some damage strong winds!

From Miyajima, a short 20-minute train ride takes you to Iwakuni station, from which another 20-minute bus ride takes you to the Kintai-kyo bridge. Iwakuni is famous for the 350 year-old wooden arched bridge, spanning the Nishiki river and I was lucky to visit at a time when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, which added a perfect backdrop to what is already a stunningly beautiful bridge. It costs 300 yen to actually cross the bridge, I assume to cover maintenance, but if you don’t want to pay you can always just cross at the parallel road bridge 150m up river.

Another bus and train takes you from the bridge to the prefectural capital, Yamaguchi city. Yamaguchi is supposedly known as ‘little Kyoto’ for its temples and pagodas, and in walking around the town once again I could take advantage of the cherry blossom trees to provide an excellent background to my photos. At the end of a nice stream flanked on both sides by the cherry trees, there was a rather delightful 5 storey pagoda, although the temples of the city were much the same as you’d find anywhere else in Japan.

Mito and Kairaku-en

One of the most famous times of year in Japan is the cherry blossom season, which starts around the end of March and the beginning of April each year. Signalling the start of spring, cherry trees all over the country fleetingly bloom in beautiful pink blossom; the blossom tends to only last for a week or two before the wind or rain drives it away, so it’s important to take advantage and go and have a look while you have the opportunity.

Less well-known is the plum blossom, which blooms a week or two earlier in mid-March. A famous place to look at the plum blossom is Kairaku-en park in the town of Mito, Ibaraki, about an hour northwest of Toyko. Kairaku-en is considered one of the three Great Gardens of Japan (along with Kenroku-en in Kanazawa, which we visited last May, and Koraku-en in Okayama, which he haven’t been to), and hosts a plum blossom festival throughout March.

Due to the ephemeral nature of nature, it’s always difficult to judge exactly  when the best time to visit might be. We went to Mito towards the end of March, hoping to catch either the end of the plum blossom or the beginning of the cherry blossom. Unfortunately, we ended up missing them both!

In the end, we still had a wander around the garden but couldn’t help noticing how bare all the trees were; with a little imagination we could imagine how it must have looked either the week before or a week after, but alas we couldn’t appreciate what it had to offer.

It must look great with blossom on all the trees!

The locals taking pictures of the one tree with any blossom on it

Back in Ueno Park in Tokyo, we actually saw some cherry blossom the week after!

Hanami 花見

Easter weekend this year was Helen’s birthday, and she came from Hong Kong to visit me for the weekend. It was the first time we’d seen each other since Christmas, and it was so good to see her again! As luck would have it, her visit coincided with cherry blossom season, where all the trees are covered in beautiful pink sakura, and it really was a sight to behold!

The Japanese like to go to the local park, throw a big blue tarpaulin on the floor under a tree and eat, drink and be merry with their friends. Helen and I went to Inokashira Park in Kichijoji about 10 mins away from my house, and sat on a bench to have a picnic. It was pretty cold though so we soon ran inside to have a hot chocolate to warm up again! Anyway, here’s some of our pictures.