While the rest of the northern hemisphere is usually still in winter, the excitement of spring hits earlier in Japan, and around mid-to-late February, the excitement for sakura (cherry blossoms) seasons starts. The seasonal mood change has me trade my plans of snowy winter onsen for cool, coastal towns where the flowers eagerly begin to bloom.
Kawazu: The land of early sakura
I started my trip with a direct train ride to one of the southernmost towns along the Izu Peninsula—Kawazu. I used the JR Tokyo Wide Pass, which is available to foreign passport holders (including residents of Japan) and costs just ¥10,180 for three days of unlimited travel.
In less than three hours, the Odoriko Express from Tokyo station took me to Kawazu, a coastal town in Shizuoka. It was a scenic ride along the shore for the better part of the trip. It served as a prelude to the colorful beauty of Kawazu, which attracts millions of visitors each year between February and March to enjoy the early sakura.
Kawazu-zakura is an extraordinary variety of cherry blossom trees blooming earlier than the more common kinds. In other regions, such as Tokyo and Kyoto, peak cherry blossom season usually starts in late March and lasts merely a week. However, Kawazu-zakura trees bloom slower and allow viewers a longer time to enjoy Japan`s arguably most famous natural marvel.
Although I was early for the peak cherry blossoms due to the colder winter season, several trees were almost in full bloom, allowing me to enjoy the famous dark pink color of kawazu-zakura. The four-kilometer stretch running next to Kawazu River was bustling with crowds.
Even early in the season, many food stalls, as part of the annual Kawazu Sakura Festival, were lined up and facing the promenade of cherry trees, selling local favorites such as citrus fruits and adding to the colorful atmosphere created by the cherry blossom trees. There were even small cherry blossom trees available for purchase.
The best hostel in Ito
In Ito, Shizuoka, one hour away from Kawazu by train, I visited K’s House Ito Onsen, which is often referred to as one of the best hostels in Japan and a worthy destination on its own. One quick look at the entrance, lounge area and my room with gorgeous river views was quick to convince me that—having experienced many fantastic hostels in Japan—K’s may very well outdo them all.
The hostel occupied a building registered as a cultural heritage of Japan and was converted to budget accommodation from a 100-year-old ryokan (Japanese-style inn) in 2010. Reasonably priced (¥3,950 per person), it still maintains the ambiance of a traditional ryokan. And, as the name suggests, the hostel is also home to a delightful onsen you can enjoy free of charge.
Based on the recommendation of the amiable staff at the hostel, I headed to the nearby Kunihachi Izakaya for an early dinner. Colorfully decorated izakaya run by a husband-and-wife duo seemed rightfully a magnet for the locals.
With the owners, rustic yet vivid atmosphere and a reasonably priced and tasty menu featuring everything from sashimi to tempura, it was easily one of my best izakaya experiences. I could easily add days to my stay at K’s House Ito Onsen and eat at Kunihachi every night.
Atami’s retro atmosphere
Still in Shizuoka Prefecture, the next stop was Atami, 25 minutes from Ito by train. Atami is a famous onsen resort along the Izu Peninsula. Although the town is not as popular as it once was, I was surprised to find a city with a nostalgic vibe—think 1960s Japan. The historical shopping streets of Heiwadori and Nakamisedori are located mere steps away from Atami station, filled with many seafood restaurants and quaint shops.
One of the main draws of Atami during February is the Atami Plum Garden, which is among the earliest places near Tokyo to experience the ume (plum) blossoms—and thus the purpose of my visit. The garden is home to 469 trees and 60 varieties. Sometimes, the trees start to bloom as early as January, permitting a very long season divided into three phases: early bloom, mid-bloom, and late bloom.
I found Atami Plum Garden to offer one of the most intimate and cozy blossom-viewing experiences among all the locations on my trip. The food stalls and invigorating fresh air—not to mention the cold beer—surely added to the already festive spirit brought on by hundreds of plum trees.
Odawara’s Mount Fuji backdrop
My last stop on the trip was Soga Plum Grove near Odawara in Kanagawa Prefecture (20 minutes by bus from Odawara train station), a vast field hosting hundreds of plum trees. What Soga Plum Grove lacks in terms of intimacy compared to Atami Plum Garden, it more than makes up for it with the iconic views of Mount Fuji serving as the background to thousands of sakura trees.
Although I was in Odawara too early for the peak season, many trees were already in full bloom. However, the fields are so vast I almost felt lost or too anxious to find the best location for the perfect shot of Mount Fuji with the plum blossoms. On a clear day, the views are nearly impossible to miss. Still, I felt that chasing the scenery and exchanging tips with other visitors about the best views were probably the most fun part of the adventure—maybe even better than the iconic scenery.
After a cold winter season, the early sakura and plum blossoms warmed my heart. I highly recommend a trip to Kanagawa and the Shizuoka coast—even outside of the blooming season. Its quaint towns, historical hostels and friendly izakaya are some of the best that you will likely come across in Japan.
What are your favorite spring destinations in Japan? Have any plans for sakura of your own? Let us know in the comments!