When I was living in Japan, studying in Tokyo for a year, I would not have thought that a couple years from then, I would be designing and selling tailor made trips to Japan on a daily basis. The things about Japan that so many people in my home country fantasized about, I had seen and experienced for myself. They were dreaming of Mount Fuji, traditional architecture in Kyoto and Japanese pop culture in Tokyo. But, most of all, they were dreaming of cherry blossoms.
It sounded like a corny cliché, just like tourists dreaming of the Eiffel Tower, berets and baguettes when thinking about France. Yet, I couldn’t blame them since I had witnessed first-hand the power of attraction that held cherry blossoms in Japan. Even the Japanese themselves were irresistibly drawn to those specific flowers, dedicating festivals and hanami celebrations to them, during which they just sat underneath cherry trees and admired the beauty of nature. Not to mention the drinking rituals that ensued, which were albeit a tad more trivial.
Before moving to Japan, I didn’t think I would fall for that trap. Flowers were not really my thing anyway. Still, when I walked into the Koishikawa Korakuen garden in late February, in the midst of a snow storm the likes of which Tokyo had not seen for decades, the first thing I saw were the delicate petals of flowers blooming under the cover of snow. It was almost magical.
Those tiny, precious flowers seemed so fragile and yet, they were blooming despite the harsh weather. These little dots of white and pink speckled the gardens all around, making their way to stun the visitor as if rewarding them for coming this far to see them. This was indeed a mesmerizing sight, one that even made me forget I was freezing from head to toe.
Later on, I found out that most of these flowers were plum blossoms and that they usually came in full bloom in February and March. These plum blossoms were largely overshadowed by their peers the sakura (Japanese for cherry blossoms) but they were still celebrated in specific festivals called ume matsuri.
Thinking back, I would regret planning trips away from Japan in early April as I missed the peak cherry blossom season, usually taking place in Tokyo around late March to early April. When I came back in mid-April, sakura petals were falling down on my shoulders on the way home, already fading, but the few that remained were breath-taking.
It felt a bit disheartening. That’s why, when I saw the signs advertising the Shibazakura festival plastered all over the walls of the Shinjuku train station, it felt like a fateful opportunity to join the sakura train hype, even if I would be late to the party. Sure, hanami season was coming to an end, but the Shibazakura festival was taking over and had apparently started only a couple days beforehand. Plus, it was located right next to Mount Fuji.
Getting to the location was complex though. Along with a couple friends, I jumped in a train from Shinjuku station which took an hour to get us to Otsuki. From there, we rode a Fujisan Express train that took another hour to get to the Kawaguchiko station. Mount Fuji had never been closer but our trip wasn’t over yet as we the needed to ride a bus to the Fuji Shibazakura Festival site.
Thirty minutes later, we had finally arrived on the site. As promised, Mount Fuji was looming over in the background, so close that we could see it entirely. So far, I had seen glimpses of it, once on the Shinkansen train from Tokyo to Kyoto, once from the Shinjuku Metropolitan Building Observatory. Never had it been that majestic though. To top it all off, skies were blue and only a handful of clouds were passing by over our heads, although each of these clouds made sure to linger on the snowy caps of Mount Fuji.
Magic wasn’t only above our heads, in the distance. On ground level, flower carpets were stretching far and wide. All shades of purple, white and pink were covering the grounds right and left, drawing elegant patterns. Most of these patterns were man-made but they felt integrated in the peaceful landscape of the Kawaguchiko Lake region.
Once again, the flowers on display there were not exactly cherry flowers, or at least not the same species that had blossomed earlier. Most of them were Shiba-zakura, otherwise known as moss phlox. Various species coexisted, from the white Mont-Blanc variety to the North-American Mc Daniel’s cushion, with their bright fuchsia colours, and the dark purple Oakington blue eyes, derivative of the orchid.
Visitors were plentiful but they all strolled quietly in between the flower lanes, following predefined walking paths winding across the park. Despite the festival stalls selling Japanese street food that had settled in the park, selling fried fish and takoyaki just like they would have at another festival, nothing seemed to spoil the serene atmosphere on the site.
Flowers must have had a certain power since I felt that strolling there was having quite a soothing effect. They had some kind of magic indeed. I was beginning to understand why sakura were held in such esteem and so instrumental to the Japanese collective identity. Flowers in general were revered, perhaps not only for their sake, but because there was a beauty in them that appeased the soul.
I decided that, when I would come back to Japan, I would definitely pay more attention to flowers and their blooming seasons when planning my trip.