Hanami in Kintaikyo
Spring is upon us and in Japan that means Hanami. Hanami, or flower viewing, is the most popular seasonal activity practiced in Japan and for good reason. As the Sakura trees bloom for only a week or so, the fleeting nature of the Sakura makes the cherry blossoms even more beautiful. April and the Sakura are symbols of new beginnings in Japan so many companies also organize Hanami events to encourage good business relations for the year.
Gathering with friends to enjoy the cherry blossoms, eat good food, and maybe even indulge in some sake is what spring in Japan is all about. There are many places where you can see the Sakura trees blooming, but here is somewhere that is a little bit different. Kintaikyo is a bridge that was built in 1673, to combat the flooding of the Nishiki River that it spans across. The wooden bridge is unique in that it consists of five wooden arches and has to be refurbished every 20 years, otherwise the hand cut wood will rot. It is one of Japan’s three most famous bridges and a truly beautiful sight.
Kintaikyo is hidden in the small town of Kawanishi, a suburb of Iwakuni city in Yamaguchi Prefecture. It is the home of Iwakuni Castle, the famous kimono designer Uno Chiyo's Birthplace, as well as the home of the bridge itself. Sakura trees are planted all along both of the river banks and in the cherry blossom season, the clear green river is joined by an endless sea of pink. The Sakura petals softly dance in the breeze. It is a sight that will transport you back to ancient Japan.
One of the things that makes Hanami at Kintaikyo unique, is that you can ride a boat to sail down the river under the cherry trees. The boats hold around twenty people and will take you under the bridge and through the pink haze of trees at a leisurely pace. The 20 minute ride will pick you up and drop you off at the foot of the bridge, making it easy to explore the rest of what Kintaikyo has to offer. At the foot of the bridge is a small shopping area where you can eat and rest. There are restaurants offering two of Iwakuni’s local delicacies, renkon, the nine holed Iwakuni lotus root, and Iwakuni Zushi, a square boxed pressed rice dish that resembles a cake. Alternatively you can bring a bento, a Japanese packed lunch, and have a picnic under the blossoms. If it is warm enough you might want to try an ice cream from one of the two shops at the foot of the bridge. Named after two warring samurai, the shops are fiercely competitive, and you can hear them calling out to customers all day long. The two shops have become famous not only for their feud, but because they both boast an amazing array of flavors. One store has over eighty flavors to choose from and the other over a hundred.
At Kintaikyo you can also experience “night viewing". The bridge is lit up at night and you will see many couples strolling through the trees hand in hand. On the far side of the bridge, street vendors have set up stalls selling all kinds of delicious treats from yakiniku meat skewers, to kakigori, sweetened shaved ice, delicious if you don’t mind the cold. If you want to stay the night after a hard day of flower viewing or perhaps sake tasting, then you can stay at the Iwakuni Kanko Kokusai Hotel. The hotel has a magnificent view of both the bridge, and the cherry blossoms overlooking the river. The top floor also boasts an indoor onsen, where you can relax in the bath house whilst enjoying the view of the bridge and Iwakuni Castle in the distance.
If you manage to tire of cherry blossom viewing, then there are plenty of things to keep you occupied in the nearby Kikko Park. Activities range from perusing handmade pottery shops, to the “white snake museum” that showcases a famous breed of lucky white snake. There is plenty to do here long after the cherry petals have all fluttered away. The best time to see the cherry blossoms is the first week of April if you want to see the flowers in full bloom, or a week either side will also make for some picturesque views.
How to Get There
Kintaikyo is a 10 minute walk from Kawanishi station, or there are many bus services that take you directly to Kintaikyo Eki Mae Station. The closest Shinkansen station is Shin-Iwakuni. The closest airport is Kintaikyo Airport.
It costs about 300 yen to cross the bridge during business hours, after 5pm it is free to cross but there is a donation box. The money collected goes towards the upkeep of the bridge. There are also a few discount tickets available that include the fee for the bridge, entering Iwakuni Castle and riding the cable car up to the castle for around 100 yen. The ice cream sold at the foot of the bridge ranges from 300-600 yen as well as some limited edition flavors that are up to a thousand yen.
The boat rides are available from March 17th until the end of May and are 500 yen for adults and 300 yen for children. Times are from 11am until 5pm. You can turn up and ride the boats on the day, but parties of over eight people are asked to reserve in advance. A longer boat ride of up to an hour is also available through booking in advance only. It can be booked from 11 am until 9pm and costs 1000 yen for adults and 600 yen for children. Food and drink can be provided on your journey for an extra cost.
Website (Japanese only)
Admission to the onsen starts at 1,700 yen but there are discounts available if you also eat there. Room rate start from 7,000 yen and include free access to the onsen. Official Website.