Summer Time Hydrangeas at Kurobane Castle Grounds, Tochigi
The Maeta area of Otawara City lies in the northern part of Tochigi prefecture. A sleepy town, which at first glance doesn’t seem like there’s much going on. At first glance the town consists of long stretches of road, rice fields, and the occasional convenience stores at the crossroads; the usual markers of a rural Japanese town. However, if you come as the weather is warming up, you’ll be surprised to find the beautiful Hydrangeas blooming up in the mountains.
Ajisai Flowers: A Symbol of Summer
Ajisai (Hydrangea) typically bloom during the rainy season in June and July making them the symbol of summer. The Ajisai Matsuri (Hydrangea Festival) is held annually from mid-June until early July in Otawara. About 6,000 hydrangea flowers bloom, awakening this isolated town into a local, exciting festival. Here visitors can come and enjoy a nice walk through the Kurobane Castle grounds to see the beauty of the flower garden. Although this is a relatively isolated part of Tochigi, during this time of the year Otawara receives many visitors from Tochigi and the surrounding areas.
Walking though the garden feels somewhat like a fairytale. The way the castle is built and the flowers bloom, the light is able to hit the flowers just right which allows for some amazing photo opportunities and some Instagram-able backgrounds. A tower overlooks the middle of the park. At the very top you can get a nice view of Otawara and its surrounding areas.
The Castle Grounds
The castle grounds also have a rich history behind them. During the Edo period a famous poet, Matsuo Basho, spent some time at Kurobane Castle before departing to the Tohoku region. Although information is entirely in Japanese, visitors can go to the museum and learn a little about Matsuo’s life. In the flower grounds, visitors can also enjoy various performances and shows hosted by people from the local area. Yatai stands (food stands) are also available for some light refreshments, and you can even buy some hydrangea souvenirs to take home.
Access to the festival isn’t difficult but it requires some careful planning if you don’t have your own form of transportation. From Shinjuku station take the Shonan Shinjuku Line to Utsunomiya Station. From there you switch to Utsunomiya Line towards Kuriso and exit at Nishi-Nasuno Station. From here the journey gets a little complicated. Once at the station take the east exit to get to the shuttle bus pick up. If you miss the shuttle bus you can take a local bus for about an hour to the flower park, but it will cost 200 yen. The buses will drop you off at the base of a small hill, and from there you simply follow the signs up towards the castle grounds.
Unlike most places in Japan, once you arrive at the festival, expect to be there for at least two hours since the bus and shuttle come sporadically. Be careful of the last bus though, because the final bus from the festival leaves at 7 PM exactly.
Editor's Note: The event was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 but we certainly recommend visiting in the coming future.