It’s almost that time of year once again folks. As winter’s chill winds finally recedes and a more temperate climate asserts itself, we can see the early signs of spring beginning to emerge.
For those of us in Japan who love a good excuse to eat and drink outside, this means only one thing: the return of the hanami!
So, what is a hanami?
Hanami literally means, to see flowers.
Basically, from late March until mid-April, there is a brief period of about 2 weeks or so when the cherry blossom trees that adorn much of Japan’s landscape come into full bloom. It is a long-held Japanese tradition, dating all the way back to the days of the all-conquering feudal warlord, and occasional video game villain, Nobunaga Oda.
Basically, friends and family gather together, get lots of food and drinks, find some space near the trees in a local park, and proceed to eat, drink and be merry.
In a society where it is a monumental understatement to say that people work too hard, hanami season, is one of those all too few times in the annual calendar when even the most dedicated of salarymen need very little persuasion to cast aside their suits and ties, pick up a cold beer and get with the party!
As is usually the case down here in Kansai, a lot of people will flock to the usual popular hotspots such as Osaka Castle Park, and of course the dear-filled nature reserves of Nara.
Kobe however, the huge prefecture of Hyogo, is all too often overlooked when it comes to hanami season. As one of Japan’s larger prefectures, covering mountains, seaside and forests, there are few regions of Japan with as much biodiversity as Hyogo.
To that end, there is a plethora of places available for a good hanami picnic, and also plenty of them that aren't so well known to tourists.
So, dear readers, lets take a tour of the top 5 places to enjoy this hanami season in Hyogo prefecture whilst avoiding the big crowds.
Ashiya is one of those towns many of us have heard of, but few have been to. Located halfway between Kobe and Osaka on the main JR railway line, it has long been known as a residential satellite town for both cities, servicing the more well-to-do citizens of the Kansai region.
Photo by Jeff on Flickr
However, beyond just being a glorified suburb of Kobe, Ashiya actually has a few really nice places for Hanami, one of which is the area around the popular tourist attraction, the Yodoko Guest House.
Hyogo has a long held reputation as one of the first parts of Japan to really open up to western visitors in the early days of the Meiji Emperor. Today, the Yodoko Guest House serves as a reminder of this area, with this European colonial era style house.
Yodoko Guest House. Photo by OiMax on Flickr
However, for our hanami aspirations, it is not the house, but rather the hillside parks that surround it, that make for good picnicking options.
Not only can one enjoy the cherry blossoms from here, but one can also take in beautiful panoramic views of the Osaka Bay area too. On a clear day, you can even see my house from there!
2) Asago Art Village
Heading into more rural settings now, another great place for hanami in Hyogo is Asago City. Given its rather more secluded location, Asago has several options for hanami enthusiasts and probably the best of these is the Asago Art Village.
Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons
Situated in the heart of wide open parklands, the Art Village is a community art exhibit, which also happens to offer some excellent picnic spots. In addition to the various art installations dotted around the area, you’ll also find some lovely cherry blossom trees, provided you go there at the right time of year. Although it varies from year to year, the first two weeks of April, subject to the weather, are typically the best time to experience the blossoms in all their glory.
3) Takeda Castle
The other major highlight of Asago City, and a less conventional place for hanami, but a great day out none the less is the ruins of the ancient Takeda Castle.
Photo by Reggaeman on Wikimedia Commons
Some years after Nobunaga Oda first popularized the idea of hanami picnics, his next in line, Hideyoshi Toyotomi oversaw construction of the now ruined Takeda Castle. However, the castle which sits an impressive 353 metres above sea level is still a beautiful sight to behold. It is often likened to the famous Machu Pichu site in Peru, and whilst not quite as impressive as that world heritage site, it certainly does invoke similar feelings, particularly if one goes there early in the morning and watches as the clouds encircle the castle walls.
In terms of hanami, there are several points along the one hour hike up the hill from JR Takeda station where one could stop off and enjoy a picnic, enjoying both the blossoms and the mountainous backdrop as you do.
4) Mount Egeyama, Kobe, Setonaikai National Park
This huge national park stretches from Hyogo’s southern point all the way along the coast to Wakayama Prefecture. With the warm currents of the Seto Inland sea creating an almost Mediterranean climate, the Setonaikai national park is decidedly more temperate than most of this part of Japan. As such, you may see cherry blossoms here as early as mid-March. Regardless of the time of year, this is a great part of Japan which you really should make every effort to visit, not only for its huge hanami potential, but also just to enjoy some of the most beautiful and scenic views in the whole country.
One of the best areas for hanami within the Setonaikai National Park area is mount Egeyama in Kobe. Standing 85 metres above sea level, the path to the top of the mountain is adorned with a 1km long path of cherry blossom trees. You really can pick your spot.
Setonaikai National Park. Photo by Naoki Seto on Wikimedia Commons
5) Okusuma Park, Kobe
We stay in Kobe for this, our final location today. As the perfect tonic to the sometimes busy daily schedule of life in a bustling city like Kobe, Okusuma Park offers not only a stunning collection of cherry blossom trees, but they also present the best of Japanese biodiversity too. Rice fields, forestry and beautiful open grassy spaces make this an ideal place for both large group parties and courting couples alike.
Okusuma Park. Photo by harum.koh on Flickr.