Okaya City, Nagano Prefecture — Coming out of the cherry blossom season, many are left feeling empty with little traces of the beautiful and delicate pink flowers that could be seen just weeks beforehand. Others arriving in Japan during April and May might also find themselves feeling as if they missed the beauty of Japan’s spring. Something which might perk their interests however are the celebrations held for the blooming of tsutsuji, or azaleas. Around April and May, there are quite a few events or festivals held where you can visit parks and just enjoy the blooming of the flowers. In Nagano prefecture, one such park is Okaya City’s Tsurumine Park.
What is an azalea?
Azaleas are flowering shrubs and are part of the genus called ‘Rhododendron’. They usually bloom in late spring with colors varying from white, to pinks and purples, and even to crimson reds. The Japanese call azaleas tsutsuji, and the word for a festival is matsuri, so these events are called tsutsuji matsuri. It is a very important flower to many Asian countries and can be seen as particularly important to the Japanese in the way they often use it in bonsai, or the art of growing artificially dwarfed ornamental plants.
There are many Japanese hybrids of azaleas and even a subgenus called ‘tsutsusi’ based on the Japanese for Azalea, ‘tsutsuji’. The tsutsusi is often called the evergreen azalea in English and was originally cultivated in China and Japan before being introduced to Europe. Adding to that, it is also amongst the most popular of cultivated azaleas. It can be found in the temperate and subtropical regions of Japan and China, though it can also be found in Korea, Thailand, India, Laos, and Burma. On a side note, the azalea is also a highly toxic flower. The leaves and nectar – including the honey produced by its nectar is riddled with andromedotoxins which is not usually fatal to humans, but can cause a nasty reaction in animals. Receiving a bouquet of this flower in a black vase was also historically known as a death threat, making this flower quite the deadly beauty.
Tsurumine Park is a park that is located in Nagano Prefecture’s Okaya City. It’s known for its 30,000 azalea bushes. But, what’s even more interesting is how those bushes got there in the first place! Tsurumine Park was donated in 1935 by a wealthy man named Kanetaro Katakura. The village people of that time decided to celebrate the donation with the planting of 300 azalea bushes. They thus went through the process of ordering it from a village in Saitama.
A villager from the then Kawagishi Village (Okaya City) showed 3 fingers to convey that they wanted 300 bushes. Due to the reputation of the Katakura family’s wealth however, it was misunderstood to mean 3 freight cars of bushes. When the bushes arrived, albeit astonished by its arrival the villagers got together to plant all of the azalea bushes as there was no way to return it. From that time Tsurumine Park has grown to have its 30,000 azalea bushes, making it one of the largest azalea parks in all of central Japan. It’s also one of the most beautiful during the late spring and early summer months of April and May when its azalea festival is held, with several food vendors and tour groups making this their destination.
Further information: This is a public park making it open all the time, all year round. The azalea festival however is held in late April to early May.
How to get there: Tsurumine Park is around a 25-30 min. walk from Okaya Station. If you choose to catch a taxi, you could be there in around 5 min.
Japanese Address: 長野県岡谷市川岸上3丁目13