By Peter Sidell
In the northern part of Tochigi Prefecture lies the quiet town of Maeta in Otawara city. At first glance it doesn't seem much to the naked eye. Long stretches of road, rice fields, and the occasional convenience stores at the crossroads; the usual markers of a rural Japanese town. But if you come during the warmest time of the year you'll be surprised to find the beautiful Hydrangeas blooming in the mountains.
The Ajisai Matsuri (Hydrangea Festival) is held from June 17th to July 9th in Otawara. About 6,000 hydrangea flowers bloom, attracting hundreds of visitors during this season. 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 recieves many visitors from Tochigi and the surrounding areas.
Walking through 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. 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 also has a rich history behind it. During the Edo period a famous poet, Matsuo Basho, stayed a long 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. You're also able to visit the yatai stands (food stands) for some light refreshments, and even buy some souvenirs to take home.
Access to the the festival is simple enough. From Shinjuku station take the Shonan Shinjuku Line to Utsunomiya Station. From there you switch to the Utsunomiya Line towards Kuriso and exit at Nishi-Nasuno Station. From here the journey gets a little more 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.
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