By Bryan Baier
Spring in Japan is cherry blossom or sakura season. The glorious pink and white flowers bloom up and down the length of the country for a month long period. They start in the south and work their way north. Missed them in Tokyo? Don’t worry! You didn’t miss anything, in fact, you’ve got a chance to see something better!
Takada Castle Park in Niigata Prefecture’s Joetsu City on the Sea of Japan Coast, is a perfect place to go. If the name, “Takada” sounds familiar, it’s because of its connection to Tokyo’s Takadanobaba area. The mother of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s 6th son was born and raised in and around this castle, the capital of the Takada Fief. Lady Takada enjoyed watching the Japanese art of Yabusame, horseback archery, and her son built a horse back riding area (a “baba” in Japanese) at present day Takadanobaba for her. Nothing remains of Lady Takada’s Yabusame grounds in Tokyo today, but parts of her castle, including a 3-story reconstructed turret and the moat, still stand today.
Along with 4,000 sakura trees and the enormous Takada Park, expansive lawns and a number of picnic tables mean that hanami goers have a great many options for their flower viewing picnics. There are also playgrounds with equipment that will keep children (and childish adults) entertained. Takada Castle’s turret offers a unique perspective for viewing the sakura, and the park’s many walkways allow endless opportunities to stroll, enjoy and photograph the sakura at one’s leisure.
Boat rides in the flower and sky mirroring waters of the castle moat are also available. There are of course the usual hanami and festival food stalls and street performances that one expects to find at this season. With all that, it should come as no surprise that Takada Park is ranked high among Japan’s 100 best places to view sakura.
Be warned! Walking Takada Castle’s moat, spying the reflection of, and then beholding the glistening, snow covered mass of Mt. Myoko might strike you dumb with awe and leave you thinking to yourself, “I’d like to go there.” Find yourself in this position and you’re doomed to enjoy a great adventure.
Swapping sakura for snow
Mt. Myoko is home to some of the greatest snowboarding and skiing in all of Japan. I once asked what a normal snowfall in Myoko was. The answer is, “No one knows.” During the winter and into the spring, the snow comes hard, fast and piles up deep almost every day and night. Every day I rode at Myoko was a powder day.
There are several ski areas to choose from on Mt. Myoko but my favorites are Suginohara and Akakura Kanko. Their high summit elevations mean they capture and keep the highest quality snow, and their large size, long runs and variety of terrain offer something for everybody.
Visit a local convenience store to buy a discounted lift ticket and lunch combination coupon to any of the available resorts. 7 Eleven has an Akakura Kanko coupon that includes a lift ticket and ¥1,000 lunch voucher for ¥3,900 (normally ¥4,100 just for the lift ticket). There are also a great many minshukus (traditional lodging that include breakfast and dinner with one’s stay) and hotels scattered throughout the Myoko area, and many more hotels in Takada and Joetsu.
Making a skiing/snowboarding hanami trip into a weekend or multiple day adventure is easy. There are also a number of natural hot springs or “onsen,” for the perfect icing on one’s travel cake.
Takada Castle and the ski areas of Mt. Myoko are on the far side of Japan, but never fear! One can get there quickly and in style with Japan’s newest bullet train, the Hokuriku Shinkansen. Hakutaka and Kagayaki Shinkansen services whisk riders from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, to the rural castles and snow fields of Joetsu-Myoko Station in as little as 2 hours and 15 minutes (¥9,730 each way for a non-reserved seat). Cheaper highway buses (some of them overnight services that double as accommodations for the journey) are also available. Excited for hanami? Want to try skiing or snowboarding, or not ready to hang your gear up of the season? Make it a combined adventure in Takada and Myoko. Happy travels!
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Seven years of exploring and playing in the wilds of Japan! Now I'm JapanTravel's Tourism and PR Ambassador in Nara Prefecture and the Regional Partner for Nara Prefecture. It's been my experience that there's little if any awareness of Nara and its importance outside of Japan. My goal: remedy that