Japan’s four distinct seasons provide a kaleidoscope of natural entertainment as the countryside undergoes brilliant transformations in color. Perhaps the most anticipated season change is moving from a freezing, pure white snow-clad winter to a warming spring. Blossoms are the icon of this season change, so Japan has developed the pastime of blossom viewing to a high art.
Sakura (cherry) blossoms are world famous for their status in Japanese culture. But sakura is not the first tree to blossom in the Japanese spring. That distinction belongs to the humble plum. In fact, in ancient Japanese history the plum blossom was even more revered than sakura. Looking to the future, Japan’s national rugby team even recently changed its name from the Cherry Blossoms to the Brave Blossoms, broadening meaning as the country counts down to hosting the Rugby World Cup event in 2019.
One of the best places to enjoy Japan’s plum blossom culture is the Atami Plum Blossom Festival. This is centered on Atami Baien (literally Atami Plum Park), a 10 minute walk from JR Kinomiya Station, which is one stop from Atami Station. In turn, Atami Station is 40 minutes on the Tokaido bullet train from Tokyo Station. Atami City is gateway to the Izu Peninsula, and has a warm subtropical climate. For this reason some of the earliest plum blooms in Japan can be seen here. At Atami Baien visitors can enjoy hundreds of blooming plums from early January to early March.
Atami Baien displays many different varieties of plum trees. White and red are the predominant blossom colors. Varieties are further segregated by the number of petals in each bloom. More complicated blossoms can have eight or more petals.
Atami Baien occupies a sheltered south-facing valley, so soaks up the sun’s rays. The main entrance takes you into the bottom of the valley. From there, paths meander gently up the slope, with dainty red traditional Japanese bridges crisscrossing the stream that gurgles down through the valley.
Stretch your legs a little farther and they will be rewarded at the summit of the valley at the back of Atami Baien. Here you will find a foot onsen. Slip off your shoes and socks and soak your feet in the natural hot spring water which bubbles straight out of the ground nearby.
One hour should be comfortable for you to walk around Atami Baien and take in the sights. If your visit is in February and you have more time, why not head up to the MOA Art Museum to enjoy a National Treasure artwork on the plum blossom theme? Ogata Korin’s 18th century masterpiece is a two piece folding screen. A white blossoming plum is on one screen and a red plum on the other. The two gnarled old plum trees wrap themselves around a brook to form a scene similar to the Atami Baien.
Atami Baien is open 8.30-4pm daily for the festival. Admission is 300 yen.
Atami is the departure point for Tokadio Tour.