Cherry Blossoms in Katsuyama Park – Photo by Caroline Fink
I’ve been in Japan for two years now and hanami, or flower viewing, is my favorite time of year. I’m especially excited for this one because my family will be making the long trek from Boston to Japan to see the cherry blossoms. They might see a little of me, too, but they’re mostly coming for the flowers.
Although we will be traveling around and hitting many major cities, we will spend most of our time in Kokura. If you’re now asking yourself where Kokura is, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Located in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kokura is the downtown of Kitakyushu City, the northernmost city on the island of Kyushu. We’re an industrial and relatively small city, especially when compared to the neighboring Fukuoka, but Kokura has a lot to offer. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make Kokura’s hanami comparable to the sweeping gardens of Tokyo and the old-time charm of Takayama. How to show my family that although small and unknown, Kokura’s hanami can rival even the most of famous places.
Kokura Castle is probably the most popular hanami spot here. The castle grounds aren’t exactly sprawling, but nearly all the trees will be sporting cherry blossoms. The grounds of the castle are all completely open, and during hanami season almost every inch of space is covered in blue tarpaulin and picnickers. Closer to the castle, yatai stalls are selling food, drinks, and candy to the hungry crowds. Many people bring personal BBQs to cook on while others bring boxed lunch or dinner. The castle is located right next to the mall, Riverwalk, so it’s very easy to make a quick stop at a convenient store if you run out of food or drink and don’t want the traditional Japanese food that's usually sold there. Krispy Kreme is also nearby and you’ll see many people eating sakura (cherry blossom) flavored doughnuts.
The best part, though, is the inclusive feeling. In larger cities, most hanami goers keep to themselves as the sheer mass of people prevents you from doing anything else. Kokura Castle also gets very crowded but having a drink or sharing food with the people sitting around you is not uncommon. The friendly atmosphere is where Kokura really shines. Certainly, not everyone will talk to you, but you’re much more likely to find new friends in the smaller environment. Just last year my friends and I were asked to sing Happy Birthday for a party where we knew no one. We decided to buy the birthday person a beer, which lead to the previously unknown partiers sharing their snacks with us and before we knew it, it was one big party instead of two smaller picnics. The intimacy and camaraderie just add to the already whimsical feeling of hanami.
Hanami, Cherry Blossom Party with Friends – Photo by Caroline Fink
Kokura also has Katsuyama Park which is full of plum trees and cherry trees planted all along the main river. For a few weeks, this usually industrial city is suddenly transformed into a cherry blossom wonderland where people are happy to interact with each other. That’s what I will show my family and how I will make sure they experience Kokura as magical a place as the more traditional hanami spots in Japan.
Check out Caroline's Cherry Blossoms trip on Odigo!