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Borderline Iwakuni: Sakura in Yasaka and Yuritani
Iwakuni and its proximity to Hiroshima City and Miyajima means it usually gets touted as a day trip idea for those staying in the Hiroshima area for a couple days. As for the primary tourist sites, most visitors hit up Kintaikyo and the sites in Kikko Park, such as the White Snake Museum, the ropeway to the mountaintop Iwakuni Castle, and the wacky ice cream vendors Musashi and Kojiro. Unsurprisingly, this results in tourists never seeing any parts of Iwakuni besides Iwakuni Station and the Kintaikyo area, but most people fail to grasp the scale of Iwakuni City in terms of size. A considerable amount of Iwakuni and its tourist sites are more inland, mountainous areas, which are worth seeing if one is after nature.
When it comes to cherry blossom viewing in Iwakuni, the first suggestion that comes to mind is Kintaikyo, which is indeed a wonderful place for hanami, but if tourists limit themselves to that area, they are depriving themselves of further possibilities. On the second of April, the first Sunday of the year (years in Japan are at times thought to span from April to March, depending on context), I decided to go beyond the mainstream Iwakuni sites and head into the mountains to look at sakura. Yasaka and Yuritani are two rural sakura spots right across the border from Otake City in Hiroshima Prefecture, and both are easily accessible for a 45-minute or so bus ride from Otake Station. Services may be infrequent, but time your connections right and this Yamaguchi countryside can be relished for an afternoon without a car.
I stepped off the bus at Yuritaniguchi (百合谷口), then looked to my left, right, and left again until I found my first point of interest. The Yasaka Ohashi, the great, wide bridge from whence I came, was flanked by vibrant cherry trees that were generating petal blizzards every few seconds thanks to the wind and cars that were constantly passing by. I promptly whipped out my camera to film the dance of petals, as it would have been too much of a waste not to capture the moment.
As I approached the railing of the Yasaka Ohashi and looked over toward the lake, I spotted a family playing golf on the green pastures below. There are two courses with nine holes each, and equipment such as golf clubs, golf balls, and appropriate footwear can be rented from the clubhouse down a slope that was right behind me. In addition, a boat rental service is also available down there for visitors who wish to row and float on Lake Yasaka.
Lake Plaza Yasaka
Despite having eaten breakfast that morning, my tummy was starting to grumble before the clock even struck eleven, so I made my way to Lake Plaza Yasaka for a bite to eat. Lake Plaza Yasaka is a tourist information center with a gift shop, a café, a balcony, and free Wi-Fi, enticing visitors to stop by in between sakura viewings. I entered the building and made my way to the café, where I was immediately seated and had my order taken shortly after. It was an awkward time for me to be having a meal; too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, so I went with an egg rice bowl set meal. My egg rice bowl came with leeks and onions scrambled into the eggs, a bowl of miso soup, a side dish of marinated lotus root, and some Japanese pickles as a garnish.
I wolfed down everything in a flash and was starting to get comfy with my seat and the free Wi-Fi until an employee approached me apologetically and asked if I could kindly make way for subsequent customers, as Sundays (especially during sakura season) tended to get hectic. Seeing as I also had places to be, I happily obliged, paid for my meal, and wandered toward the gift shop. There was a wide variety of locally-produced goods on the shelves, including but not limited to sake, crackers, dried vegetables, honey, spreads, and even clothes. I decided to pass on the souvenirs, but debated returning to the café in the afternoon for ice cream if time permitted.
There was not much on the second floor save for the balcony, which was roomy with chairs and space for lots of people. This is an excellent spot for those who wish to gaze at the cherry blossoms with the wind in their hair and no other people or cars to block their sight. The scenic picture below was actually taken from the balcony in the afternoon before I left, when the sky brightened up.
The other famous sakura site around these parts was Yuritani Waterside Park, which was a brief walk from Lake Plaza Yasaka. Along the way, I happened upon a little park with several kiddy rides and lots of benches, so I stopped to bask in the sunlight and take in the sight of the pink trees. This park was also a popular pit stop for families to park their cars, break out their packed lunches, and have a picnic under the blossoms. Most of the rides here were for tiny tykes, but they also had a zip line that I got to try out before the kiddos got their hands on it. After I was done, I lay down on one of the elongated benches and got in a few minutes of shut-eye.
Moment of Joy: Sakura in the Sky
For a minute or two, it was nothing but the mild wind and the gentle rays of the sun passing over my closed eyelids. While I was dozing off, I was expecting to see nothing but the blue sky and white clouds when I opened my eyes, but apparently, the wind decided to blow and prove me wrong.
A petal blizzard occurred right above me, and the sight of nothing but sky and sakura was something I had never seen before, evoking a special feeling inside me. Upon witnessing such a marvel, my first instinct was to whip out my camera and capture this entrancing moment, and although the photo itself barely depicts some petals blown by the wind, the moment this picture scene reminds me of will not soon be forgotten.
Yuritani Waterfront Park
I then proceeded to the second main site in the area: Yuritani Waterfront Park. The south entrance pictured above was roped off, but all I had to do was step over it and start walking the path. On the left side was Kawauchi Shrine (河内神社) with its green roof; I would return there to pray on my way back. After a while, I passed by a steep hill on the opposite side, where families were strolling and picnicking. It looked pretty amazing and I honestly wanted to climb it immediately, but first I wanted to see where this path led.
Farther along was this fishing hole, where rather than the kids being excited, it was the husbands who were rushing off with their fishing rods and tackle to wrangle themselves something. I would have liked to see them actually catch a fish, but I was on a bit of a time crunch, so I resumed walking the path to the end. Eventually, I came up on what seemed to be the end, and interestingly found Lake Plaza Yasaka on my right!
I went back to the hill I wanted to climb before and descended a different path to cross over. Every kid who walked by started running ecstatically to climb the hill, and I understood their feelings exactly as I tackled the long stairs. Near the top, I could see a group of people having a grand time with their hanami party, close to the cherry trees and far away from everybody else. At the top of the stairs were even more cherry trees seemingly gathered around this gated-off pond. The fallen sakura petals from the trees above that fell into the water and floated on the surface accented the beauty of the entire scene!
As I intended, I returned to Kawauchi Shrine to say a quick prayer. There were others who were just finishing up, and politely said hello to me as they left. I approached the altar, tossed a coin into the alms box, and prayed for a plethora of equally enthusing adventures in the future.
Over to Otake
My time in this place was running out and I had to catch a bus soon, so I made my way back to Lake Plaza Yasaka to contemplate my next course of action. I could have simply waited for the Otake-bound bus to pull up across the street from where I initially alighted, but figured I would take a gamble and walk over to Yasaka Dam before taking the bus back from there.
To get to Yasaka Dam from Yuritani, I had to walk over the sakura-laden Yasaka Ohashi, where automobiles and pedestrians casually cross the border between Hiroshima (left) and Yamaguchi (right) Prefectures, marked by this blue sign on either side of the bridge. After taking this photo, with a single step, I left Iwakuni and entered the city limits of Otake, and nothing felt different in the slightest. Once on the Hiroshima side of the bridge, I looked over like I did at the start of my journey and could still see pink cherry trees for miles below. Since there was quite a bit of distance between bus stops, I had to huff it on my way to Yasaka Dam if I wanted to intercept the next bus further down the line.
After a while of speed walking through weed-infested sidewalks, avoiding oncoming vehicle traffic, and stopping every few minutes to confirm that I was making good time and on the right track, I reached a tunnel. On the other side of said tunnel was the Yasaka Dam, a striking, concrete wall standing in the midst of Lake Yasaka, commanding the flow of water in the area and generating power for local buildings. I tried from numerous angles and distances, but could not capture the entire length of the grandiose dam from one end to the other. If anything, that makes a statement about the immense scale of the Yasaka Dam, but as I heard that there were sakura to be seen on that site too, I hustled past the dam itself to find a slew of cherry trees in the distance, surrounding the Yasaka Dam Observation Deck, which I sadly had no time to explore that day. I was also pleased to find the name of the dam on the edge of the cliff, written with hedging; this place alone may warrant another trip to this area next sakura season. When I finally reached the Yasaka Dam bus stop, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing I would make it back to Otake at a reasonable hour and could even spare some time at my favorite local café before moseying back to Hiroshima City.
While the cherry blossoms in the Kintaikyo part of Iwakuni are without a doubt a strong contender, I am of the opinion that Lake Yasaka and Yuritani Waterfront Park have the best sakura in all of Iwakuni. I also read that the above places I visited today are also scenic wonderlands in autumn, when chestnuts are in season, making their way into the local cuisine, and when the leaves on all the trees here transform into a magical spectrum of warm colors. In spite of the elusive location, this part of Iwakuni is not at all a difficult destination as a day trip from Hiroshima—even without a private car—so long as one remembers Otake Station, the oft-overlooked key to many nature tours by bus. Just remember that there is more to Iwakuni than meets the eye, and if natural eye candy is what tourists are after, then Yasaka and Yuritani can provide enough sweet sakura scenes to make them feel like a kid in a candy store.
Written by the Joy in Hiroshima Team