Let's check out cherry blossoms in northern Okinawa

Photos by Shoji Kudaka
Photos by Shoji Kudaka

Let's check out cherry blossoms in northern Okinawa

by Shoji Kudaka
Stripes Okinawa

Editor’s Note: We are living in uncertain times, so please make sure to follow your base command’s rules and guidelines when you decide to travel. Wear a facemask, practice social distancing and proper handwashing procedures.

When January’s cherry blossom season rolls around on Okinawa, it means it’s time to hit the road and head north. Usually this is the time of year where many festivals draw in crowds of people to celebrate the arrival of the blossoms on the island. But, much like last year, many of the seasonal events will be canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

The pandemic may still be putting a damper on the season, and yet, nature continues to persevere and soon we’ll once again be surrounded by the pink and blush hues of Japan’s favorite flower. So, get your facemask on, practice social distancing and head out for a brisk walk under the cherry blossoms.

Okinawa offers several locations for great blossom viewing, but those in Yambaru, the hilly areas in the northern part of the main island, draw special attention for a few reasons.

First, Yambaru is home to the earliest blooms on the island. The “cherry blossom front,” which refers to the frontline of cherry blossom blooming, travels north to south. On the mainland, the front goes in the opposite direction due to a difference in the type of cherry blossoms.
Locations like Mt. Yaedake (Mt. Yae), Nakijin Castle Ruins, and Nago Chuo Park, are some of the prime spots to catch the first blossoms of the season in the country.

Second, the mountains and forests of Yambaru are in themselves great attractions for a quick getaway. When they are adorned with the pink color of the cherry blossoms, the dynamic nature of the north becomes even more attractive. At Mt. Yaedake, which kicks off the season on Jan. 16, visitors can enjoy the view as they drive up a 2.5-mile-long cherry blossom tree-lined road. In total, there are about 7,000 cherry blossom trees on the second tallest mountain on the island. About 25 minutes from Mt. Yaedake, 600 cherry blossom trees add vibrant colors to Nakijin Castle. This World Heritage Site is thought to have been built around the 13th century and was used as a stronghold for a kingdom which ruled the northern part of the island.

Nago Chuo Park is known for its grand scale presentation with 20,000 cherry blossoms. The 170-acre park includes castle ruins known as “Nangusuku,” a playground, an area for hiking, and a promenade that runs through a forest and near a river.

Though the annual cherry blossom festivals at both Nakijin Castle Ruins and Nago Chuo Park have been cancelled for this year, you will still be able to enjoy the blossoms there. Just make sure to check ahead of what rules each site has for crowd control and safety guidelines on their websites.

For visitors who go to Yambaru from the middle and southern part of the island, it will most likely take a couple of hours by car. Directions are not so complicated, but they may need some explanation for first timers.

To go to Mt. Yaedake and Nakijin Castle, the easiest way is to take the highway, exit at No. 10 (Kyoda), go north on Route 58, and make a left to head northwest on Route 84, which cuts through Motobu Peninsula. An entrance to Mount Yaedake will be seen to the left-hand side of the road.

To go to Nakijin Castle, take a right on to Route 115 before hitting the coastline of the peninsula.

Nago Chuo Park is not far from Exit No. 10. Go north on Route 58 and make a right on to Route 84 at the first light after passing by an A&W. Turn left at the signal near the Orion Beer factory and make a right at the first signal to go on a road that runs along a river.

In January in Okinawa, the average temperature is expected to be the lowest of the year. However, the flowers give a lot of reasons for people on the island to defy the chill.

1. 43nd Motobu Yaedake Cherry Blossom Festival 
Dates: Jan. 16 - 31
Location: Yaedake Sakura-no-Mori Park
GPS Coordinates (Entrance): N 26.656959, E 127.911611
Admission: free
* Live entertainment to be held Jan. 16. 

2.  Nakijin Gusuku
Nakijin Castle
GPS Coordinates: N 26.691457, E 127.929023
Admission: 400 yen for adults, 300 yen for Elementary School, Junior/Senior High School Student
* Free admission for elementary school children and under
* Open: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. (last admission at 5:30 p.m.) (Free Parking)
Website (Japanese): https://www.nakijinjoseki-osi.jp/

3. Nago  Chuo Park
GPS Coordinates:
N 26.591213, E 127.997147 
Admission: Free

4. Yaese Park 
GPS Coordinates: N 26.131409, E 127.721109
Admission: Free

Early risers on Okinawa

If you have seen cherry blossoms on mainland Japan in late March or early April, you may wonder why these flowers bloom in January on Okinawa. The gap between cherry blossom seasons between Okinawa and mainland Japan can be traced back to a difference in types of cherry blossoms and how the flowers “wake up.”

“Cherry blossoms form floral stems during summer and go dormant without growing further before the new year starts,” Yoshitaka Kamiya, a member of the Okinawa Regional Headquarters of the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), said in an interview with Okinawa Times. “To break their sleep, cherry blossoms need to be exposed to low temperatures. To wake up Somei-Yoshino, temperature needs to be around 40s, while 60s are good for Hikan-zakura.”

Somei-Yoshio is a type of cherry blossom commonly seen on mainland Japan. On the other hand, Hikan-zakura, is found on Okinawa. Somei-Yoshino’s petals in pale pink draw a clear contrast with the vibrant colors of Hikan-zakura.

“Once awake, cherry blossoms bloom as the temperature rises. Because it takes a temperature around 40s (to break its sleep), Somei-Yoshino are not fit to grow in Okinawa,” said Kamiya.

The JMA staff also noted that while Somei-Yoshino waits for the temperature to rise before blooming, Hikan-zakura can grow and reach full bloom with little change of temperature on Okinawa.

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