Kawazu-zakura are unique hybrid cherry trees that bloom earlier, and for much longer, than the famous Somei Yoshino species. For an entire month, usually from around February 10 to March 10, a festival showcases 8,000 trees that line the Kawazu River in Southern Izu.
Although it takes about 2 – 2 1/2 hours to reach Kawazu from central Tokyo, once you arrive at Kawazu Station, the festival is only minutes away on foot. Most visitors stay close to this section of the riverside – which is also lined with a large variety of food stalls, temporary cafes, souvenir stands, and more. This area is lively, but can get very crowded. I recommend purchasing some tasty items for lunch, then find a quieter section along the river at which to sit and enjoy them.
To truly enjoy all that central Kawazu has to offer, pick up a tourist map and wander away from the river to see some of the area’s interesting lesser-known sights. I recommend that you start with a visit to Yatsu Nanzenji Temple, which is hidden up a narrow valley about 25 minutes walk from Kawazu Station. Although the walk is leisurely, it is slightly uphill. If you don’t have 80 minutes to spare (round-trip, with visit), take a taxi up and walk back down.
The origin of this temple dates back to the year 749. However, in 1432, the temple was completely buried in a landslide. About 100 years later, in 1541, important artifacts, including a collection of 24 large wooden Buddhist statues, were unearthed and a new temple was built. In recent years, a lovely ‘Heian Buddha Statue Pavilion’ was constructed so that the public could get a closer look at these national treasures. Tourists who travel up to the temple are greeted warmly by the priest and staff. And, surprisingly, all of the statues are labeled with excellent English explanations. (Photos are normally not permitted, but if you ask nicely, they may allow you to take a few).
Wander back down toward the river and over to Seisokuji, nicknamed the ‘Temple of the Kappa’. (Kappa are mythical, water-loving, slightly dangerous, Japanese creatures). Story has it that many years ago, at the beginning of rice planting season, farmers gathered at the temple to help each other with rice planting. After a hard day of work, they gathered by the riverside to wash off. All of a sudden, a Kappa attacked one of their horses. Angered, the farmers were able to catch the Kappa and were preparing to kill it. The priest of the temple reminded them that rice-planting days were auspicious, and so the Kappa should be spared. The Kappa was turned over to the priest who lectured it to quit being so mischievous, to live in peace with humans, and to move far away. He then released the Kappa and it took off. Later that night, there was a knock at the temple door. The Kappa had returned and he handed a gift (a water jar) to the priest before disappearing into the night. The priest held the mouth of the jar to his ear and heard the faint sound of the flow of a river. Then, the voice of the Kappa said, “As long as you hear this sound, the village and your temple will prosper.” The water jar is still one of the temple’s treasures and they say it still ‘whispers’ gently as it did in the past.
A mini museum dedicated to Kappa has been created inside the temple. Visitors are welcome to relax within and enjoy the collection.
Travel up the left side of the river (opposite side of all the ‘activity’) to the Mine Onsen Fountain Park. *Mine is pronounced ‘me + neh’. Here, on the half hour (9:30 – 3:30), a geyser shoots 600 liters of hot spring water 30 meters into the sky. Note that the park is closed for cleaning on Tuesdays & Fridays. (The amount of water allowed to erupt and the timing of the eruptions are controlled to protect the surrounding area). Visitors can soak their feet in a foot bath and boil their own eggs in the hot spring water here. If you are looking to stay overnight, Kawazu’s top ryokan, Gyokuhokan, sits in the shadow of the geyser.
Make your way back to the riverside and continue north. Follow the sakura-lined path and eventually switch to the other side of the river.
In the distance is a steep path leading to up to Nehando, a temple with a reclining Buddha. The temple itself is not that impressive, but it sits in an interesting ‘hole’ surrounded by a bamboo forest.
Another reason to visit, however, is a grassy hillside observation area that provides a lovely view of the Kawazu-zakura below.
On the walk back toward the station, stop to visit the Carnation Garden, the giant camphor tree at Kinomiya Shrine and/or the ‘Shinmachi-no-Osotetsu’, a 1000-year-old large Japanese Sago Palm.
Before leaving Kawazu, take a few minutes to sit and relax by the ocean. Most visitors forget that Kawazu is actually a seaside town.
Day trippers are so excited about the festival that they also forget that Izu is famous for onsen. In the Kawazu area, there are seven hot springs – each with its own unique characteristics. The Odoriko Onsen Kaikan, near the Mine geyser, is a facility built for day visits.
For travelers who stay overnight, there is much more to see and do – including a hike along the 1.5 kilometer trail that passes the Kawazu Nandaru (7 waterfalls) or a visit to the Jardin de Bagatelle, a French flower garden.
Getting there: From Tokyo Station, take a special Odoriko train to travel to Kawazu directly, with no transfers (2 hours 40 minutes, approx. 5800 yen). Or, travel by Shinkansen to Atami then transfer to an Odoriko (2 hours, approx. 6600 yen). Make reservations in both directions during the festival period or you may have to stand.