It’s called the “Rose of Winter”, and with good reason. Tsubaki, Japanese camellia, blooms most prolifically from January to early April. One great place to enjoy these blooms is the Hagi Camellia Festival (February 17, 2018-March 21, 2018).
Hagi is an old castle town on the Japan Sea coast of Yamaguchi Prefecture. It is particularly known for having produced a number of intellectuals, industrialists and politicians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
North across the bay from Hagi Castle is Kasayama Point, now the home of the Kasayama Camellia Grove and the annual festival.
The area has an interesting history. As a land mass, it has long been a protector of Hagi Castle, but during the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was heavily wooded with both logging and hunting prohibited, making it practically a nature preserve.
After the Meiji Restoration, the area was opened to logging and the massive trees of the area were slowly removed, leaving barren soil that is rocky and acidic; not really conducive to cultivation. For a while the area was turned over to cattle grazing and it is said that many of the stone walls that can be seen in the area date to that period. Over time various plants and trees would grow, the trees would be logged out and the cycle would start again.
In the 1960s, a visiting botanist observed that yabutsubaki (wild camellias) were prolific and thriving in the soil conditions of the area. He suggested to Hagi’s then-mayor that the area be turned into a tourist attraction, and the Kasayama Camellia Grove was born.
The 10 hectare park is now home to more than 25,000 camellia trees, some deliberately cultivated and others growing wild.
Various trails meander the park to encourage visitors to get up close with the plants, too. There is a 13 meter tall viewing platform that gives visitors a bird’s eye view out to the Sea of Japan across the thick canopy of dark green leaves dotted with red flowers .
Camellias are usually a small-ish tree, growing 3-6 meters in height. They are native to the warmer parts of Japan and can live for centuries in the right conditions. Besides their beautiful flowers, which can be single blossoms or complex multiple blossoms of variegated colors, they are known for the oil that can be extracted from their fruit. The oil is a popular hair treatment (sumo wrestlers oil their hair with tsubaki oil), but is edible (true aficionados like tempura fried in tsubaki oil) and also used to produce some oil paints.
An interesting feature of the flowers is that they usually drop intact from the tree, often carpeting the ground below. Movie director Akira Kurosawa used this in his classic movie “Sanjuro” (in Japanese the full title was “Tsubaki Sanjuro”, as the lead character assumed the family name of Tsubaki when he spotted camellia blooms in the garden at the same time as being asked to identify himself).
The festival will be busiest on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, when, in addition to the usual stalls offering festival foods, there will be drum performances, tea ceremony, a produce fair and guided walks (sorry, only Japanese-speaking guides). There will also be a photo contest, and a vendor who will take your photo among the flowers and print it for you immediately for the low, low price of just JPY100. But perhaps the greatest pleasure will come from wandering the grove at your leisure to enjoy the amazing flowers. So if you want to avoid crowds, and even potentially have the whole place to yourself, go on a weekday.
The nearest train station is Koshigahama, from where you can catch a free shuttle bus to the Kasayama Camellia Grove. There is also a special shuttle bus available from Higashi Hagi station. For further details check here.
© 2018 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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