Kasama: abundant azaleas (and other delights)

Ibaraki’s Kasama is a bit of a hidden treasure. Just a couple of hours from Tokyo, it is relatively unknown by foreign tourists, and even by most Japanese. Yet it offers many interesting sights and activities, especially at this time of year.

Kasama hosts an annual azalea festival from mid-April to early May (in 2023, from April 15 to May 7), with an entire hillside park covered with azalea bushes in a riot of color.

Trails range across the hillside, allowing visitors to meander among the bushes and examine the various types of azaleas more closely. The five-petaled blossoms can range in size from that of a large marble to nearly tennis ball. Similarly, they range in color from white to pink to fuchsia to deep red.

The entire park and the valley beyond can be surveyed from a viewing platform at the top of the hillside, which is also overlooked by a tall, stately statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, gazing beatifically at the blossoms. Refreshments are also available on the hilltop where, during the festival, plant stalls also sell several varieties of azalea bushes popular with avid gardeners.

Shofukuji temple sits at the foot of the hill, below the azalea garden. Although the garden can be access from the top, many visitors find it easier to enter through the gate near the temple and return the same way.

After enjoying the azaleas, be sure to check out Kasama’s many other delights, including historical shrines and temples, several art museums, and lots of shops and cafes.

Kasama is home to one of the three largest Inari shrines in Japan which, unusually, is not situated on a hillside or accessed through a tunnel of red shrine gates. Rather, the shrine is fronted by Monzen-dori, a street well known for its souvenir shops and eateries. Don’t miss the Kasama Inari museum tucked behind the shrine.

Since the town is ringed by mountains it is perhaps no surprise that there are the ruins of an ancient mountain fortress, Kasama Castle, on one of them. The castle was originally built in the thirteenth century and remained in use for nearly 500 years. All that remains today are stone ramparts with a shrine near the top of the mountain were the inner-most bastion once stood. Clambering around the old stone ruins, accessed by popular mountain trails, is popular with visitors.

Kasama also has a long history as a pottery-making center, although it is perhaps not as well known as its western neighbor, Mashiko. Like Mashiko, Kasama has a pottery fair during Golden Week when local artisans exhibit their wares, but any time of year visitors can examine Kasama pottery and even try their hand at making a dish of their own at Craft Hills Kasama or Kasama Geijitsu-no-mori, two pottery centers located a short distance from Kasama train station. The Ibaraki Ceramic Art Museum sits between the two.

One of the easiest ways to explore Kasama is to rent a bicycle from the tourist information center at Kasama station. During the azalea and pottery festivals, there is also a shuttle bus that runs in a loop around the major sites of the city.

© 2023 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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