Ume Matsuri at Soga Bairin Orchard:
This weekend we ventured to the Ume Hanami at Mt. Fuji. Ume Hanami is just a fancy way to say Plum blossom viewing in Japanese! Since you can view Plum Blossoms for most of February into just the first couple of days of March our family decided to sneak in one last look before they are gone until next year. We decided to visit the Soga Bairin Orchard for the Odawara Ume Matsuri.
The great thing about the Soga Bairin Orchard located in Odawara was not only the fact that we were going to some more amazing plum blossoms, but that you can actually view around 35,000 plum trees! It is a complete working orchard that opens up during the blossom season to hold a festival but then closes to guests after the first weekend of March. This area is one of the largest in all of Japan for blossom viewing.
We were really excited because this Orchard also has a close up view of Mount Fuji right behind the plum orchard. I was really looking forward to all the great photos I was going to have of my kiddos in the plum orchard with Mt Fuji behind them but- it did not happen. We thought that the day was looking clear and that we were going to have perfect viewing. It was warm (for the first week of March), sunny, and only a few clouds were in the sky. Unfortunately, by the time we reached our destination clouds moved in over Fuji and disguised the entire mountain. So no Mt. Fuji viewing for us that day! If you decide to try out this orchard defiantly double check the weather and try to make it on a clear and sunny day to catch a great view of Fuji. It seems to also help if you go earlier in the day. We can see Fuji from our home and although it is small as we are a pretty far distance away we notice that in the early mornings it is usually most visible.
Getting to the Sago Bairin Orchard was not too problematic. We drove our car from Tokyo and arrived in a little over two hours and drove the toll free route with our GPS. So not only did we not pay for the drive in (a rare occurrence on a road trip in Japan!) but we also parked right in the orchard for free and the entry was free as well. A free day of activities is always a good day in my book!
**** If you want to take the train this is about a 10-15 minute walk from Shimosoga Station****
The parking was really easy. When you start to get about 5-10 minutes away from the orchard there are large pink banners that say UME MATSURI to encourage you from giving up and Turing around! 🙂 You will drive through a winding road up a mountain and the have an great view of the entire town below including the ocean meeting the mountains to the side. This part of the drive ended up being one of the highlights of the entire trip.
After curving down the mountain lookout road we ended up turning right onto a Main Street near the orchard. Then we turned into a small street with just a few houses. We initially thought that we were lost as we were literally squeezing down this small road and invading on the families there. We saw a few trees blooming but it just looked like a very small farm. We happened to see a couple orange cones and made a turn towards them. Then there was an enormous orchard tucked right behind the houses. We drove right up to the start of the trees and parked. There was plenty of parking and it was easy to get in and out.
There were bathrooms at the parking area. They were Port-a-potty style buuuuuut without seats. So port-a-john Japan style squatters. If you had to go you could stand on a step, face the back wall (hope you locked the door behind you well) and hold onto a handle on the wall to aid with your squatting balance. Then I advise you pray that you squatted down far enough otherwise you will have some wet Uggs when you leave… and Uggs show all water spots. FYI.
I am not sure if there were bathrooms anywhere else at the festival area as we were too preoccupied with checking out all the trees. However if you walk straight down the path from the parking lot all the way through to the other side of the orchard you will see the train station at the other end. You could find a bathroom there if you were really in need of something other than a porta potty. I would have down that had I know this was an option in the beginning.
Food, Drinks and Entertainment:
When you leave the parking lot you can just walk straight down a path to food vendors, a cafe, and a stage. This is where they have many of the festival performances and tea ceremonies. There is also a mini market type of area where the vendors are selling oranges and other vegetables and fruits. There were tables and chairs in this area to enjoy your snacks.
We also noticed that there was a separate large cafe with its own tables and chairs behind the stage area. I do not have information about what they had available because when we arrived this cafe was already closed (we arrived around 1pm). As our visit was the second to last day of the festival many things were already closed or packing up as we entered.
If you are looking for a more picnic type of atmosphere- which is popular for Hanami, I recommend turning right after walking down the main paling and the food stalls. There are raised picnic benches located in the middle of the trees. There were many families sitting with their picnic mats on the raised platforms and enjoying the blossoms. This area has some room for kids to wander about while you picnic as well in case they get bored of sitting before you get to finish your lunch. Is seems as if most families with younger children were in the Orchard area eating instead of seated at the tables. Mostly elderly patrons were in the main area with tables. This is not to say that you would not be welcome but just advice if you are with a large group or have young children who will not want to be seated for long periods.
Information During Your Visit:
There is a large map with information and trails marked in the main entrance of the trails. It has all information labeled in English as well as Japanese. You can view directions of multiple shrines located on the orchard grounds, however we did not get to visit these so I can not give any advice. We made it a quicker trip as we wanted to head to the beach after and did not want to run out of time.
Accessibility for Strollers and Wheelchairs:
We did take a stroller. I think taking a stroller is ok as the areas are wide enough. Just be aware that you will probably be leaving the main path and walking through the grass and all through the trees if you like so its a little more difficult to get through there but overall I think it is fine. We took an umbrella stroller so I would not recommend that. Take a full size stroller that is easy to get through rougher terrain. We actually saw several wheelchairs in use at the time we were there and they had no problems getting around the orchard and through the crowds. This is a really useful point as I find many places in Japan are just not very easily accessed in this type of situation.
A wheelchair would work on the path. It is wide and fairly well cared for. No major cracks or rough terrain. Just a few small hills. The path all the way to the parking would be ok for a wheel chair as well. The grassy area within the Orchard could be wheel chair friendly although some spots the ground was soft and probably would need extra assistance in pushing through these areas by a companion if there was a manual wheelchair and nothing motorized. The parking area would be adequate for parking a van with a lift on the back as it is pull in forward and there is single parking and no cars will park behind you. getting in and out of the side doors or a car could be problematic as the sides are tight. However this is nothing worse than normal Japanese spots. I think it is actually better as no one is parked behind you in any spot that we saw.
The orchard is big enough that if you do wish for privacy for feeding infants or need a quiet spot to settle a little one down you can probably find one. Just set out your picnic mat out under the trees and you probably won’t be bothered, as long as you are away from the main path. I did not see any type of private room or bathrooms located here.
Warning for Small Children:
Also I think it is worth mentioning there is an area of the orchard that is dangerous for kids. It is somewhat like a large area for water run off but it is deep and there are cement pillars over it with large gaps in between. This is large enough for a toddler to easily fall in. When we were near this area we had my toddler in the stroller so that we could walk father away from this and not have to worry about her wondering in due to curiosity. We simply redirected to another area of the orchard so she could play freely again. The orchard is huge so this should not deter you from visiting, just advice to steer clear of the drains.
I think that this Ume viewing spot is a must on a clear day. I would also advise going in late February. While we saw tons of great blossoms, I think the peak week was probably the previous week. We went the first weekend of March. Realistically we should have been there the previous week. We still saw all colors of blooms and all types, but most of the red blooms were already gone. It was really enjoyable as this was far less crowded than other areas we have visited for Hanami. Let’s not forget this is not only free but special needs accessible as well as family friendly that makes this a great plum viewing spot!
*Click here to visit the Odawara Ume Matsuri official site. You should visit the site before you go as the details can change yearly. The site is in Japanese but you can still view the dates and times.