Japan is well known for its cherry blossoms, but did you know that the plum blossoms bloom a month or more earlier than the cherry trees? And, the plum blossoms, in shades of white and pink, can be just as beautiful to see.
There are many plum gardens, known as bai-en, around Japan including a few in or near Tokyo. However, if you want to get out of Tokyo for a nicely blended easy hike and plum blossom viewing, head to Yugawara to see the Makuyama Bai-en Koen (Mount Maku Plum Garden Park). The trees usually start blooming in late February or early March. By mid-March most of the 4,000 trees in the park will be in full bloom and it's pretty much over by the end of the month. Entry to the park is 200 yen.
At 626 meters Makuyama is a fairly easy climb, even for the kids. However, be sure to wear sturdy shoes as there are a lot of steps and loose gravel as you climb through the plum orchard. A map for the hike is available at the park office. Watch for the rock climbers as you make your way up the steps to the upper level of the orchard. There are usually a few people there doing their best to scale several sheer cliffs.
Plan to get there early enough to have time to view the plum blossoms and take a few photos before you leave the orchard and head up the mountain. Of course, by the time you leave the plum tree orchard you'll already be a good part of the way up. Make sure to follow the map once you get to the top or you may wind up a pretty fair distance from the park. The map route will bring you around the back of the mountain and down to the road that follows the river back to the park. Pack a picnic lunch to enjoy as you take in the view from the top of the mountain.
Back at the bottom walk along the road, or in places you can walk beside the river, to the park. If you're there during the main plum blossom viewing season you'll find plenty of small stalls selling drinks and food in the open field by the park office. Or, take advantage of one of the picnic tables they have set up to enjoy the lunch you've packed along, if you didn't eat it on top of the mountain.
The park closes at 4:00 P.M. and the last bus for Yugawara Station leaves around 4:30. Taxis are also available and the taxi ride to the station should be around 1,200 - 1,500 yen.
If you're not ready to head back to Tokyo, or wherever you started from, Yugawara offers a large number of onsen (hot springs) hotels and inns. You can spend a night or two or just pop in to one of the "higairi" (day use) onsens for a few hundred yen for a relaxing soak in the hot spring water before catching your train. The main street in front of Yugawara Station is lined with numerous shops selling local foods and souvenirs.