Imagine a wonderland of blossoms falling down from above your head. Petals in surreal shades of pink, purple and white. What’s more, this paradise that some say is the most beautiful garden in Japan (others say in the entire world) only blooms for a fortnight every year.
Welcome to Kawachi Fuji-en or the Kawachi Wisteria Garden. Located in the wooded hills south of Kitakyushu in Fukuoka, Japan, this private garden is a must-do pilgrimage for flower lovers everywhere.
To experience the full resplendence of this wisteria wonderland will require some planning though. To begin, the flowering season falls only between mid-April and mid-May. The peak period for the blossoms is even narrower: barely a couple of weeks from late April to early May, which happens to be during the busy Golden Week.
What is the Golden Week? It’s a single week, from April 29 to May 5, when there is four national holidays in Japan – Showa no Hi (Showa Day, honouring the birthday of Emperor Showa), Kenpo Kinenbi (Constitution Memorial Day), Midori no Hi (Greenery Day) and Kodomo no Hi (Children’s Day).
Consequently, the Golden Week is also the longest vacation period of the year for most Japanese and domestic travel will be at its busiest. During this peak period, entry tickets with a specific date and time slot have to be purchased in advance otherwise you may be turned away, an unimaginable calamity after such a long journey!
Outside of the peak season, entry tickets can be purchased at the garden itself on the same day but it’s probably not worth it to view only leaves and dry vines. The cost of admission reflects this supply and demand too: peak season tickets are 1000 or 1500 yen; the rest of the time entry only costs 500 yen.
Other than visiting the Kawachi Wisteria Garden at the right time, the main challenge is simply getting there. During the peak season, there is the inevitable traffic jams and you could be stuck for hours driving your rental car.
A better bet is to use public transport. Using the ancient castle town of Kokura (considered the capital of Kitakyushu) as your base, take the train to the JR Yahata Station. A one-way ticket costs 280 yen and takes 15 minutes; this is definitely preferable to being stuck for ages on the highway.
From the JR Yahata Station, one option is the hourly Nishitetsu bus number 56 that terminates at Kamishigeta (the one-way trip takes 20 minutes and costs 260 yen), from which it’s a scenic 45 minute walk to the garden.
During the peak season (weekends and the Golden Week), however, there is a free shuttle bus that will take you directly to the garden. This, obviously, is the option we went with. Just look for the signs with pictures of wisteria blooms (there may or may not be English text naming the garden; this is Japan, after all).
When we arrive, the first sight of the garden with its carpet of wisteria flowers takes our breath away. Imagine clouds of cotton candy floating above a green landscape, and you’d have the barest idea of how bizarre and dreamlike the vision before us can be.
Built in 1977, the Kawachi Wisteria Garden is home to about 150 trees – 22 different types that range in colour from a pale violet to a vibrant pink. There is even wisteria the colour of snow, making parts of the garden a “winter wonderland” in spring.
Wisteria is a type of flowering climbing plants native to Japan (but also to China, Korea and the eastern United States). In Japan, this ornamental plant is called fuji and its pendulum-like flowers are carefully displayed by allowing the vines to clamber up trees and pergolas. There is an art to this and the Japanese excel at it.
We first enter the garden through a pair of tunnels, one shorter at 80 metres and the other more than twice the former’s length at 220 metres. There is something magical and fairy-like strolling through these wisteria tunnels, drooping strands of fuji blossoms gently stroking our heads.
At the end of these tunnels, there are large wisteria trellises; some of the trees are apparently over a century old, planted long before the garden itself was established. Some of the more mature wisteria trees have very strong and heavy trunks; the vines themselves can climb as high as 20 metres above the ground. Their fragrance is intoxicating, sweet like hyacinths and as deep as lilacs.
Further up, at the top of the hill, we get a more panoramic view of the wisteria landscape and of the verdant valley that frames it. Don’t rush – we certainly didn’t – but take your time to experience this sea of wisteria. There are benches for you to take a break and just meditate upon this bewitching scenery.
Wisteria appears often as a motif in waka, a form of classical Japanese poetry. Consider the poet Ariwara no Narihara (as translated by Michael Marra): “Many are the people / Hiding beneath / The blooming cherries— / The shadow of the wisteria / Becomes larger than the past.”
Though the poem is arresting in a melancholic way, the poet is slyly using the intrinsic nature of the fuji vines to creep and suffocate other surrounding plants to comment on how powerful political families can annihilate other weaker families. Therefore, even as we walk under the ethereal splendour of the wisteria flowers, there is a sense of unseen danger and lives lost to history.
This is no sunlit, open-air field filled with cheerful sunflowers. We pass beneath shadows and scent, always with a subtle feeling that there is something more. Perhaps it’s this mutability that makes Kawachi the most alluring garden in Japan; you believe that it all can change in a heartbeat. Indeed all the blossoms and the heady fragrance will be gone in a couple of weeks or less.
Enjoy its beauty and its mystery while it lasts, seems to be the message here, and we do.
Kawachi Fuji-en 2 Chome-2-48 Kawachi, Yahatahigashi Ward, Kitakyushu, Fukuoka, Japan. Open daily 8am-6pm. Tel: +81-93-652-0334