Today, I want to take a second to introduce a pair of attractions from my adventures this spring. Known as the Hitome Senbonzakura and Funaoka Castle Ruins Park, this duo of destinations can be found up in the southernmost portions of Miyagi Prefecture. Known for their annual cherry blossom festival, this neighboring set of allures is one of Tohoku’s best spots during peak bloom. Situated in the shadow of Mt. Zao (as seen above), this part of Japan is enchantingly beautiful during the window from mid to late April.
If you haven’t yet heard of the Hitome Senbonzakura and/or Funaoka Castle Ruins Park, know that this collection of attractions are considered to be one of the top 100 cherry blossom sites in all of Japan. In the case of the Hitome Senbonzakura, you’ll be treated to an endless procession of Somei-Yoshino cherry trees that run along the banks of the Shiroishi River. Funaoka Castle Ruins Park on the other hand sits atop a nearby bluff. Formerly the site of a medieval stronghold, the panoramic view from this 135-meter-high peak will leave you breathless on a clear day.
Especially if you plan to chase the cherry blossoms even further north (like I do almost every year), the Hitome Senbonzakura and Funaoka Castle Ruins Park make a great midway addition that sits between Tokyo and other locations further north. Moreover, given their proximity to the city of Sendai, the pair of destinations is easy to add on to most itineraries, especially if you have one of JR’s Tohoku Rail Passes at your disposal. Trust me when I say that the Hitome Senbonzakura and Funaoka Castle Ruins Park don’t disappoint.
How to Get There
Let’s pause for a second to take a quick look at how to get to these two locales. For most people, the easiest way to get to the Hitome Senbonzakura and Funaoka Castle Ruins Park will be via a bullet train to Sendai Station. Assuming that you take the Tohoku-bound Hayabusa Shinkansen, this first leg of the journey should only take you an hour and a half or so. Once you arrive at Sendai Station, you’ll want to transfer to the Tohoku Line and take this to the JR Funaoka Station.
Alternatively, if you don’t mind taking a ride on the slower Yamabiko trains to Shiroishi-Zao Station, you can actually do the route that I am going to be recommending in reverse. In either case though, use a service like Jorudan to help calculate the train schedules. Especially if you elect to go with the Yamabiko and Shiroishi-Zao Station option, you’ll want to be sure to make your train as there are only a few departures per hour.
The Hitome Senbonzakura
Assuming that you went to Sendai Station and then took the Tohoku Line down, you’ll want to exit the JR Funaoka Station and head on down to the Shiroishi River. All things considered, it’s pretty easy to figure out where you’re going as there will likely be many, many other travelers also going to see the Hitome Senbonzakura. Being blunt, this row of 1,200 cherry blossom trees sticks out like a very pink sore thumb so it’s really hard to miss (that’s right, you won’t be needing any Google Maps for this one).
Now, there is not really much to do per say at the Hitome Senbonzakura other than take in the magnificent cherry blossoms. While there are a few points of interest such as the other seasonal flowers at Shiroishi River Sen-ou Park, they are more of a side show than anything else. Instead, take your time here and leisurely stroll along the endless array of beautiful cherry blossom trees. When you see it, you’ll immediately know why it’s considered to be one of the top springtime spots in all of Japan.
While you’re exploring the Hitome Senbonzakura, one spot that you should keep an eye out for is the Shibata Sen-ou-kyou Bridge. You’ll know that you’ve come across it when you encounter a literal legion of cameramen trying to get a shot like the one above. You see, this location is akin to sacred land among photography enthusiasts. With the ever-amazing Hitome Senbonzakura and Mt. Zao in the background, it’s easy to see why so many would wait eagerly for a shot of the Tohoku Line passing by.
Funaoka Castle Ruins Park
If you cross over the Shibata Sen-ou-kyou Bridge, you’ll soon find yourself at the base of Mt. Shiho. At the top of this comparatively small hill, you’ll find Funaoka Castle Ruins Park. Located 135 meters above sea level, you’ll have two options for making your way up to the site of the former castle. The first of these should be obvious; you place one foot in front of the other until you manage to haul your now-sweaty self up to the summit. Seeing as the temperatures are still cool during mid April, this isn’t actually as bad as it sounds on paper.
Of course, I can’t talk about the journey to the top of Mt. Shiho without also mentioning the retro slope car. Running along a 305-meter-long track, this adorable vehicle will take you through the cherry blossom trees as it snakes its way up the steep hillside. A round trip ticket will set you back 500 yen but do be prepared to wait if you’re visiting during the annual Shibata Cherry Blossom Festival (which sees upwards of 200,000 visitors every year). Sadly, the cute nature of the slope car means that everyone wants to ride it so expect long lines. Note that the station can be found directly above the parking lot.
As the Funaoka Castle Ruins Park name suggests, there are few traces of the former fortress atop Mt. Shiho. The stronghold that once stood here belonged to the Harada clan. Unfortunately, these retainers of the Date family daimyo were embroiled in an incident during the late 1600s. While I’ll spare you the historical deep dive, the result of this happening was that the entire Harada clan was completely eradicated. As a result of the shogunate’s wrath, little if any evidence of the family’s fort remains today for visitors to see.
While there may indeed be no castle to see, you will find the 24-meter-tall Funaoka Heiwa Kannon at the top of Mt. Shiho. This statue depicts the Buddhist goddess of mercy and was built by a faithful husband who wanted to pray for the soul of his departed wife. The towering effigy holds in her hands a dove which is considered to be a symbol of peace in Japan. Before the triple tragedy of March 11, 2011, it was actually possible to explore inside the statue but the practice has since been discontinued due to some minor damage.
Finally, there is also a famous fir tree up here that was once featured in an NHK historical drama from the 1970s titled Momi-no-Ki Wa Nokotta (The Fir Tree that Remained). While it is indeed impressive to behold, I doubt that it will have the same level of nostalgia for readers of this blog as it would for Japanese people who viewed the series on TV wayback when.
Wanting More Cherry Blossoms
In addition to the cherry blossom trees clustered around Funaoka Castle Ruins Park and the aforementioned Funaoka Heiwa Kannon statue, there are also some other great spring spots nearby. Should you come down to the southern sections of Miyagi Prefecture during April, I highly encourage you to also add some of these to the agenda. At the end of the day, the locales mentioned thus far should only take around half of a day meaning that you should have ample time for an extra add-on ot two.
The first location that I will suggest is Shiroishi Castle. Found a bit further to the south from Funaoka Castle Ruins Park, this structure was the home base of the Katakura clan (another retainer family of the Date lords back in Sendai). The present-day castle is a ferroconcrete reconstruction from the modern era but the grounds are particularly beautiful during springtime when the cherry blossoms are out in their full majesty. Note that Shiroishi Castle is situated quite close to Shiroishi-Zao Station. Thus, you’ll want to visit it first if you’re doing the opposite of the route I am recommending.
Another spot that you might consider is the tail end of the Hitome Senbonzakura. In the area between Oagatabashi Bridge and Suehiro-ohashi Bridge, you’ll find another springtime festival to enjoy. What’s different about this cherry blossom celebration though is that it boasts evening illuminations from 6–10 PM. If you’re willing to stay until the night comes, you can experience the jaw-dropping spectacle of the cherry blossoms being lit up before heading back to Sendai (where I personally suggest you stay overnight).
Other Nearby Attractions
Speaking of Sendai, know that Miyagi is a prefecture with an unbelievable amount of things to do. Should you be hankering for even more cherry blossoms, Matsushima is absolutely amazing during this time of the year. When I visited during 2023, I did all of the spots that I’ve introduced in this area guide before heading up to Matsushima on the second day. Though I’ve been to the town several times before during different seasons, Matsushima is on a whole different level during spring. Despite already being one of the top three most scenic places in Japan, it is even better when the cherry blossoms are out.
Of course, Sendai itself is a city that has perennial appeal. Regardless of whether there are cherry blossoms or not to enjoy, Sendai has enough action to keep you busy for a day or two. Rather than reinvent the wheel here and make this article any longer than it already is though, I’ll just direct you to my area guide on Sendai. It will inform you of all you need to know to make the most out of the city. Be sure to enjoy some savory gyutan while you’re there (and definitely only look up what it means after you finish eating if you’re a picky eater).
Lastly, know that the famous Zao Fox Village is also quite close to Shiroishi Castle. Should you wish to tack this popular attraction on to your visit, it would combine quite well logistically. That said, you’ll probably want to spend the night in one of the area’s ryokan instead of going back to Sendai as the Zao Fox Village (which is located in the highlands of Mt. Zao) is quite the challenge to get to without a rental car. Basically, it’s one of those places where you need to pony up and pay for a taxi. That said, the adorable critters are worth the price to get there!
Until next time travelers…