In Utsunomiya, Tochigi, between Tokyo and Nikko, is a century-old forest of bamboo, with a tranquil atmosphere like nowhere else, and a connection to Rurouni Kenshin.
As an iconic backdrop in martial arts movies, or popular sightseeing attractions in Japan, bamboo groves have a unique atmosphere, and somehow make you feel like you’ve dropped in on a moment in ancient Asian history. There are a few spots around Japan where the close-growing bamboo has become an attraction, the most popular of which is in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto. But Arashiyama is consistently crowded, and the true magic of a bamboo forest is only really felt when the crowds fade away and you can hear the sound of the wind whistling through the tall bamboo stalks…
We’ve written about a couple other quieter bamboo groves in the past, like at Kamakura’s Houkokuji Temple or in Chiba’s city of Sakura, but when all you want is your own secret garden of bamboo forests as far as the eye can see, Wakayama Farm’s Four Seasons Bamboo Forest is the place to be. For over a hundred years, the Wakayama family has been growing bamboo in the Tochigi city of Utsunomiya, and their bamboo forest now covers an area of 24 hectares, which is almost 2.6 million ft², or five times the size of Tokyo Dome baseball stadium. The vast space contains groves of different kinds of bamboo, each a different shade of green, and walking through the quiet atmosphere feels like strolling through classical history, or even another world. It’s no wonder Wakayam Farm has been used as a film set for Japanese costume dramas and live-action historical anime remakes.
The Wakayama family moved to the area way back in the Edo period (1603-1868), and the farm has been active for over 100 years, passed down between generations. For a while, Wakayama Farm focused on growing chestnuts, and the farm still gathers the nuts every year from trees spaced out across huge fields. But bamboo soon became a huge part of the Wakayama’s business, and for many years the bamboo groves were grown very practically. For a long time, the only people walking the paths among the bamboo stalks were those who worked on Wakayama Farm, as they harvested bamboo shoots to sell as food and bamboo stalks as raw materials, selling to customers all over Tokyo and throughout the Kanto Region. Staff at Wakayama Farm will still tell you―if you see bamboo being used as a building material or for decorations in Kanto, chances are it came from this bamboo grove.
Eventually, after hearing endless remarks from the farm’s occasional visitors about how it was such a beautiful place that it was a shame not to show it to the public, the Wakayama family finally decided to open the farm to the world. Since April 2018, visitors have finally been invited to stroll the long paths through the bamboo groves, and enjoy this one-of-a-kind atmosphere.
One unique part of visiting Wakayama Farm, however, is that you’re not actually limited to the broad roads. While you can certainly take iconic photos on the pathway, similar to what you might see from Arashiyama, you’re also allowed to walk off the path and right into the middle of the bamboo groves―space permitting. It’s like a scene from a movie, slipping through the bamboo and watching the tall stalks as you wind your way between them. The dappled sunlight filtering through the leafy canopy and the rustle of bamboo softly shifting in the breeze is almost unreal.
If, like some of the writers here at Japankuru, you’re a big fan of martial arts movies or historical costume dramas, a few favorite scenes might come to mind.
One area of the farm is home to a grove of Kinmei-Moso bamboo, which has a unique golden color with stripes of light green. This unusual bamboo isn’t just beautiful, though, it also has another claim to fame, ever since it became the backdrop for an iconic scene in the live-action “Rurouni Kenshin: The Legend Ends.” Here, Kenshin duels Hiko Seijuro among the amber bamboo stalks, to begin his training! The farm has also shown up in the 2019 movie “Kingdom,” another historical anime adaption focused on China’s Warring States Period, and it’s frequently used as a set for commercials.
Since 2018, the farm generally stays open until the evening on weekends and holidays, meaning visitors can also enjoy the dramatic change in atmosphere as the sun sets. After dark, lights illuminate the groves, and a number of special lighting installations (made out of bamboo, of course!) create beautiful displays in the middle of the forest.
Wakayama Farm’s secluded location is part of what makes it special, but driving isn’t the only way to get there! From Tokyo, you can take a train to Utsunomiya Station, and from JR Utsunomiya’s West Exit Bus Stop, you hop on Kanto Bus #52 or 56 for about half an hour, and get off at Nozawatera-mae bus stop. The bamboo forest is ten minutes or so from the bus stop, but once you arrive, you’ll be transported to another world! Don’t miss a chance to visit.