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Japan During Cherry Blossom Season: A Complete Guide

Everything you need to know about Japan during peak hanami season.
Japan During Cherry Blossom Season: A Complete Guide
Lily Crossley-Baxter

Whether it’s a blossom-framed Mt. Fuji or a petal-dusted temple, it’s hard to picture Japan without at least a hint of pink. Only lasting a few weeks but easily the most anticipated time of the year, cherry blossom season is a beautiful but busy time to explore Japan.

What’s so special about cherry blossoms?

At first glance, Japan’s love affair with cherry blossoms, aka sakura, is easy to understand. The pretty pink petals come in a surprisingly vast array of shades and shapes, filling parks and decorating temples. Used to signify the end of winter and the start of the rice-planting season, the trees have long been portrayed in prints and legends and have fast become synonymous with the country. Known for natural beauty, elegance, and tradition as well as the culture of cuteness, Japan has found a one-fits-all symbol, but the national love of blossom goes deeper than you might expect.  

While it’s easy to dismiss cherry blossoms as a pretty but purely ornamental flourish, their influence goes far beyond a dash of color and the addition of crowds. As a particularly delicate herald of seasonal change, the petals represent the innate beauty of transience in Japanese culture. A focal point of the aesthetic concept of wabi-sabi, an awareness of nature’s impermanence deepens its beauty and reminds us of our own fleeting existence. While this sounds a little serious, it simply highlights the importance of enjoying life as it comes–with hanami (flower-viewing)—being the perfect opportunity.

Mt Fuji

Why it’s best to visit Japan during cherry blossom season...

In most countries, a short walk in the local park and a few photos would suffice, but here hanami is a true celebration. Festival stalls line the parks, girls make their first kimono-outings of the year, and blossoms float down around it all—it’s pretty much the perfect introduction to Japan. From the first buds to the final falling petals, families, friends, co-workers, and couples all gather to enjoy the simple pleasure of sakura.

For visitors, the season offers not only a chance to see some of the scenes straight out of the guidebooks, but to experience the unique atmosphere of hanami. The start of Spring brings a buzz of optimism and excitement that’s unique to the fleeting few weeks of the blooms. A rare freedom from Japan’s usual formal ways, a festival-atmosphere reigns and friends are easily made. Heading to a local park with a blue tarp, a DIY picnic, and a few drinks may end up being the highlight of your trip. After all, enjoying the moment and taking a break from the sightseeing schedules to enjoy your surroundings is exactly what sakura is all about.

…and why it’s not

Now, all of this seems pretty delightful, but it’s probably also sounding a little crowded. International visitors may be catching on to the beauty of blossom in higher numbers, but domestic tourism is the real behemoth at this time of year. From specific temple gardens to entire cities (yes, we mean Kyoto), the hotspots are packed and locals plan early—very early. Add this to the limited life-span of the flowers in each area and you have yourself a recipe for booked-up buses, packed hotels, and the potential for a real Instagram vs reality kind of experience.

Sensō-ji, Taitō-ku

To visit or not to visit Japan during cherry blossom season?

This is where the conundrum sets in: Is coming to Japan during sakura season really worth it? Visitor volume will no doubt affect transportation, accommodation, and more—and if it’s your first (and possibly only) trip to Japan, sacrificing top spots to the masses may be too high a price to pay for petals. But on the other hand…cherry blossom is pure joy, and the unique atmosphere is pretty special.

Overall? We say do it. Despite the crowds, the season just can’t be missed—but you’ll need to plan ahead to make sure you don’t miss out. (That's where Journy comes in—we'll do all the work for you!)

A compromise...

If you really don’t like crowds but still want a little blossom, consider visiting in the early or tail-end of the season. If you arrive in mid-March, you could visit Kyushu for the first blossoms of the year and travel up through Japan as they bloom. Equally, in May, you can still find flowers in Hokkaido, or visit spots famous for yaezakura—the late-blooming cherry-tree varieties.

Planning Your Trip: Start Early

Japan is generally not a nation of spontaneity—and while the festivals and parties at this time of year are undoubtedly fun, you can bet an incredible amount of planning went into them. Those blue mats beneath the best trees were staked out overnight by dutiful employees and the romantic mini-breaks are planned months in advance. Leaving things to chance doesn’t really work here on a regular day, let alone in peak sakura-season.  

If you’re going to be visiting in Spring, you need to start planning ideally in Autumn, and at least December if you want to secure bookings at your preferred hotels and restaurants. If you’re sticking to a tight budget, this is especially important, as affordable hostels in good locations are the first to go, along with night-bus reservations, leaving you with pricey hotels or expensive bullet train journeys.

When deciding on your trip, there are two things you have to consider: where to go and when.

Timing, Location, And More Timing

Inextricably linked when it comes to getting your cherry-blossom fix, where and when are the key factors for success. While ‘Spring + Japan = Sakura’ may seem like a foolhardy calculation, it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. Due to Japan’s unusual topography, there can be over a month between peak-blossom times, depending on your location. While the bloom generally follows a south-west to north-east trail, individual tree varieties and micro-climates can affect specific areas too. Thanks to the plentiful mountain ranges that dot the country, you can also find neighboring prefectures have surprisingly varied schedules. For example, Kawaguchiko’s five lakes are a popular day trip from Tokyo with stunning views of Fuji—but their peak season can start a whole week after the capital’s is done and dusted.

How does anyone figure this out, you ask? Forecasts. Lots and lots of forecasts. Starting in January, the Japan Weather Association releases a series of predictions based on weather forecasts, blossom data from previous years, and a network of volunteers who monitor specific trees across the country. A genuine science, the predictions are highly anticipated and impressively specific, allowing for festivals and events to be planned across Japan.

If you can’t wait until January (and we don’t suggest you do), then looking at the previous year’s dates will give you a pretty good idea.

Where to Go

While the blossom adds a certain beauty to pretty much all of Japan, there are some cities that are particularly stunning come sakura season. Wherever you go, be sure to check out the local gardens and keep an eye out for yozakura—blossom illuminations. Many shrines, temples, and gardens will stay open late during the season to display the petals, including the official Mint Bureaus in Osaka and Hiroshima which open to the public for two weeks a year for this very purpose.

Tokyo

Tokyo during cherry blossom season

Needless to say, if you find a cherry tree in Tokyo, you will find a crowd around it—but that can be part of the fun. Head to Ueno Park for festival stalls, boating, and countless trees or Shinjuku Gyoen for stretched-out lawns and hanami spots galore. Take a boat out on the moat of the Imperial Palace at Chidorigafuchi and stay late to admire the illuminations. One of the most photo-famous spots in the city has to be Nakameguro; its blossom-draped river is a stunning sight, complete with lanterns, street-food, and plenty of cute couples.

If you’re looking to escape the crowds (as much as is possible), head to Yanaka, an old-school town in Tokyo with cafes, cats, and and its fair share of cherry trees. Hikers can conquer Mt. Takao and be rewarded with a thousand trees, or opt for Mt. Kobo and its lantern-strewn trails to quiet picnic spots.

Depending on your interests, preferred pace of travel, and priorities, your Journy trip designer will custom-build an itinerary of activities perfectly suited to you.

READ MORE: Journy's Must-Read Guide To Tokyo

Kyoto

Kyoto during cherry blossom season

Kyoto is probably top of the cherry-blossom list—and as much as it’s a crowded nightmare at times, it’s crowded for a reason. Even the ancient capital has its lesser-known corners though, so while a shorter stay might be best, with extra days spent at nearby Mt Yoshino or Osaka Castle, it’s still very much worth a visit. Some of the best spots include Kyoto-Gyoen National Garden where you can take your pick from over a thousand trees and the ever-popular Arashiyama area—even if it is famous for bamboo. The Botanical Gardens are packed with over 500 picnic-perfect somei-yoshino trees while the Philosopher’s Path is a stroll through petal perfection. The Keage incline has forgotten train tracks to follow while Heian Jingu, Nijo-jo, and the Shibashi district have evening illuminations to enjoy after the sun sets on your day of exploring.

READ MORE: The Journy Guide To Kyoto

Alternative cities: Kanazawa and Osaka

If you’re after the old-school style but don’t fancy the crowds, then Kanazawa makes a great alternative to Kyoto. Complete with tea districts, geisha, and a unique history of gold leaf, it’s only a couple of hours away from Tokyo. Much like the old capital, it has a blossom-lined river and plenty of cherry trees can be found in the picturesque Kazue-machi tea district as well as surrounding Kanazawa Castle.

While Osaka is more famous for neon signs than dainty flowers, it still has its fair share of beautiful spots. The Castle grounds are a great place to start with picnics allowed and evening illuminations to enjoy after. The Japan Mint Bureau will open its doors for a limited time only allowing visitors to admire the 350 trees totaling over 130 varieties. For the local feel, head to Kema Sakuranomiya Park for boat rides and festival stalls while history-lovers can visit Kishiwada Castle, which offers illuminations after dark.

READ MORE: The Journy Guide To Osaka

What to Eat

In Japan, food is never far from festivities and hanami is no different. From seasonal pink lattes to local sakura-mochi, you can feast on themed treats as well as street food. A highlight of the season has to be the festival-style food that’s on offer at parks and gardens. While Japan isn’t usually keen on street-eating, there are exceptions made for specific events, and hanami is one. From yakitori to yaki-soba, you can sample the savory dishes and move on to the crepes, dango, and pink ice creams you’ll no doubt come across (among a myriad of other pink creations). While bringing a picnic can be a great start, you’ll definitely want to make the most of the stall food as well. If you’re looking for a high-end experience, Tokyo’s top hotels offer sakura-themed high teas and buffets with limited runs in Spring.

READ MORE: Expat Food Writer Robbie Swinnerton On His Hunger For Japan

Do’s And Don’t Of Hanami In Japan

Added to the list of Japan’s many rules are a few sakura-specific ones, but we’ll keep them simple:

  • At picnics, take your rubbish home or dispose of it in the correct bins—these often divide burnables and non-burnables, but there will be signs and posters to guide you.
  • Don’t touch the blossoms or climb the trees (it may sound obvious but 2019 was plagued with videos of a visitor climbing into cherry trees and it did not go down well).
  • Don’t place your mats on the tree roots.
  • Do dress warmly! It may look sunny but you’ll find yourself shivering if you don’t layer up.

Thinking about traveling to Japan during cherry blossom season?

We can help. When you travel with Journy, you'll get paired 1-on-1 with an expert Japan trip designer, who will build an itinerary from scratch for you. To get a sense for what it's like to travel with us, take a peek at this sample Japan itinerary.

inspiration
11 November 2019
9 min read

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