There are many icons of Japan; sumo’s, sushi, weird sex robots, but my favourite would have to be cherry blossoms. Sakura, as they’re known in Japan, bloom once a year all over the country and the Japanese go mad for it! There are festivals, decorations everywhere, sakura-themed food and everyone flocks to their nearest park to sit under the trees to admire the blossoms (or Hanami, as viewing blossoms are known in Japan), often with a picnic full of little plates to share and lots of sake!
The blooms progress is reported nightly on the news as it builds up from the first opening (kaika) to peak bloom (mankai) when the whole tree is covered in tiny flowers in hues of white, pink, magenta and even red. The peak only lasts around a week or two before the wind blows them away in what is known as a hanafubuki, a cherry blossom storm.
The end of March to mid-April is when they usually reach their peak when every blossom on the tree is open but it all depends on the weather. The flowers start opening in the southern areas of the country first and work their way north over the following weeks.
While it can be hard to organise a trip in advance, ensuring south to north travel or being flexible with your travel can improve your chances of seeing the peak blooms at some point. Also, check out this site or the Japan Meteorological Corporation which gives an indication of when the blooms are expected a few months in advance, plus more accurate reports as the blossoms open.
I was fortunate enough to nail the peak bloom exactly and travelled from Hiroshima to Tokyo, via Kyoto, enjoying a bounty of blossoms at every stop. Even if you miss peak bloom there will still be a few weeks on either side where you can still see the flowers. Different varieties of cherry blossoms trees also peak at different times so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find some from mid-March to late April.
Here are a few of the places I visited which really showcased what Sakura is all about.
This was my first stop and straight down to the Miyajima Backpackers which is about 40 minutes south of the city. My reason for heading here was that right outside the backpackers was a ferry that takes you over to Miyajima Island. You’ve probably seen a photo from here. The island’s iconic red Torii gate floating in the bay is used in many tourism brochures. But the island is also covered in cherry blossom trees and coupled with the thousands of inquisitive deer that roam it, Miyajima is a strikingly beautiful place to visit.
The island is very mountainous and you can walk up one of the hills to some cable cars which will take you over the trees and hills to Mount Misen where they have temples, shrines and monkeys!
While walking back down to the Miyajima township you’ll come across beautiful stone bridges, pagoda’s, old houses and eventually back at the water’s edge you’ll find the Buddhist Itsukushima Shrine set on stilts over the water with the giant Torii gate directly in front.
When the tide goes out you can walk out to the gate and see all the coins that tourists throw at it for good luck when rowing past in small boats.
If you enjoy oysters then stick around for lunch as they are a specialty on the island. You’ll find rows of stores all selling them; battered & fried, in omelettes, fresh. They have them all!
Back on the mainland and a few train stops down from Miyajima is Iwakuni known for its famous bunny-hop bridge (that’s my nickname for it anyway.) It literally looks like someone was just doodling on a piece of paper 350 years ago and thought ‘hey that would make a cool bridge!’ Its actual name is Kintai Bridge and it’s a historical, wooden arch bridge built in 1673 that spans the Nishiki River with its five wooden arches.
The opposite side of the river has an alley of cherry blossoms with bushes of yellow canola flowers at the bottom.
Special buses run from Iwakuni train station to the bridge quite regularly. I happened to get on the wrong bus as I had been waiting for so long, but the driver knew he was going past the bridge anyway so he let me hop on.
Up in Hiroshima I found the best congregation of blossoms at Hiroshima Castle.
The original castle was destroyed by the atomic bomb in 1945, but it was rebuilt in 1958 and lots of cherry trees were planted through its expansive grounds. Surrounding the castle is a giant moat, rimmed by modern skyscrapers for an interesting juxtaposition.
Not far from the Castle is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, ground zero of the nuclear explosion and includes the Children’s Peace Monument, Cenotaph, Peace Flame and the A-Bomb Dome. The Dome sits atop a former exhibition hall which stands as a skeleton today. As the bomb detonated 600m in the air and almost directly above the dome, the downward force resulted in the walls retaining their shape.
It sits on the edge of the Ota River which has many cherry blossom trees lining its banks.
If you only have time to see the blossoms in one city, make it Kyoto!
Canals criss-cross the area, especially around Gion & Pontocho in the Higashiyama area which are lined with cherry trees, branches heaving with blossoms over the water. You could wander in a different direction each day and still find a myriad of cherry trees.
Up the end of Gion is Maruyama Park and worth a visit during the day and again at night.
The park is filled with stalls selling yummy hanami food like teriyaki beef, toffee fruit, octopus balls, gyoza (dumplings), salted smoked fish, okinomiyaki (savoury pancakes) and I even found an Iranian guy selling kebabs who wanted to take me out to dinner!
The star of the park is the giant, pink, weeping, cherry tree that everyone crowds around to get a photo. At night when many areas of the park are filled with locals noisily drinking sake and banging drums in the dark, this tree is lit up in all its glory. You might even be lucky enough to spot a real geisha or maiko (geisha in training) entertaining guests.
The Philosopher’s Path is probably my second choice for blossom viewing. It’s a cherry tree-lined canal starting at the Ginkaku-ji temple that meanders down to the Nazen-ji temple, passing many more along the way. Named because a Kyoto University professor walked the 2km path daily as a form of meditation.
Many locals hold stalls along the way selling food or homemade crafts. Two elderly ladies I came across were selling little origami figures and in my broken Japanese and their broken English we had a wonderful conversation about Playboy bunnies and Christmas trees (don’t ask). After I paid for my purchases I said “Ookini”, an old Kyoto dialect for Thank-you, instead of the normal Arigato and they were so impressed they gave me a free little origami geisha!
Halfway along there seems to be a proliferation of cats just sitting on the side of the canal, so a plus for kitty lovers!
Kiyomizu-dera is another popular stop on the blossom trail. High up on a hill the giant wooden structure, made without any nails, overlooks the city of Kyoto. Cherry trees fill the grounds and provide a great backdrop against the temple and its fountains. A steep street lined with souvenir shops leads the way to the top.
About 30 minutes west of Kyoto is Arashiyama, home of the famed bamboo forest, but there are plenty of cherry blossom trees here, especially along the river and at the Nison-in Temple.
If you’re in Kyoto for spring, there is one must-do. See the Miyako Odori! This is a colourful, traditional dance, presented by the geisha of the Gion Kōbu geisha district every spring. Held in the famous Kaburenjo Theatre in Gion, the geisha perform many different songs and plays enacting the seasons, culminating in the grand, cherry blossom finale. These dances have been performed yearly since 1872 and are one of the best and most authentic experiences of Japanese culture. Certain tickets also allow you to watch a geisha and maiko (geisha-in-training) perform a tea ceremony in which you get a bowl of green tea, a bean paste confection and a souvenir ceramic plate, before moving through to the grand theatre with its beautifully woven silkscreen, to watch the show.
Ueno Park is probably the most popular hanami spot in Tokyo with over 1000 cherry trees lining wide pathways and lakes, it attracts big crowds every spring.
There’s a festival atmosphere with the thousands of people enjoying their picnics on tarps under the trees, food stalls selling all sorts of nice food and even I even spotted a carnival-type stall where you could catch a goldfish to take home!
Over on one of the lakes you can rent out swan-shaped paddleboats to work off the hanami!
Chidorigafuchi Koen surrounds a moat which in turn surrounds the Imperial Palace. The place is huuuge and even has a freeway that cuts down the middle of it.
Giant cherry trees hang over the water and you can rent little blue boats to view the trees from the water. As the petals start to fall they create patches of pink lake that the boats cut through to be surrounded by pink petals.
Food stalls can be found over by the Yasukuni Shrine.
Sumida Park runs along the river in Asakusa and makes a pretty sight if you’re in the area visiting the nearby Senso-ji temple. The park isn’t one I’d go out of my way to see, but since Senso-ji is a must-see in Tokyo, you might as well pop around the corner to this area.
Meguro River Lined with over 800 cherry blossom trees, the river turns pink each Spring from Ikejiriohashi to Meguro, which is about 3.2 km in distance, becoming a sakura promenade and one of Tokyo’s most popular hanami spots.
Food stalls abound and the blooms are lit up nightly from 6-9pm, giving the area a festival atmosphere.
Shinjuku Gyoen is one I didn’t get to but is ranked highly for blossom viewing. Not far from Shinjuku station, there’s a measly ¥200 entrance fee but over 1000 cherry trees await you inside spread out over expansive lawns which make it a less crowded option to Ueno.
Lastly, I’ll mention a tiny, little spot I found while chasing a hanafubuki from Takeshita St in Harajuku. It led to a little pond with turtles & koi, a number of cherry blossom trees and the most perfect camelia flower I’ve ever seen. It’s behind the northern side of Takeshita, so if you walk to the end and come to Meiji Dori (St) turn left and about 50m along you’ll see a torii gate and path that leads through a mini forest and comes out at the pond.
Yoyogi Park is also nearby and if you’re already in Harajuku you can walk through the forest next to the station, or catch the Chiyoda Line to the next station, Yoyogi-koen. Here there’s more cherry trees, lakes and stalls.
So if you’re thinking about heading over to Japan for next year’s cherry blossom season, I hope this gives you some tips on where to visit. It is considered a peak season so be sure to book your accommodation ahead of time. Hotels can be pretty pricey in Japan but the hostels are around AU$35 a night and they’re the best quality hostels I’ve seen in the world and they all have the magic Japanese toilets (don’t knock it till you try it!).
In Tokyo, I recommend Khaosan Kabuki Hostel or K’s House Oasis Hostel, both in Asakusa. Close to Senso-ji temple (best place to get souvenirs), lots of restaurants around and lots of Subway Stations in the area.
In Kyoto, I recommend Khaosan Kyoto Guesthouse which is only a few years old so all the amenities are pretty up to date. They also have a huge recreation area and kitchen. Also, each of the bunks have their own privacy curtain which is handy. If you book here take a screen grab on your phone of the street view of the place as the font they use, although written in English, looks like Kanji so it can be very easy to walk past! This hostel is within walking distance of Pontocho, Gion and Maruyama Park. It’s also just off one of the main shopping streets and the awesome basement food courts in the big department stores on the corner of Shijo-dori & Kawaramachi-dori.
In Hiroshima, I stayed at Backpackers Miyajima, which gives the option of sleeping traditional style on tatami mats, or in bunks. The hostel is right on the water next to the ferry that goes over to Miyajima Island. Restaurants and supermarkets are nearby. The train station is a short walk and the tram stop is right next to the ferry terminal, so even though it’s 40 minutes outside of Hiroshima, it’s still a good spot if you don’t think you’ll spend much time in the city.
Cherry blossom season in Japan does mean crowds, but along with that comes a great, inclusive atmosphere and festival feeling. I thought I’d be sick of cherry blossoms after a few days, but I never tired of their pastel protrusion all over the city!