Japan’s legendary sakura cherry blossoms attract visitors in their droves, both from within Japan and from all across the wider world. Our guide on where, when, and how best to enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing) is below.
Why is cherry blossom season special?
Hanami is an essential part of Japanese culture. Somei Yoshino (Yoshino cherry) is the national flower of Japan blooms pink and white with the first blush of spring, and for the Japanese people represents opportunity, optimism, and the transience of life (the latter a major theme in Buddhism).
For the Japanese, this is a time to enjoy the newly warm weather, and take picnics in parks and gardens underneath the blooms. For tourists, this is a one-of-a-kind experience with endless photo-ops: trees bursting with color, often complementing magnificent backdrops of temples, picturesque parks, or tranquil waterways. Cherry blossom festivals are held in major cities which cater to all parties.
When to go
Although there is no fixed date – cherry blossom forecast is the subject of much scrutiny within Japan each year – the season generally runs between late February to late May. The absolute height of sakura viewing season in key destinations such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka is deemed the last two weeks of March and the first two of April.
Blossoming starts first in Japan’s subtropical south and sweeps up through the country to its northernmost islands. A pro-tip: should you wish to see the blossoms but avoid the crowds, head up north to Hokkaido later in the season, or down to the warm climes of southern island Kyushu earlier on.
Things to consider
Cherry blossom season is far and away the most popular time of year to visit Japan, so the most important thing to consider is plan early. Hotels in major cities, especially Kyoto, usually book out around 8-9 months before in advance. The same goes for intercity travel: the most convenient time shinkansen bullet train runs between Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Hiroshima also fill up quickly.
The popularity of visiting at this time also goes hand-in-hand – unfortunately – with peak season surcharges. Hotel rates are at their highest nationwide, and in Kyoto’s best properties can be almost three times higher than normal. For many, the higher rates and thicker crowds are a price worth paying to visit at this most delightful time of year. For others, it may be worth considering traveling around the edges of sakura season, or pushing your trip back to the Fall months.
Best hanami spots
Cherry blossom occurs all across Japan, so visiting for the season folds perfectly into a full tailor-made trip around the country. In Tokyo, the best places to see full bloom are in Ueno Park, Shinjuku Gyoen, or the Chidorigafuchi Moat in front of the Imperial Palace. In Kyoto, you’ll find blooming cherry trees framing all the major sites such as Nijo Castle or Kiyomizudera, but viewings are especially delightful in the Botanical Gardens and along waterways such as Philosopher’s Path and Nakanoshima Park near Arashiyama.
Himeji Castle – an easy day trip from Kyoto is especially popular with Japanese, with over 1,000 trees within the grounds. Osaka Castle boasts 4,000 trees and is an equally easy day trip from Kyoto (or well worth an overnight stay). The northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko in Hakone National Park offer a tantalizing photo op of Mount Fuji framed by sakura, and at slightly higher elevation should be timed towards the end of your trip.
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