A Japanophile who has survived 15 solo trips to Japan. Ced's visits focus on discovering the country’s lesser-known attractions.
1. The Sakura Zensen Is Your Most Important Guide for Sakura Viewing in Japan
The Sakura Zensen (桜前線), or the Cherry Blossom Front, refers to the advancing of cherry blossoms across Japan. As it provides estimated dates of full blossoming, it is the most important tool for anyone planning a Sakura viewing trip, otherwise also known as Hanami.
Typically, Japan’s Sakura season begins with the flowering of blossoms in the southern-most regions of Kyushu and Okinawa in March. The blooms then advance northwards, reaching the northernmost island of Hokkaido around the middle of May. The entire Hanami period in Japan thus lasts approximately two months each year. Correspondingly, your visit should be planned around the key dates of the Sakura Zensen.
Do note, however, that it is unnecessary to obsess over actual dates. Useful as it is, the Zensen highlights Mankai, or full blossoming days at key locations. Missing Mankai, on the other hand, does not means you’ll miss everything. While Sakura blossoms have notoriously short lives, they do still remain on the trees for at least a few days.
Also, the Sakura Zensen is ultimately but a forecast. Like all such weather-based projections, you should never expect it to be completely accurate.
2. Be Prepared for Wet Weather and Occasional Chills
Sakura represents renewal in Japanese culture as they are one of the first flowers to bloom in spring. For travelers, what this means is that Sakura viewing days are likely to still be wintry and with occasional showers. This is especially so if your trip is around the end of March.
To give an example, in 2015, an unusual cold front resulted in light snowfall in the first week of April. Matsumoto was one of the cities affected.
In other words, always be flexible with your itinerary. Be ready to swap for indoor destinations should you wake up to horrid weather. Take note too that heavy rain is a menace to cherry blossoms, nothing sweeps the delicate petals off the trees more effectively than an hour of splattering.
You might want to head somewhere else if your destination had just been hit by heavy rain.
3. Go in the Early Morning or Afternoon
The Japanese adore Sakura. So does the rest of the world. What to make of this? Crowds. Huge crowds throughout the Japanese Sakura season. Crowds that are especially bad too during the early evening when Japanese office workers gather for their beloved annual Hanami drinking parties.
Unless you enjoy the spectacle of such crowds, visit the cherry blossom hotspots early in the day. The earlier part of the afternoon is usually fine too, although these hours might not be the most ideal for photography.
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Alternatively, consider visiting less popular spots. Just because Hiroshima’s Shukkeien Garden is less famous than Osaka Castle’s Nishinomaru Park for cherry blossom viewing doesn’t mean the blooms are any less attractive there.
Finally, if you really can’t avoid “peak hours,” despair not. The Japanese are renowned for being orderly and Hanami hotspots never just have one cherry tree. With a bit of patience, you can still have a few serene moments with the lovely blooms.
4. Learn About the Different Varieties of Sakura
There are five main varieties of Sakura, with as many as over 20 subspecies. For travelers, what’s important to know is that not all varieties yield dreamy pink petals.
In fact, the most popularly planted variety, the Somei Yoshino, has petals that are near completely white.
To put it in another way, be sure to research about Sakura varieties before deciding on a viewing location, especially if you are looking forward to photographing the blooms.
What you want to avoid is the situation of returning home with dreary photos, because everything, from the cherry blossoms to the overcast early spring sky, is a flat white.
5. Always Be Flexible With Accommodations During the Sakura Season
Securing accommodation in tourist hot spots like Kyoto could be a real challenge during the Japanese Sakura viewing season. For example, Kyoto is near always fully booked by early February.
To circumvent this, secure your reservations as early as possible. If that’s not possible, remember that Japan has one of the best transportation systems in the world. You do not actually have to stay in Kyoto to view the Sakura there, neighboring Osaka is but a 20-minute express train ride away.
If you really must stay in the same city, for whatever reason, don't fret too if you can't book a room. Branch out during your hotel search into the suburban districts. Japan has enough accommodations all over the country for everybody, even during peak travel seasons.
6. Sakura Blooms Are Not Just on the Trees
That's right. The blooms are literally everywhere. As adornments on clothes and souvenirs, as props in performances, even as food ingredients.
Sakura become the theme for everything and anything during the Hanami season; there are even Sakura ice cream and Sakura tofu. A proper Hanami trip should therefore not just consist of visits to the parks. You should also take the chance to experience Sakura culture in other aspects of Japanese life.
7. Don't Miss Special Night Illuminations
This is personally, my favorite Sakura season experience. To celebrate the blooms and the return of spring, attractions that are usually closed at night are illuminated for evening visits. With the best of such light-ups, without a doubt, those hosted by the historical temples of Kyoto.
If such festive light-ups are ongoing during your trip, must visit at least one. Go at sunset, just as the sky begins to segue from orange to blue. Saunter your way down the atmospheric streets, picking up a snack or two, before entering the ancient temples where the best of the blooms are.
For an extra touch, how about dressing up in traditional Japanese attire too? Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have plenty of specialty shops providing such costume services. A good many even provide professional photographers to follow you around for the evening. Simply google "dress up in kimono" to discover the listings.
8. Sample Some Japanese Street Food After Enjoying the Blooms
Popular cherry blossom viewing spots often have plenty of stalls selling classic Japanese street food such as takoyaki and okonomiyaki. At larger locations, there could also be more exotic foodstuffs like roasted bamboo spouts and soft shell crab bits.
You could end thus end a Hanami visit with a mini gourmet adventure, one with you atmospherically surrounded by drifting petals. After which, it's off to the next Hanami destination. Or an elaborate Kaiseki dinner. Or perhaps a slow, rejuvenating onsen soak, back at your hotel.
© 2016 Ced Yong