8 Tips for Enjoying the Sakura Season in Japan
1. Before All Else, Refer to the Sakura Zensen
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, the first blooms appear in the southern-most regions of Kyushu and Okinawa around late March. The blooms then advance northwards, reaching the northernmost island of Hokkaido around the middle of May. The entire Sakura season in Japan thus lasts approximately two months every year.
Your visit should be planned around the key dates of the Sakura Zensen. However, do note that it is unnecessary to obsess over the actual dates. The Zensen highlights Mankai, or full blossoming days at key locations. Missing Mankai, on the other hand, hardly 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.
Remember, Sakura blossoms don't just stay on the trees for one day. You'll do nothing but drive yourself crazy if you aim only for Mankai days.
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, a cold front resulted in light snowfall in the first week of April. Matsumoto was one of the cities affected.
Therefore, 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 to 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 especially bad during the early evening hours 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.
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 have just 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 read up regarding which variety you’d be seeing 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 season. Typically, Kyoto is near 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. What I'm saying is, don't fret if you can't book a room. Branch out during your hotel search. 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 is 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.
Hanami Itinerary Suggestion
If in Kyoto during Sakura viewing season, try attending one of the Miyako Odori Cherry Blossom festival dances (be sure to check performance schedules ahead of time). The elegance and gorgeous sets will blow you away.
7. Don't Miss Special Night Illuminations
This is personally, my favorite Sakura viewing experience. To celebrate the blooms and the return of spring, attractions that are usually closed at night are illuminated for evening night visits. The best of such light-ups, without a doubt, are those hosted by the historical temples of Kyoto.
If such festive light-ups are ongoing during your trip, you should 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 a traditional Japanese kimono too? Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have plenty of specialty shops providing dress-up services. A good many also 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.
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