7 Tips for Sakura Viewing 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 useful tool for anyone planning a Sakura viewing trip. Typically, the first blooms appear in the southern-most areas of Kyushu Island around late March. The blooms then advance northwards, reaching the northernmost island of Hokkaido around the middle of May.
The dates of the Sakura Zensen is thus what your travel period should be based on. That said, there is no need to obsess over it. The Zensen highlights the mankai, or full blossoming days at each key city. Missing mankai hardly means you miss everything. While sakura blossoms have notoriously short lives, they do still stay on the trees for at least a few days. Also, the Sakura Zensen is ultimately just a forecast. It is never 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 try to hit each city in your itinerary on mankai days.
2. Be Prepared for Wet Weather and Occasional Chills
Sakura represents renewal to the Japanese, due to them being one of the first flowers to bloom in spring. For travelers, this means that sakura viewing days are likely to still be chilly, with occasional showers, especially 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 the blossoms. Nothing sweeps them off the trees more effectively than an hour of splattering. You might want to head for 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. Especially during the evening when Japanese office workers gather for their beloved hanami drinking parties underneath the blooms.
Personally, sakura viewing crowds have never bothered me too much. The Japanese are renowned for being orderly and there are so many cherry trees around. On the other hand, if it bothers you, try going as early as possible. The afternoon is usually fine too. Alternatively, seek out less popular spots. A serene grove in a small park could be just as lovely.
4. Be Flexible With Accommodations
Finding accommodations in tourist hot spots like Kyoto could be a real challenge during Cherry Blossom season. Typically, Kyoto is near fully booked by early February.
To circumvent this, secure your reservations as early as possible. If you can't, remember that Japan has one of the best transportation systems in the world. You don't 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 sakura season.
5. Sakura Are Not Just on the Trees
That's right. They are found everywhere. As adornments on clothes and souvenirs, as props in performances, and even as food ingredients. Sakura become the theme for everything 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 Japan. One suggestion. If in Kyoto, try to attend a Miyako Odori Cherry Blossom festival dance. (Be sure to check performance schedule in advance). The elegance and gorgeous sets will blow you away.
6. Don't Miss the Special Night Illuminations
This is my personal favourite. To celebrate the blooms, places that are usually closed at sunset are illuminated for special night visits. The best of these are, without a doubt, the historical temples in Kyoto.
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 along the way, then enter the ancient temples. 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. If you’re interested, simply google "dress up in kimono" to discover the listings.
7. Sample Some Japanese Street Food
Popular cherry blossom viewing spots have plenty of surrounding stalls selling tidbits and street food. Famous snacks like takoyaki and kushikatsu are staples. There would also be more exotic foodstuffs like roasted bamboo spouts and soft shell crab bits. In my opinion, the perfect way to end a sakura viewing excursion would be to sample some of the street food while watching the rest of the crowds stroll pass. After which, it's off to the next hanami destination or an elaborate dinner. Or perhaps a slow, relaxing onsen soak, back at your ryokan.