Cherry Blossom, also referred to as Sakura, is a quite a sight to behold and a life changing experience. As thousands of cherry trees bloom, people from all walks of life take a break and celebrate this breathtaking phenomenon with Hanami (a cherry blossom party).
I think a great way to describe cherry blossoms is the way a friend of mine described it while I was in Tokyo – “Sakura is as fickle as a lover’s heart – blink once and it’s in full bloom, blink twice and its gone.” This is because the cherry trees bloom only for a day or two, before a light breeze or rain (which is quite frequent during this time of year) washes them away. You can see how this makes visiting Japan specifically to see Cherry Blossoms a difficult proposition.
Timing your visit
The blooming season varies across different parts of Japan. First blossoms generally appear in Okinawa in January and slowly move up the archipelago, passing through Japan’s central islands (including Kyoto and Tokyo) in late March and early April, before progressing further north and hitting Hokkaido and Sapporo in early May. See the 2017 forecast calendar below http://www.japan-guide.com/sakura/
This forecast is dependent on temperature, rain and wind which can accelerate, delay or shorten the blossom season so use this calendar as a loose guideline. Book flights and hotels (refundable, if possible) with an extra couple of days before and after the suggested blossom date range for that region. After booking tickets, check regularly to see the current blossom dates if you have flexibility in your schedule to make any changes. To make the most of your trip, take the fantastic Japanese bullet trains and hop off to a city where blooms are being reported. It is quite an experience to hop from one part of the country to another in a matter of hours!
I was very excited to see that our trip to Tokyo was set specifically for the blossoming date range. However, after visiting a few parks, I was quite disappointed to see that only a few trees were blooming. This brings us to the next part of the botanical strategy- how to identify locations with the most blooms?
Best places to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo
After reading a few reports of blooms on the internet on the flight to Tokyo, I assumed that all the parks and locations with most trees would bloom at the same time. We quickly realized that the different varieties of cherry trees bloom at different times and even though blossom season had started, the flowers were nowhere close to a full bloom.
There are also many forums on the internet where people leave feedback on locations where blooms were most recently seen. Unfortunately, most of these forums were in Japanese. We found some suggestions online and asked a few locals for guidance. After visiting many parks over a span of 4 or 5 days, we saw many blooming trees.
We hit the jackpot on the day before our flight when we were lucky enough to see the cherry trees in full bloom. Trust me, the pictures don’t do any justice. Seeing thousands of trees in full bloom took our breath away and left us giddy with happiness. Here are our favorite locations in Tokyo to see the blossoms.
This park has over a thousand trees along the pathway in the park. The blossoms here open a couple of days before the rest of the city. If your schedule dictates you being in Tokyo for the earlier part of the blossoming season, this park is your best bet.
100’s of cherry trees line the Meguro river canal and the trees are lit up during the Nakameguro Sakura festival. This is our favorite location to visit in the evening after dark.
Shinjuku Gyoen Park
This park has over 1,000 trees and is one of the best locations for viewing sakura. Thanks to the early and late blooming trees, Shinjuku Gyoen is a good hanami destination for those who miss the main season by a day or two.
Hundreds of trees line the moats of former Edo Castle around Kitanomaru Park, creating one of Tokyo’s most outstanding cherry blossom sights. Boats are available for rent, but picnics are not allowed. Trees are lit up in the evenings. Many food stands can be found at nearby Yasukuni Shrine, where another thousand cherry trees are planted.
It goes without saying that the parks get pretty crowded with locals and tourists alike during the full bloom season. This is usually a turn off for us but we didn’t seem to mind the crowds in Tokyo at all! Everyone is so well mannered and it is great to see the locals enjoying this festival. If enjoying snacks under a cherry tree surrounded by crowds is not your thing, you could join a group of locals who go for midnight runs around the city and have the blossoms all to yourself.
Cherry blossom or not, Japan is one of my favorite countries to visit. On a prior trip, we spent 3 weeks’ zig-zagging around Japan during autumn (fall season) and loved every minute of it! Jump on one of the last-minute flight deals to Japan (similar to this one) or book this trip of a lifetime for next year.