The cherry blossom is a quintessential part of Japanese culture, and the cherry blossom season draws tourists from all over the world desperate for a glimpse of the beautiful but elusive bloom. This easy guide to the cherry blossom season will help you time and plan your visit perfectly.
There are thousands of cherry blossom trees in Japan, and every single year the blooming and blossoming of the trees is cause for celebration throughout the country, with locals enjoying festivals, picnics, family gatherings and even silent meditation to engage in hanami, or cherry blossom viewings.
Apart from being a stunning sight to behold, the significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture is as old as it is poignant. The beautiful cherry blossom and the shortness of its season is symbolic of life itself, a reminder of how bright and beautiful a life can shine, but also how tragically short it is. It is a reminder to enjoy life while you can, to appreciate both its beauty and its briefness.
The exact timing of the cherry blossom season – or hanami – differs each year and from prefecture to prefecture. The sakura zensen (cherry tree blossom line) starts right in the South in Kyushu sometime in late February or early March and creeps slowly northward throughout March and April. It has been known to start as early as late January in places like Okinawa – the birthplace of Karate, my childhood introduction to the martial arts – and end as late as May up in Hokkaido.
As a general rule of thumb, late March to early April is often the best time to plan to be in Japan, but keep your eye out on forecasts from the Japanese Weather Association who send out regular updates from March onwards. If you only have a short time in Japan, then in general early April may be your best bet to catch the stunning sight of the pink and white Sakura in full bloom.
According to the Japanese Weather Association, the 2015 season is expected to start around March 22nd in Kyushu and on March 26th in Tokyo and Kyoto, with full bloom expected a week later. To get the full list of dates from the JWA, look here.
When it does happen, you have to be quick. The cherry blossom season is only around a week long and is celebrated throughout the country where people flock to public parks and squares for hanami. It really is a fantastic cultural and spiritual experience to participate in hanami, but forget the image of the lone ronin meditating in a field of sakura with blossoms falling all around him, you will be fighting for space with Japanese families out on a picnic desperate to do the exact same thing as you.
It goes without saying that the cherry blossom season is an extremely busy one in Japan, and it is one of the few times where I strongly advise to book ahead, as you will find that your choices are very limited if you just turn up and expect to find somewhere in your price bracket.
Himeji Castle, Kobe.
Himeji Castle is the quintessential feudal castle, it is considered a national treasure in Japan and is a UNESCO world heritage site. It can get really crowded here as everyone flocks to see the castle just explode with cherry blossoms, but the view is more than worth putting up with the crowds, and the park behind the castle is great for a picnic! It is currently due to be reopened to the public any time now after extensive renovation and upkeep, just in time for the cherry blossom season.
Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo.
Tokyo isn’t well known for its wide open, green spaces, but it does have them. And the ones it has, are awesome! This is one of the largest and most popular and is just a short stones throw away from Shinjuku station so is extremely easy to get to. This is perhaps one of the easiest places for hanami in Japan.
This is one of the single most popular sakura viewing destinations in Japan during early to mid april, and for very good reason. There are thousands of cherry blossom trees lining the mountainside and is famous for its 1000 trees at a glance viewpoint. And no, that is not an exaggeration. If you are thinking of just turning up during the cherry blossom season, then don’t. You will need to book far in advance or come here just on a day trip because the streets get absolutely ram packed with visitors. It is also an amazingly beautiful place to stay after the season has finished when it returns to a relaxing little village with a smattering of shrines and temples.
Kimiidera Temple, Wakayama City.
Wakayama city is often overlooked in Japan as most people just head straight to the neighbouring Osaka, but they are really missing out on this off the beaten path destination. Kimiidera Temple is a struggle to get to, as it is built into a mountain and you have to scale over two hundred very steep steps to get there, but the views of the cherry blossoms with the panoramic vistas behind them are more than worth it!
Kumamoto Castle, Kumamoto.
Kumamoto castle is one of the most famous castles in Japan, and again is well worth a visit on it’s own merit. (It also has a number of museums and crafts centres in its grounds). But it is the 800 plus cherry blossom trees in the grounds that visitors flock to see in the cherry blossom season. The square in front of the castle is the perfect place to view the trees.
If you are heading to Japan at all over the next couple of weeks, you have picked an awesome time to go. So make sure you plan your trip carefully and book ahead, but enjoy one of the most magical times to be in Japan.
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