A boat travels under cherry blossoms with the Himeji Castle beyond © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
In springtime in Japan the country watches and waits for the first sakura (cherry) trees to burst into bloom. Once they do, people flock to parks and squares for hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). The romance is passionate but fleeting, lasting only a week or two.
Cherry blossom viewing has been a tradition in Japan for over a millennium. The delicate blooms have acquired a poetic symbolism of the transience of beauty (and the beauty of transience). As both the new school year and the fiscal year begin on 1 April in Japan, sakura trees have also come to represent a season of fresh starts – certainly something worth celebrating.
When to visit Japan for cherry blossoms
The best time to visit Japan for cherry blossoms is during the spring. Starting from Kyūshū in the south in March, regular blossom forecasts keep the public updated as the sakura zensen (cherry-tree blossom line) advances northward, usually passing through the Kansai and Kantō regions of Honshū in late march or early April. English language speakers can monitor the cherry-blossom forecast at Kyuhoshi.com.
Latecomers can catch the blossoms in late April and sometimes early May in Tōhoku, the northernmost region of Honshū.
There are countless parks, gardens and picturesque waterways across the country where you can gaze upon the pretty blooms. Here are five of the top spots across Japan to join the hanami party.
Cherry blossoms surround temple Kimpusen-ji in Yoshino: Japan's best-known viewing spot © Sean Pavone / Shutterstock
The most famous cherry-blossom destination is Yoshino, Kansai
Yoshino in Kansai is Japan's most famous cherry-blossom destination, and for a few weeks in early to mid-April, the blossoms of thousands of cherry trees form a floral carpet gradually ascending the mountainsides. It's definitely a sight worth seeing – and one that many Japanese long to see once in their life – but this does mean that the narrow streets of the village become jammed with thousands of visitors. You'll have to be content with a day trip (doable from Nara, or even Osaka) unless you've booked accommodation well in advance. Once the cherry-blossom petals fall, the crowds depart and Yoshino reverts back to a quiet village with a handful of shrines and temples.
Avoid the crowds by heading to Hirosaki-kōen, Tōhoku in Northern Honshū
Hirosaki-kōen (Hirosaki Park) is a huge green space (nearly 50 hectares!) covering the grounds of what used to be the castle Hirosaki-jō. All that remains of the actual castle is a 200-year-old keep, but the park is marbled with the old moats, which are now flanked by sakura and crisscrossed with photogenic arching bridges.
There are over 2500 cherry trees here and given that Hirosaki, way up north in Aomori Prefecture, is not the population center that Tokyo (or even Kyoto) is, you can expect a bit more room to move around. Bonus: you can rent padle boats to take out on the moats, which are invariably covered in pink petals.
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The classic Mt Fuji and Chureito Pagoda cherry blossom capture © Thatree Thitivongvaroon / Getty Images
Get the classic sakura photo at Fuji Five Lakes
The view from the Chureitō Pagoda here is the ultimate sakura photo: in one frame you get a classic five-story pagoda, with curving eaves and vermillion accents, a frothy sea of cherry blossoms beneath it, and on the horizon, triumphant Mt Fuji still draped in snow. (Odds are you've seen the image on a guidebook cover or two.) So what if the pagoda itself isn't actually old (it's a war memorial from the 1960s) and you have to climb 397 steps to get here?
Arakurayama Sengen-kōen (a park, home to a not-so-shabby 680 sakura trees) is in Fuji-Yoshida, a city at the base of Mt Fuji. It's just about possible as a day trip from Tokyo, but you could also budget an extra day or two for hiking in the foothills of the Fuji Five Lakes region, for the chance of even more Mt Fuji views.
Picnic in beautiful Maruyama-kōen (Maruyama Park) in Kyoto
This one is a tough call – Kyoto has so many fantastic places to see the blossoms. But it's safe to say that the most iconic hanami spot in the city is Maruyama-kōen (Maruyama Park). In the middle of the park is the Gion Shidare-zakura, the "Weeping Cherry of Gion," named for its proximity to the famed entertainment district, Gion, where geiko (Kyoto's geisha) still perform. The over-10m-tall tree, whose blossom-fringed branches arch gracefully almost to the ground, is illuminated in the evening, from dusk until midnight. Oh, and there are some 680 other cherry trees in the park so you can bet on lots of picnics taking place here. Come early to grab a good spot. And later on, take a stroll along the nearby canal, the Shirakawa, lined with cherry trees and also lit up at night.
Bring your own portable karaoke machine to the hanami party in Tokyo's Yoyogi-kōen © William Allum / Shutterstock
Join the party at Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park) in Tokyo
Like Kyoto, Tokyo has many popular cherry blossom spots. While it's not the most historic – that would be Ueno-kōen – or the most picturesque – that would be Shinjuku-gyoen – we're doubling down on Yoyogi-kōen (Yoyogi Park) because it is just the most fun. It's a huge, sprawling park with tufty grass and plenty of cherry trees, with room for everyone and yet it still becomes a sea of people growing more and more unsteady as the day gives way to night. We've seen barbecues here, turntables and portable karaoke machines, more selfie sticks than we care to count and the odd guy in nothing but his shorts. The only thing Yoyogi-kōen is short on is public toilets (prepare to queue).