Cherry blossom season in Japan is epic! Learn how to hanami and take part in the sakura festival in Japan.
Hanami season is one of the biggest attractions in Japan. For about six weeks in spring from the end of March through the beginning of May, the countryside comes alive with flowers and people. The delicate cherry blossom trees bloom, and from the very first pop of color to the last fallen petal, the people will celebrate hanami. It’s definitely our favorite time of year!
Most of us aren’t doing much, if any, travel at this time. However, we find that we can get outside and explore our own area while following strict social distancing and masking recommendations. During the 2020 sakura season the festivals were canceled and that will probably be true again this year. However, we found that we could get out very early in the morning and and enjoy our hanami experience before most people were even out of their house.
In this Article
There’s so much more to cherry blossoms in Japan. It’s not just about looking at the beautiful blossoms. Hanami and sakura are a major cultural phenomenon throughout the country. Our “How to Hanami” article will ensure you make the most of your sakura season while traveling in Japan.
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What is Hanami?
Hanami refers to “flower blossom viewing” and saying it is a popular past time in Japan is an understatement. The people of Japan chase flowers from the first plum blossoms, through the famous cherry blossom bloom, to hydrangeas, roses, buckwheat, and chrysanthemums. The parks are filled with camera-toting aficionados who want to capture that perfect bloom.
What is the Meaning of Sakura?
Sakura means cherry tree. It is the national flower of Japan, and has many meanings. The Japanese grow up loving this flower, this season. The cherry blossoms only remain on the tree for about a week, and that lifespan reminds us that life is short and should not be squandered. Once they fall off, the fallen blooms are said to be the souls of the brave samurai.
One of the surprising things about sakura is that there are so many varieties of tree, all with their own distinct look. The most common is the Somei-yoshino, with its near white pink tinged petals, but there are over 200 species of cherry in Japan. Some of my favorites include: the weeping cherry (Shidarezakura), the Chrysanthemum Cherry (Kikuzakura), and the Hill Cherry (Yamazakura).
Sometime in late winter the country starts getting geared up for the sakura season. There are festivals and parties announced, and everything is cherry blossom themed: candies, ice cream, souvenirs, even commercials. Items such as the annual sakura tumbler at Starbucks sell out within the first few days, especially in the more popular areas.
When is the Best Time for Cherry Blossom Viewing?
Spring in Japan brings thousands of cherry trees, all over the country, in bloom. The season begins in the very south in February in Okinawa, and then moves up to Kyushu and along the Pacific side of Honshu in late March.
Next, around the first week in April, the blossoms will start showing on the Sea of Japan side. The blooms continue north, arriving in northern Honshu about the second week in April and finally getting to Hokkaido by the first week in May. Therefore, during the spring, you can schedule your trip to see some cherry blossoms with no problem.
Where to See Cherry Blossoms
As long as you are traveling during the correct time, you are going to see the cherry blossoms. Of course there are a few places that we recommend. Some of our favorites include Hirosaki Castle and festival, Matsue Castle, the Chureito Pavilion, and of course our home town of Kamakura.
Sakura Throughout Japan
Cherry blossoms are loved by everyone, and it’s pretty impossible to go to any city, town, or village and not see cherry trees, but there are a number of well-known spots that you can target as places to go. In one trip, you’ll never be able to see all the best cherry blossom places, but if time is one your side, you can hit at least a few of them.
Hirosaki Castle and Festival
After living in Japan for two years before we visited this festival, we were determined not to miss it again. We had been to other sakura sites and they all have their own charm, but Hirosaki just takes your breath away. It is also one of the places that has a full on festival with food booths, souvenir stands, dances and performances, and even fireworks. It’s my number one favorite!
We visited Matsue on our spring road trip to Kyushu. I’d never really heard of the castle before, but we arrived during prime cherry blossom time. The historic castle is absolutely gorgeous, and the grounds are so expansive that it didn’t even feel crowded.
With 1500 cherry trees, Takato is supposed to be top three! How can you go wrong with a gorgeous Japanese castle above the thousands of blossoming trees. You can also view them at night here as well.
Himeji is well-known for its stunning sakura with over 1000 flowering during the hanami season. You can go day or night to visit the grounds and enjoy the blossoms.
Philosopher’s Walk, Kyoto
A beautiful walk anytime of year, the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto is especially popular during the cherry season. You don’t have to worry about hurrying through it as the path is only two people wide and the pace is slow so everyone can snap photo after photo.
Lake Kawaguchiko (and Festival)
Another of our favorites, really you can go to Lake Kawaguchiko during any season and walk on its many paths. The cherry blossoms framing Mt. Fuji is just one more reason to go!
This castle is just gorgeous during sakura season. Inside the castle walls you have over 600 flowering trees, and outside the walls there are another 1600 or so. It’s selfie heaven.
It seems you have to climb high often in Japan to really get the good views, and this is true of Chureito Pavilion as well. Don’t worry, though, it’s totally worth it to frame the red and white pagoda with some Yoshino cherry blossoms.
My favorite part of this castle is walking around the moat and castle walls. There are plenty of trees, and it’s a nice walk, so take your time.
Fort Goryokaku, Hakodate
If you are looking for a unique way to do hanami, go to Hakodate. The fort is star-shaped and sports 1600 cherry trees. You can rent a boat and ride around the star. I haven’t it done it yet, but it’s on my list!
Held in two stages and over three weeks, the best place to see cherry blossoms is near the station or on the sakura namiki (a road lined on both sides with cherry trees). The sakura namiki is where the food stalls will be set up as well.
This one is super famous, which you can also infer, means super crowded. It hosts the oldest and most famous cherry tree in all of Japan. It’s nicknamed the “Waterfall Cherry Tree.”
A carpet of cherry trees cling to the hillsides and climbing up the path to see the views of the city with the blossoming sakura is just magical.
Pro Tip: Even though there is great cherry blossom viewing from the bottom to the top of Japan, it is a very busy time. It’s high season, and not only do hotel rates skyrocket, it can be very difficult to get train or hotel reservations. If sakura viewing is one of your main reasons for visiting, make sure to make all your arrangements at least six months ahead.
Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo
Surprisingly you don’t have to go far if you are on business in Tokyo to see cherry blossoms. There are plenty of fantastic places all over the city that are easy to get to. If you have time, pick a different one for each day you are visiting. They are all different and well worth the trip.
- Inokashira Park
- Ueno Park
- Yoyogi Park
- Rikugi-en Park
- Shinjuku Park
- Koishikawa Korakuen
- Asukayama Park
- Sumida Park
- Koishikawa Botanical Garden
- Meguro River
Throughout March and April there are constant updates on where to go to see the best blooms. Ask your hotel concierge where you can go to find the best ones each day, because it changes and all they have to do is a quick search on the computer. You’ll be happy you did. Also, many websites make maps showing you when the blooms are expected to arrive and be in peak bloom like this one from Live Japan.
What to Expect at a Hanami Festival
What sets a hanami festival apart is the amazing food they serve. There will be tons of food and souvenir choices, and many of them will feature sakura in some way. There are plenty of foods, usually pink, that are purported to taste like cherry blossoms. I’ve tried some, and to me it tastes more like a perfume or essence.
However, you don’t have to eat the cherry blossom flavored foods. Some popular foods just include white, pink, and red so they give the illusion of the cherry blossom, such as a fresh strawberry mochi. Yum!
How to Hanami
We’ve established that hanami is flower viewing. This can be done, and is done, in so many ways. The most popular way, though, is the hanami picnic. Sitting under or as close as possible to a cherry tree, a family, business group, friends, or even just a couple will gather their hibachi and sakura bento to sit, drink, and enjoy the fleeting sakura blossoms.
No matter where you go, what the weather is like, or the time of day, there will be plenty of people enjoying hanami. Because it is such a big deal, and it is much more involved than just “viewing some flowers,” I wanted to break it down for all of you.
First you just need to decide if you want to picnic where there is a full on festival, with food stands and entertainment. If so, you can still bring your own food, but why not try all the great street food that is there?
If you do want to grill out, you will want to find a larger park, maybe a more quiet one. Castle grounds are usually sprawling and very popular.
Do you want to see hundreds of cherry blossoms? Or are you looking for quiet and intimate? Maybe you want a unique experience, one where you can ride boats, go on a river, bike, hike, climb a hill and get a good view. Believe me, there are plenty of options.
To plan your cherry blossom viewing with this planner, decide where you want to go and book early. If you have plans to visit another place, you can estimate when to go based on how close your target city is to these places on the map.
Pay Attention to the Hanami Forecast
Keep tabs on the cherry blooming forecast (and double check with your hotel). It is important to know when the trees will start blooming and when they will be at their peak. Most of the Japanese weather sites and newspapers will start projecting blossom dates in January. I usually watch the Japan National Tourism site for information as well as this one.
In general, every area is expected to have about a two-week window to view cherry blossoms, but that doesn’t account for wind and rain. Both are detrimental to the delicate flowers so you have to be vigilant.
Which Park Will You Pick for Your Sakura Picnic?
Whether you are in Tokyo or any other city in Japan, there are many parks, many places that have lots of sakura trees. To be honest, you can’t go wrong. One of the best things about hanami is that everyone is in a good mood. It’s easy to slide in an empty space or even get invited by a group to join in.
However, if you have a large group or want to grill, some of the bigger, more famous parks will rope off areas and reservations can be made to get prime real estate. I’ve heard of people making reservation six months in advance.
But for sure, even at the littlest of parks, you are going to have to send someone to the park earlier in the day to stake claim to your picnicking spot. It gets crowded fast. Usually representatives will start showing up around 9 to either outline their spots or start laying out the tarps.
What to Bring for Your Hanami Picnic
After you have picked a park you will know if you can bbq or if fire is not allowed, so you can start planning lunch. Most hanami parties start around 11 and last about 4 hours.
Here is a simple list of what you’ll need to bring along to Hanami like a local:
- Hanami Mat – blue or green tarp to set up lunch, and lounge the afternoon away on.
- Grill (if needed for lunch)
- Umbrella (just in case)
- Small Tent (optional – great to take a nap, or corral little ones)
- Slip-on shoes – it is a pain to have to tie and untie your shoes all day. (Oh – I think I forgot to mention: No shoes on the tarp.)
- Picnic games (optional) – These can range from cards, board games, drinking games, anything goes.
What Food to Bring for Your Hanami Picnic?
- Lunch – Everyone should be bringing something to share, like a potluck. You can make something or bring chips, candies, sushi from the local joint, fried chicken from a combini (convenience store) or even have Dominoes deliver; really it’s anything you want! Note: If grilling, bring your own meat and veggies. You should bring enough to feed 3-4 people, not the whole group. (Unless otherwise instructed.) This is of course on top of your potluck contribution.
- Finally, Beer. This is of course optional, but recommended. Hanami is all about having a great time, and in Japan, that means beer and sake! Bringing some to share with your companions is recommended. Also, if you can bring some foreign beer to share with the locals, you’ll definitely make some new friends!
Don’t Forget the Camera
If you’ve been in Japan any time at all, you know that photos are a must! You will have to take tons of photos. From selfies to blooms, you should come home with tons of images.
Hanami or cherry blossom viewing is something people from all over the world look forward to every spring. If you find a good grove of cherry blossom trees, make sure you follow some of these steps to have the best time enjoying them.
Check out this version of “Sakura” a Japanes folk song. I learned it in 4th grade to sing in front of the parents. When I lived in Japan, I would love hearing it!
Have you been cherry blossom viewing in Japan? What were your impressions?
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