For most people the images that come to mind when they think of sakura (cherry blossom) season in Japan are probably of blue skies and sunshine, beautiful trees in full bloom and people chilling out in parks enjoying spring picnics. Whilst I’m not here to dash all of your hopes and dreams and we definitely had some incredible days admiring the blossoms, visiting Japan in sakura season isn’t necessarily the experience you might expect.
The first difficulty is managing to book a trip that actually allows you to see the cherry blossoms as it’s not a guarantee that you will, regardless of when you visit. Not only do you have to check the forecasts to see if they are likely to be early, late or on time (which is really only a best guess), you also have to hope that the weather is hospitable enough not to spoil your chances. Some years heavy rain or storms will mean the blossoms last only a matter of days.
And that’s the problem with planning any trip around the weather – it does have this reliable tendency to be unpredictable. We read the forecasts and planned carefully, deciding to spend the end of March and beginning of April travelling south through Japan to maximise our chances. Websites were optimistic of a typical blooming schedule beginning towards the end of March and at that time last year the Sakura season was well underway. However, the day we pitched up in Tokyo was the start of an unexpected bitterly cold snap of weather, and this delayed matters considerably.
Luckily we did get to see plenty of cherry blossoms in various stages of bloom – including the much sought after full bloom peak and were thrilled to bits with how beautiful it was. With no bloom for our initial days in Tokyo and none again in Osaka, it got pretty tense but we timed our visit to Hiroshima perfectly to coincide with the city’s full bloom and also caught some great blossoms on one of our 4 days in Kyoto. By the time we got back to Tokyo for the final two days of our trip we were in the perfect position to see full bloom there as well.
Why Visit Japan in Sakura Season Anyway
So with the weather being as hard to predict as it is these days, and the fact that Japan is also pretty awesome in late spring, fall and even winter with its stunningly picturesque you may be wondering whether it’s worth visiting in sakura season. I certainly was after a few days of desperately searching every tree we passed for a hint of cherry blossom whilst my favourite instagrammers were posting what felt like forests of blossom pictures from Europe. As we were freezing our asses off in Japan, Western Europe had found itself in a mini heatwave so that was just great timing.
There are a lot of reasons to visit Japan in sakura season though, and it’s a hugely significant time of year for the Japanese. Viewing the cherry blossoms is an age old tradition throughout the country and is associated by many with the end of the year and the start of a new one with all the hope that brings. The school year in Japan begins at the start of April which is why it’s a significant time to think about new beginnings.
Not only this, but originally the flowering of the cherry blossom signified the start of the rice growing season, an immensely important time of year. The blossoms were used to try and predict the likely success of the harvest. Their beauty is short lived, and within weeks the petals fall which is thought of by many as a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life itself. So all in all, there’s a lot of cultural significance to the celebrations associated with sakura season, which in itself makes it an interesting time to visit.
It’s traditional for Japanese families to enjoy a ‘hanami’ or cherry blossom viewing at one of the many viewing spots across the country and these are a great opportunity for friends and family to get together and enjoy plenty of food and drink. There’s nothing quite like seeing rowdy groups of locals gathering together to enjoy a few too many sakes and stumble through their local park admiring the beauty of the blossoms!
Our Experience of Japan in Sakura Season
Honestly, if you get lucky and see Japan’s most famous locations in full bloom you’ll feel like it’s worth every inch of stress and expense that you’ve incurred in the process of your visit. Not only are the blossoms themselves beautiful but the whole atmosphere and the excitement of everyone waiting to enjoy them really add to the occasion. From families enjoying picnics to students drinking beer in the parks to photographers who practically salivate with excitement when they spot a tree in full bloom, I’ve never seen so many people determined to enjoy nature.
However, visiting Japan in sakura season is not all positives and I wanted to write a little about some of the inconveniences of travelling at this time of year as well. None of them should have come as a surprise given it’s by far the most popular time of year to visit Japan, but some of them definitely made me wonder whether it was really worthwhile to plan a sakura themed trip.
Firstly the number of people is insane. Most trains on the JR lines between major cities are packed, decent accommodation is booked way in advance and there were streets we walked down in Kyoto that were quite literally rammed with people. We suspected this might be the case and planned accordingly but I really didn’t like trying to explore places and see some of the amazing sights we visited while surrounded by SO many people. We looked for our accommodation in Kyoto months in advance and there was only 8% of options still available on Booking.com!
Luckily we didn’t have to queue very often to get into restaurants and we managed to easily secure places on sushi cooking classes and for tea ceremonies so it doesn’t seem to affect everything but you definitely need to be organised and plan what you want to do with plenty of notice. Generally speaking there are flocks of both travellers and locals at all the main destinations.
Would I go back to Japan? Without a doubt yes, I loved the country and definitely want to explore it further. Would I go back to Japan in sakura season? No chance. Having to walk around places I’d been looking forward to seeing for years like the Peace Memorial Museum in Hiroshima or the Golden Temple in Kyoto at a snail’s pace while packed in with other people is not my idea of fun. No matter how beautiful the blossoms are this really affected my enjoyment. It’s worth seeing once but perhaps safe in the knowledge that you’ll go back again one day and see it again properly without the crowds.
I’m quite taken by the idea of going back one autumn as it’s also beautiful with golden leaved forests and red tipped acers, but will not bother if some research shows it to be anywhere near as busy as Sakura season.
Highlights of Sakura Season in Japan
If you do decide to visit Japan in sakura season to see all those beautiful cherry blossoms then you’ll be in for a treat if you know what to expect in terms of crowds. I’m going to write another post with all of our handy tips for visiting Japan in sakura season but our main highlights were:
I’ve mentioned this a fair bit above but the atmosphere around the cities in particular once the trees reach full bloom is quite amazing. We saw this first in Kyoto where the owner of our apartment had sent us a tip off that some of the old trees near the Imperial Palace had reached full bloom. We got up in the morning and headed straight there together with about 172637 other people, and were taken aback by just how excited everyone was! There is a real buzz in the air in sakura season and the excitement is contagious.
Sakura Themed Everything
I’d heard a little about this before visiting and was happy to see plenty of sakura themed food and drink on offer. From cherry blossom cream puffs and ice creams to beer and flavoured tea, just about everything you can imagine has a dose of added sakura for you to enjoy. There are fake cherry blossom branches decorating train stations and restaurants whilst anything that can be is temporarily themed pink! It’s kind of bizarre and awesome, and we loved trying as much as possible. More examples of cool things you can try here.
My personal favourite was the people watching opportunities that sakura season in Japan presents. From elderly gentlemen chilling together by the riverside in Hiroshima to a guy who has perhaps indulged a little too much and was flat out in the middle of his picnic blanket, everywhere you turn there’s something to see. Cute couples self consciously posing under the blossoms and families trying to set self timers to get the perfect portraits, all whilst the throngs of tourists wander round open mouthed trying to take as many pictures as humanly possible. You can sit for literally hours just watching the world go by and seeing everyone enjoying the flowers.
It’s Ridiculously Beautiful!
Finally, the obvious one is that it’s just ridiculously beautiful when you stumble across an area in full bloom. Like, probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Just a few more photos to help illustrate this!