A Guide to the Cherry Blossom Festival in Japan

Every spring, the islands of Japan are decorated in clouds of delicate pink as cherry trees blossom with new life. Steeped in history and ancient tradition, the cherry blossom season is a highlight of the Japanese calendar. People head outdoors to spend time appreciating nature's beauty, ponder the essence of life and welcome the changing of the seasons. In recent years it has become a particularly popular time for travellers to visit Japan with many stunning landscapes and countless photographic opportunities. Whether you're planning a trip yourself or are simply interested to learn more about it, here you'll find a complete guide to the cherry blossom festival in Japan.

Geisha underneath cherry blossom - Japan - On The Go Tours
Hanami is the act of 'flower viewing' in Japan and dates back centuries

What is Hanami?

The act of observing spring's blooming foliage has its own name in Japanese - Hanami. Translated as "flower viewing", it's an ancient custom that encourages people to pause and appreciate the transient nature of life and beauty. As the temperatures begin to rise around the end of March, trees leave their state of hibernation and begin to bloom. It's a short lived event with blossoms lasting only a week or two. During this short period the people of Japan celebrate with outdoor parties, picnics and street festivals that take place during both day and night under the draping blossoms. Trees are lit up with artificial lights and paper lanterns to create magical night-time environments. To the rest of the world, this period is known as the 'cherry blossom festival'.

Hanami refers specifically to the viewing of cherry blossom, called sakura in Japanese. Other types of flower viewing also occur, chiefly that of plum trees (ume). With an even older tradition than that of cherry blossom viewing, umemi (as it is referred to) is especially popular with the older generation who prefer to celebrate the arrival of spring with less fanfare as plum trees tend to bloom a little earlier than cherry trees.

The Tale of Genji illustation - Japan - On The Go Tours
The term 'hanami' is used in the 11th century literature piece The Tale of Genji

What is the history of Hanami in Japan?

The tradition of hanami dates back as early as the 8th century and originally began with the thoughtful viewing of plum blossom. It eventually morphed into a focus on cherry blossoms with reference of this particular custom found in the 11th century literary piece, The Tale of Genji. During these early periods in Japan's history, people believed that the trees possessed spirits and made offerings in their honour. The arrival of cherry blossom was also viewed as a sign that rice-planting could begin. Many Japanese writers found inspiration in sakura with countless poems penned about the cherry blossoms as a metaphor for the ephemeral nature of life itself.

At the beginning these practices were limited to the Imperial Court with elaborate feasts, accompanied by sake, enjoyed by high officials under the blossoming trees. It slowly began to take hold among samurai society and then the common people. During the 18th century shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune planted hundreds of cherry blossom trees so that the tradition would continue for generations to come. And continue it has, with Japan's modern society partaking in picnics across the country under the sakura.

How Hanami is celebrated in Japan today - credit Nate2b at Flickr
People nowadays celebrate with picnics and outdoor events under the sakura. Photo credit: nate2b

How is Hanami celebrated today?

Little has changed since the time of Japan's shoguns with families and groups of friends spending the season in local parks to take advantage of the pretty blossoms. There's still an emphasis on the sharing of food and drink with evening gatherings that can last into the small hours of the night (known as yozakura). Paper lanterns often decorate the cherry trees for extra light. It's a time when the Japanese let their hair down and enjoy a little frivolity.

Cherry blossom is now a highly documented event in Japan with meteorological forecasts of when and where the blossoms will start. Newspapers and TV stations keep close track on the movement of the 'cherry blossom front' as it moves across the islands. With such a short period of activity, it's vital that you know where you need to be and when to make the most of the season.

Cherry-Blossom-Season-Map
Map showing the average period for full blooms across Japan

When is the best time to visit Japan for cherry blossoms?

The exact start date changes each year but generally speaking the cherry blossom on the main island starts at the end of March and continues through to May. However, the blossoms themselves only last for a few weeks and you may find sakura in one part of the country but not in another. The first blooms appear on the island of Okinawa as early as late January/early February. Much of Honshu (Japan's main island on which you'll find the capital of Tokyo) is in bloom during the months of March and April while the northern island of Hokkaido usually won't receive cherry blossoms until May.

If you want to follow the 'cherry blossom front' the trick is to start in the west of Japan and move with the blossoms across the middle section of the country. This way you'll be able to bask in the glorious pink landscapes as you travel around the main sights.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a rough guide to the movement of cherry blossoms in Japan. If you are planning on building a holiday itinerary around the cherry blossoms then it's best to keep a close eye on the official forecasts provided by private agencies in Japan.

Where are the best spots in Japan for cherry blossom?

It's likely you'll encounter a cherry tree or two wherever you go in Japan and there are countless places that offer a fantastic hanami experience but some destinations have their own particular trump card and here's our choice of the top ten.

Nakameguro canal in Tokyo - Cherry blossoms in Japan - On The Go Tours
Urban picnics and sakura

Tokyo

The gleaming and ultra-modern capital of Tokyo may not seem an obvious choice but the city is home to a number of parks and picnic-friendly spots. The Ueno Park is particularly popular as it is home to over 1,200 cherry trees that are lit up at night. It's a top choice for those looking for a bit of culture with a number of museums and shrines so expect crowds.

If you prefer something a little more sedate then the spacious lawns of Shinjuku Gyoen are a better option with a comparable number of cherry trees as a backdrop. South of Shibuya the scenic district of Nakameguro is a romantic spot in which to enjoy sakura with a tree-lined canal (pictured) that twinkles at night with the glow of lanterns.

Philosopher's Path in Kyoto - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Philosopher's pathways and sakura

Kyoto

Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and hundreds of temples and shrines, Kyoto takes on an especially magical ambience during cherry blossom season. Top spots in the city include Maruyama Park, the oldest park in Kyoto known for its huge weeping cherry trees. Illuminated once the sun drops, these trees look even more impressive against the dark night sky.

On the outskirts of the city is the district of Arashiyama, which sits at the bottom of a mountain with a profusion of cherry trees that decorate the river banks and beyond. For a relaxing stroll, few places beat the famed Philosopher's Path (pictured), which runs parallel to a tree-lined canal between Ginkaku-ji Temple and Wakaoji-jinja Shrine.

Mt Yoshino in Nara - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Deer parks and sakura

Nara

As Japan's first permanent capital, Nara is home to a rich cultural and architectural legacy that looks even more beautiful when punctuated by the soft pinks and whites of sakura. Many of the city's main attractions can be found in Nara Park, renowned also for its herds of surprisingly tame deer. Thanks to the plentiful temples and scenic spots including ponds, manicured lawns and over a thousand cherry trees, it's a highly pleasant spot for hanami.

Situated about an hour away from Nara city, Mount Yoshino (pictured) has been one of Japan's best sakura spots for centuries due to the staggering 30,000 cherry trees that carpet the mountain slopes. The undulating terrain is made even more impressive by the variations in colour as a number of different tree types have been planted over the years.

View of Mt Fuji - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Volcanic views and sakura

Mount Fuji

One of Japan's most iconic sights has to be that of snow-capped Mount Fuji and cherry blossom season is a prime time to enjoy those celebrated views. The Fuji Five Lakes area provides the best hanami opportunities, especially around the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchi where you can enjoy a pleasure boat ride. Alongside sakura, the fields at the foot of Mt. Fuji also bloom with vivid hues of magenta as pink moss (shibazakura) carpets the landscape.

Keen photographers will find it hard to resist the allure of capturing that popular image of the Chureito Pagoda (pictured) against Fuji's perfect volcanic cone off in the distance, made all the more enchanting by the surrounding cherry blossom. The national park of Hakone provides an excellent base from which to explore the region and enjoy a host of outdoor pursuits during your stay.

Japan Mint tunnel in Osaka - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Money and sakura

Osaka

Another busy metropolis that may not strike you as hanami-friendly, Osaka draws its fair share of flower followers who make the trip specifically for the grounds of the Japan Mint. For one week only every April, a viewing tunnel (pictured) is opened to the public so that hundreds of visitors can walk beneath pretty pink and white varieties of cherry trees. Amazingly, the Japan Mint has held this tradition since the 19th century.

For riverside views the Kema Sakuranomiya Park obliges with thousands of cherry trees lining the Okawa River and pleasant lawns perfect for lazy picnics. For commanding architecture head to Osaka Castle, another great picnic spot thanks to the plenitude of trees decorating the grounds.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park - Cherry blossoms in Japan - On The Go Tours
Modern history and sakura

Hiroshima

With a world-defining modern history that demands quiet contemplation at any time of year, Hiroshima is perfectly suited to the act of hanami. The usually sombre Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (pictured) takes on a more cheerful ambience as crowds gather to enjoy the arrival of spring amongst the hundreds of cherry trees that stand alongside the river. In the centre of the city there's also the highly picturesque Shukkeien Garden with forests and mountain valleys portrayed in the carefully cultivated grounds.

Any self-respecting Japanese city claims its own castle and Hiroshima is no different. It may be reconstructed but with over 450 cherry trees dotted around the grounds, Hiroshima Castle is a top hanami spot. Outside of the city it's an easy day's excursion to the glorious Miyajima Island where you'll find the famous "floating" torii gate against a backdrop of blossoming trees.

Kinosaki Onsen - Cherry blossoms in Japan - On The Go Tours
Hot springs and sakura

Kinosaki Onsen

Not only does the charming town of Kinosaki Onsen boast one of the best hot springs experience in the whole of Japan, it's also the perfect place to enjoy a taste of traditional Japan with its offering of old-world ryokans, residences and restaurants. When spring arrives, the Otani River, which runs through the centre of town, becomes a canvas for the reflection of cherry trees running parallel. As the trees begin to shed their delicate petals, the water's surface becomes speckled with hues of pink.

From here it's also possible to visit the nearby castle town of Izushi, another picturesque spot to enjoy hanami with a castle, clock tower and dozens of traditional buildings. It's also famous for its own original style of soba noodle and dining options are plentiful.

Photo credit: Nishimuraya Kinosaki Onsen

Samurai district of Kakunodate - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Samurai and sakura

Kakunodate

Often nicknamed "Little Kyoto" thanks to its living and breathing portrayal of old Japan, the former castle town of Kakunodate is a great place to enjoy hanami during Japan's Golden Week of public holidays. Due to its location in northern Honshu the region's cherry trees usually blossom in late April and early May. It's a particular scenic town with a lovingly preserved Samurai district where traditional residences line the streets alongside weeping cherry trees that were planted in the gardens many years ago. It's possible to enjoy a rickshaw ride through the sleepy town with local commentaries provided by the riders.

The Hinokinai River is great for picnics with hundreds of trees along the banks and open spaces waiting for a blanket to be laid down upon them. For a view of the river and surrounding blooms of pink, head up to the hilltop site of Kakunodate's former castle.

Goryokaku Fort in Hakodate city - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Star-shaped forts and sakura

Hakodate

Located on Hokkaido island, the harbour city of Hakodate is a great choice for those visiting Japan later in the cherry blossom season. It's famed for its distinctive Goryokaku Fort Park with extensive grounds covered in cherry and plum trees. Built in the 19th century the star-shaped fort (pictured) was one of the largest of its kind in Japan and, after falling into ruin as its military importance waned, was turned into a public park for all to enjoy.

Another good hanami spot in the city is the Hakodate Park, which sits at the foot of a mountain covered with coniferous trees. With plenty of cherry trees along with a playground, mini zoo and lookout points, the park is perfect for families.

Nagoya Castle - Cherry blossoms in Japan - On The Go Tours
Castles and sakura

Nagoya

Japan is home to many historic castles but perhaps one of the greatest is Nagoya Castle (pictured). Dating back to the early 17th century the castle now houses a treasure-trove of Japanese paintings. Much of the castle was destroyed in the 1940s and later reconstructed though the three corner towers are original. The park that surrounds the castle is filled with cherry trees and becomes an attractive hanami spot mid-way through the season.

The popular Shikinomichi ("Path of Four Seasons") follows the course of the Yamazaki River with over a kilometre of the path featuring beautiful cherry trees. For picnic spots the Tsuruma Park pulls in the crowds with food stands set up for hanami while the smaller Nagoya Peace Park is a quieter option with pleasant ponds and a compact forest of cherry trees.

Hanami like a local - Cherry blossom in Japan - On The Go Tours
Pick up some food and a picnic rug and head to the nearest park

How do I hanami like a local?

Wherever you decide to enjoy a spot of hanami in Japan, doing like the locals do is an easy exercise. Simply bisit a local supermarket or food hall, stock up on food or opt for a convenient Bento box, arm yourself with a picnic rug and head to the nearest park. Take a moment to take in the beauty of the sakura and reflect on the ephemeral nature of life before tucking into your tempura.

If your taste buds are feeling adventurous, try some novelty sakura-flavoured treats like dumplings, crisps and canned drinks though be warned the taste is said to resemble a combination of lavender and soap.

It's a good idea to try hanami both during the day and at night for the change in atmosphere and appearance of the trees. Dusk is the ideal time to get out among the cherry trees as the soft colours of the dying light mean you get the best of both worlds as lanterns and lights are switched on for illumination.

It's a good idea to take a travel mug as you may want to enjoy a hot cup of tree under the sakura blooms. Take a copy of The Sound of Water, a selection of 200 haiku to immerse yourself in Japanese philosophy.

When it comes to the holiday planning, if you want to visit Japan for the cherry blossom festival, make sure you book well in advance as accommodation and transport sell out months ahead. Ideally you want your holiday booked a good six months before the start of the season. Talk to our tailor-made specialists or check out our popular Cherry Blossom Festival tour to get started.

See Also

Check out the following useful resources to help plan your visit to Japan:

Best Time to Visit - Japan's climate and seasons
Best Places to Visit - destinations in Japan not to be missed
Tourist Visas - what you need to know prior to travel
Top Travel Tips - information about money, food and luggage forwarding
Traveller Reviews - what our passengers say about our Japan tours
Transport in Japan - handy info on getting around by train in Japan
Top 10 Japan Experiences - get the most out of your time in Japan
Travel Alerts - current travel advice for Japan

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