As the icy winds of winter relent to the cool breezes of spring, pink clouds of cherry blossoms burst from Japan’s sakura trees. From Hokkaido to Okinawa, and even in the big cities like Tokyo, fragile flowers flow through the streets to welcome in the warm weather. The cherry blossom season in Japan is a favorite time of year for locals and international travelers alike. Cherry blossom festivals in Japan pop up around the trees in the fullest bloom, and some people race from south to north to try to experience the entire sakura season. While the Japanese sakura tree has become a worldwide sensation, (for example, the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C.) you might still have a few questions about cherry blossoms.
Before your next cherry blossom tour in Japan, let’s delve into some of the most common questions about cherry blossoms and cherry blossom festivals. When you come to Japan on your next tour, you’ll already be an expert about things like the best time to see cherry blossoms, or where is the best place to enjoy the Japanese sakura season. Let’s begin learning about the cherry blossom season in Japan!
For readers who have never studied Japanese before, let’s begin with an introductory lesson. The word for cherry blossom in Japanese is sakura (桜). Throughout this article, I’ll switch between the two terms. Interestingly, sakura is more descriptive; it can refer to the cherry blossom flowers themselves, the cherry blossom tree, or even the delicately sweet flavor of the petals.
The FLAVOR? Like… from cherries? Do…do cherry blossoms grow cherries? you might ask. The Japanese sakura tree does indeed grow small fruits, but they are completely inedible. Cherries come from a similar species of cherry trees, but the sakura of Japan that grow the famous sakura chrysanthemum—Japan's national flower—can't grow sweet fruits. The “flavor” I spoke of before actually comes from the cherry blossom petals themselves (but more on that later). A more pertinent question is…
The cherry blossom season in Japan often connotes spring. While most of the cherry blossom season in Japan does take place in the spring, to just say “spring” doesn’t quite cover the extent of the potential dates of the season. The Japanese cherry blossoms can start blooming as early as January in Okinawa and as late as May in Hokkaido! Depending on your destination(s) in Japan, the best time to see cherry blossoms can vary!
Let’s break this down by time, place, and viewing spots. However, keep in mind that Japanese sakura trees and the cherry blossom season as a whole tend to be rather temperamental! The amount of rainfall, significantly warm or cool temperatures, and the wind’s intensity can affect accuracy when dating the cherry blossom season. In recent years, Japan’s unusual weather patterns have made predicting the cherry blossom season’s exact dates even more difficult. For example, this year’s cherry blossom season (2018) came ten days earlier than usual! By using national averages, we can make general estimates of Japan’s sakura season for each region.
As I mentioned above, Okinawa’s warm weather is first to bring the cherry blossom season to Japan—sometimes as early as January when most of the country can still be cold or snowy! Nago City is one of the best places to go in Okinawa during this time. If you’re lucky, they’ll last from January into February! The blooming cherry blossoms continue making their way north as spring overtakes Japan, and if you plan your trip right, you can witness the cherry blossom season throughout the entire archipelago from start to finish!
After Okinawa, Kyushu is next to experience the pink storm. The Mifune-Yama Rakuen in Saga Prefecture has about 5,000 cherry blossoms that bloom against the backdrop of the rugged Mount Mifune. Simultaneously, over 50,000 azaleas bloom in the nearby Keishu-en Garden creating a stunning spectacle of soft rose pinks, pure pearl whites, vibrant magentas, and rich crimson reds.
Next comes the Chugoku region, and its Miyajima Island is one of the most famous places to enjoy the cherry blossom season and cherry blossom festivals in Japan. Miyajima Island is home to the Itsukushima Shrine, which is ranked as one of the top three scenic views in the country—no matter the time of year. But when the cherry blossom season hits, the illusory floating Torii gate is a sight to behold amongst the blooming sakura trees.
Moving into March and April, the more popular Kansai region begins to see the cherry blossoms bloom. You can venture through Kyoto and stroll among its historical shrines, temples, and castles while basking in the shower of petals. Famous sites like Kiyomizu Temple become overrun in torrents of pink. However, the best place to enjoy cherry blossoms in Kyoto is Maruyama Park, where a 70-year-old weeping cherry blossom tree (a species that grows much like a weeping willow) faithfully blooms every year. Also in Kansai, Himeji City becomes a spectacular sight as pink petals surround the ivory walls of UNESCO-recognized Himeji Castle.
The Chubu region’s season closely follows Kansai’s, but since this area is colder and more mountainous, the timing differs slightly despite Chubu and Kansai’s close proximity. The cold-resistant kohigan sakura tree grows here and tends to have a longer lifespan than most sakura varieties. You can see these Japanese cherry blossoms in the city of Ina at Takato Castle Ruins and, of course, near Mt. Fuji. Certainly, Mount Fuji is as iconic as the cherry blossoms themselves. At her foot, discover Gotemba Peace Park where the beautiful osee variety thrives.
However, you might miss the cherry blossoms if you’re in nearby Shizuoka Prefecture in April. This region’s sakura trees are often of the kawazakura variety, which flourish in cold weather and bloom much earlier than other types. In Kawazu, you can start seeing the flowers around the end of February to early March. In Atami, the blossoms begin appearing around the end of January to mid-February. This area is the perfect place to take an idyllic stroll amongst the satin-petaled blooms scattered along the Itogawa River.
In Kanto, the cherry blossoms usually appear toward the end of March and into early April. This is the most popular time for international travelers to come to Japan as the concrete jungle of Tokyo becomes a jungle of pink. In Ueno Park alone, over 1,000 Japanese sakura trees grow closely together, creating a dense tunnel of petals. Also in Tokyo, Shinjuku Gyoen National Park transports you from the bustling city into a world of natural beauty with its wide gardens and fields. If you take a day trip from Tokyo to Hakone, you’ll cruise around Lake Ashi, where you can see the cherry blossoms in strikingly picturesque landscapes with Mt. Fuji in the distance. Directly north of Kanto, the Tohoku region starts to bloom around mid-April. The Miroka Castle Ruins are also a popular spot for Japanese cherry blossom festivals to pop up.
The northernmost island, Hokkaido, is the last to experience the season. Sakura watchers usually predict that Hokkaido will see its first bloom in late April, but in the past few years, popular destinations like Sapporo haven’t experienced a full bloom until the first week of May. The most famous spot for travelers to see cherry blossoms in Sapporo is Odori Park, (located in the middle of the city) where the sakura trees line the streets for city block after city block. Outside of the city, a favorite site is Fort Goryokaku, a star-shaped fortress overflowing with cherry blossoms. Here, you can visit a nearby tower to see this phenomenal site from above. The park near Matsumae Castle famously has over 10,000 cherry blossom trees with about 250 varieties. This park is also the site of the annual Matsumae Sakura Festival. This delightful celebration takes place during the peak bloom, features stalls with delicious foods, and showcases live entertainment including a samurai parade, a local products fair, and a celebration for the birth of Buddha.
The typical lifespan of sakura flowers is usually about 10-14 days. Some species last longer or bloom later, but the most popular varieties peak during this period. This includes from when they start to bloom to when they wilt and shed their petals like falling snow. Unless you live in Japan, catching a glimpse of these ephemeral blooms might seem incredibly difficult and frustrating without an expert on your side. But remember—the short lifespan of the flowers is part of what makes them so beautiful and so important to Japanese culture.
For hundreds of years, Japanese cherry blossoms have held several significant meanings to Japanese people. Most notably, cherry blossoms speak to the beauty and fragility of life. The little blossoms leave the lands awash with a sense of renewal as winter thaws to spring. But the cherry blossoms only last for a short period, as does life. When Japanese people go to a cherry blossom festival, they can marvel at the splendor of the little pink faces but also appreciate that they won’t be around for long—much like how life itself can be filled with such grand spectacles and experiences, but it’s only temporary…and sometimes much too short.
This burgeoning seasonal change also marks the start of the new school term for students, as well as the new fiscal year. For Japanese people, it doesn’t make sense to start new things at the start of the calendar year—it’s more natural to wait for nature’s calendar to remind them of the transience and fragility of life before embarking on new ventures and goals. This time of year is especially significant to Japanese people, who take time to attend “Hanami” festivals with their families, friends, and co-workers.
Most international travelers in Japan spend their time at cherry blossom festivals dashing among every tree to take picture after picture. However, Japanese people do quite the opposite. They choose one place to sit by the blooming sakura trees and reflect on life while looking at the flowers: an activity called hanami in Japanese. Most Japanese people bring along a picnic comprised of bento boxes, or in some cases, have a full-on barbecue party! Some parks hold festivals where vendors set up shop, selling Japanese festival food staples such as chocolate covered bananas, candied strawberries, and okonomiyaki. But the real treat this time of year is the abundance of sakura-flavored items. I said I would get back to this, didn’t I? Just as Japan’s sakura season is temporary, so too is the season for these limited-time-only delights. The petals of the Japanese cherry blossoms are used to lightly flavor treats like ice cream, candies, and traditional Japanese sweets. Even large companies like McDonald’s and Starbucks join in the fun and serve sakura-flavored parfaits and coffees!
The next time you’re in Japan for the cherry blossom season, while cherry blossoms are only around for a short time, know that there are many places and opportunities to enjoy the blooming sakura trees. Whether you come during the early southern season or the late northern season, or even cross the entire country to search for cherry blossoms during all the seasons, be sure to take in every sight along the way. And, if you have time in your busy schedule, I strongly encourage you to do as the Japanese do—have yourself a picnic under the shade of a sakura tree, and stop to smell the cherry blossoms.