If Japan is on your bucket list, there’s at least a strong chance that you’re thinking of going during cherry blossom season.
At least that’s what Lesa Clarkson, the Japan specialist at Asia-focused travel outfitter ATJ, says of the people who call her up looking for advice. “It’s an obsession,” echoed fellow bespoke travel agent Duff Trimble, founder of Wabi-Sabi Japan, who pointed out that it’s not just Americans and Canadians and international travelers that are interested in heading to Kyoto for peak pink: It’s the Japanese, too.
Those romantic visions of Japanese temples flanked by pretty petals and canopies of blooming trees along tranquil riverbanks? They’re pretty hard to replicate in real life — not just because timing is unreliable and the season is short, but because those perfectly-hued views come hand in hand with elbow-to-elbow crowds.
Generally, cherry blossom season spans from March 23 to April 10, but Mother Nature never makes promises. Small differences in climate can throw the calendar off by a couple of days. The blossoms tend to start a few days earlier in the south of Japan, for instance, and can bloom well into early May in the northern stretches of Hokkaido. Head to the mountainsides just outside Kyoto, and you’ll find the blooms to be a few days behind those in the lower-altitude city center.
Luckily, there’s a website that tracks each destination’s progress, based on crowdsourced daily reports through the spring. And once you’re on the ground in Japan, nightly news broadcasts will cite local spots at which viewing is starting to peak. The only issue: You’ll have to plan your trip well before those updates are made available.
“These days, cherry blossom season is a zoo in Kyoto,” said Trimble. “There are tour buses everywhere, traffic jams and crowds everywhere. In my mind, it detracts from the experience of being in Kyoto.” But sometimes Kyoto is unavoidable. Trimble and Clarkson both consider it a must-see for first-timers to Japan.
If you find yourself among the crowds, pick only two or (maybe) three of the main temples to visit: a combination of Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Ryoan-ji, Sanjusangendo and Kiyomizu-dera. “Those will be beyond jammed,” Trimble advised, but they’re iconic and well worth seeing.
Then head to Kyoto’s lesser-visited treasures. Just west of the city are the bamboo-filled mountainsides of Arashiyama, where naturally occurring cherry trees — rather than meticulously pruned, cultivated specimens — dot the countryside. Then there’s Nijo Castle, where a type of cascading cherry blossom — think pink wisteria — can be seen along the grounds of a sprawling, Edo-era complex. And there are more than 1,000 temples in the city itself. “Pick one at random,” suggested Trimble, and you have 95 percent chance of seeing beautiful cherry blossoms against a stunning Japanese temple backdrop.
If what you really want is to have a private, peaceful experience — just you and the vast landscape — you’ll want to get out of Kyoto. Both Clarkson and Trimble like Kanazawa, a historic capital two hours north of Kyoto, for its Kenrokuen Gardens; they’re largely considered some of the most beautiful in all of Japan, not just for their fluffy (and copious) cherry blossoms. Combine it with nearby hot-springs towns in the Ishikawa countryside and it’s an ideal way to get a taste for rural Japan without going too far off the beaten path.
Even in Tokyo, great cherry blossom viewing abounds: Just head to Ueno Park, where the daily, booze-fueled hanami (flower-viewing) picnics — a floral-themed version of American tailgating — are among the very best. Here, guides aren’t necessary to take in the all-day party vibes. Said Trimble of the tradition, “It’s one of the very few times all year that you’ll really see people letting their hair down.”
To totally lose sight of all the tourists, though, Clarkson has another strategy altogether: Take the train roughly four hours north of Tokyo to volcanic Aomori Prefecture, where 400-year-old Hirosaki Castle is surrounded by 2,500 of Japan’s most perfect-looking cherry trees.
What makes them so unique? “It’s an area that’s famous for its apple orchards,” explained Clarkson. “So after the locals perfected a pruning technique for their apple trees, they carried it on to the cherries — it makes the trees in this area bloom spectacularly.” Some locals even say the cherries here have twice as many petals as anywhere else, thanks to the special cultivation method.
While you’re there, you can row in a moat that reflects the image of the castle (and the cherry trees) in its crystal-clear waters. Then take the Hakkoda Ropeway tram up 1585 meters to the top of Mount Hakkoda, where you’ll find a small contemporary art museum and lots of beautiful hiking trails.
The added benefit of hitting Aomori? Its northern location means the cherries bloom later, in late April or early May. By then the crowds will have dispersed from Kyoto, and different kinds of blooms will have set in, so you can hit both in peace.
By and large, planning a last-minute trip to see the blooms this spring simply won’t pan out. For one thing, top hotels such as the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons in Kyoto, both gleaming, new, five-star properties, sell out months in advance. And talented guides — in short supply in Japan, thanks to difficult certification processes — get swooped up by early birds. This means that even travelers heading north to little-known Aomori would struggle to check all the boxes on a hastily planned trip.
Trimble and Clarkson each recommend booking as much as a year in advance, particularly if you’d like to book long-distance flights. Eight to 10 months, they said, is enough to get your room of choice at top hotels.
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5