Springtime in Japan and the country watches and waits for the first sakura (cherry) trees to burst into bloom. Once they do, people flock to parks and squares for hanami (cherry-blossom viewing). The romance is passionate but fleeting, lasting only a week or two.
Starting from Kyushu in the south some time in March, regular blossom forecasts keep the public updated as the sakura zensen (cherry-tree blossom line) advances northward, usually passing through the Kansai and Kanto regions of Honshu in early April. Latecomers can catch the blossoms in late April and sometimes early May in Tohoku, the northernmost region of Honshu. Here are just five of the top spots across Japan to join the hanami party.
Yoshino is Japan’s most famous cherry-blossom destination, and for a few weeks in early to mid-April, the blossoms of thousands of cherry trees form a floral carpet gradually ascending the mountainsides. It’s definitely a sight worth seeing – and one that many Japanese long to see once in their life – but this does mean that the narrow streets of the village become jammed tight with thousands of visitors. You’ll have to be content with a day trip (doable from Nara, or even Osaka) unless you’ve booked accommodation long in advance. Once the cherry-blossom petals fall, the crowds depart and Yoshino reverts back to a quiet village with a handful of shrines and temples.
This one is a tough call – Kyoto has so many fantastic places to see the blossoms. But it’s safe to say that the most iconic hanami spot in the city is Maruyama-koen (Maruyama Park). In the middle of the park is the Gion Shidare-zakura, the ‘Weeping Cherry of Gion’, named for its proximity to famed entertainment district, Gion, where geiko (Kyoto’s geisha) still perform. The over-10m-tall tree, whose blossom-fringed branches arch gracefully almost to the ground, is illuminated in the evening, from dusk until midnight. Oh, and there are some 680 other cherry trees in the park so you can bet on lots of picnics taking place here. Come early to grab a good spot. And later on, take a stroll along the nearby canal, the Gion Shirakawa, lined with cherry trees and and also lit up at night.
Like Kyoto, Tokyo has many popular cherry blossom spots. While it’s not the most historic – that would be Ueno-koen – or the most picturesque – that would be Shinjuku-gyoen – we’re doubling down on Yoyogi-koen (Yoyogi Park) because it is just the most fun. It’s a huge, sprawling park with tufty grass and plenty of cherry trees, with room for everyone and yet it still becomes a sea of people growing more and more unsteady as the day gives way to night. We’ve seen barbecues here, turntables and portable karaoke machines, more selfie sticks than we care to count and the odd guy in nothing but his shorts. The only thing Yoyogi-koen is short on is public toilets (prepare to queue).
Arakurayama Sengen-koen, Fuji Five Lakes
The view from the Chureito Pagoda here is the ultimate sakura money shot: in one frame you get a classic five-storey pagoda, with curving eaves and vermillion accents, a frothy sea of cherry blossoms beneath it, and on the horizon, triumphant Mt Fuji still draped in snow. (Odds are you’ve seen the image on a guidebook cover or two.) So what if the pagoda itself isn’t actually old (it’s a war memorial from the 1960’s) and you have to climb 397 steps to get here? Arakurayama Sengen-koen (a park home to a not-so-shabby 680 sakura trees) is in Fuji-Yoshida, a city at the base of Mt Fuji. It’s just about possible as a day trip from Tokyo, but you could also budget an extra day or two for hiking in the foothills of the Fuji Five Lakes region, for the chance of even more Mt Fuji views.
Hirosaki-koen, Tohoku (Northern Honshu)
Hirosaki-koen (Hirosaki Park) is a huge green space (nearly 50 hectares!) covering the grounds of what used to be the castle Hirosaki-jo. All that remains of the actual castle is a 200-year-old keep, but the park is marbled with the old moats, which are now flanked by sakura and criss-crossed with photogenic arching bridges. There are over 2500 cherry trees here and given that Hirosaki, way up north in Aomori Prefecture, is not the population centre that Tokyo (or even Kyoto) is, you can expect a bit more room to move around. Bonus: you can rent peddle boats to take out on the moats, which are invariably covered in pink petals.