How good is cherry blossom season in Japan?

February 15, 2020
Locals celebrating cherry blossom season in Yoyogi Park in Tokyo

Many years ago my late aunt visited Japan during its world-famous cherry blossom season. Japan sounded very exotic and a world away from my suburban school life and I remember thinking, ‘that’s the sort of holiday old people go on, to look at flowers.’

How things have changed!

I’m probably now about the same age as my aunt when she embarked on her cherry blossom tour of Japan and she was in part, inspiration for my trip.

While cherry blossom hunting and viewing isn’t for everyone – it’s the most hectic time of year in Japan when local and international tourists descend in droves on the sakura (cherry blossom) hot spots – I absolutely fell in love with it. I caught the sakura bug big time and simply couldn’t get enough of it.

We traipsed from park to park, day and night, all over Tokyo then all around Kyoto and still I could have seen more.

Cherry blossom season is very big business in Japan

Cherry blossom season is massive business in Japan.

Everything had a cherry blossom theme: Australian sparkling wine maker Chandon created a special cherry blossom bottle of pink bubbles available at some of the sakura hot spots; Asahi had a sakura designed beer can; Coach, the luxury leather goods maker, had exclusive sakura designed wallets and handbags; supermarkets were full of sakura themed goods and bakeries had cherry blossom delicacies; pretty much every business got on board the annual cherry blossom festival.

Everywhere we went the stores were filled with sakura-themed products.

It’s clearly not just a tourist event. The locals take it very seriously and sakura parties, known as hanami (flower viewing), are everywhere. At the many cherry blossom parks across Tokyo, locals lay out their big blue and green picnic mats and celebrate the start of spring, the season of renewal.

It’s a magic time to be Japan.

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

There’s no exact date when cherry blossoms bloom in Japan. It’s all dependent on the weather. And that’s the tricky part of planning your trip.

There are websites devoted to tracking the opening of the first cherry blossom bud, the predicted dates when the trees will blossom, the anticipated peak days for viewing the flowers, and the likely date when it will be too late.

Depending on the location you want to visit in Japan the ‘ideal’ timing will vary. Cherry blossoms bloom earlier in the southern, warmer parts of the country, and the wave of blossoms slowly moves north to Hokkaido as the cooler parts of the country warm up.

Late March to early April are said to be the best dates for viewing cherry blossoms in Tokyo so we booked two weeks from March 26 to April 10. Luckily, our timing was spot on.

Where are the best places to see the cherry blossoms?

There are so many beautiful parks to view the cherry blossoms in Tokyo and Kyoto, we recommend planning your days in advance. Make a list of the places you want to visit and a note of which subway station you have to get to, and which exit you need to take. There are some useful websites listed in Helpful links at the end of this post.

Here are some of our favourite sakura viewing locations in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Ueno Park, Tokyo

Ueno Park is probably the most famous of all the cherry blossom viewing areas in Tokyo. We visited early in the morning soon after we arrived in the city, so it was very peaceful and relaxing, and the most chilled out of our sakura viewings.

Ueno Park is renowned for getting a bit rowdy at night once the sakura celebrations really kick in, so our advice is to go early in the morning when the locals are out strolling and on their way to work.

Cherry blossoms reflected in the water in Ueno Park, Tokyo's most famous cherry blossom park.
Ueno Park

Meguro River, Tokyo

Meguro River was very festive and our favourite sakura spot in Tokyo. The cherry blossom trees line the canal creating a picturesque tunnel of dainty fairy floss pink blossoms. It’s incredibly pretty and incredibly crowded. A crush of people moves up and down both sides of the canal and on the small cross bridges you have to wait patiently for your turn to take a pic. We were totally swept up in the sakura spirit and indulged in some pink bubbles to celebrate the sakura season.

On either side of the canal are cafes, restaurants, food stalls and upmarket shops and the biggest, most over-the-top designer Starbucks I’ve ever seen.

Meguro River, our favourite sakura spot in Tokyo.

Yoyogi Park, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park was impressive for its vast expanse of cherry blossom trees and the big number of hanami, flower viewing parties, hosted by the locals. Given it’s a much larger area where people can spread out, it was a lot less crowded than Meguro.

Cherry blossoms in Yoyogi Park Tokyo
Yoyogi Park

Imperial Palace, Tokyo

The cherry blossoms near the Imperial Palace, at Chidorgafuchi have a real wow factor and are one of the most scenic sakura spots. They overlook a moat where you can hire boats and row around the water under the pretty pink overhanging branches. Between the tunnel of flowering trees, you can see the modern towers of Tokyo skyscrapers in the distance.

It’s very popular and busy here too. We walked for miles around the park to the Imperial Palace grounds and while it was chilly, it was beautiful.

Chidorgafuchi, near the Imperial Palace.

Sumida River Park, Tokyo

This is a popular night viewing spot where more than one thousand cherry blossom trees line the Sumida River. The trees are lit up with hundreds of sakura themed lanterns and there’s a stunning view of the Tokyo Skytree from the riverside promenade. This is a good spot for a romantic evening stroll along the riverside.

Cherry blossom lanterns along the Sumida River
Sumida River

Yanaka and Aoyama Cemetery, Tokyo

Both Yanaka and Aoyama cemeteries were lovely, peaceful spots to wander among the cherry blossom trees. Yanaka is not far from Ueno Park and its central walkway is lined with stunning white cherry blossoms. The tombstones are also beautiful – large, stone slabs in unusual shapes with long timber totems inscribed with Japanese characters.

Yanaka itself was a discovery: we wandered down small lanes, with tiny shops, restaurants and shrines and it felt like we were walking through a quiet country town, not one of the most dynamic cities in the world.

Cherry blossom trees in Yanaka Cemetery Tokyo
Yanaka Cemetery

If we thought Tokyo was crowded during cherry blossom season, Kyoto was next level.

We didn’t get to as many locations as we’d hoped but the cherry blossoms were absolutely beautiful, so we felt it was worth the pain.

The Philosopher’s Path, Kyoto

This was the most stunning of the places we visited. It was super crowded but not push-and-shove busy and despite the hordes of people, it was a relatively peaceful and relaxing stroll. You have to be a bit careful not to step too close to the edge. The cherry blossoms line a small canal on both sides and the pathways are quite narrow in parts.

There a cafes and shops along the pathway which leads to the Ginkaku-ji Temple, known as the Silver Pavillion.

Cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy in Kyoto
Path of Philosophy Kyoto
Cherry blossoms along the Path of Philosophy Kyoto
Path of Philosophy Kyoto

Keage Incline , Kyoto

The Keage Incline is an old disused cargo railway line that’s now a popular spot for sakura viewing. You can walk down the old tracks with the cherry blossoms creating a colourful archway overhead. It’s very pretty but be warned, you will need to watch your step, not just because you could trip over the old railway sleepers, but because it’s so crowded with sakura spotters, all desperate to capture the perfect shot.

The walk down along the Okazaki Canal, towards the big red tori gates, is also very picturesque.

Cherry Blossoms at the Keage Incline in Kyoto
The beautiful but crowded Keage Incline

Gion – Shirakawa Canal, Kyoto

The Gion district is famous for geishas. The Shirakawa areas is quite magical in sakura season, boasting a beautiful canal lined with cherry blossoms and willow trees. The area is compact with tiny laneways of shops and restaurants and old-style architecture. It’s very quaint and historic and we were lucky to spot a geisha dashing between appointments as we wandered through the area at dusk.  

Gion Kyoto
Cherry blossoms in Gion district Kyoto
Old-style architecture in the Gion district of Kyoto

Kamogawa River, Kyoto

Stroll along the banks of the Kamogawa River, which runs through central Kyoto and you will find plenty of cherry trees. While it’s stunning to see a mass plantation of blooming sakura, cherry blossoms can be found all over Kyoto.

Arashiyama, Kyoto

We headed to Arashiyama to see the famous bamboo grove then wandered into the adjacent Kameyama-koen Park. The park is full of cherry trees and we stumbled upon a photo shoot with a famous Japanese model. From the park there are beautiful views over the river. It’s a tranquil spot for a picnic and feels a world away from the busy-ness of downtown Kyoto.

It’s a completely different story when you head from the park towards Togetsukyo Bridge and the nearby Tenryuji Temple: it was absolutely swarming with tourists. Crazy crowds and best avoided.

A model poses for photographs under a cherry blossom tree in Japan
Kameyama-koen Park, Kyoto

Where are the best places to stay in Tokyo and Kyoto for cherry blossom season?

One important piece of advice: if you want to visit Japan during cherry blossom season you must book early. We didn’t and spent hours and hours scouring websites for available, affordable hotels in suitable, cherry blossom-friendly locations. Dozens and dozens of large hotels were completely sold out well in advance.

We stayed at the Centurion Hotel near Ueno Park in Tokyo, one of the most famous sakura parks in the city. It was a super location, close to the subway and loads of well-priced restaurants. While the hotel was basic and the room was extremely small – I couldn’t stretch both my arms out across the bathroom – it was functional.

The subway system is so efficient and easy to navigate in Tokyo, so if you stay within the city circle, the loop of the Yamanote line, it will be easy to travel between the different sakura locations.

In Kyoto, we missed out on many of the recommended hotels but struck it lucky with the Royal Park Kyoto Sanjo. This was a very upmarket hotel by our standards, in the heart of downtown Kyoto, close to the subway, the river, restaurants and popular attractions. We loved it.

Tips and helpful links for visiting Japan in cherry blossom season

  • We loved visiting Japan in cherry blossom season – it’s an exquisitely beautiful time of year and there’s a festive atmosphere with the sakura celebrating the start of spring, the season of rebirth and renewal.
  • Book early, it’s amazing how many hotels there are in a large city like Tokyo and even more amazing how quickly they book out. Be mindful of hotel rooms that offer small double beds (there are loads of them) – these aren’t big enough for a couple and are instead designed for single business travellers.
  • If you don’t like crowds then seek out other cherry blossom areas away from the popular hubs of Tokyo and Kyoto.
  • Take warm clothes. It’s surprisingly chilly during cherry blossom season – it feels much more like winter than spring.
  • Make sure you check the Cherry blossom forecast, also at Live Japan.
  • You will need to organise a pocket wifi for your Internet access in Japan, and to help with getting around.
  • Suggestions for where to stay in Tokyo during cherry blossom festival.
  • The Dormy Inn hotel chain is a popular Japanese network of affordable hotels.
  • The Tokyo foodie itinerary was a fabulous discovery tour and a great feast.
  • You might like this Romantic cherry blossom itinerary in Kyoto.

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