Cherry Blossoms in Japan 2020. When? Where? (with tips and photos)
The stunning pastel-pink cherry blossom in spring is one of the many unique attractions that bring thousands of visitors to the country year-after-year. In stark contrast to the towering skyscrapers and neon lights of the big cities, the cherry blossom offers natural beauty, peace and tranquillity.
Many visitors assume you could just visit the country in spring and “you’ll be bound to see some cherry blossom,” but in actual fact, it takes some planning and preparation to be in the right place at the right time to witness this iconic blooming.
In this comprehensive guide we’ll give you information about the history of the blossom, tell you when and where to go to have the best chance of seeing the cherry blossom in Japan and give you other top tips to enjoy the season.
The History of Cherry Blossom in Japan
Japan’s cherry blossom, known as Sakura, has been part of the country’s history for centuries and, as well as being exceptionally beautiful, plays a big part in national culture, traditions and identity. The iconic flowering has found itself well-represented in works of poetry and art, and the Japanese are extremely proud of this annual occurrence.
The cherry blossoms have even been noted as symbols of impermanence, hope, and renewal in Wabi-Sabi philosophy and Shinto beliefs. Thanks to the short-lived bloom of the flowers, they remind us about the transience human life and ensure our lives are full of gratitude, generosity, and respect.
Of course, today the natural phenomenon of the cherry blossom has also been jumped on by commercialism with everything you can imagine going into pink sakura mode throughout the season – think: cherry blossom soft drinks, sakura lattes, pink iced doughnuts, and even pink burger buns!
The Art of Hanami
The Japanese have been cultivating their cherry blossoms for centuries and have been practising “hanami” which literally translates as “looking at flowers” since at least the 8th century. While this may sound like a sideline activity for us in the West, it is taken very seriously in Japan and is much more than taking a few selfies with the flowers in the background!
Everyone in the country from nobility to countrymen and students to grandparents take part in hanami picnics and parties to celebrate the coming of the bloom. These can be peaceful affairs with people writing poetry about the flowers or lively gatherings in which everyone is invited!
Luckily for us, the Japanese have spent time planting trees along bridges and canals and in parks, gardens, and palaces across the country so we can view their spectacular forms and formations in stunning, tranquil settings.
When to See the Cherry Blossoms in Japan
The cherry blossom season can lie anywhere between March and May but due to the full bloom of the blossom only lasting around one week, timing a trip to see the sakura has become a much-analysed science. Climate change and thus cold fronts, late frosts, and warm winters may all have an effect as to when the cherry blossom arrives.
For over 60 years the Japan Meteorological Corporation (JMC) has been tasked with analysing and forecasting the “sakura zensen” or Cherry Blossom Front which gives locals and travellers alike the news they need to see the blossom.
The much-anticipated news of the opening of flowers on at least five or six yoshino cherry trees in any given region is widely publicised on television before visitors flock to the scene to practise hanami.
The first forecast each year is released in around February and, while the JMC forecast is most definitely the best one to follow, you shouldn’t take the first analysis as golden.
With each subsequent forecast, the JMC becomes more and more accurate, with March forecasts giving you the best details to work with.
In general, the cherry blossom begins on the southernmost island of Okinawa in January, and as the weather warms up across the more northerly islands, the trees continue to flourish throughout February, March and April. Depending on the weather, the blossom may continue into May with the northernmost island of Hokkaido receiving the last bloom.
One of the most beautiful parts of the cherry blossom season is the “sakura snow” the period of a few days in which the white and pink petals of the blossom depart the trees and float gracefully down to earth. Therefore, if you can catch the blossom in both full bloom and during the “snow” you’ll have witnessed the best of both worlds!
|City||Average Start||Average Peak Bloom|
|Naha, Okinawa||19th January||4th February|
|Kagoshima||26th March||3rd April|
|Kumamoto||24th March||2nd April|
|Fukuoka||26th March||3rd April|
|Matsuyama||28th March||5th April|
|Takamatsu||30th March||6th April|
|Hiroshima||29th March||5th April|
|Kobe||30th March||6th April|
|Nara||1st April||6th April|
|Osaka||30th March||6th April|
|Kyoto||31st March||7th April|
|Kanazawa||6th April||11th April|
|Takayama||16th April||21st April|
|Matsumoto||12th April||17th April|
|Nagoya||28th March||5th April|
|Yokohama||28th March||5th April|
|Tokyo||28th March||5th April|
|Sendai||12th April||18 April|
|Hirosaki||24th April||30th April|
|Hakodate||3rd May||7th May|
|Sapporo||5th May||8th May|
|Data from the Japan Weather Association|
Planning Your Trip to See the Cherry Blossom
While the variance of the cherry blossom dates can be frustrating when planning your trip months in advance, you have to remember that – just like the Northern Lights – this stunning show is a natural phenomenon and it can never be guaranteed. The best way to plan your trip in advance is to do a bit of analysis yourself of the weather and blossom of previous years and keep an eye on as many sakura forecasts as you can.
Of course, most people don’t have endless time and money to wait around in Japan for months in order to see the blossom, so at the end of the day you need to decide whether you’re going to wait to book a last-minute trip or plan your vacation during spring and simply hope your trip coincides with the bloom.
If you don’t have a rigid plan for your time in Japan, you can alter your route according to the JMC forecast, hitting Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka when the time is right. This doesn’t allow for much planning but, if the cherry blossom is your main priority, it should allow for the highest success rate! Plus, a little adventure never hurt anyone, right?!
Where to See the Cherry Blossom
If you’re lucky enough to be in Japan for the beginning of the cherry blossom, you may have the opportunity to visit more than one location to see the spectacular sakura. This is a great chance to witness the bloom in both an urban and natural environment, both of which offer their own unique charm. While it may feel almost impossible to leave one location where you’ve seen the sakura – in case you miss it at the next – it is wonderful to be able to experience the bloom in different settings, and you’ll be able to tell from the JMC forecast, the news and social media where the sakura is in full flow.
Seeing the Cherry Blossom in Okinawa
Okinawa is the first place to receive the cherry blossom in Japan, and as such the hanami festivities can begin as early as mid-January and continue on into February in the north of the island. Here, your Sakura experience will be quite different from the other prefectures of Japan, as the Kanhizakura variety of trees (rather than the Somei-Yoshino) is the one that dominates here. Plus, as the cherry blossom season is so early here, you can even combine your trip with some of the country’s best winter slope-side action!
Originating in Taiwan, the Kanhizakura sakura variety offers a much bolder, darker pink colour than those found of the Somei-Yoshino varieties further north. Additionally, the flower’s blossom is wider making them instantly recognisable as a different plant. While these trees are slightly less dainty than the northern varieties, they are no less beautiful or magical.
Thankfully for us, Okinawa loves their Kanhizakura variety and are proud to celebrate with numerous festivals held across the island. Mount Yaedake is one such place, and the bright pink blooms paint the landscape so you can admire the breath-taking vistas as you hike through the stunning mountain ranges.
Alternatively, the Nakijin Castle Ruins (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is a great place to witness the sakura both day and night as the paths are covered in pink blossoms which are also illuminated at night by cute glass lanterns.
Seeing the Cherry Blossom in Tokyo
Tokyo is best known for its skyscrapers and the hustle and bustle, but it is also a fantastic location to see the blossom. The city has fine-tuned its hanami practise over centuries along with planting thousands to trees to ensure everyone is able to witness the sakura.
Tokyo has a number of great locations to see the cherry blossom from the city’s Chidorigafuchi moat which is lined with pastel-pink trees to both the Ueno Park (which is home to over 1000 trees) and Shinjuku Gyoen (which features over 1500!). The parks are perfect for hanami picnics, where groups gather to admire the blossom and spend time with family and friends.
The creative district of Nakameguro is another favourite blossom spot, where hundreds of trees line the banks of the canal. The cherry trees have grown into an archway over the canal, and the pink blossom of the trees creates a rosy glow on the top of the water. This is a popular spot for photographers to capture the magical moments of spring.
Seeing the Cherry Blossom in Kyoto
The traditional beauty of the ancient city of Kyoto makes a wonderful backdrop for the cherry blossom and, as such, is an extremely popular location during spring. However, despite the hordes of crowds, Kyoto is still high on the list of best places to see the cherry blossom in Japan. With parks, gardens, canals, and walkways dedicated to the cherry blossom, you won’t find it hard to pack in some all-important hanami during your time here.
Kyoto’s Philosopher’s Path is a peaceful section of the city to witness the blossom as you can leisurely walk from the Kinkaku-Ji Silver Pavilion all the way to Hei-an Shrine. You could easily spend a few hours making your way along the path, stopping for photographs or visiting smaller temples and shrines en route. There are a number of cafes and restaurants along the Philosopher’s Path so you can stop off to enjoy the blossom with a coffee and cake in hand (preferably in pink!).
The temple of Kiyomizu-dera is a favourite among tourists and locals alike who flock here in the evenings to experience the magic of both the blossom and the sunset at the same time. Seeing the cherry blossom during the hours of sunset and dusk allow for a new appreciation of the bloom and completely different photographs to those taken during the day.
The weeping tree in Maruyama Park is another top spot for viewing the cherry blossom. This iconic tree is the focal point of many a hanami party and is lit up each night during the season so you can enjoy the beauty of the blossom until midnight.
Slightly outside of the city of Kyoto lies the region of Arashiyama. While this region’s famous Bamboo Forest is a tourist attraction in its own right, many more people head to the area during cherry blossom season.
Both the Togetsu-Kyo Bridge and the Daikakuji Temple offer alternative sakura spots. The hills that rise up and away from the Katsura River are covered in shades of green peppered with pretty pink blossom. This is a different hanami experience to the city centre and is a great option for those who have seen the blossom before or want a more rural setting.
Similarly, the Yoshino Mountain in Kansai is a wonderful natural setting to witness the cherry blossom. Thanks to the different elevations of the Yoshino Mountain, different parts of the mountain receive the blossom at different times. This creates a longer cherry blossom season and therefore allows more visitors to witness the bloom. Even if you get your timings way off for seeing the sakura in Tokyo or Kyoto, you should be able to see some pink flowers here during the months of March and April.
Osaka is often a popular day trip from Kyoto, and this is no different during the cherry blossom season. Whether you witness the sakura at Osaka Castle or in one of the city’s many public parks, you’re sure to be able to snap some stunning photographs. The city is home to thousands of trees with nearly 5000 lining the Okawa River. Stroll along the riverside before stopping for a picnic in Kema Sakuranomiya Park or enjoy the bloom from the comfort of a river cruise.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Himeji Castle is known to be the most photographed castle in the country, and it is perhaps no more beautiful than during the cherry blossom season. Capturing a snapshot of the dainty white flicks of the castle roofs, framed by cherry blossom will be one of your most-loved photographs of your trip to Japan!
Seeing the Cherry Blossom on Hokkaido Island
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is the last to receive the cherry blossom, so the island’s main city of Sapporo is often awash with both trees in bloom and hanami hunters at the end of April and beginning of May.
Goryokaku Park, in the southwest Hokkaido is usually the first place on this island to receive the bloom, and the celebrations here are no less exciting, despite the fact that the rest of the country has been practising hanami for months. The European-style fortress and its surrounding park is a beautiful place to catch the bloom, and the plethora of restaurants and food stalls that are set up to serve hanami participants means you can stay and enjoy the experience for hours.
Matsumae Park (south Hokkaido) is home to over 10,000 cherry trees (and over 250 varieties), so it is one of the best places in the country for practising a bit of hanami. Wander through the park photographing the flowers before exploring the castle and Buddhist temples on-site.
For a different take on the sakura, head to Nijukken Road to witness the 7km straight stretch of blossoms. The road was originally built for a Japanese imperial family but now hosts thousands of visitors who come to see the contrast between the delicate pink blossom and the hard, geometric stretch of road.
Consider a Cherry Blossom Hotel
If seeing the cherry blossoms are a priority for your trip to Japan and you don’t like the idea of contending with thousands of others on the street in order to snap the perfect shot of the flowers, you may want to consider booking one of the country’s high-end hotels that make the cherry blossom a focal point in spring. Of course, the hotels can’t make the trees bloom in time for your visit, but you may stand a good chance of seeing the blossoms from the comfort of your own room!
Hoshinoya Kyoto is a peaceful riverside retreat that features cherry trees in the grounds, Kyoto Nanzenji Ryokan Yachiyo is surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens which annually host the sakura bloom, and the Palace Hotel Tokyo even places a cherry bonsai plant in each room, so you have a taste of the outside in!
Many hotels and restaurants also feature cherry blossom-inspired menus including delicately-designed afternoon tea spreads, sakura liqueur cocktails, and spring-themed spa treatments.
Photographing the Cherry Blossom
While there will be hundreds of people snapping selfies of the cherry blossom wherever you go in Japan, if you want to take some memorable photographs during your trip, you may want to use a camera with a selection of manual settings, so you are able to control the style and focus of your photo. A DSLR is usually best for this, but film cameras and some point-and-shoot cameras also allow for manual use.
It is a good idea to shoot in RAW if possible so you can fully edit your photos after your trip. While this will take up more space on your SD card, you’ll have much more freedom in post-production.
Unless you already have a specific photographic style in mind, it’s likely you’ll want to dabble with a few different techniques so that you have a range of photos to take home. Here we‘ll walk through some of our favourite options for photographing the cherry blossom so you’ll already have some ideas when you arrive.
Playing With Focus
As many of the top hanami spots are extremely popular, it can be somewhat difficult to take a cherry blossom photo without people, picnics or food stalls in the background, but this is where using your manual focus settings can come into play.
Setting your aperture to a low number (e.g., f/2.8) allows you to isolate the blossom in your shot and create a blurred or bokeh-style background. This can be done on a singular tree, where you focus on one blossom or branch with the rest of the background fading into a soft pink blur, or with a tree in the foreground and a background of people lying out of focus. It can also be a nice way to photograph fallen blossom once the sakura snow has set in, creating an emotive shot of delicate pink flowers contrasted against a dark background.
Alternatively, you may want to capture the balance between calm and chaos of a hanami picnic or the magnificence of a whole landscape by using a wide focal range.
This means you can put everything in the frame in focus allowing your photograph to portray both the natural beauty of the flowers alongside the facial expressions of those enjoying the view. This is also perfect for framing both the cherry blossom and a picturesque temple, shrine or castle.
Using the Light
It is a good idea to photograph the cherry blossom at different times of day as the colour of the blossom can range from bright magenta to snow white depending on the light. Shooting upwards against a contrasting blue sky can offer a magical view of the blossom, whereas photographing at sunset may allow for greater depth within each and every branch. You can even use the light to silhouette the intricate branches which could present them either as a delicate lace or a mysterious web depending on your composition.
If getting a photograph without other people in the background is a top priority for you (and you can’t use the above method of a low numbered aperture) you may just have to get up and out in the early hours to try and see the blossom. This will allow you to be relatively alone while practising hanami and you’ll have the soft sunrise light to play with.
Contrast and Balance
Japan is the perfect place to witness contrast and balance, and this is never more prevalent than during the cherry blossom season. Try to highlight the unrestrained beauty of nature with the bright city lights, hard architectural surfaces, bustling sidewalks or perfectly-manicured Japanese gardens for an interesting shot. Composition is key, and you’ll want to play around with techniques and framing to create your ideal image.
It’s useful to think about what you want to represent in your photograph, rather than snapping away aimlessly. So, have some ideas in your head and then use your hanami experience to seek them out.
Lastly, remember to spend much of your time simply looking at the flowers. While you may want to ensure you have the perfect shot (or two!) of the cherry blossom, you also want to fully experience the moment.
It can be difficult to switch off and fully appreciate nature at the best of times, let alone when you’re surrounded by hundreds of other people. But at the end of the day, this is a natural phenomenon, and it won’t be around for long. Sit and watch, take in the smells of the blossom, feel the touch of the petals between your fingers; it will be these memories that stay with you for a lifetime.
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