The most celebrated few weeks of the year in Japan are almost indisputably during sakura season when thickets of cherry blossom trees are found blooming spectacularly at every turn. While the Japanese are known for their appreciation of the changing of all four of the country’s distinct seasons, the springtime cherry blossom has been a favourite for centuries inspiring multifarious artworks: traditional woodblock prints, 17-syllable haiku, and - these days - an extensive menu of sakura-infused products. As every poem about sakura will teach you: cherry blossom is fleeting. So, if your trip to Japan coincides with these few wonderful weeks then planning the perfect itinerary is crucial.
Sakura Spotting on the Go
Modest displays of cherry blossom start as early as January in Japan’s tropical island Okinawa and anywhere between mid-March and mid-April across mainland Japan. Since stationary sakura spotting has its limits, we’re here to help you chase the blossoms up the country with our guide to o-hanami (flower viewing) on the go.
If you’re travelling anywhere around Japan it’s most likely that you’ll be hopping on a train at some point. Not only is the reputed comfort and cleanliness of Japanese trains sure to not disappoint but a train ride in spring is a sightseeing trip in itself. If the timing is right you can keep the sakura zensen on your side by starting your Japanese journey in Kyushu and slowly making your way north all the way up to Hokkaido.
Keep your eyes peeled and you’re likely to see clusters of blossom on almost every train journey. However, for the first-class views we recommend a ride on the Kintetsu-Yoshino Line for an excitement-building journey through the pink, mountainous trail approaching Mt. Yoshino in Nara Prefecture; or for pure sightseeing purposes the Sagano Scenic Railway in Kyoto, rightly nicknamed the Sagano Romantic Train, promises postcard worthy scenes as you chug through tunnels of blushing sakura. Just grab yourself a bento box and a window seat and get sakura spotting!
■Rock the Boat
It’s no secret that the majority of sakura trees around the country have been carefully planted for aesthetic perfection and those positioned along the river banks are an undeniable highlight of that. A boat trip will take you as close to the action as possible as you glide through overhanging sakura trees creating mystical reflections and forming beds of blossom across the river.
While there is no shortage of breathtaking cherry blossom around Kyoto, escaping the city centre by boat offers a peaceful break from the swarming crowds. Making your way to the east side of the sprawling Lake Biwa brings you to the history-rich Hachiman-bori Canal which you can discover on a tour led by the Hachiman-bori Meguri boat company. Want to take your boat trip to the next level? Try out a yakatabune, which is a centuries-old style of barge tour that incorporates both sightseeing and a traditional sat down meal. On the Yakatabune AMITATSU tour guests can enjoy the passing sights of Tokyo’s cherry blossom-enveloped landmarks while feasting on tempura, sashimi, and pickles.
Hachiman-bori Meguri - http://oumi-waden.com/ship.html
Yakatabune AMITATSU -https://www.amitatsu.jp/english/
■The Rickshaw Run
While the esteemed reputation of 21st-century Japanese transportation is mainly thanks to some of the world’s fastest bullet trains, let’s not forget that the rickshaw (or jinrikisha in Japanese) in fact originates from Japan. Found scattered around tourist spots all over the country, rickshaws are a leisurely way to discover the area giving you time to take in the views.
Some of the unmissable spots for catching a rickshaw include the sakura-filled streets surrounding the base of Hikone Castle in Shiga Prefecture, Asakusa in Tokyo, and the traditional streets of Kyoto. As the rickshaw runners know their districts well they’re pretty sakura savvy so just let them know you’re on the lookout for cherry blossom and they can take you on the best route.
- 屋形船 あみ達
Getting Out and About During Sakura Season
While there’s no doubt that inebriating yourself under the falling sakura is a quintessential Japanese experience not to be missed, appreciating the blossom is in no way limited to picnics in crowded parks. Getting out and active during sakura season is the best way to see as much of Japan as you can while still making the most of the abundant cherry blossom around the country.
It’s easy to believe that the meticulously placed sakura trees around Japan’s city centres are the main spectacle of the country’s esteemed springtime show. However, head out into the countryside and you’ll find delicate blossom dusted across whole hillsides in fantastic shades of pastel pinks and wistful whites. For those eager to discover some of the ample Japanese mountains, get your hiking boots on and head to the hills to combine a fun day of walking with a satisfying fix of cherry blossom viewing.
While Mt. Kobo makes a good day out for sakura viewing just a two-hour train journey from Tokyo, you’ll be rewarded for the extra trip down to Nara Prefecture’s Mt. Yoshino with an impressive spread of around 30,000 sakura trees.
Around the end of March and the beginning of April the bland trees bordering the streets suddenly burst into life with lashings of pink and white blossom. Cycling around a city is a good way to take in as many of these streets as possible while hopping between the city’s top sakura spots. The Japanese are keen city cyclists so getting your hands on a rental bike shouldn’t prove difficult in most cities and big towns.
Blossom-heavy areas include Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park and Ueno Park, the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto, Nara Park, and Osaka Castle. Rather skip the crowded areas and enjoy a bit more space to cycle at speed? Head down to Kumamoto in Kyushu for Ichifusa Dam Lake. As if the lake’s huge fountain and the dramatic surrounding scenery wasn’t enough, the ribbon-like trail of sakura trees that line the lake are a sight to behold.
■Kayaking and Canoeing
There’s something about cherry blossom along the water’s edge that gives the world a romantic, rosy glow. Now, what better way to get your fill of that irresistible scene than by taking to the water? Kayaking and canoeing opportunities are plentiful around Japan so if you’re visiting in spring it’s just about finding the right spot to enjoy every moment of paddling against a backdrop of breathtaking blossom.
If you’re sticking to Tokyo, Meguro River is well known as one of the capital’s top spots for o-hanami (flower viewing). Jumping on a canoe from Canoe Trip Racoon and rowing your way down the river is the perfect solution for beating the crowds without sacrificing some of Tokyo’s best views. Alternatively, BSC Watersports Centre offer sakura lake tours at Kyoto’s huge neighbouring Lake Biwa.
Canoe Trip Racoon: https://canoetripracoon.jimdo.com/%E6%A1%9C%E5%92%B2%E3%81%8F%E5%8D%88%E5%BE%8C%E3%81%AE%E3%82%AB%E3%83%8C%E3%83%BC%E4%BD%93%E9%A8%93%E4%BC%9A-%E6%9D%B1%E4%BA%AC%E9%AE%AB%E6%B4%B2-%E5%8B%9D%E5%B3%B6%E9%81%8B%E6%B2%B3/meguro-river-hanami-canoe/
BSC Watersports Centre: http://www.bsc-int.co.jp/natural/hana/
A Taste of Spring
While most o-hanami (flower viewing) picnics consist of the usual convenience store selection of rice balls, potato chips, and canned drinks, if you want to pull out all the stops and impress your picnic buddies it’s time to search out consumable sakura for the ultimate cherry blossom experience.
Nothing quite completes a sakura celebration like a good cherry blossom-infused cocktail. Bars along the bustling Meguro River prepare well for the occasion setting up pop-up bars outside where you can get your hands on a whole host of colourful, fruity cocktails including ones shaken up with real cherry blossom petals.
Picnicking into the evening can get a little chilly so for a warmer and more classy affair, move onto Shinjuku to live out a scene from Lost in Translation at the Park Hyatt Hotel’s New York Bar. While the sakura cocktails are a little more pricey than those along the river, with views over the blossom-saturated Shinjuku Gyoen park from the 52nd floor we’re most certainly not complaining.
■A Sprinkle of Sakura
While sakura infusion introduces you to the unique and subtle flavours of cherry blossom, there are just a handful of foods that incorporate the dainty petals while keeping their original form. Sakura hanazuke are a great little souvenir made up of sakura flowers preserved in salt. Added to hot water the flower opens up producing a delicately flavoured, fragrant tea.
Kiso Valley in Nagano Prefecture specialises in cherry blossom flavoured hanazuke with Yamatoya near Suhara Station one of the best spots to pick up a few packets to take home.
It turns out that it’s not just the petals that produce that distinctive sakura flavouring but the leaves can also contribute to the taste. Sakura mochi comes in a few different forms: Kansai sweet shops shape out small pink rice balls called domyoji sakura mochi while those in Tokyo cook up chomeiji sakura mochi, a sweeter rice cake with a red bean paste centre. Both are wrapped up in a pickled Yoshino sakura leaf for the sakura mochi look.
The culinary competition between the East and West of Japan is a never ending dispute and one that visitors are welcomed to join in. To put the Kansai sakura mochi to the taste test head to Osaka’s Umeda district where the Sazae confectionary shop in the Hanshin department store serves up fresh and juicy domyoji. Back in Tokyo, there’s no better place to pick up a chomeiji sakura mochi than the shop that goes by just that name along the Sumida River just a stone’s throw from the Tokyo Skytree.
Chomeiji Sakura Mochi -http://sakura-mochi.com/
Sakura on the Go
NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR