May 25, 2021

Chasing the Cherry Blossoms

While the standard timing to view the cherry blossoms is the end of March, the trees reach their peak much earlier down elsewhere in Japan.

An iconic cherry blossom tree in on Kyoto's Ninen-zaka slope during spring

As anyone who has planned (or is currently planning) a springtime trip to Japan likely already knows, the cherry blossoms tend to reach their zenith in Tokyo around the end of March. While still somewhat chilly, this annual flowering is cause for much celebration in Japan’s capital city. Alas, one of the tragic realities about the cherry blossoms is that they only stay on the branch for a few weeks at max. While this makes for a great metaphor about the ephemeral nature of life, it also means that travelers need to perfectly nail the timing (which, by the way, is often finicky and subject to the weather).

Now, this may come as a bit of a surprise to some visitors unfamiliar with their geography but Japan is actually quite a lengthy country. Given that the various prefectures all fall at different latitudes, this means that not all prefectures reach full bloom at the same time. In fact, there is more than the difference of a full calendar quarter between the first sightings of the cherry blossoms and when the last pedals finally falls. Case in point, my fellow Japan-loving travel companion and I recently hit up much of northern Japan at the end of April and things were only just then reaching their peak.

In the following sections, I’ll go through the entire length of the country from south to north and document when is the best time for the cherry blossoms in each region. While exact timings are always going to be subject to the whims of Mother Nature, this should give you a good overview as to what’s in bloom should you not be able to nail that coveted end-of-March flight to Japan. Be sure to bookmark this article for future reference when planning your next springtime outing!

Japan’s Early Bloomers

A bird sits on the branch of a cherry blossom tree during spring

At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, let me start this piece off by saying that Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa is the first place to see any sightings of the cherry blossoms. Oftentimes, these can start peaking out of their buds as soon as early January though full bloom doesn’t usually come until the end of the month. If you happen to be visiting Japan for winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, why not create a strong contrast to the cold by heading south to Okinawa to enjoy the cherry blossoms. It’s an add-on you’ll definitely not regret!

One other option for southern island cherry blossoms fun is Kagoshima’s Amami Oshima. Found between the Okinawa Islands and mainland Kyushu, this hidden gem is a great spot for those looking to get away from the crowds of people that usually flock to Okinawa. If I’ve piqued your interest in Amami Oshima, do go check out my standalone guide on the isle. Note that due to its slightly more northern orientation, Amami Oshima often sees its full bloom a handful of days later than the islands of Okinawa to the south.

Visiting during the months of winter but not interested in heading down to Okinawa or Amami Oshima? Don’t worry, I got you covered! You see, there’s actually a variant of the cherry blossoms called the kawazu-zakura that flowers as early as February. Native to Shizuoka Prefecture, you’ll find the best display of these trees clustered around Kawazu Station. Alternatively, the hot spring town of Atami also has an early flowering that reaches peak season during mid-February. Given that it has more convenient logistics, Atami is regularly my go-to spot for first viewing of the year.

March’s Cherry Blossoms

Cherry blossom trees reach their full bloom at Tokyo’s Chidorigafuchi Park

By and large, March is the standard season for cherry blossoms in Japan. Things kick off down in Kyushu during the first few weeks of the month. Thereafter, the blossoms slowly begin to peak out of their buds all across the western half of Honshu (Japan’s main island). While there is indeed a bit of latitudinal discrepancy from prefecture to prefecture, most spots tend to hit their full bloom in the latter couple of weeks of March. If you’re visiting any earlier than that, you’ll likely miss out on Japan’s most iconic flowers.

I realize the aforementioned statement doesn’t really provide much value in regards to planning your trip. While I am powerless when it comes to influencing the blooming of the cherry blossoms, I do have one rarely mentioned recommendation for those who miss the frustratingly short window towards the end of March. Put simply, go up. Assuming you are not heading north to Tohoku (more on that in a second), you can alternatively reverse the clock by a week or more by just increasing your altitude.

Note that one of the best places to try the trick that I just described is on Nara Prefecture’s Mt. Yoshino. Often hailed as Japan’s best spot for cherry blossoms, this gentle hill becomes completely blanketed in pink during spring. On the whole, the peak can be separated into three distinct zones that each begin flowering at different times. In addition to the staggered blooming of its cherry blossoms, Mt. Yoshino is also home to a plethora of cultural attractions which are a great compliment to otherwise just enjoying nature’s beauty.

The North Still Blooms

A heart-shaped cutout in the cherry blossom trees at Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture

While much of Japan’s main island of Honshu flowers more or less around the same time, the periods for peak blooms in Tohoku and Hokkaido are much later. Located significantly to the north of Tokyo, these regions don’t reach the temperatures required for the cherry blossoms to peak out of their buds until late April or even early May. This means that you can still enjoy one of Japan’s most spectacular phenomena even if you can’t nail the standard timing of mid to late March. It’s baffling how many people fail to realize just how much of a difference there is between northern Japan and the rest of the nation.

Now, as much as I’d like to keep these to myself, I really do need to mention that there are a few special spots up in Tohoku and Hokkaido that truly transcend all the rest. I’m still a bit of a blockhead when it comes to Hokkaido but the following are my top pics for Tohoku…

  • Hirosaki Park
    Topping the list of most legendary cherry blossom spots in Tohoku (if not all of Japan) is Hirosaki Park. Found in Aomori Prefecture, this space sits on top of the former grounds of Hirosaki Castle. While worth a visit at any time during the year, the entirety of Hirosaki Park turns a beautiful shade of pink in late April. If you happen to make the trek, be sure not to miss the “heart” cutout pictured above!
  • Kakunodate
    Rivaling the amazing Hirosaki Park is Kakunodate in Akita Prefecture. This former castle town has two distinct areas that tend to reach their zenith at varying times. These dual spots are the town’s historic and perfectly preserved samurai quarters and the Hinokinai River. Though there is occasionally a couple of days of overlap, you’ll find that the trees near the samurai quarters bloom first and are then followed by the ones that line the river.
  • Miharu Takizakura
    This 1,000+ year-old specimen is one of the top three cherry blossom trees in all of Japan. When the Miharu Takizakura’s small pink flowers bloom in full on the branches, it gives the appearance of a waterfall splashing down. The tree can be found in Fukushima Prefecture near Koriyama and has been designated as a natural monument of Japan.
  • Morioka Castle Site Park
    While not as amazing as Hirosaki Park, the site of Morioka’s former medieval fortress is also a great spot for viewing the cherry blossoms. Should you find yourself in town, be sure not to skip out on this great spot for springtime beauty!

I’m sure there’s more spots but these are my picks as of right now…

Chasing the Blossoms

A road runs through a bunch of cherry blossom trees somewhere in Japan

Before ending this piece, I just want to leave you with one final thought. Assuming that both time and budget allow, it’s technically possible for someone to begin their cherry blossom adventures down in Okinawa in January. Then, they can “chase” the full bloom up through Kyushu and over to Tokyo before completing the journey in northern Japan. Seeing as of spring 2021 I am currently the Director of Digital Marketing at AdVertize, this is off the table for me for the time being but one day I do hope to be able to spend an entire quarter marveling at Japan’s most iconic flowers.

Until next time travelers…