Winter is ending, and the lull before spring always has me anticipating the next season with pleasure. My mood will loosen the same way that cherry blossoms – better known as sakura in Japan – bloom in spring. Sakura is the main reason for a spring trip to this island of spirituality juxtaposed with modernity. Visitors thrill to join a Hanami Matsuri flower festival where they can spend hours picnicking surrounded by blossoming inflorescences of pink, white or yellow sakura.
The sakura blooming period lasts about six weeks, from the end of March to the middle of May, and the timing of full bloom differs between regions in the south and north – so it’s crucial to plan ahead and plan well. Here we recommend the ten most popular Hanami Matsuri.
Omura Park – Nagasaki, Kyushu
Starting in the southernmost region of Kyushu, there is Nagasaki Prefecture. Due to its warm climate, Hanami Matsuri is shorter than elsewhere and lasts only from the end of March to the middle of April. Our top choice is Omura Park as it is home for Omurazakura, a highly-prized variety of sakura with exquisite blossoms of 60-100 petals.
Tsuyama Castle – Okayama, Chugoku
Moving upwards to the western region of Chugoku, you’ll reach Okayama and Tsuyama Castle, which sits on Tsuru Mountain and is now also part of Kakuzan Park. Someiyoshino cherry blossoms give an exuberant contrast of delicacy and colour to the ruins of the castle and its fortresses, making this one of the most striking locations to enjoy sakura – especially from a high viewpoint. During this Hanami Matsuri in the first half of April, the park will extend its closing time and the castle will be illuminated in the evenings.
Ninna-ji Temple – Kyoto, Kansai
Kyoto (not to be mistaken for Tokyo) was once the capital of ancient Japan. It still retains its ancient heritage and numerous historical landmarks, including Ninna-ji Temple which was built over 1,000 years ago. Here, visitors can gaze upon Omurozakura at eye-level with the marvellous five-storey temple pagoda in the background. Prime sakura time is mid-April.
Mount Arashiyama – Kyoto, Kansai
Also in Kyoto is Mount Arashiyama, the perfect location for those who would like to view sakura from different viewpoints. During mid-March to mid-April, Yamazakura and Someiyoshino will take turns blooming in different shades of pink on the mountain. Visitors can savour the glorious blossoms sitting on the banks of the Katsura River, during a walk along the trails, on board a Sagano Romantic Train running along the Hozugawa River, or from a boat on the lake.
The Osaka Mint Bureau – Osaka, Kansai
As it’s really a factory and museum of national coins and insignias, The Osaka Mint Bureau is usually restricted to authorised visitors. Its grounds are open to the public for one week during the middle of April, however, to enable them to walk its paths lined with almost 130 varieties of sakura trees. The panorama of cherry blossom trees in bloom is fantastic and include rare ones such as Otemari and Kotemari. It’s important to check the exact opening days in advance.
Kawaguchi Lake – Yamanashi, Chubu / Shin-etsu
An iconic backdrop of ‘Fuji-san, a lake and sakura’ can be found at Kawaguchi Lake, and it’s open day and night for visitors. During the prime period of the second half of April, Fujikawaguchika Sakura Festival will be held at the Enkai Hall, adding fun for visitors with many food stalls and a flea market. When it gets dark, decorative lights will illuminate the scenery and sakura for an utterly different atmosphere.
Kenroku-en Garden – Ishikawa, Chubu / Shin-etsu
Located next to Kanazawa Castle in Ishikawa, Kenroku-en Garden is acclaimed as one of the top three most beautiful gardens in Japan and from the beginning to middle of April, it will be covered with soft-pink clouds of blossoming sakura. One of the rarest varieties of cherry blossom grows here – the Kiku-Sakura with its stunning blooms with 300 petals. Visitors can join the Kenroku-en Kiku-Sakura Festival and also enjoy evening sessions in the garden.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden – Tokyo, Kanto
Nestled in the centre of the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, covering a vast area between Shinjuku and Shibuya, lies Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. Nicknamed the ‘Oasis in the Big City’, this garden showcases more than 1,100 cherry blossom trees and 65 different varieties. The sakura season here lasts a full month – from the end of March to the end of April – and urbanites come to escape from the city chaos, enjoy a picnic in serenity and enjoy the exquisite beauty of blooming sakura.
Tsuruga Castle Park – Fukushima, Tohoku
The further north we move, the later sakura will bloom. From mid-April to the beginning of May, Aizu-Wakamatsu Castle (aka Tsuruga Castle or the ‘Crane Castle’) in Tohoku is the location to best appreciate the beauty of cherry blossoms. It’s such a pleasure to look at stunning Someiyoshino and Shidarezakura in the garden with the red-roofed castle towering in the background. Visitors can also enjoy an evening sakura experience here, as the castle and gardens will be lit up once night falls.
Matsumae Castle Park – Hokkaido
Situated in the northernmost region of Japan with a cold climate, the city of Matsumae is well-known as ‘the city of sakura’. Matsumae Castle Park contains more than ten thousand sakura trees and 250 different varieties, which do not bloom at the same time and why visitors can enjoy Hanami Matsuri here from the end of April to the end of May – much longer than at other locations in Japan. Hanami Matsuri here is lively and popular, and in the evenings decorative lights are switched on to give a soft ambience to the scenery and cherry blossom trees.