A Mini Travel Guide

Japan was never on my “travel to” list until we were looking for somewhere to go for a special birthday. Everyone we spoke to who had been there said: “go!” And, lucky us, the birthday coincides with Japan’s in cherry blossom season. So let me give you a snapshot of our visit to Japan in cherry blossom season.

The Significance of Cherry Blossom Season

The Japanese and visitors love this time of year and now I know why. Apart from the simple fragile beauty of the blossoms, there’s a cultural significance which surrounds this season which makes it so special. Together, the picturesque trees and flowers and the excitement of spring create a wonderful, buoyant atmosphere in the cities and towns. This is a snapshot of our experience.

​”The significance of the cherry blossom tree in Japanese culture goes back hundreds of years. In their country, the cherry blossom represents the fragility and the beauty of life. It’s a reminder that life is almost overwhelmingly beautiful but that it is also tragically short. When the cherry blossom trees bloom for a short time each year in brilliant force, they serve as a visual reminder of how precious and how precarious life is. So, when Japanese people come together to view the cherry blossom trees and marvel at their beauty, they aren’t just thinking about the flowers themselves, but also about the larger meaning and deep cultural tradition the cherry blossom tree.”

Huffington Post Aug 2013

After a long, cold winter cherry blossoms (“sakura”) signals spring and the change of seasons. We joined the crowds flocking to parks, castle grounds and riverbanks to spend time among the blossoms, sightseeing, photographing and picnicking, enjoying “hanami” (flower viewing). There are so many groups of young girls parading in their seasonal floral kimonos and taking selfies with the blossoms, it’s fun to see. Unfortunately, the season is a brutally short (around 2 weeks) and subject to weather conditions. If it’s windy or raining, the delicate blossom petals drift down from the branches far too easily.

You’ll also see the soft pink colour of the Sakura and blossom motif everywhere including on textiles, souvenirs and food. The favoured sweet appears to be a variety of red (adzuki) bean paste confection. They look beautiful but definitely an acquired taste. Visually it’s all fantastic.

So when can you see the Cherry Blossoms?

According to Japan-guide. com, this is the timing:
January/February – the island of Okinawa
March/April – the middle of Japan (eg. Tokyo, Ky Kyo). We were in Tokyo in mid-March and Kyoto in late March and they were at the beginning of their bloom.
May – Northern Hokkaido

Where can you enjoy the Cherry Blossom?

You will easily see them in parks, gardens and temples. A couple of places we particularly enjoyed were:

Meguro River, Tokyo,
Gion Shirakawa, Kyoto

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The bronze statue of Amida Buddha, Kamakura

Where we stayed

It’s difficult to get accomodation in Kyoto is cherry blossom season so book early

Tokyo: Mitusi Garden Hotel Premier, Ginza
Pros: Location, ease of transport for the metro and Shinkansen (bullet train), small and quiet, shopping central
Cons: Cost (in general, Japan is not a cheap country to travel and Tokyo is up there), our room was small but adequate.

Kyoto: Hyatt Regency, Kyoto

Pros: Lovely, well appointed low rise hotel with nice bars and restaurants. It’s within walking distance of Gion
Cons: Cost

How to get around in Japan

Simple. I was a bit daunted at first but the train system and Shinkansen (fast train) are brilliant. Once you get to Japan it’s easy to navigate and the Japanese are super helpful. I recommend the Japan Rail Pass . It has to be purchased outside Japan and allow time, once you arrive to “activate” the pass in a major train station. It makes the fast train travel easy and economical especially if you’re planning to visits a few cities and towns during your trip. There is a number of different type of passes depending on the areas you plan to visit. We also opted for the Green version which is, essentially, “business class”  in the Shinkansen. It’s very comfortable if your budget allows but the standard pass would be fine as well. The fast trains are extremely clean, prompt and efficient and have a very regular timetable between major cities.

Other Useful Resources for Travelling in Japan

japan-guide.com – for trip planning and cherry blossom forecasts
Context Travel – for small group, thoughtful tours. We use them a lot and find their tours unique and high quality

Whatever you decide, this is a wonderful country to explore and cherry blossom season is a delight for the senses. Have you got any tips or suggestions for travelling in Japan in cherry blossom season?

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Header photo: Karolien Brughmans

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