Cherry blossoms in Japan
January 7, 2014 6:04 AM   Subscribe

Looking for advice and tips before planning a holiday to Japan to view the cherry blossoms this spring.

My wife speaks some Japanese and we'll be travelling with our 2 year old daughter.

1. Is this a busy time of year for travel? i.e. do we need to book everything far in advance?
2. Our flight options are to Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka. Which are the best areas for viewings close to these cities?
3. What dates should we book? This guide shows average dates for all 3 cities to be around 28 March for start of the bloom and 5 April for the full bloom. Our trip will be 8-10 days.

Any other tips or advice?
posted by Gomez_in_the_South to Travel & Transportation around Japan (13 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Spring is indeed a very busy time of year for travel in Japan. April is when school holidays are and the end of April is Golden Week (four national holidays in 7 days). Kyoto is the premiere place for viewing Cherry Blossoms and also the most popular.

Here is more information about where to view Cherry Blossoms.

I would indeed make firm travel plans, BEFORE Golden Week. You don't want to get caught out.

As for traveling by train, be aware that there is limited room for luggage, most Japanese folks ship their luggage to their destination. So if you have a stroller, car seat, diaper bag, AND will not be happy campers.

I visited my parents in Iwakuni in late March. The Cherry Blossoms were budding and just starting to open. You might want to look into flying into Hiroshima, and staying in that area. There are tons of cool places that are day trips and it will be less expensive than Tokyo.

Hiroshima has baseball, the peace musuem (you may be shocked at how the whole bombing of Pearl Harbor was glossed over) cool department stores with art and ikibana exhibitions, and very dealable Japanese Urban City vibe.

I'm serious about the department stores. We went to one and saw a collection of antique Hina Dolls, artisan pottery and at the pottery exhibit, we were asked to participate in Tea Ceremony! (and to pose for multiple pictures with the Tea Ceremony ladies.)

I recommend checking out the Kintai Bridge. It's near a lovely park, with cherry trees, a shrine, a museum etc. We spent a great day there. Momo Ice Cream. YUM!

Miyajima Island is also within the area. You take a ferry over, and once there, you can walk to everything you want to see. There's a Shrine and Torii Gate, and TAME DEER! Deer EVERYWHERE! Pet them, hug them, feed them 'Deer Cookies'. Have some lunch, buy some Maple Leaf cookies to bring home as souveniers. Great day out!

The 100 Yen stores are really fun, and cheap places to buy souveniers or just really cool Japanese stuff. I also enjoy going to supermarkets. Some have tastings.

If you're going to visit shrines (and you SHOULD!) get a Stamp Book. Each temple will have a stamp and a monk will be very happy to put it in your book for you.

If you do end up in Osaka, check out a Sumo match during the Spring Basho, between March 5 and March 23.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:27 AM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Seconding the sumo, and everything else above. If you do go to Osaka, definitely eat takoyaki there, and the Aquarium is good.
posted by runincircles at 6:40 AM on January 7, 2014

Ueno Park in Tokyo is fantastic for cherry blossoms.

Pretty much *all* of Kyoto is great for cherry blossoms.

There are sites you can google for that give the estimated blossom season across the nation - they bloom (I *think*) south-to-north across Feb/March/April
posted by colin_l at 8:31 AM on January 7, 2014

The JTB package tour itinerary might be a place to start your planning. Spring is very busy and I second booking early. Japan is packed with cherry-blossom-viewing spots, so I'd pick your destination airport based on other factors. Is there anything else you want to do while you're there?

With a toddler, you could combine Ueno Park with the Zoo. (Note that the park will be absolutely nuts during the peak season, but if you wake up early with typical jetlag, you'll have a better chance of getting a spot.)
posted by chocotaco at 9:06 AM on January 7, 2014

Best answer: I'm not entirely sure I would bring a 2 year old to Tokyo, and I plan tours as a side business.

I've taken both our kids to Tokyo as toddlers, and it's not fun. There is a lot of walking, and it gets tiring. (NOTE: travelling to Tokyo with toddlers is different than living in Tokyo with toddlers).

We actually spend part of each year close to Kyoto (we will be travelling to Japan next week for 3 months), and we have never taken our youngest to Kyoto either. It is too crowded.

Also, the way Kyoto is laid out, it is too difficult to take a stroller around.

Thanks to climate change, it is difficult to predict when the cherry blossoms will bloom these days, but as others have said, the last week of March, first week of April is a good bet.

If you can plan to arrive after the end of Japanese school spring break (usually ends right at the start of April, so the kids can go to a new grade or school during the cherry blossoms), it would be less busy.

Personally, if you have the chance to fly into Nagoya, I would go for it. It's a beautiful (and, as is typical with pragmatic Nagoya) well laid-out airport. There is a fast rail connection to downtown. I have a lot of good memories taking our oldest to Nagoya as a toddler. There are a lot of public parks and not a lot of tourists.

Nagoya itself is actually quite close to Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto), and you can take either the bullet train or the Kintestsu inter-city express.

If you stayed in Nagoya, which is often called a "countrified" big city, you could take Kintetsu to Nara, which is much more suitable for a toddler.

Nara, unlike Kyoto or Tokyo, is designed for walking, with lots of parks near the station (Kintetsu Station).

With a toddler, I don't think you can really expect to go to the "famous" cherry viewing spots, because it is going to be too crowded.

From Nagoya you can also take the train to Nagano, if you like, or to Toyama and the Sea of Japan. You can even take the train to Kanazawa, a very beautiful and walkable city.

However, with a toddler, we've found that there is little tolerance for long train rides.

For cherry blossoms, as a rule of thumb, places to the south and southwest (the Pacific seaboard from Tokyo on) will see cherry blossoms blooming early than places to the north / northeast (the Japan Sea Coast and Tohoku).

For us, we have planned a car trip on the final weekend in March / beginning of April to Shikoku. We're going to Kochi for a couple of nights, and then Matsuyama.

I'm pretty sure we will get to see cherry blossoms.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:36 AM on January 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

In Tokyo, in addition to Ueno Park, which is wonderful at that time of year and has lots of food stands and people picnicing, you should check out Inokashira park, which has a pond with swan boats! So beautiful.
posted by mai at 10:38 AM on January 7, 2014

In fact, we spent a whole day in Kichijoji and it was really lovely.

Here is more to do there. I remember some nice restaurants between the station and the park.
posted by mai at 10:45 AM on January 7, 2014

Go to the basement floor of Takashimaya (an upscale department store)! The basement floor is always the food floor in a department store and the one at Takashimaya is Heaven on Earth! (to me at least). The top floor of any department store is always the restaurant floor and if you get hungry anywhere it's good to know that. There are multiple restaurants to choose from with displays in the glass.

Also, make sure you seek out some old eateries! Meaning old noodle shops that have been open for 300 years and make amazing homemade noodles and so on. In the restaurants in Japan a lot of the good ones do one thing only e.g Udon shops serve Udon, Unagi shops serve Unagi, etc.

If you do go to Kyoto (fairly close to Osaka (and I personally hate Osaka)), I recommend the guidebook Old Kyoto to find some good places to eat, shop, or stay.
posted by Blitz at 1:41 PM on January 7, 2014

Response by poster: I appreciate all the answers and information.

Travelling with a family, we'd prefer to avoid the crowds, so will probably choose places other than Kyoto, as suggested.

Besides the blossoms themselves, we're also interested in natural scenery (parks etc.), food, local culture (temples etc.), and cities (roughly in that order).

(I still need to get a post together on the Namaqualand flowers, South Africa's equivalent, which is also well worth visiting)
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 5:07 PM on January 7, 2014

Assuming you fly into Nagoya (Tokyo is just over an hour away by bullet train), one neat place you could go to see touristy stuff is Hikone (not Hakone, but that's also doable from either Tokyo or Nagoya too).

Hikone is a castle town in Shiga Prefecture on the east side of Lake Biwa, and it's about thirty minutes by bullet train from Nagoya (you'd have transfer to a local at Maibara), and it's also about 40 minutes by regular train from Kyoto.

Hikone Castle is pretty famous for its cherry blossoms, and it's certainly kid-friendly. The town itself is also very pleasant and lovely with lots of parks and touristy things and a lakefront promenade.

There are going to be tourists viewing the cherry blossoms at Hikone Castle, but for the most part they are going to be local tourists - the crowds will head to Kyoto close by.

Shiga Prefecture itself is a very nice place, my second favourite prefecture in Japan. The northeast shore of the lake is home of the famed Satoyama, while the southern region of the lake is kind of an alternative Kyoto, notable for Ishiyama-dera, with its own cherry blossom trees.

Anyway, from Nagoya you could also make a fairly quick trip to either Hakone (accessible from the Shinkansen stop at Odawara) or the hot springs of the Izu Peninsula.

I'll shut up now.
posted by KokuRyu at 6:11 PM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

The cherry blossoms are hard to predict accurately so I'd try to have more open travel plans. If you get to Tokyo and find that the full bloom is going to be late, you can get a Shinkansen to Osaka or Hiroshima. Closer to the season you can check the detailed state of blossoming on Yahoo Japan (In Japanese).

Cherry blossom viewing spots are everywhere and you don't need to go to the big ones (like Ueno or Kudanshita) to see them. You can go to an ordinary neighbourhood like Nippori and find a tree-lined street. Some of my favourite places were more local spots. One nice place like that is the park and along the river in Oji. You can walk along the river for literally miles of Sakura.

So as long as you get the timing right there are thousands of beautiful places to see them. I went to Tokyo a couple of years ago and was a little off in my timing. The day I left was the peak. Still, I was able to see plenty of pockets around Tokyo and Chiba that were gorgeous.
posted by nevan at 3:43 AM on January 8, 2014

Just to clarify something ruthless bunny said: the Japanese school year ends in mid March, and begins (usually) towards the end of the first week of April. Golden Week (end of April, beginning of May) is way past cherry blossoms. In terms of the normal vacation periods (Golden Week, Obon in August, and the winter holidays, the end of March-beginning of April period is the cheapest. While students don't have classes, a lot of them are still going to school every day for various sports. There aren't really any national holidays, so for the most part, you don't have the massive exodus you see with the other vacation periods. It shouldn't be as difficult to make reservations, but like most things in Japan, it's best to reserve things as early as you can.

I went to Ueno Park with some friends a couple of years ago during peak hanami, and it was incredibly packed, to the point of most of the wide asphalt paths were covered with blue tarps and groups of people. It was crowded to the point of being difficult to walk around, which isn't something I'd try with a stroller. There are a ton of other places that people have mentioned that would be easier to get around.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:39 AM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

About the only place you'd be seeing cherry blossoms during Golden Week would be Hokkaidō, honestly.

I'll cast in my vote for Nagoya. If you visit that city, I absolutely recommend checking the indispensable for listings, in English, of every major event going on in the city on a given day of the year. Phenomenal web site.
posted by DoctorFedora at 2:35 PM on January 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

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