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7 Tips For Sakura Viewing In Japan
1. Before all else, refer to the Sakura Zensen
The Sakura Zensen (桜前線), or the Cherry Blossom Front, refers to the advancing of cherry blossoms across Japan. As it is always accompanied by dates, it is the most useful tool for anyone scheduling a Sakura viewing trip. Typically, the first blooms appear in the southern-most areas of Kyushu island around late March. The blooms then advance northwards, till reaching In the northern most island of Hokkaido in the middle of May.
The dates of the Sakura Zensen is thus what your travel period should be based on. That said, there is no need to obsess over it. The Zensen highlights the mankai, or full blossoming days at each key city. But missing mankai hardly means you miss everything. While sakura blossoms have notoriously short lives, they do still stay on the trees for at least a few days. Also, the Sakura Zensen is ultimately just a forecast. Don't expect it to be completely accurate.
Remember. Sakura blossoms don't just stay on the trees for one day. You do nothing but drive yourself crazy if you try to hit each city in your itinerary on Mankai days.
2. Be prepared for wet weather and occasional chills
Sakuras represent renewal to the Japanese. That's because they are one of the first flowers of spring. The importance of this for travellers is that the days could still be chilly, with occasional showers, particularly if your trip is around the end of March. In 2015, there was a cold front. This saw light snowfall in the first week of April in cities like Matsumoto.
Therefore, be flexible with your itinerary. Be ready to swap for indoor destinations should you wake up to horrid weather. Take note too that heavy rain is a menace to the blossoms. Nothing sweeps them off the trees more effectively than an hour of splattering. You might want to head for somewhere else, if your destination had just been hit by heavy rain.
3. Go early in the morning. Or in the afternoon.
The Japanese love sakuras. So does the rest of the world. What to make of this? Crowds. Huge crowds. Especially during the evening when Japanese office workers gather for their beloved hanami drinking parties.
Personally, Sakura viewing crowds have never bothered me too much. The Japanese are renowned for being orderly, and there are so many cherry trees around. But if it's an issue for you, go early in the morning. The afternoon is usually fine too. Alternatively, seek out less popular spots. A serene grove in a small park could be just as lovely.
4. Be flexible with accommodations during Sakura viewing season
Finding accommodation in tourist hot spots like Kyoto could be a real challenge during Cherry Blossom season. Typically, Kyoto is near fully booked by early February.
To circumvent this, secure your reservations as early as possible. If you can't, remember that Japan has one of the best transportation systems in the world. You don't actually have to stay in Kyoto to view the Sakuras there. To get from the neighbouring city of Osaka to Kyoto, you merely need a 20 minute express train ride. If you have a railway pass, Yokohoma is but five minutes away from Tokyo by bullet train. What I'm saying is, don't fret if you can't book a room. Branch out in your hotel search. Japan has enough accommodations all over the country for everybody, even during Sakura season.
5. Sakuras are not just on the trees
That's right. They are found everywhere. As adornments on clothes and souvenirs, as props in performances, and even as food ingredients. Sakura becomes the theme for everything during the hanami season; there is even sakura ice cream. A proper hanami trip should thus not just consists of visits to the parks, you should also take the chance to experience Sakura culture in other aspects of Japan. One suggestion. If in Kyoto, try to attend one of the Miyako Odori Cherry Blossom festive dances. The elegance and gorgeous sets will blow you away. (More information about the dance here)
6. Don't miss the special night illuminations
This is my personal favourite. To celebrate the blooms, places that are usually closed at sunset are lit up for special night visits. The best of these are without a doubt the temples in Kyoto. Go at sunset, just as the sky begins to segue from orange to blue. Saunter your way down the atmospheric streets, perhaps picking up a snack or two along the way. For an extra touch, how about dressing up in traditional Japanese kimono too? Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have plenty of special shops that offer such dress up services. A good many also provides professional photographers to follow you around. Simply google for "dress up in kimono" to discover the listings.
7. Take the chance to sample some Japanese street food
Popular Cherry Blossom viewing spots have plenty of surrounding stalls selling tidbits and street food. Famous snacks like takoyaki and kushikatsu are staples. There would also be more exotic foodstuffs like roasted bamboo spouts and soft shell crab bits. In my opinion, the perfect way to end a Sakura viewing excursion would be to sample some of these street food while watching the rest of the crowds breeze by. After which, it's to the next hanami destination or an elaborate dinner. Or perhaps a slow, relaxing onsen soak, back at your ryokan.