While the country has thousands of sakura spots, these are some of the best – including underrated cities you can venture to, if you want to avoid the crowds or even catch them as late as in May – and when you should plan to go.
1. Yoshinoyama, Nara
It’s hard to find a cherry blossom “best list” that doesn’t have Mt Yoshino near the very top. This mountain range, in the heart of Nara prefecture, has been Japan’s most famous cherry-blossom viewing spot for centuries. What makes this site special is its geography: More than 30,000 cherry trees are planted on a north-facing mountain slope that’s home to temples, parks and a pretty village. This means ascending the slope’s four areas – the Shimo Senbon (lower), Naka Senbon (middle), Kami Senbon (upper) and Oku Senbon (inner) – comes with interesting activities along the way. Like stopping in at Yoshimizu-jinja Shrine, where it is said that you can see 1,000 cherry trees at once, or enjoying a picnic at the popular Naka Senbon Park. Those with enough stamina can journey up to Hanayagura Observatory (an hour’s hike up the mountain) to enjoy a panoramic view of Yoshinoyama.
*Best viewing dates: Late March to early April
2. Ueno Park, Tokyo
If you’re going to see cherry blossoms in Tokyo, you may as well go all out and hit Ueno Park. Come spring, the 54ha park in Tokyo becomes the epicentre of a crowded, noisy and wild hanami party. The central path is lined with about 800 cherry trees, and both sides are filled with revellers letting their hair down for their annual picnic under the blooms. Tip: to guarantee your spot, get there early in the morning, lay out your mat and make sure one of you stays there until the entire group arrives. Aside from picnicking, there’s plenty more to do in Japan’s first government-designated park: Four major museums and a zoo are located on the grounds, as well as an expansive pond that offers boat rentals. All this will surely see you through until nightfall when 1,000 lanterns strung up throughout the park will light up the sky for magical yozakura – night-time sakura viewing.
*Best viewing dates: Late March to early April
3. Japan Mint, Osaka
It’s variety rather than sheer abundance that distinguishes the cherry-blossom experience at Osaka Mint Bureau. Around 130 varieties are crammed into the 560m-long pathway that snakes through the pretty garden of the Japan Mint headquarters. While common cherry blossoms have only five petals, the Mint is famous for its double-blossom varieties, which can have 20, 50, even 100 petals per flower, making for incredibly lush blooms that drip from the trees. The gates to the cherry garden are opened to the general public for only one week in mid-April, so the event is very popular. But even with the crowds – which usually surpass 800,000 visitors – walking beneath a canopy of blossoms, with the stately brick Meiji-era Mint Museum on one side and the sparkling waters of the Yodo River on the other, is well worth it.
*Dates for the event differ every year, so check the Japan Mint website in mid-March for updates. Best viewing dates: Mid-April
4. Kakunodate, Tohoku
See the unexpected collision of beautiful cherry blossoms with ancient samurai culture in this quiet riverside town. Today, Kakunodate is the best place in Japan to see samurai architecture, with a number of beautifully preserved residences open to the public. Indeed, it was the samurai families who originally brought cherry trees to the town from Kyoto, and towering weeping cherry blossoms can still be seen around the old samurai houses, most of which are surrounded by dark black fences with impressive gates. The Hinokinai River, bordering Kakunodate’s southern side, is another top sakura spot with 2km of cherry trees creating a tunnel of flowers along its banks. In addition to the trees, you can check out the Sakura Matsuri festival, which features food stalls along the river and an evening illumination event in the Samurai District.
*Best viewing dates: Mid-April
5. Hirosaki Castle, Aomori
While cherry blossoms are good, cherry blossoms plus a 17th-century castle are even better. Hirosaki Castle, on the tip of Japan’s main island of Honshu, is allegedly the nation’s most popular sakura-viewing spot, drawing more than two million visitors every year. And it’s not hard to see why. The castle grounds pretty much cover the complete cherry-blossom hit parade: thousands of trees (more than 2,600), views of snow-capped mountains, cherry-blossom tunnels, petal-filled moats, boats that can be rented to float romantically through the moats, and night illumination events. All these set against the stunning backdrop of a glorious white castle complete with gates, turrets and a fortified moat. And if that’s not enough, the castle park also boasts Japan’s oldest cherry tree of the Yoshino variety, which was planted in 1882. A great time to visit is during the Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival, when volunteer guides are on hand to lead tours, and hundreds of food stalls are open to the public. Check the festival’s website for next year’s dates.
*Best viewing dates: Late April to early May