Cherry Blossom in Japan

How to See Cherry Blossoms in Japan

If you want to experience the magic of cherry blossom season in Japan, 2021 is going to be your next opportunity. (Thanks to the devastation wrought by coronavirus in Japan and abroad, 2020’s sakura came and went unseen.)

Pandemic or not, the so-called “cherry blossom front” begins in Japan’s southwestern Kyushu and Shikoku islands in late March, moving northward and eastward across the country until early May, when the last flowers in Hokkaido fall to the ground.

Sounds poetic doesn’t it? Well, if you’ve started to plan your Japan cherry blossom season 2021 travel yet, you’ve also seen the prosaic side of visiting Japan in spring.

You’ll need to arrange your itinerary such that it follows the typical progression of the bloom and secure accommodation far (but not too far!) in advance. Once you’ve done that, it’s essential to keep tabs on Japan’s weather in late February and early March, as temperatures during these months determine the particulars of a given year’s season.

The devil is in the details when it comes to seeing cherry blossoms. Luckily for you I’ve got quite a few details to share—and a halo instead of horns.

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When Does Japan’s Cherry Blossom Season Usually Take Place?

When is cherry blossom season in Japan? The 2020 season began freakishly early—on March 14 in Tokyo—but in an ordinary year, cherry blossoms reach mankai (aka full bloom) as follows:

Additionally, whether during sakura season 2021 or any other year, cherry blossoms briefly spring up in Okinawa in late January or early February. Note, however, that these are a different species than the somei yoshino tree that blooms in the rest of Japan.

Coronavirus and the 2021 Cherry Blossoms

As of August 2020, Japan’s borders remain closed to all but essential foreign travelers. Barring a major medical discovery or a paradigm shift in the Japanese government’s pathological cautiousness, I expect Japan to remain closed to foreign tourists through the end of 2020. But what about next year—will Japan’s border be open again in time for the 2021 sakura season? I wish I could tell you “yes” and feel 100% confident about it. (Spoiler alert: I can’t.)

What I can tell you is the indicators I’m watching. First, if one or more vaccines receive approval from the US FDA by the end of the year (in particular the one from AstraZeneca, which Japan has pre-purchased in large quantities), chances of Japan’s entry ban lifting in the first quarter of 2021 are high. On the other hand, if authorities decide to cancel the Tokyo Olympics, irrespective of news on the vaccine/therapeutic front, it seems unlikely that the Japanese border will open in the first half of 2021, and maybe not in 2021 at all.

Top Cities in Japan for Cherry Blossoms

Kyoto

 

There is no travel experience in the world like the Kyoto cherry blossoms. (There’s also nowhere in the world quite as crowded as Kyoto in late March or early April, but that’s a topic for another post). Whether walking down the Philosopher’s Path to Higashiyama sakura spots like Maruyama Park and Kiyomizu-dera, or enjoying hanami at Arashiyama‘s Tenryu-ji before walking through mysterious Sagano Bamboo Grove, Kyoto during cherry blossom season more than lives up to the hype. Just wake up early if you can to enjoy the beauty in relative solitude!

Tokyo

 

Although Japan cherry blossom 2021 is taking place a few months before the re-scheduled Tokyo 2021 Olympics (assuming they take place at all), Tokyo is nonetheless high on many lists of would-be hanami goers next year. This is not a surprise, at least not to me. In spite of being one of the most urbanized cities in the world, Tokyo is one of the very best places in Japan to see cherry blossoms. From popular spots like Chidorigafuchi moat and the shores of the Sumida River in Asakusa, to green spaces like Ueno Park and Koishikawa Koraku-en, Tokyo is chock full of cherry blossoms.

Osaka

 

Many people are under the impression that the only place to see Osaka cherry blossoms is Osaka Castle, but this is false. To be sure, I actually prefer seeing sakura in Osaka at other spots in the city. Sakuranomiya Park, for example, sits up the Okawa River from the castle, and is actually a perfect vantage point from which to look southward toward it. I also love walking through temple-filled Shitaderamachi when cherry blossoms are at full bloom in Osaka, whether at mainstream attractions like Shitenno-ji or more obscure ones.

Kamakura

 

One thing I don’t like about some cherry blossom Japan 2021 forecast models (and indeed, those for any given year) is that they skip seemingly secondary sakura destinations. One example of this is Kamakura, which sits close enough to Tokyo to be a suburb, but is very much its own destination—it actually used to be the capital of Japan! My favorite spots to see cherry blossoms in Kamakura are a series of temples just north of the city center (Engaku-ji and Meigetsu-in, which are both accessible via Kita-Kamakura Station), though I’m also a sucker for sakura at Kotoku-in, aka the Big Buddha.

Himeji

 

There are few more iconic sakura photos that you can take than cherry blossoms at Himeji Castle—I know this personally. In fact, I was so intent on getting my so-called “Himeji money shot” that I actually returned on two separate days in 2019, since the blossoms hadn’t quite peaked the first time I went. For cities like Himeji, where only one spot really sees the bulk of cherry blossom beauty, dedication is everything. If you travel to Himeji to see cherry blossoms, you could also stop in Kobe on the way back to Osaka (assuming this is where you’re coming from).

Other Top Cherry Blossom Destinations in Japan

Whether for sakura Japan 2021 or another year, here are some other places that are absolutely wonderful to visit during cherry blossom season:

  • Matsuyama Castle, Ehime prefecture
  • Kotohira-gu, Kagawa prefecture
  • Yoshino Mountain, Nara prefecture
  • Urui River, Shizuoka prefecture
  • Fuji Five Lakes, Yamanashi prefecture
  • Hanamiyama Park, Fukushima prefecture
  • Hirosaki Castle, Aomori prefecture

These, of course, are only the beginning—there are so many amazing places to see cherry blossoms in Japan you’d need a lifetime to enjoy them. I’ve personally taken nearly a dozen separate sakura trips at this point and I feel like I’ve just scratched the surface!

The 2021 Japan Cherry Blossom Forecast

Planning to travel during the cherry blossom festival Japan 2021? I encourage you to hold your horses—and not just because the Covid-19 pandemic could still be raging by then! The first forecast won’t be released until February 2021, and will be liable to change depending on the weather in the subsequent weeks; none of the forecasts released before about March 30 of a given year are reliably predictive for most of the country. (If you live in Asia or will already be traveling in Japan at that time, it will be easier to wait until the last minute, so you can more precisely time your Japan cherry blossom 2021 trip.)

If, on the other hand, you’re coming from the US or Europe and want to book your flights (again, I wouldn’t recommend this just yet due to coronavirus), staying from late March to early May so you can be present for the whole season is the surest way to avoid disappointment—One month in Japan (or longer!) will guarantee you lots of cherry blossom action! In any case, I suggest you wait until as late as possible to hammer down the details of your Japan cherry blossom itinerary.

Will Japan’s 2021 Cherry Blossom Season Be Early, Late or On-Time?

Once the Sakura 2021 season begins in earnest, I’ll be updating this page with expert forecasts and my own analyses of them. When looking at cherry blossom forecasts, these are the factors I’ll be considering as I make my assessments:

  • Temperature: Generally speaking, the first cherry trees in a given city or location have their first bloom shortly after the last hard freeze of the season. Full bloom (mankai) can occur anywhere from a few days after this to a couple weeks. How soon mankai arrives and how long it lasts also varies depending upon how warm or cold it is.
  • Precipitation: Even if temperatures are relatively mild, heavy rain can delay the arrival of the first bloom and especially full bloom during the Japan cherry blossom season. Additionally, if rainy or windy conditions arise as the blossoms approach mankai or after it has been reached, this can drastically shorten the amount of time available to enjoy hanami.
  • Specific sakura spots: Although there is an official date when a city or region sees its first bloom and full bloom, there is variance (often significant) between different sakura spots within one region. For example, the weeping shiderazakura in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park blooms before the Philosopher’s Path, which in turn blooms before Kiyomizu-dera.
  • Past performance: Regardless of temperature, precipitation and when the season starts, the progression of the sakura in the past can provide clues about what will happen this year. While it usually takes cherry blossoms in Kyoto a full week to reach mankai after they initially bloom, I’ve noticed Kanazawa’s progress much faster, often in only a few days.

In mid-January 2020, an article came come out that vaguely stated cherry blossom season Japan 2020 would be early, and stated that the sakura season 2020 peak would occur about one week earlier than normal—March 27 in Tokyo, for example. This did play out in reality, although it was a moot point: Many travelers canceled their sakura trips on account of coronavirus.

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Other FAQ About Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Which month is cherry blossom in Japan?

Japan’s cherry blossoms begin blooming in mid-March in Shikoku and Kyushu islands, as well as in Tokyo. They reach full bloom in major tourist destinations like Kyoto, Osaka and Kanazawa during early April, while mid-to-late April is the best time to see sakura in the Tohoku region. The cherry blossom season ends in early May, after it reaches Hokkaido island in Japan’s far north.

How long do cherry blossoms bloom in Japan?

The entire life cycle of the cherry blossom, from bud to leaf, is about a month. However, the mankai (or full bloom) only lasts between 1-2 weeks, with the fullest and most gorgeous period of blooming sometimes just days in length. Weather events such as wind, rain or sudden cold snaps can impact the longevity of the sakura bloom.

Where are cherry blossoms in Japan?

Cherry blossoms exist all over Japan, from towns and villages in rural areas like San’in and the Japanese Alps, to huge cities like Tokyo and Osaka. While the majority of cherry blossoms in Japan are of the iconic somei yoshino variety, other species exist, including more brightly colored ones in Okinawa, and the picturesque shiderazakura, or “weeping” cherry trees you find in certain gardens.

The Bottom Line

If you want to experience Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, 2021 will be your next opportunity—pending, of course, a resolution to the coronavirus pandemic. Both because of the virus and the difficulty of forecasting full bloom dates in a normal year, I would wait until next February or March to finalize your 2021 cherry blossom trip, if you can. Come back to this page often, as I’ll be updating it with essential facts and figures as the next season approaches, and as the one after that draws nearer. Also remember that you don’t have to sweat the details of cherry blossom season alone. Hire me to plan your 2021 cherry blossom trip to Japan!