The cherry blossom (sakura) is Japan's unofficial national flower, and the yearly phenomenon of the trees blooming en masse has become one of the peak times to visit the country. Starting in late March or early April and continuing through late May, visitors crowd some of the most popular cities and their parks to experience this fleeting natural wonder. To help travelers navigate this popular time of the year, InsideJapan Tours has gathered the latest intelligence and created an interactive Japan Blossom Guide that, together with their custom travel itineraries, will help guests take full advantage of the iconic season, beyond the usual hot-spots and crowded locations.
Track the Blooms
Plum and cherry flowers begin to appear in a wave, starting as early as February in Okinawa, then slowly climbing north, usually peaking in Tokyo and Kyoto in early April, and reaching Hokkaido by late May. To visualize the "blooming great migration" and to better plan viewing locations, InsideJapan Tours created the Japan Blossom Guide tool, which provides a helpful interactive month-by-month map charting the blooms' path through the country.
The fleeting nature of sakura is seen as symbolic in Japanese tradition. In the days of the samurai, sakura represented the short life of a warrior, often cut off in its prime. In today's Japan, sakura serve as a reminder of the power of nature, the changing of the seasons, and that life may be all too short. Beginning with plum blossoms blooming in mid-February and continuing through May with cherry blossoms, Japan offers a long window of time to explore off-the-radar destinations while still experiencing the beautiful blooms.
Start with Plum Blossoms
A precursor to the madness of cherry blossom season in April, plum blossom (ume) season is calmer and just as magical. Typically, the stunning reddish, pink, or white umbrella-shaped flowers show bursts of color as early as mid-February and are accompanied by ume matsuri (plum festivals). These celebrations feature performances of traditional song and dance, as well as processions and plenty of culinary experiences -- including plum-forward treats like plum buns, plum yokan sweets, and plum madeleines.
InsideJapanTours' Japan Enchantment Small Group Tour (starting at $8,393 per person) is the ideal way to experience the magic of Japan as it sheds its winter skin. The 14-night itinerary features highlights such as exploring the ornate and dazzling temples and shrines of Nikko, observing the onsen-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka, floating down the Sumida River to Tokyo's beautiful Hamarikyu Gardens, visiting the world-famous Kenrokuen Garden in Kanazawa, meeting a maiko (trainee geisha) and attending a performance of the spring geisha dances in Kyoto.
Tokyo and Kyoto are known as the top destinations to view the cherry blossoms, and with good reason. Situated on the southern half of Japan, they are among the first to welcome the blooms, and Kyoto is renowned for its spectacular weeping-willow blossom trees. But unique and unforgettable surprises await those travelers willing to explore beyond the expected sakura sites.
Hokkaido (Japan's northernmost island) and Tohoku (the northern part of Honshu main island) welcome the cherry blossoms almost a month after the regions surrounding Tokyo and Kyoto and also boast some impressive viewing opportunities. The northern cities in Tohoku are likely to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom from mid-to-late April, and similarly, in Sapporo (Hokkaido's capital city) the flowers emerge at the beginning of May, with the optimum viewing time around mid-May. These locations are less crowded this time of the year and provide just as beautiful cherry blossom viewing as Kyoto and Tokyo but without the crowds.
To explore the lesser-visited north during cherry blossom season, InsideJapan Tours' Wild Hokkaido Self-guided Adventure (starting at $4,698 per person) provides the flexibility and insight to fully appreciate the wild and untamed flora of Japan's northern regions. Highlights of this 14-night itinerary include a nature hike through the beautiful Daisetsuzan National Park, a visit to Toya Onsen, one of Hokkaido's premier hot spring resorts, and a journey to Biei, famous for its rolling fields of brightly colored flowers.
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