My Ultimate Solo Travel Guide to Japan’s Cherry Blossoms
The season of spring is synonymous with cherry blossoms in Japan. The country changes its hues for two weeks a year, and it is indeed a sight to behold. The Japanese language is full of beautiful sounding words. Words like Zen, Haiku, Sensei, Shiatsu, to name a few. They roll off the tongue and are aesthetically pleasing to one’s ear.
Hanami is another word found in the Japanese lexicon. It means ‘flower viewing,’ and it is a tradition all over Japan. Japan is home to over a hundred varieties of cherry trees, including wild varieties and cultivated ones.
The Sakura is white or pale pink, sometimes dark pink or yellow, and it changes colour as the blooming season progresses. The different hues of the Sakura represent different life stages in Japanese tradition, thus making it a sacred ritual.
Hanami’s custom dates back to the Nara era (710-794), when plum flowers, which were brought in from neighbouring China, became an object of admiration. But then, in the Heian period, it was the turn of cherry blossoms or Sakura. The cherry blossom trees only bloom for two weeks in a year (between March and April) before disappearing again. So if you can catch the beauty at its peak, you know you have indeed been lucky.
As a female solo traveller, Hanami is the best thing to do. First, it is a one-of-a-kind experience, and secondly, you can escape the daily chaos of life and spend some time reconnecting with yourself. But before you set off, here is a rundown of what you must do to ensure the best experience.
1. Check the cherry blossom forecast before setting out
Sakura mostly bloom from late March to mid-April. While some sakura blooms up to 14 days, a few can peak only for a couple of days. So when planning your trip, it’s better to keep that in mind. And yes, like you check the weather, there is a way you can keep track of cherry blossoms in Japan. Check out the forecast to keep a tab on the bloom.
2. Book hotels way in advance
The cherry blossom season is bustling with tourists and natives alike. There will be a severe shortage of hotels in these two weeks as it is Japan’s holiday season.
My advice is to identify the cities and parks where you want to experience Hanami. Then choose affordable hotels or capsules near the hanami spots not to have to travel much. Traveling solo for a woman in Japan is not something one needs to worry about but download google maps and keep Google translate apps ready for use. However, there are plenty of English signs around the country. You never know when you will need it. The people in Japan are helpful and polite. So always say arigato gaziemos (thank you).
3. Pack light but bright
While packing for Japan, keep in mind that you have to click the perfect picture with the cherry blossoms in the background. So, choose colours that complement the hues of cherry blossoms. Go for bright red, pink, and blue dresses that will accentuate you when you pose. But remember, it gets quite chilly in the evenings, so be sure to grab a jacket on your way out. Also, don’t forget your umbrella as you never know when it begins to pour.
4. Getting around Japan
I cannot recommend the Japan Rail Pass enough when you come to this country. It is cheaper and safer, especially for a female solo traveller. The Rail Pass covers all the major destinations in Japan, and who wouldn’t want to ride the famous bullet trains in Japan?
Enjoying the sakura experience in different cities
While it is still the same cherry blossom, the experience is different. For a better understanding, let me break down each city for you to navigate better.
5. Pink revolution in the capital
Tokyo is a bustling metropolitan with a manic urbanity rhythm. But nestled in the madding crowd is the divinity that Sakura brings. You will find pavements strewn with pink and white petals, and laughter reverberates from every nook and corner.
What makes this spot in Tokyo one of the most picturesque places to view Hanami is the water bodies adjoining the Edo Castle. While you cannot picnic here, you can always rent a boat and paddle your way around the moat and admire the colourful cherry blossoms. The calm water is the best vantage point for sakura viewing as the trees are reflected in the water providing a mirror image. Wait for the sun to go down as the place is lit up with lanterns.
Formerly a private property of a feudal lord, the park was ultimately opened up to the common public in 1949. There are around 65 different varieties of cherry blossom trees that have different blooming times. So the bloom stays on for over two weeks here. While you can sit under a tree and picnic here, remember that alcohol, sports equipment, and musical instruments are prohibited here.
This is Tokyo’s most famous park for Hanami and one of the most photographed too. The pink and white Sakura creates a canopy, and it’s a paradise for female solo travellers who can spend time here sprawled under a cherry blossom tree with a book in hand. Ueno park is more than just cherry blossoms, and you can see what else is in store for you here.
6. Hike up Mount Yoshinoyama
Mount Yoshino or Yoshinoyama is one of those off-the-beaten-path places that are a must for Hanami. You can reach here from both Tokyo and Osaka by train. If you love hiking like me, this is the best place for you to enjoy the cherry blossoms. The 8kms path winding up the mountain houses more than 3000 trees makes it a floral paradise that you can enjoy alone. Because of the elevation and difference in temperature, the cherry blossom blooms at different times, and so even if you go beyond the peak season, there will still be a treat waiting for you.
7. Walk under the sakura tunnel in Kakunodate
Kakunodate is one of the most famous sakura spots in the Tohuku region. For me, the highlight of this trip has to be the cherry blossoms along the Hinokinai river. With over 400 trees stretching along the 2kms embankment, the blossoms droop down, almost touching the ground, thus being called ‘the weeping blossoms.’ Well, if you experience this, you will only weep with joy!
8. When the beauty makes you say, Oh Deer
If you love animals and if you love flowers, this is where both loves meet. One of the oldest public gardens in the country, Nara Park is home to around 1200 wild sika deer who roam freely.
Imagine the vast expanse of land filled with the petals from the cherry blossoms and majestic deer roaming in it. Now isn’t that picture-perfect? You can enter the park without a fee, and then if you are lucky enough, you will find a herd of deer amongst the sakura petals. You can also carry biscuits or buy cookies inside the park to feed the deer, and maybe they will be ready to pose with you too!
9. A snow-capped mountain, anyone?
A mountain is always a beautiful sight to behold. What makes Mount Fuji even more impressive during spring is the picture of blossoming Sakura in the foreground and the mighty Fuji standing tall behind it.
There is another beautiful word in Japanese called ‘Yugen.’ It’s a noun that means a profound awareness of the universe that triggers a deep emotional response.
There are free and paid viewpoints here. Try walking along the Ohashi Bridge, where you can see Mount Fuji behind Lake Kawaguchiko with cherry blossoms sprinkled all around. My other recommendation will be the Chureito pagoda, a short train ride from the Kawaguchiko train station. The ground is dotted with pink cherry blossoms while the pagoda and the mountain stand. The other way to see the trees is by cable car, but this is a paid service. Though truth be told, I would prefer the former two.
10. Walk the philosopher’s path in Kyoto
When cherry trees blossoms, the whole of Japan hits the party button, and Kyoto is no different. The whole city is awash in pink and hues, and in the backdrop stands the historical palaces and shrines of the town. There are two spots in Kyoto; you absolutely cannot miss:
Maruyama Koen park
During the cherry blossom bloom, Maruyama Koen becomes the most popular park in Kyoto. It is also the most crowded spot during this time as it is an excellent place for hanami picnics and parties. The centerpiece here is a tall shidare zakura (weeping cherry tree), lit up at night.
The Philosopher’s path
A 2 km cobbled-stoned road is adorned with Sakura on both sides, making a beautiful canopy here. It is Kyoto’s prettiest cherry blossom walk. The drooping cherry blossoms arching over a canal make it a majestic sight as the colours are reflected in the water, making the canal pink. I wondered why it bore such a name and got to know that a Kyoto University philosophy professor Nishida Kitaro used to walk along the road and contemplate, hence the name.
11. Everything you can imagine at the Hirosaki castle
The next two spots for Hanami are a little off the beaten path but are beautiful nonetheless. First, let’s look at Hirosaki castle, an ancient palace located on Honshu’s mainland’s northern tip. The castle’s white exterior juxtaposed with the pink branches of Sakura makes this trip worthwhile. The sakura petal wafts through the air and fills up the moats around the castle. Be sure to rent a boat to enjoy the petal-filled pink water. Keep in mind that you cannot bring alcohol here.
12. Fluorescent hue in Okinawa Prefecture
This is the southernmost prefecture known for its sub-tropical weather, amazing beaches, and coral reefs. But that is not all. It is also the first place where a cherry blossom blooms where Hanami begins in late January. Unlike the pastel pink petals of cherry blossoms elsewhere, the Sakura here has a fluorescent glow. Plugin your music and set off on a hike along Mount Yaedake, and the cherry blossoms along the way will remain in your memory for the rest of your life!
13. Prepare for that perfect Hanami picnic
The best way to enjoy the Sakura during spring in Japan is to sit under a cherry blossom tree and immerse yourself in that experience. Before heading out, check if the park or hanami spot allows a picnic. Like I mentioned above, some places prohibit alcohol, so keep that in mind and respect the rules. Let me tell you what all you need to pack for a picnic.
First, get a picnic sheet from any store in the country. Then some paper cups and plates for the food. Or you can buy bento boxes or get food from the innumerable vending machines. Check out what they have on offer at the vending machines because you will find some exotic delicacies in cans. Also, if you haven’t tried the fruit durian, don’t go near it. On the other hand, all you durian-lovers, don’t be offended! Pack a book, make sure your phone is charged correctly, and carry headphones if you want to listen to some music.
When you reach the park, choose a spot with a nice view of the cherry blossoms, lather some sunscreen, and now the day is yours. Do remember to carry garbage bags and keep everything clean.
14. Enjoying the cherry blossoms gastronomically
During the sakura season, be sure to try out the sakura themed food and drinks all around the country. You can either take some to the hanami picnic or even go for a sakura food walk. Be sure to try out the Sakura mochi (flattened mochi with sweet bean paste with a pickled cherry blossom leaf around it), sakura frappe, and frappuccino from Starbucks. If you crave something savoury, go for the sakura onigiri (pink coloured rice balls decorated with edible sakura flowers).
Well, let me tell you a little secret. I was quite a flower cynic. I have always wondered why people gawk over it. But even my cynic heart fell in love with cherry blossoms in Japan. Don’t even think twice before booking your ticket in spring to Japan for the ultimate ethereal experience of your life. I promise it’s worth every penny!
An introverted blogger who is looking to make unforgettable solo travel memories with one short life.