Japan’s Breathtaking Cherry Blossom Season: Travel Tips, History, and More

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Motoori Norinaga (1730 -1801), a Kokugaku scholar during the Edo period, said that “If I were asked to explain the Japanese spirit, I would say it is wild cherry blossoms glowing in the morning sun”. Flowering cherry trees are emblematic of the Japanese people and have a special place in the heart of the culture.

The trees bloom for a very narrow window, no more than a week or two, each spring. In that short time almost 5 million foreigners flock to witness the spectacle, but it’s also incredibly popular with those living in Japan—around 63 million people total taking part in Japan’s cherry blossom festivals. 

Springtime is ideal for an adventure to Japan to reflect and rejoice amid the snowy blossoms, and a great opportunity to practice the language as you enjoy nature, family, and the change of seasons. Explore by following forecasts to see peak blooms in different regions, eat special foods on picnics beneath the trees, and even take a trip to see some of the oldest ornamental cherry trees in existence. Below, we’ll take a closer look at the history and culture behind these incredible blooms and highlight the best places to see them. 

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The importance of cherry blossom season in Japan 

The image of a delicate, five-petaled sakura (桜) is a prominent motif in Japan, adorning everything from intricate textiles to the 100 yen piece. More than just a beautiful flower, the cherry blossom represents balance and duality: beauty and violence, life and death. 

The cultural association of the sakura with the sacred nature of life goes back to roughly the 8th century. The samurai class began embellishing their swords and equipment with the cherry blossom beginning in the 12th century, as a symbolic representation of the philosophical and moral code bushidō, or the “way of the warrior.” 

Pale pink and white blossoms that arrive in early spring herald the change of season, their fleeting beauty the very essence of mono no aware (物の哀れ). This idiom expresses the layered and complicated emotion of deeply appreciating life and beauty, while simultaneously being acutely aware of the fleeting nature of existence. It is a moving and joyous recognition of life tinged with melancholy because even beautiful things must pass, thus reinforcing the precious nature of being.

Beyond the philosophical associations and symbolic resonance, there are a variety of reasons that the cherry blossoms also represent something much more personal, a warmth and nostalgia for most Japanese people. 

This is in part due to the calendar— in the United States both the fiscal and academic years begin in the autumn, but in Japan, they start at the beginning of spring. It is common for businesses and schools to plant cherry trees outside, with the blossoming trees acting as a special welcome and celebration of a fresh start to a new season, business year, and school term.

Most of all, fond feelings about the beauty and brevity of the flowering season are connected to the tradition of hanami, or “flower viewing.” 

>> Show respect and communicate clearly with our complete primer on Japanese honorifics

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The tradition of Hanami in Japan

Hanami history

Hanami has subtly evolved over time, but the origins of the tradition are centuries old. Beginning in the Nara period (710–794), references can be found to the seasonal viewing of ume, or plum blossoms. 

We first see the term hanami used to refer to the ritual of viewing and meditating on the cherry blossom in the Heian period (794–1185). The Tale of Genji is an important classic of Japanese literature, an intimate peek into the world of aristocratic culture of the time. Emperor Saga’s flower viewing party in the Imperial Court of Kyoto was one of the first officially recognized celebrations of hanami.

Though it was initially an observance reserved for the nobility, it eventually began to be adopted by the samurai class and finally by the general populace. In the 1500s, the great Shogun Hideyoshi Toyotomi had 700 sakura trees planted, and hosted lavish hanami parties with thousands of people in attendance. 

A typical hanami gathering

This joyous rite of spring is celebrated by families, groups of friends, schoolchildren, and companies all over Japan. Tarps and blankets cover the ground beneath the trees, and often junior employees are sent out early in the day to scout out and stake their claim on the prime viewing spots. 

Locals and travelers both foreign and domestic gather to witness the fleeting beauty, enjoy picnics, conversation, and drinks, and bask in the warmth of loved ones. But that warmth might not be enough, so remember to bring a sweater! Spring is the time of sankan-shion, a saying that means “three days cold, four days warm”, a perfect encapsulation of the capricious nature of the weather.

>> Brush up on your Japanese pronunciation before you go!

A feast for the eyes and the tastebuds: Foods of hanami

Picnics of delicious food are packed in bento (literally “convenient”) and can be made at home and placed into a beautiful lacquered box or purchased easily at supermarkets anywhere. There are no rules about what goes into them, but seasonal spring dishes abound, particularly those that are sakura flavored or themed. 

Sipping delicate sakurayu (cherry blossom tea) is a must. Individual cherry blossoms are harvested at peak bloom, the petals are pickled in salt and ume-su (plum vinegar) then carefully dried. For service, they are often rolled in sugar, then covered in boiled water and left to steep. The resulting tea is transparent and pale, with a subtle floral-salty-sweet flavor. 

Hanami dango are a special wagashi (traditional Japanese confection) enjoyed during the festival. They are sweet rice dumplings, made with rice flour (as opposed to the more familiar mochi, which is made with glutinous rice). Hanami dango are formed into round balls and served three on a skewer: one pink, one white, and one green. The pink symbolizes the blossom of the tree, the white represents the passing of the snow, and the green reflects the return of bright foliage with the new growth of the season.

Hanami after dark: Yozakura

Yozakura (“cherry blossoms by night”) is a romantic way to extend your time among the cherry trees. Paper lanterns are hung and people gather after nightfall to spend time together and take in a different view under the canopy of flowers. This is especially beautiful along the Meguro River, in the Nakameguro district, where the illuminated lanterns reflect the flowering trees onto the glittering surface of the water. 

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When is cherry blossom season in Japan?

The forecasting of sakura zensen (the cherry blossom front) gives revelers a chance to anticipate and plan for the march of peak blooming season from the south to the north of the country. Since the 1950s, the Japan Meteorological Agency predicted and tracked the opening and full blossoming of cherry trees. In 2010, this task was outsourced to private agencies, leaving the Japan Meteorological Agency to focus on the study of climate change and the impact it has on this important natural event.

The forecast uses the Arrhenius equation and 59 specially selected representative trees to determine the day of opening (when a sample tree has at least 6 flowers blossoming), and the day of full bloom (when at least 80% of the flowers have opened). The dates range roughly from late March to the middle of May, although the changes in climate have started to have a dramatic effect on this time frame.

Below are the dates for major viewing locations throughout Japan in 2024, as of January 30. The dates may change slightly as the season approaches, so keep an eye on the 

CityFlowering DateFull Bloom Date
TokyoMarch 22 March 29
SapporoMay 1May 5
SendaiApril 6 April 11
KanazawaMarch 31 April 6 
NagoyaMarch 20 March 30 
KyotoMarch 23 March 31 
Osaka March 25 April 1 
Hiroshima March 22 April 1 
FukuokaMarch 22 March 31 

The best places to see cherry blossoms in Japan

Trees are culturally important in Japan, and there are many folktales featuring kodama (tree spirits), or trees that become inhabited by kami (spirits). Some trees are national monuments, designated as sacred in Japan, and they are wrapped in thick hemp rope known as shimenawa, meant to mark their significance and to ward off evil spirits.

Given the rich history and meaning connected to trees, particularly old ones, consider planning a route around visits to the Three Great Cherry Trees of Japan. 

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Miharu Takizakura, Fukushima prefecture

Situated in Miharu town within Fukushima prefecture, the name of the town, “three springs,” reflects the simultaneous blossoming of three spring flowers—plum, peach, and of course cherry blossoms. 

This magnificent grand cherry blossom tree is believed to be more than 1000 years old and holds the distinction of being designated a national monument, earning its place among the top 100 sakura viewing locations in Japan.

It’s not just remarkable because of how old it is—it’s also noted for its impressive size. This tree stands almost 40 feet tall and spans 82 feet across at the widest point between branches. There’s a great yozakura view available each night during peak season, and a park nearby where you can see it from other angles.

Neodani Usuzumizakura, Gifu prefecture

What sets this cherry blossom tree apart is its rarity; it exhibits the unique characteristic of showcasing petals in a progression of multiple colors on a single tree, transitioning from soft pink to snowy white and eventually to a grayish-pink hue. The name of the tree was derived from usuzumi, a grayish ink commonly used in calligraphy. 

The magnificent tree is a registered national monument in Japan, and estimated to be more than 1500 years old. Standing about 53 feet high, with a trunk circumference of around 33 feet. Its branches extend in all directions, reaching out more than 80 feet, creating an enormous canopy of flowers.

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Yamataka Jindai Zakura, Yamanashi prefecture

Yamataka Jindai Zakura is situated in the northern part of Yamanashi prefecture, a region closely associated with Mt. Fuji. This venerable cherry blossom tree is reputed to be the oldest and largest in Japan, boasting an estimated age exceeding 2000 years. Its dimensions are awe-inspiring, with a height of more than 33 feet, and a trunk circumference of almost 40 feet.

During the Taisho era, this tree secured the distinction of being the inaugural natural monument of Japan, and in 1990, it gained recognition as one of the newly designated Best 100 Trees. Legend weaves tales around this ancient tree, with one account attributing its planting to the semi-legendary prince of the Yamato dynasty, Yamato Takeru no Mikoto. Another belief suggests that Nichiren, the founder of the Nichiren school of Buddhism, prayed for the rejuvenation of this tree, and it flourished with vitality ever since.

Every April, when the tree reaches its zenith in bloom, visitors flock from across Japan to witness and experience the sacred aura of Jindai Zakura. Complementing the cherry blossoms, approximately 8 thousand Trumpet daffodils bloom concurrently, creating a breathtaking picturesque scene against the backdrop of the Southern Japanese Alps.

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