This is Part 1 of our 5 part series on planning the ultimate trip to Japan during cherry blossom season. We will cover every aspect – itinerary, accommodation, packing – of planning an unforgettable trip to Japan during cherry blossom season
Read Part 2 – A Guide to Tokyo during Cherry Blossom Season (opens in new tab)
Read Part 3 – Choosing Accommodation for your trip to Japan (opens in new tab)
Read Part 4 – Packing for a trip in Japan during Cherry Blossom Season (opens in new tab)
Read Part 5 – Budgeting for a trip in Japan during Cherry Blossom Season (opens in new tab)
You know that dialogue from Alice in Wonderland:
Alice “how long is forever?”
Rabbit “sometimes just one second!”
That’s how we felt on leaving Japan. Our tryst with Japan during Cherry Blossom Season was fleeting and got over all too quickly but it will tug at our heartstrings for a lifetime.
A trip in Japan during cherry blossom season offers everything a tourist could possibly want from a country – sumptuous panoramas, bustling marketplaces, delicious food, safe and efficient public transport, and helpful locals. Add to this entire by-lanes and gardens full of powder-pink sakura petals and it becomes hard to argue with the prospect of planning a trip in Japan during cherry blossom season. Here’s an overview of a suggested itinerary and all the information you need to plan a trip to Japan:
- Days 1-4 Absorb the chaos in Tokyo
- Days 4-6 Visit Lake Kawaguchiko for Mt. Fuji
- Days 6-8 Enjoy city life in Osaka
- Days 8-11 Explore historical treasures in Kyoto
- Days 11-13 Relax in Arashiyama Park (optional)
- Day 13-16 Stroll by ski slopes in Hakuba
Useful Tips for visiting Japan:
- www.hyperdia.com is an extremely useful website for figuring out the best way to travel between cities and within them. We found ourselves using it frequently. So make sure you bookmark it for your trip to Japan during Cherry Blossom Season.
- Download a good translating app that can be used offline on your phone. It will help you navigate labyrinthine supermarkets, shops, and local restaurants. Google translate has a cool feature where you just need to hover your phone over text and it gets translated automatically. It’s amazing, especially in a country like Japan.
Pros and cons of visiting Japan during cherry blossom season
- Gorgeous scenery
- Panoramas laden with iconic cherry blossoms
- Perfect spring weather – warm afternoons, chilly evenings
- Hotels aren’t readily available and expensive
- Needs pre-planning as most hotels and tours are booked months in advance
Getting To Japan
Try to fly into Haneda Airport as it is much closer to Tokyo. We flew with Cathay Pacific for our trip to Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan as it offers great connections in Asia and worldwide. We had heard a lot of good things about Cathay Pacific before booking the flight but it was our first time flying with them. True to its reputation, the flight was comfortable and seat pitch and width quite generous for standard economy cabins. The in-flight entertainment was top notch and kept us busy throughout the flight. We enjoyed the meals on board but what made our flight memorable was the service of the staff – both on and off the ground – plenty of smiles and laughs going around 🙂
We loved the Cathay Pacific Lounge at Haneda which offers Japanese meals and a range of drinks but it’s the view that is the pièce de résistance here – grab a seat by the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the runway. Needless to say, this was Vid’s favourite part and he sat transfixed by the windows 😉
We suggest checking Cathay Pacific website for current offers and promotions to Japan.
Getting around Japan
We would highly recommend investing in a Japan Rail Pass for the length of your trip in Japan. This will allow you to travel between cities. It also allows you to board all Japan Rail trains in bigger cities such as Osaka and Tokyo, so you can get by without buying a single subway ticket. Make sure you get your Japan Rail Pass activated on landing at Tokyo Airport. Don’t worry if you forget – you can also get it activated at several locations in Tokyo. A 14 day economy pass costs approximately £280.
Do keep in mind that JR passes are not valid on some of the private railways so make sure you enquire in advance. In these cases, you must buy a separate ticket. For instance – we only paid £8 for the private train that goes to Mt. Fuji and £20 for a couple of subway tickets in Osaka and Tokyo over the period of 14 days.
Best time to visit Japan for cherry blossom season
Cherry blossoms usually bloom only for 2 weeks of the year in a particular region. The peak bloom is supposed to start during the end March/first week of April and lasts almost till the end of April/May in certain parts of Japan. Spring comes later in the mountains and it is possible to see cherry blossoms in bloom in mountainous places such as Hakuba during May. However like all natural phenomena, this varies every year. You can check Sakura forecasts, readily available online, for information on best times to visit.
Itinerary for a trip in Japan during Cherry Blossom seasons
I) Days 1-4 Exploring Tokyo
Getting to Tokyo
Chances are you will land in Tokyo wherever in the world you are flying from. Tokyo has 2 airports (Haneda and Narita) – try choosing a flight that lands at Haneda as it is much closer to the city. Getting to downtown Tokyo is fairly simple as public transport is efficient and punctual. A direct train from the airport takes visitors to the centre. It costs 540 yen (approx. £4).
Accommodation in Tokyo
There is no dearth of accommodation to suit every budget in Tokyo. We chose Park Hotel Tokyo for the incredible view from the hotel and loved our stay there. Read a detailed review in our article on choosing accommodation in Japan. (link in the beginning of the article).
Exploring Tokyo during Cherry Blossom Season
Cherry blossom trees are everywhere in Tokyo but Shinjuku Goeya Park, Yoyogi Park, and Ueno Park are a few of the best places to catch Cherry Blossoms in Tokyo. Other than that, don’t forget to explore the quirky markets of Harijuku, urban chaos in Shibuya, temples in Asakusa, shopping malls in Ginza, and local eateries in Shimbashi and Ueno.
Read our detailed guide to exploring Tokyo during Cherry Blossom season here
II) Days 4-6: Visit the iconic Mt Fuji
Getting to Mt. Fuji
Irrespective of where you are coming from, you will have to switch to a private train at Otsuki station to get to Kawaguchiko, which is the station ideal for viewing Mt. Fuji. If you have a Japan Rail pass, then tickets cost is 1140 yen (£8) for the regular train and 1540 yen (£11) for the Express train from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko station.
Accommodation in Fuji
We stayed in a hotel near Lake Kawaguchiko and one that offers shuttle service to/from the train station. – Fuji Premium Resort because it offers a stunning view of Mt Fuji at breakfast. Read more in our article on accommodation in Japan.
Exploring Mt Fuji during Cherry blossom season
There are a few places in the world that actually live up to the hype surrounding them. Mt Fuji is one of them. Lake Kawaguchi is the easiest and most accessible point to view Mt. Fuji. The mountain stands tall and lords over the Yamanashi Prefecture. On a clear day, you’ll spot it the second you get off the train – it’s hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it.
I recently read about Yūgen – an important concept in traditional Japanese aesthetics. It roughly translates to an awareness of the beauty of the universe that triggers profound and deep emotional responses. That’s the kind of response Mt Fuji evokes. And its beauty is amplified manifold during sakura season. There are many viewpoints from where one can absorb the Beauty of Mt. Fuji during Cherry blossom season but here are some of our favourite viewpoints:
- Ohashi Bridge – a short bus ride from Kawaguchiko station or a 20 minute pleasant walk, Ohashi bridge offers a splendid view of Mt Fuji, standing tall against Lake Kawaguchiko. Continue to walk past the bridge and you’ll see a couple more viewpoints.
- North shore of Lake Kawaguchiko: The alleys here are laden with cherry blossom trees by the dozen. Drop by for a gorgeous stroll along the shores of the splendid Lake Kawaguchiko
- Churieto pagoda: A short train ride from Kawaguchiko train station will get you to Shimoyoshida train station. Churieto Pagoda is a 15 minute easy uphill walk away. Entry is free and the pagoda complex is dotted with cherry blossom trees. The Churieto Pagoda offers one of the most magical views of Mt Fuji. We suggest visiting mid afternoon and hanging around till sunset. The pagoda and its surroundings are beautiful in the evening light.
- Shibazakura festival: Imagine acres upon acres of bright pink moss and flowers against the backdrop of Mt Fuji. The Shibazakura festival runs from 19 April-20 May (approx) and attracts thousands of visitors each year. However it’s best to check whether flowers are in full bloom before booking your tickets to the festival. We suggest getting to Kawaguchiko and checking with locals before booking your tickets. We were supposed to visit the festival but couldn’t because of the late bloom this year – blame the vagaries of nature!
- Cable car – The other viewpoint that offers panoramic views of Mt Fuji and the surrounding areas is Mt. Kachikachi Ropeway. Tickets cost 800 yen (£5.5). It can be a bit underwhelming if you’ve visited all the viewpoints listed above. We suggest visiting the free points of view before hopping on the cable car.
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Mt. Fuji from the North shore of Lake Kawaguchiko
III) Days 6-8 in Osaka
Getting to Osaka
Arriving to Osaka from Mt Fuji is quite a challenge. You’ll have to change a few trains before finally arriving in Osaka. Consult www.hyperdia.com for the exact route you will have to take
Accommodation in Osaka
We ended up at Sunnystone Hotel due to good reviews on Tripadvisor but our room was extremely cramped and we hated the experience! We’d suggest looking elsewhere – check out AirBnB (get $30 off your first booking using this link) if you can’t find a hotel to suit your requirements?
Things to do in Osaka during Cherry Blossom Season
Since you are in Osaka just for a couple of days, use your time wisely.
- You will want to take it easy on the first day after the long train ride from Lake Kawaguchiko. Head to Dotonbori, the flamboyant dining and shopping district of Osaka. There are lots of high street stores, designer boutiques, and tax free stores if you want to shop. Dotonbori is also the best place for a self guided food tour of sorts. People in Osaka take their food very seriously. Consequently there are lots of stalls, kiosks, and little food markets selling a range of Japanese delicacies. Try gyoza dumplings and takoyaki (octopus and flour balls) to kick start the night. Have dinner at a sushi or ramen restaurant for a typical Japanese experience. If you enjoy conveyor-belt sushi then visit Genrokozushi or Isonoryotaro – both restaurants are popular but it’s easy to find a seat at the latter because it isn’t on the main road. Round off your meal with a portion of matcha ice cream or Osaka’s characteristic fish-shaped waffles.
- Sakuranomiya Park – this is the perfect place place to catch Cherry Blossoms in bloom on a clear day. You will spot tons of locals spending time with their friends and lots of kids playing with each other. Make sure you pack a picnic and take your camera along – you will want to take photographs of Sakura flowers every 5 minutes.
- Osaka Castle – Combine your trip to Sakuranomiya park with Osaka Castle. No trip to Osaka is complete without a visit to the Osaka Castle. The Castle grounds are the perfect place to see vlossoms in full bloom. But the complex is equally special without Blossoms too – the approach to Osaka Castle is bound to make you feel like Royalty. We suggest visiting during the early hours of the evening. The Castle closes at 5 pm and most tourists leave. But hang around for sunset – the castle is lit and makes for a gorgeous scene.
- Osaka Mint bureau – Yet another place see the sakura in bloom, Osaka’s Mint Bureau is perfect if you are a keen photographer – expect cherry blossom trees laden with pink flowers and alleys strewn with powder pink petals.
IV) Days 8-11 in Kyoto
Kyoto is one of the busiest tourist destinations in Japan, so expect crowds wherever you go. But don’t let that dissuade you from exploring the city because it’s a historical and cultural treasure
Accommodation in Kyoto
We stayed in Machiya Maya Gion, a 100 year old house that has recently been refurbished into 2 luxury apartments and loved it. Read more in our article on accommodation in Japan.
Things to do in Kyoto
- Explore Gion – Time seems to stand still in the historical streets of Gion. Quaint Japanese houses and shrines dilly dally with cherry blossom trees and Japanese eateries. Rent a kimono, try some ramen, and photograph historical doors. Gion is the perfect place to immerse yourself in Japanese culture for a day
- Hokan-ji Temple for sunset – If you’re in Gion, we’d recommend heading to Hokanji temple during the evening. The temple is the perfect place to watch the sun set- it’s quite popular with photographers, so expect a few people at sunset.
- Kiyomizu Dera – Kiyomizu Dera is another popular shrine in the area. The bright orange doors, perched on top of a hilltop beckon hundreds of tourists each day. Stick around for sunset if you get a chance – it’s pretty spectacular
- Inari Shrine – the iconic shrine that frequently makes an appearance on Instagram is close to Kyoto. Run your fingers along its bright orange facade or spend a couple of hours walking through hundreds of iconic Torii Gates that are over 1300 years old. The Inari Shrine tends to get very crowded. Just keep going higher if you want to escape the crowds and try getting there early in the day.
- Arashiyama Park and Bamboo Forest – Arashiyama is a special place. Visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest and Togetsukyo Bridge early in the morning and you’ll know what we mean.
Spotting Cherry Blossoms in Kyoto
You never have to go far to spot blossoms in Kyoto, especially if you’re staying in the Gion area. You will find them on sidewalks, at street corners, and in most parks. But here are a couple of places to hit if you visit Kyoto at the peak of the Cherry Blossom season:
- Maruyama Park is home to hundreds of cherry blossoms and one of the few places in Japan where blossoms can be seen lit up in the dark. Make sure you visit Maruyama late in the evening.
- Combine your trip to Arashiyama Bamboo Forest with a stroll along Kamogawa River. You will spot hundreds of sakura trees. Make sure you click a few photos at the scenic Togetsukyo Bridge
- Philosopher’s Path and Heian Jingu Shrine are located in close proximity and both locations are home to hundreds of cherry blossom trees
V) Days 11-13: Wind down and indulge
You will be chasing Cherry Blossoms, moving hotels, photographing, and taking a dozen trains and buses on your trip in Japan. So we strongly recommend to take a couple of days time to just wind down, relish nature, and truly relax after all that moving around in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. If you have 2-3 extra days at hand, spend it in the lap of nature in the countryside around Kyoto.
We chose Suiran Kyoto, which is located in the heart of the legendary Arashiyama Park and loved our experience – the hotel is historical, scenic, and special in so many ways.
Spend your days exploring the Arashiyama Park, relaxing by the river, and discovering little eateries. The Park is also home to the legendary Arashiyama bamboo forest. Did you know that in Japanese culture Shinrin Yoku i.e. the practice of “Forest bathing” is actually recommended as therapy? Shinrin Yoku is not about hiking, burning calories, or accomplishing anything. It’s about letting the trees soothe your soul as your mind meanders- it’s about taking a step back. It’s a magical practice and we could all do with a bit of that in our lives 🙂
VI) Days 13-16 Enjoy the ski slopes at Hakuba
Getting to Hakuba
It is a bit of a trek getting to Hakuba but it’s totally worth it. This will expose you to a side of Japan ignored by most tourists. There is a direct train that leaves Shinjuku, Tokyo at 7.30 am every morning. Check www.hyperdia.com for information on getting to Hakuba from your point of departure.
Accommodation in Hakuba
We chose to stay in a chalet by Morino Lodge. Since we were visiting during off season, we got upgraded to one of their largest chalets – Alps View Chalet – and loved our stay. Read more in our article on accommodation in Japan.
Exploring Hakuba in Cherry Blossom season
Spring arrives late in the mountains. So we suggest scheduling the trip to Hakuba towards the end of your holiday in Japan. Cherry blossom trees start blooming in the Hakuba area only by the second week of May. Having said that, Hakuba is truly sensational during most times of the year. Its alpine scenery is reminiscent of the Swiss and German Alps. Hakuba’s pristine beauty is even more special because it is off the beaten path and doesn’t feature on most itineraries of Japan. Spend your days taking long walks In the countryside, skiing on the slopes, picnicking by the river, or exploring its quaint city centre.
If you’re spending a significant amount of time in Hakuba, then make sure you plan a day trip to the historic villages of Shirakawa-Go and Gokayama. These mountain villages are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and make for a memorable outing.
That’s it – the itinerary for an epic trip during cherry blossom season. Japan is an incredible country and there is nothing quite like seeing entire landscapes covered in pale pink sakura blossoms- hope you love it as much as we did!