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How to See Japan's Cherry Blossoms in 2019

Condé Nast Traveler logo Condé Nast Traveler 1/16/2019 Katherine LaGrave
a group of people on a rainy day © Getty

Cherry blossom season in Japan is a big deal: There are blogs, news reports, special menus, talk shows, and festivals following the trees as they go into full bloom across the country. There's even a Japanese word, hanami, specifically devoted to the viewing of cherry blossoms—and picnicking beneath them. Now, thanks to a forecast from the Japan Meteorological Corporation (JMC), which estimates the dates cherry blossoms will start to flower (kaika) and reach full bloom (mankai) in 1,000 locations across the country, it's easier than ever to find out where—and when—to hanami this year.

When does cherry blossom season start?

Similar to last year, cherry blossom season will start earlier than it has historically, with the first flowering occurring around March 18 in Kochi on the island of Shikoku. In Tokyo, flowering is expected to start around March 22, and the city will see full bloom date on March 29. In Kyoto, the blossoms will appear a few days later: the JMC predicts the trees will flower on March 25, and fully bloom on April 2. Toward the later end of the spectrum, trees in Sapporo, a city in Hokkaido, are expected to flower on May 4 and fully bloom on May 8.

How can I track the trees?

Forecasting peak bloom isn't a matter of just looking at predicted weather for the months ahead; according to the JMC, the flowering and full bloom dates depend on temperature patterns from as far back as last fall. Data also incorporates low temperatures during winter, cherry tree growth status, cumulative temperatures, and past data for each area. Peak cherry blossom season is short, and the entire process—from flower to bloom to falling from the trees—typically lasts two weeks, give or take. Viewers hoping to catch a glimpse of the pink and white petals can not only check the predicted dates on JMC's website, but also track trees' progress in nine regions across three metrics—awakening level, growth level, and full bloom level. The JMC will next update their flowering and full bloom dates on January 24.

Where are the best places to see cherry blossom trees in Japan?

If you're in Tokyo, try Shinjuku Gyoen, a park a short walk from Shinjuku Station that has more than 1,000 species of flowering cherry, or sakura, trees and is one of the best places to see the blooms. Another park, Yoyogi, has far fewer cherry blossom trees than most other parks in Tokyo, but its expanse—think wide lawns, ponds, and forests—makes it a favorite for the picnicking set. Get to the Nakameguro neighborhood if you can—each sakura season, the more than 800 cherry trees that line the Meguro River come alive in brilliant pink.

In Kyoto, walk the famous Nakaragi no Michi path, where you can stroll lakeside under pink and white flowers on your way to the Kyoto Botanical Garden. If you'd rather float under the cherry blossoms, book a boat ride on the scenic Lake Biwa Canal, which reopened to travelers in March 2018 after being off-limits for nearly 70 years. Want to see a "weeping" cherry tree? Try Maruyama Park next to Yasaka Shrine, which gets lit up in the evenings during cherry blossom season.

Outside of the two major cities, we love the hilltop Himeji Castle in the Hyōgo prefecture west of Kyoto, the northern shores of Lake Kawaguchiko for views of Mount Fuji and the blooms, and Mount Yoshino in Nara—a UNESCO World Heritage site considered by many to be the ultimate cherry blossom viewing destination in Japan.

Related video: Viewing Cherry Blossoms in Washington, D.C.

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What's the significance of cherry blossom season?

Japan's cherry blossom celebration has been practiced for hundreds of years: sakura trees have been popular since the eighth century, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great warlord and unifier of Japan, is said to have held an extravagant hanami party in 1598 in Kyoto at the Daigoji Temple, for feudal lords and their followers. Today, hanami is a little less regal, but every bit as revered; and celebrating it with friends and family is a traditional way to usher in spring.

How can I celebrate?

If you're timing a trip around cherry blossom season, shop convenience stores and bring seasonal products to your picnic: onigiri, tightly packed rice balls, will be dyed pink, and there will also be red bean treats and sakura mochi, sweet, sticky rice cakes, dyed pink and wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf. Look out, too, for hanami bento for sale: These pre-prepared lunch boxes have colorful, seasonal sakura-related products and can be found in convenience stores or the basement of department stores. To "reserve" a picnic spot in advance, spread out a picnic blanket to lay your claim—no one will move or take it in the interim. Just don't take more space than you need, which is frowned upon.

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