A guide to experiencing Japan’s famous cherry blossom season, from cruise holidays to escorted tours
Japan is back with a bang – or should I say, an elegant puff of pink. This spring is the first in four years that overseas visitors will be able to experience Japan’s famous cherry blossom (sakura) season, and – with all the pent-up demand, rescheduled bookings, and the fact that this year’s Easter holidays coincide with cherry blossom season – there’s been a surge in demand from UK travellers to join Japan’s biggest party.
‘2013 is already looking like it will be our busiest cherry blossom season ever,’ says James Mundy of Japan travel experts InsideJapan Tours. ‘Our small group tours sold out well in advance but we are still tailoring self-guided cultural adventures for travellers to make the most of the season.’ He adds: ‘There’s good reason everyone wants to go.’
The arrival of the cherry blossom is a huge national celebration in Japan, the onset of which is highly anticipated (there’s even a dedicated blossom forecast on the TV weather report). Japan Meteorological Corporation has predicted that, this year, the most numerous Somei Yoshino cherry trees will burst into bloom in Tokyo from around 22-30 March, and from 27 or 28 March in Kyoto, peaking on 5 April.
As the pink buds pop, domestic travellers and overseas visitors alike descend on Japan’s most photogenic sights and parks; locals armed with blue tarpaulins to roll out under the trees for convivial hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) parties with friends and family – and a fair amount of sake. It is impossible not to be swept up in sakura fever.
Flower power: In the wake of the Covid pandemic, this spring is the first in four years that overseas visitors will be able to experience Japan’s famous cherry blossom (sakura) season. Above is the country’s Himeji Castle wrapped in cherry blossom
It’s in Kyoto that cherry blossom fever is most acute. Famous for its UNESCO world heritage-listed temples and shrines, with precincts draped in weeping blossoms, such as those of Daigo-ji Temple and Heian Shrine, Kyoto surges with crowds and its 60,000 rooms fill up. Indeed, luxury tailormade tour operators Abercrombie & Kent and Original Travel have halted bookings for this period due to a dearth of top hotel rooms in Kyoto.
However, luxury travel company Scott Dunn is still offering a 12-night ‘Japan in Spring’ itinerary that includes the top blossom-viewing spots countrywide, including Kyoto and the ‘floating’ torii gate on Miyajima (from £13,800pp). ‘Tokyo is busy, but securing accommodation there is less of a problem; Kyoto is the trickiest piece in the puzzle,’ says Mundy. ‘We often put a halt to cherry blossom sales around late February as places across Kyoto fill their rooms. There’s still availability now, but time is of the essence.’
CONSIDER INDIRECT FLIGHTS
Finnair restores its Helsinki to Osaka route on 26 March, just in time for the arrival of the blossoms in Kyoto (above)
Tradition: A Japanese girl in Kyoto
Flights to Japan are also very full – and expensive – during cherry blossom. Price increases (including the fuel surcharge for flying around Russia) have pushed return economy flights from London from around £600, pre-pandemic, to upwards of £1,500. There are also fewer direct services, so you may need to fly indirect. Cathay Pacific is currently offering Heathrow to Japan return (via Hong Kong) for £769, with dates until the end of March included (winter sale ends 31 January 2023). Meanwhile, Finnair restores its Helsinki to Osaka route on 26 March, just in time for the arrival of the blossoms in Kyoto.
‘The cost of flights will increase the closer to the departure date, so to get the best value holiday I recommend booking as soon as you can,’ says Cassie Stickland product manager at escorted tour operator Titan Travel. She currently reports availability on March and April departures of Titan’s 15-day ‘Essence of Japan’ trip across Honshu, but cautions travellers to book now, ‘as we do expect these to sell out’.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 14-night ‘Sushi, Sake and Shimizu’ trip calls at Kobe (pictured) in March, perfect for travellers hoping to see the blossom in Kyoto and Himeji
See the famously inquisitive deer in the beautiful parks of the ancient city of Nara
If you have your heart set on seeing blossom in Kyoto but can’t secure accommodation, consider staying in Osaka, which is just 15 minutes by bullet train. Alternatively, get the temple backdrop to your cherry blossom photos in the ancient city of Nara, just 35 minutes from Kyoto by train. There you’ll find similarly beautiful parks, Nara’s famously inquisitive deer, and a giant ‘Sakura Buddha’ statue at Tsubosaka-dera temple, enveloped in pink. Or, avoid the accommodation squeeze entirely by taking a cruise. A handful of cruise companies have returned to Japan this year, and the ports of Osaka and Kobe are convenient gateways for Kyoto. Princess Cruises has availability on its 18-day ‘Kyushu, Shikoku and Japan Explorer Spring Flowers’ itinerary, a deep-dive into Japan that departs Tokyo on 24 March and reaches Osaka on 4 April, just one day before the blossom peak in Kyoto (from £4,454pp, interior cabins sold out). Meanwhile, Holland America Line‘s Westerdam docks in Osaka on 1 April as part of its 14-day ‘Japan Explorer’ (from £2,459pp), and Regent Seven Seas Cruises‘ 14-night ‘Sushi, Sake and Shimizu’ trip calls at Kobe on 30-31 March (from £11,849pp) – perfect for Kyoto but also Himeji, whose ‘White Heron’ castle will be wrapped in blossom.
FOLLOW THE SAKURA ZENSEN
Beyond Kyoto, Japan is awash with stunning destinations in off-peak pink. The sakura zensen – ‘cherry blossom front’ – sweeps up the country like a weather system, so trees in different places bloom at different times – from Kyushu in late March to Hokkaido at the end of April. In Kanazawa, two and a half hours from Tokyo by bullet train, the cherry blossom arrives 10 days later than in Tokyo and Kyoto, while the city has a cultural vibe not dissimilar to Kyoto, with samurai houses, tea houses, gardens and even geisha.
Tailormade tour operator Red Savannah is still taking bookings for spring itineraries that feature blossom-viewing in Kanazawa (including in one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens, Kenroku-en) but reach Tokyo and Kyoto after the rush. ‘By planning to see the blossoms a bit later and further north, savings can then be made in Kyoto and Tokyo when the large numbers of domestic tourists have gone home,’ says COO and Japan specialist, Ed Granville.
Trees in different places bloom at different times – for instance, the trees in Hokkaido (pictured) blossom at the end of April
SWITCH SPRING FOR AUTUMN
Spring doesn’t have the monopoly on nature’s majesty in Japan: the autumn ‘leaf peeping’ season is an equally beautiful time to see the country and worth considering. Koyo season, as it is known, is celebrated just as reverently but more sedately, with fewer crowds. InsideJapan Tours offers a 14-night self-guided ‘Autumn Splendour’ from late October until early December, ticking off Kyoto and Tokyo as well as the Japan Alp (from £2,810pp). Meanwhile, Original Travel’s 15-day autumn Highlights of Japan journey, includes two full days in Kyoto and leaf-peeping spots in Kanazawa (from £4,700pp).
BOOK NOW FOR 2024
Or there’s always cherry blossom season 2024! Book now, you’ll have the pick of the trips, and potential savings. Titan Travel’s spring 2024 itineraries – including a new 21-day Grand Tour of Japan – are already on sale (from £6,999pp), with a ‘Price Promise’ guarantee that early bookers will be refunded the difference in vouchers if they later see their holiday advertised for less.
InsideJapan Tours has just launched its Japan small-group tours for spring 2024 to a sizeable waiting list of travellers keen to tick cherry blossom in Japan off their bucket list. The message is – spring into action now if you want to be among them.
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