Although the weather may still be cold in March, you can count on cherry blossom fever to be running hot all over Japan. If you want to be in the middle of sakura paradise, you’d better be ready to leave the urban jungle of Tokyo, Nagoya or Osaka. That’s right, the best spots are far from the big cities!
There are thousands of great spots but let’s just go to the top of the list — Number One! So just where is this secret place that ranks as the top spot to be every year?
If you guessed Nara prefecture’s Mount Yoshino then buy yourself a sushi dinner!
Watch a video on the sakura at Mount Yoshino and Lake Kawaguchi at the base of Mt. Fuji for an overview.
What is this cherry blossom paradise called Yoshinoyama?
Mount Yoshino, called Yoshinoyama in Japanese, is one of those places you probably didn’t know you had to go to before you die. Not only is it a mountain suitable for easy hiking, it’s covered with more than 200 kinds of sakura trees and over 30,000 individual trees along an 8km path. In the spring, those sakura trees make it a floral paradise on earth.
Like all mountains, there are elevation and temperature differences so the cherry blossoms are blooming at different times. Historically, records state that there are 4 groves each with 1000 sakura trees at each level. Obviously there are more these days.
The lower level blooms first and you can follow nature’s progress up the mountain to the pinnacle. That can be a savior for people coming late in the season who still want a glimpse of mother nature’s floral magic kingdom.
The hike has several temples to wander though. In particular, Yoshimizu Shrine provides beautiful views of the white and pink cherry blossom covered mountainside ahead.
The four historical levels are:
- Shimo Senbon (lower 1000 trees) at the base of the mountain
- Naka Senbon (middle 1000 trees)
- Kami Senbon (upper 1000 trees)
- Oku Senbon (inner 1000 trees) located at the top
If you like official lists (and who doesn’t?), Yoshinoyama doesn’t disappoint. Not only is it the number one spot in Japan to be during the sakura season, the whole mountain area is a World Heritage site. That is usually code for “it’s going to be overrun with camera-wielding tourists and bus tours” but that isn’t always the case. There are times when you can have the place all to yourself. Try the morning hours before 10:30am before all the tours arrive. It’s amazingly quiet! Also, get off the beaten path and take the low road. It may have fewer sakura trees, but you get new angles to see the peak. It’s also perfect for couples in love and for taking pictures of couples in love!
What to do there
People go to just walk among the blossoms and take in the fresh air. Many bring blankets or small blue sheets, coolers full of beer and food and hang out all afternoon under a tree doing hanami or cherry blossom watching. (If you’re wondering, hanami is more drinking and eating than actual watching but it helps to take a few peeks up and around every now and then.) The best (and most popular) place to do hanami is at the Hanayagura Observatory in the Kami Senbon area that offers fantastic views, but you can set yourself down anywhere along the 8km path and just enjoy the afternoon at any tree.
There are loads of little shops and cafes in the Shimo Senbon lower area 20-40 minutes walk from the station. Many cafes actually seem to be built on the cliffside and offer views of the valley where pink and white blossoms on the other side stare prettily back at you. It’s hard to ignore all that flirting, especially if you have a camera in hand. A coffee and a small Japanese snack is usually around 700 yen. I think part of the price is for the view, and it’s worth every yen!
Try some of the traditional foods made in the area. Youkan are a traditional sweet made with red bean paste and mochi rice. My favourite youkan has actual sakura blossoms inside a gelatin layer. Pink cherry blossom ice cream and the green tea flavour are also everywhere. If you want to really connect with nature, try the sushi wrapped in sakura and sakura tree leaves. Shopping is also very good in the lower area. You can pick up a bottle of sakura liquor with cherry blossoms floating in it for 1,200 yen. Local stores also sell lovely handmade trinkets and gifts.
When to go
The middle of March to the middle of April is the high season. The peak time seems to be around March 31st although it changes every year depending on the advance of the cherry blossom front. (see our 2017 cherry blossom forecast) The area temples have festivals at the beginning of April.
The morning is the best time. The earlier the better. Be warned that it’s a zoo between 11:00 and 17:00.
How to get there
From Tokyo :
1. 2 hours and 15 minutes by Nozomi Shinkansen to Kyoto Station
2. 1 hour and 15 minutes from Kyoto to Yoshino Station via the Kintetsu Line
1 hour and 25 minutes from Abenohashi to Yoshino Station on the Kintetsu Minami Osaka Line
At Yoshino Station, you can take the oldest cable car in Japan. If that thought worries you, just walk. It only takes about 15 minutes to walk up to the cable car terminus on the other side and there are loads of trees to see on the way. The cable car is 350 yen one-way/700 yen return. It shuts down at 17:00.