Hacking cherry blossom season

How to beat peak pricing and crowds, while still enjoying maximum pinkness!

You go to Japan for cherry blossom season expecting it’ll be like this:

Cherry blossoms in Chofu

But if you come during peak season, you’re more likely to get this:

Cherry blossoms at Ueno Park

And trip dates are becoming harder to guess. Thanks to global warming, the sure bet of “last-few-days-of-March-through-the-first-few-days-of-April” is shifting—sometimes by as much as ten days—and while the Japanese powers-that-be can still predict peak bloom, the map isn’t published until it’s too late for overseas visitors to buy plane tickets and get hotel reservations.

So, what can you do, besides invest in a rabbit’s foot?

Expand your cherry blossom wish listcome to see the spectacular early or late-blooming varieties instead of the classic Yoshino cherries

The classic cherry blossoms that are mooned over by the haiku poets are the single, barely pink, Yoshino variety that bloom in giant clouds like the ones below at Shinjuku Gyouen.

Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This photo was shot on April 2, at Shinjuku Gyouen in Tokyo

These are the ones predicted by the cherry blossom forecasts and that feature in all the hanami party plans. The ten days when the yoshino-zakura are in bloom are the most crowded and expensive travel days all year.

But cherry blossoms come in all shapes and sizes, and lots of them bloom outside that narrow “cherry blossom season” window. The ones that bloom as early as mid-February (even in Tokyo) look like this:

Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This photo was shot on February 25, but other kawaru-zakura trees in Shinjuku Gyouen began blooming as early as February 15.
Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
They’re a little pinker and grow in bunches like the late-blooming yae-zakura, I think you’ll agree they are just as beautiful!

The next to bloom are the kan-zakura and shidare-zakura, which pop in mid-March, a week or two before the official cherry blossom season begins. They look like this:

Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This photo was shot on March 19, at Shinjuku Gyouen in Tokyo
Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This shidare-zakura weeping cherry photo was also taken at Shinjuku Gyouen on March 19. It was in full bloom a week before the Yoshino cherries.

And in mid-April, about a week after the Yoshino cherries become sad shreds of wilted petals on the ground, the fluffy, double yae-zakura begin to bloom

Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This photo was shot on April 11, at Shinjuku Gyouen in Tokyo
As an extra bonus, yae-zakura come in many colors!

Here’s where to see the best late-blooming cherry blossoms in Tokyo

Also…Tokyo is an urban heat island, so if you get to town late and miss The Season, you can still catch peak bloom of the yoshino-zakura an hour inland.

Cherry blossoms at Showa Kinen Park
These beauties at Showa Kinen Park in Tachikawa were in full bloom a good week after peak bloom in Tokyo. The ones at Mt. Takao bloom even later.

Here’s where to take the best cherry blossom photos in Tokyo, with maps to where the earl and late-blooming trees are.

Expand your horizons: Explore famous cherry blossom spots outside the big cities

If you travel to places outside Tokyo and Kyoto, peak bloom happens as much as a month earlier or later.

Cherry blossom forecast map 2023
The map published every year by Japan Rail to help Japanese people plan their cherry blossom trips is the best one to consult when deciding when/where to go.

Official yoshino-zakura cherry blossom season only lasts about ten days from the first buds opening to the last petal dropping, but those ten days happen at different times over a two month span, depending on altitude and north/south location. (They bloom later at higher elevations and to the north; earlier at sea level and to the south.)

Not surprisingly, the places and bloom times outside the well-beaten paths around Tokyo and Kyoto not only have fewer crowds, they have more affordable travel prices.

But are they just as beautiful? You be the judge!

If you go early:

Kawazu City kawazu-zakura

Cherry blossoms in Kawazu City
Kawazu-zakura bloom in mid-February in Tokyo too, but places like Kawazu City plant them all together like this, so you can have the full under-the-cherry-blossoms experience a whopping six weeks before the spectacle begins in Tokyo (thanks to the Kawazu Tourist Association for the photo)

If you go late:

Mid- to late-April
Photo taken April 18, Miyagi prefecture, shidare-zakura

Cherry blossoms in Miyagi prefecture Miharu no Takizakura
This photo of the thousand-year-old cherry tree named Miharu no Takizakura was taken three weeks after cherry blossom season was finished in Tokyo

Photo taken April 24: Hirosaki, Aomori prefecture yoshino-zakura

Cherry blossoms at Hirosaki Castle
This photo was taken at Hirosaki Castle, a full month after the cherry blossoms were history in Tokyo

If you do hit the sweet spot and manage to be in Tokyo or Kyoto for The Classic Pinkness, here’s how to enjoy the fluffiness despite the kerbillion other lucky souls enjoying them with you

Choose what time of day you enjoy them

Go in the early morning…

Cherry blossoms at Shinjuku Gyouen
This photo was taken at peak season at Shinjuku Gyouen in Tokyo, but I was standing outside the gate when it opened at 9:00 and I dashed to the pond before other other visitors made it that far into the park

…or at night. Plenty of places hold “light-up” events now, and the crowds of people become mere silhouettes instead of distracting annoyances.

Cherry blossoms at Chidorigafuchi moat
Record hordes of people turn up every night to see the Chidori-ga-fuchi moat all lit up during the cherry madness, but you don’t notice the other people when they’re just black silhouettes instead of orange jacket-wearing photo spoilers

Here’s where to see the best cherry blossoms lit up at night in Tokyo

Talk a local friend into divulging their favorite secret cherry blossom spots

Everybody who lives here has one. Or more.

Cherry blossoms in Chofu
This one is alongside the Chofu River, between Chofu Station and the Jindai Botanical Gardens

Because you are my friend, here are MY favorite secret cherry blossom spots in Tokyo.

Click here for more Seasonal Secret posts

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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