Japan Rail Times
The
Rail Way
to Travel
2402-Left
Seasons

How to be a Sakura Master

How to be a Sakura Master

Cherry blossom (桜 sakura): the national flower of Japan, and one that is synonymous with the spring season. Cherry blossoms have multiple symbolic meanings for the locals—new beginnings, hope and optimism, fleeting nature of beauty and existence—and every year, millions of people from around the world visit Japan to see their petal carpet the ground and envelop the surroundings.

 

In this article, we will explore the world of cherry blossoms in Japan and learn how to fully appreciate them specially for spring. Although most people can normally associate spring with cherry blossom viewing (花見 hanami) in the country, very few people know about it in depth. With this article, I hope that it will start your journey to become a Sakura Master!

 

Step 1: Know their blooming periods

Cherry blossoms blooming at Kakunodate. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Cherry blossoms are known for their short blooming period. From the first bloom (開花 kaika), they normally reach their peak blooming period (満開 mankai) in 7–10 days, after which the flowers are gradually replaced by verdant green leaves (葉桜 hazakura). Cherry blossoms are synonymous with spring, so many people associate their bloom period with early April. However, their periods vary according to their type and geographical location: some types bloom earlier or later than others, and generally they bloom earlier in the southern part of Japan first, and later in northern side.

 

Saigyo Modoshi no Matsu Park in Miyagi Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Furthermore, blooming periods also depend on weather conditions and climate change: although cherry blossoms traditionally bloom in Tokyo in early April, they have bloomed much earlier in recent years. This year, Japan witnessed the earliest cherry blossom bloom in recorded history, as they bloomed 10 days earlier than the average year! This phenomenon puts foreign visitors in a pinch since it would disrupt their travel plans.

 

But fret not: by reading this article, you can become a Sakura Master and learn how to avoid this problem by observing the following points.

 

Japan Meteorological Corporation’s cherry blossom forecast for 2021. (Image credit: Japan Meteorological Corporation)

 

Because of cherry blossoms’ short blooming period, foreign visitors would follow latest updates on the cherry blossom forecast every year so that they can make their travel plans optimally. The exact period of cherry blossom blooming for every region is ultimately influenced by weather conditions, so they change every year. Many methods are used to calculate the approximate start of blooming, but one interesting rule of thumb is called the "600-degree rule", and it works like this:

 

  1. Starting from February, add the highest temperature of the first day of the month (example: 1 February = 10.4ºC) to the highest temperature of the following day (example: 2 February = 10.1ºC) and so on.
  2. Continue adding the highest daily temperatures from 1 February onwards until the total reaches at least 600ºC.
  3. The day when the cumulative total reaches 600ºC is said to be the approximate day the cherry blossoms will start to bloom.

 

Note: this formula only applies for a given region (example: temperatures for Tokyo used to approximate the blooming period for Tokyo only).

 

Surprisingly, this method is said to be fairly accurate, with observations showing deviation of only a few days. Another variation on this method is the "400-degree rule" where, instead of using the high daily temperatures from 1 February, the average daily temperature is used instead, and the approximate start of the blooming period is the day when the cumulative total reaches 400ºC instead.

 

More importantly however, cherry blossoms' blooming period ultimately depends on the weather, especially the temperature and elevation. Firstly, the higher the temperature leading up to spring, the sooner the flowers will bloom. That is why cherry blossoms bloom in the southern parts of Japan, such as Okinawa and Kyushu, sooner than the north such as Tohoku and Hokkaido. And secondly, the lower the elevation for a given region, the sooner the flowers bloom. For every 100m above sea level, cherry blossoms typically bloom later by 2–3 days than the surrounding area with lower elevation.

 

Step 2: Know your different types of cherry blossoms

There are more than 100 types of cherry blossoms in Japan. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Japan is home to more than 100 types of cherry blossoms, and it takes a discerning eye to tell one type from another. Although cherry blossoms are famous for its pale pinkish hues, their colours are actually diverse: it can range from vivid pink, to almost white, and even yellow!

 

To be a Sakura Master, one needs to be able to identify the different types of cherry blossoms. For a start, we shall explore the most popular ones commonly seen in spring.

 

Somei-Yoshino (ソメイヨシノ)

Somei-Yoshino is the most common type of cherry blossoms in Japan. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Also known as Yoshino cherry, Somei-Yoshino is the most popular type of cherry blossoms in Japan. People can see them throughout Japan, be it in the southern region of Kyushu, in the heart of Tokyo, or the northern region of Tohoku, and they bloom between late March and early May. Their colours range between pale pink and almost white, and each flower has five petals.

 

Interestingly, Somei-Yoshino is a hybrid flower that is originally cultivated from two parent cherry blossoms: Oshimazakura (オオシマ桜) and Edohigan (エドヒガン). The two flowers were chosen for their specific traits: Oshimazakura's large flowers, and Edohigan's early blooming period. Somei-Yoshino combines the best parts of the two flowers, resulting in one that ideally blooms early, and is pleasing to the eyes.

 

Somei-Yoshino is said to have originated from Toshima in Tokyo, and its name was coined by gardeners in Somei (modern-day Komagome) who cultivated and sold them under that name to avoid confusion with another type of wild cherry blossoms found on Mount Yoshino (吉野山 Yoshino-yama) in Nara Prefecture (奈良県).

 

Edohigan (エドヒガン)

Edohigan cherry blossoms. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Unlike Somei-Yoshino which is a cultivated type of cherry blossom, Edohigan is one that is grown in the wild. The name derives from the Buddhist holiday celebrated in Japan during spring equinox (彼岸 higan), when the flower’s blooming period coincides. It is one of the parent flowers of Somei-Yoshino, and it is also lauded for its longevity: they can live up more than 1,000 years.

 

Ishiwarizakura (left) and Yamataka Jindaizakura (right). (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会 / photoAC)

 

The two most prominent examples of Edohigan cherry blossom trees are Ishiwarizakura in Iwate Prefecture, and Yamataka Jindaizakura in Yamanashi Prefecture. Both are iconic cherry blossom trees that showcase its sheer longevity: Yamataka Jindaizakura in particular is said to be approximately 2,000 years old.

(Note: if you like to know more about these two trees, I covered them in a previous article.)

 

③ Shidarezakura (シダレザクラ)

Shidarezakura. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Shidarezakura is one of the most iconic types of cherry blossoms in Japan for its appearance. The name can be translated as "weeping cherry blossom", and as the name suggests, it is known for its drooping branches. Its small pink flowers are similar to Edohigan, and they tend to bloom earlier than most other types of cherry blossoms, usually from mid-March onwards. One of the most popular places to see them is Nicchusen Shidarezakura (to be covered later).

 

Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima Prefecture. (Image credit: JR East / Nakamura)

 

Perhaps the most famous Shidarezakura tree in Japan is Miharu Takizakura, a majestic cherry blossom tree in Fukushima Prefecture. As one of the "Three Great Cherry Blossoms" (日本三大桜 nihon-sandaizakura) as well as a Natural Monument (天然記念物 tennen kinenbutsu), this is one of the most prominent cherry blossom trees in Japan, one that cherry blossom enthusiasts cannot miss.

 

Yamazakura (ヤマザクラ)

Yoshino Senbonzakura in Nara Prefecture. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Yamazakura is another type of wild cherry blossom, and is often regarded as one of the original cherry blossoms in Japan. As its name suggests ("mountain cherry blossom"), they can usually be seen on mountain slopes, thus making for a spectacular view of mountains completely covered in cherry blossoms. Each flower also has five petals, and their colour is usually light pink. A highly prominent place to view Yamazakura is Yoshino Senbonzakura (吉野千本桜) in Nara Prefecture.

 

Oshimazakura (オオシマザクラ)

Oshimazakura. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Like Edohigan, Oshimzakura is another type of wild cherry blossom and is the other parent for Somei-Yoshino. Praised for their large flowers, Oshimazakura's name derives from its place of origin: Izu Oshima (伊豆大島), an island near Shizuoka Prefecture. Interestingly, its flower and leaf emit a strong floral scent, so they are often used to wrap sakura-mochi (桜餅 cherry blossom sticky rice cake).

 

Yaezakura (ヤエザクラ)

Kikuzakura, a type of Yaezakura. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Yaezakura is an umbrella term for cherry blossoms with multiple layers, and one example is Kikuzakura, one of the most unique cherry blossoms you can find in Japan. This particular flower is known for its numerous petals, ranging anywhere between 80 to 130 per flower. Yaezakura means "eight-layered cherry blossom" and they typically later than most other cherry blossoms, in late April to early May. Highly popular spots to see them include Ueno Park (上野公園 Ueno-kōen) and Shinjuku Gyo-en (新宿御苑), both of which are in Tokyo.

 

Kawazuzakura (カワヅザクラ)

Kawazuzakura. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

People usually associate cherry blossoms' blooming periods between March and April, but Kawazuzakura is different from other cherry blossoms. Originating from the town of Kawazu (河津町 Kawazu-chō) in Izu Peninsula (伊豆半島 Izu Hantō) in Shizuoka Prefecture, they are known for blooming as early as the start of February. Furthermore, unlike most other cherry blossoms that bloom only for 7–10 days, Kawazuzakura bloom for up to 1 month until early March.

 

So imagine this: foreign visitors can actually enjoy winter skiing and viewing these flowers at the same time, since their blooming periods overlap winter and spring!  

 

Step 3: Know the best sceneries for cherry blossoms

Mount Chokai in Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

As cherry blossoms can be found all over Japan in spring, people can enjoy different sceneries that come with the flowers. Different landscapes offer different experiences for the flowers, whether it’s the sea-facing tropical landscape of Okinawa, the historical landscape of Kyoto or the urban backdrop of Osaka and Tokyo. But if there is one particular region where cherry blossom viewing is particularly special, it would be Tohoku.

 

Tohoku is a mountainous region with longer cool climate due to its geographical location, which makes for an ideal environment for cherry blossoms to bloom and thrive. Furthermore, what’s unique about Tohoku is how people can witness cherry blossoms in the midst of snowy mountain backdrop, a scenery with an exceptional juxtaposition of two seasons: winter and spring.

(Note: I wrote in further detail about cherry blossoms with a snowy mountain backdrop. Do check it out here.) 

 

Tsuruga Castle in Fukushima Prefecture. (Image credit: Fukushima Prefecture)

 

Another reason why Tohoku makes for a special backdrop for cherry blossom viewing is the presence of magnificent historical castles. Cherry blossoms and castles in Japan both share a long history together, with a few cherry blossom trees as old as 1,000 years old having witnessed eras change over time. Together with castles that symbolise Tohoku’s feudal past, both for an unforgettable scenery specially for the spring season.

 

Hirosaki Park at night. (Image credit: Japanmase)

 

And last but not least, Tohoku has some of the best spots for cherry blossom viewing at night. It is home to places with the most spectacular views when night falls, as illuminations will light up the flowers for visitors to marvel. Furthermore, some of these spots have other prominent landmarks (e.g. Hirosaki Castle at Hirosaki Park) which will also be illuminated. Imagine capturing a view of an imposing castle with blooming cherry blossoms, basking in the night lights!

 

Step 4: Know your travel plans to view cherry blossoms

So of course, the important thing when it comes to viewing cherry blossoms is to know how to plan your travel in order to catch them at their peak blooming period. This is perhaps the trickiest part, but for visitors travelling to Tohoku can rejoice. It is actually possible to experience the best cherry blossom viewing sites in the region for up to a whole month! 

 

This is because unlike most other regions in Japan, Tohoku has a unique geographical shape. It has a long shape that stretches from south to north, and since the advance of cherry blossoms goes northward, visitors can follow it to see the flowers in the region. The key is planning the travel itinerary by grouping the cherry blossom viewing sites according to their flowers' blooming periods, and plotting the visit dates accordingly.

 

Here is a suggestion on how to group the places:

 

Grouping cherry blossom viewing sites in Tohoku. (Image credit: JR East / Carissa Loh)

 

Group 1 (early April)

Clockwise from top-left: Miharu Takizakura, Hanamiyama Park, Hitome Senbonzakura, Funaoka Joshi Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nakamura, Fukushima Prefecture, U-Media (bottom))

 

This group consists of cherry blossom viewing sites with coastal locations in Tohoku, such as Fukushima Prefecture and Miyagi Prefecture. Since these areas are located in the southernmost part of Tohoku, the cherry blossom flowers here will generally bloom earlier than the rest, so it's highly recommended to visit them in early April.

 

Group 2 (mid-April)

Clockwise from top-left: Tsuruga Castle Park, Nicchusen Shidarezakura, Kajo Park, Isazawa no Kubozakura. (Image credit: Nguyen Duy Khanh (top), Yamagata Prefecture (bottom))

 

This group features cherry blossom viewing sites with more central locations in the region, such as the western part of Fukushima Prefecture. Plus, this section has a generally mountainous terrain with higher elevation (e.g. Yamagata Prefecture), hence the blooming period is slightly later than those in Group 1. Hence, the best time to visit these places are in mid-April.

 

Group 3 (end-April)

Clockwise from top-left: Kitakami Tenshochi Park, Kakunodate Samurai Residences, Hirosaki Park, Ayaori no Sakura-namiki. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会, Japanmase, Aomori Prefecture, Japanmase)

 

Group 3 include cherry blossom viewing sites located in the northernmost part of Tohoku, namely prefectures Iwate, Akita and Aomori. Since cherry blossoms' blooming periods advance from south to north, these places bloom the latest among the rest in other groups, so it's best to visit them towards the end of April.

(Note: I have covered several cherry blossom viewing sites with in earlier articles. Do check them out here and here. For Hitome Senbonzakura, you can check out the article here.)

 

Best of all, for all the three groups above, visitors do not even need to move from one hotel to another just to see every cherry blossom viewing site. Accessing to the locations above is pretty easy if they stay at a centralised location. For places in Groups 1 and 2, they can simply stay at Sendai in Miyagi Prefecture where they can access places in Fukushima, Miyagi and Yamagata easily. For places in Group 3, the ideal location would be in Morioka in Iwate Prefecture.

 

Closing

The sheer beauty of cherry blossoms continues to attract visitors from all over the world to Japan time after time. Viewing and appreciating cherry blossoms is a timeless pastime, and there’s always something to learn about these precious fleeting beauties. To be a Sakura Master is to discover something new about them, and I hope to see more people become one (including myself)!

(Bonus: If you like to know more about the best cherry blossom viewing sites in Tohoku, check out the Tohoku's Cherrific Sakura webinar!)

 

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

The new JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and usage area. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area for 5 consecutive days. It's only ¥30,000, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: U-Media

 

Related Articles

Share this article:
TSC-Banner
2402-Right