Cherry Blossom Viewing: How to Prepare (Despite Climate Change) – UPDATED with 2024 Forecast

Cherry Blossom Viewing: How to Prepare (Despite Climate Change) – UPDATED with 2024 Forecast

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Cherry blossoms in Japan
Picture: denkei / PIXTA(ピクスタ)
Climate change is making it harder to plan for cherry blossom viewing in Japan than ever. Here's what you need to know - and where to go for the best views.

As the new year opens, many people are making plans to visit Japan in time for peak cherry blossom viewing. But climate change means that viewing times are coming earlier than ever. Here’s what you need to know about the changes – and where to go in Japan for the best views.

Update: The 2024 cherry blossom forecast is out! See the end of this post for approximate dates.

Japan’s rich sakura history

Cherry blossoms at the Meguro River, Tokyo
Cherry blossoms at the Meguro River (目黒川), Tokyo. (Picture: genki / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Cherry blossom trees, or sakura (桜), have a long history in Japan. The country is home to three naturally growing types of cherry blossom trees. The Yamazakura strain is probably the one that most residents identify with Japan. Paeans to cherry blossoms can be read in waka poetry extending back to Japan’s Heian era (794-1185).

Beginning in the Heian era, people began cultivating new strains of cherry blossom trees as well. The earliest was the shidare-zakura (枝垂桜), or weeping cherry blossom tree.

Weeping cherry blossom tree (shidare-zakura)
The weeping cherry blossom tree in Kyoto’s Maruyama Park. (Picture: genki / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Other famous varieties of the cherry blossom tree include the Ooshima variety from Ooshima island and the Somei-Yoshino, which was created in the Edo era by cross-cultivating the Edohigan and Ooshima varieties. The Somei-Yoshino variety exploded in popularity in the Meiji era, as it’s easy to cultivate and its flowers only take two years to begin blooming. (Most other cherry blossom tree varieties take up to 10 years.)

The beauty of the sakura trees has seen them become an indelible part of Japan’s art and culture. The flower is now a world-recognized symbol of the country and tourists flock from every corner of the globe to experience cherry blossom season in March and April.

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Global warming = an earlier cherry blossom season

However, it’s getting trickier to plan cherry blossom viewing parties, especially if you’re traveling from overseas. You can blame global warming for that.

There are two key dates for cherry blossoms: opening of the blossoms (開花; kaika) and full blossoming (満開; mankai). Full blossom usually happens within a few days of opening. (This is the time that almost everyone targets for viewing.) Because of weather pattern variations, the exact date of both events varies depending on location in Japan.

In 2023, the country saw its earliest-ever opening date. A representative for the Japan Meteorological Bureau who assessed the Seomei-Yoshino trees at Yasukuni Shrine declared blossoming occurred on March 13th. That’s a full 10 days earlier than the average opening date. The city experienced full blossom on the 22nd – a full nine days earlier than average.

Most other areas in Japan followed suit. The largest difference occurred in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido. The city experienced opening on April 15th, a whopping 16 days earlier than the average.

The culprit for the early opening? Rising temperatures. Warm weather stimulates the cherry blossom trees to awake from winter dormancy and blossom. The warmer the weather, the earlier the blossoming.

This means that, by the turn of the century, you’ll see some significant changes to how the trees blossom in Japan. One researcher, Ito Hisanori of Kyushu University, says that, by 2100, opening day will be uniform from the island of Kyushu in Japan’s south up to the bottom of the Tohoku region in the northeast. And some locations, like Tanegashima or Kagoshima, may not see the trees blossom at all.

Where to go for cherry blossom viewing

It’s not possible to tell exactly when blossoming will begin until closer to the season’s start. However, given this winter’s comparatively warm weather in Japan, it’s possible it will start earlier than ever. It’s a safe bet that we’ll see opening and full blossom sometime around mid-March.

If you do manage to time your trip right, good news – it’s very easy to immerse yourself in sakura wherever you go. Here are a few key locations that make for amazing viewing in various locations.

Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka

It’s easy to find parks in all three cities where cherry blossom trees rule the roost. In Tokyo, one notable spot is the Meguro River (目黒川) that flows through Setagaya and Meguro cities. During the day, the riverside turns into a street fair with many vendors selling delicious Japanese food. At night, the city lights the river up for an absolutely breathtaking view.

Meguro River - cherry blossoms (night view)
Picture: genki / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Other top viewing spots in Tokyo include the Grand Princess Hotel Takanawa in Minato City, Sumida Park in Sumida City, the Rikugien Gardens in Bunkyo, and Ueno Park in Ueno.

In Kyoto, you can catch shidare-zakura at the Heian Jingu shrine. For a fully immersive experience, Yawaragi Road by the Nanatani River allows you to take a leisurely stroll as hundreds of cherry blossom branches tower over you. For a little hidden gem, visit Haradani Garden, a private garden only open to the public during cherry blossom season.

Heian Jingu shrine in Kyoto
Heian Jingu Shrine (Picture: qumran1307 / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

For Osaka-bound peeps, Osaka Castle provides some solid Instagram opportunities. The Expo ’70 Commemorative Park is home to over 5,500 cherry blossom trees, making it a must-see. Suminoe Park and Nagano Park are also great spots, with Nagano offering some beautiful night views a la Meguro.

Osaka Castle cherry blossoms
Osaka Castle. (Picture: shimanto / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

Elsewhere in Japan

Like a nice red wine and a good steak, sakura viewing goes very well with views of Mt. Fuji. The famous view from the observation deck at Arakurayama Sengen Park in Yamanashi Prefecture is a breathtaking spot that everyone should see with their own eyes at least once.

Arakura Sengen Koen, Yamanashi Prefecture
Picture: まちゃー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

One of my personal favorite spots for seeing cherry blossom trees last year in Yamanashi was Yatsushiro Furusato Park in Fuefuki. The location is also home to two burial mounds dating back to Japan’s 4th and 5th centuries, respectively.

Yatsushiro Furusato Park
Yatsushiro Furusato Koen in Fuefuki, Yamanashi Prefecture. Picture by the author (with permission of the author’s wife)

And of course, the rest of the country is full of other locations for sakura viewing. To name just a few:

  • Hirosaki Park (弘前公園) in Aoyama Prefecture bills itself as having “the most beautiful cherry blossom in Japan”. And indeed, the night view is nothing to sneeze at.
  • Tenshochi in Iwate Prefecture has ranked as one of the country’s 100 best locations for viewing cherry blossoms.
  • The Shiroichi River in Miyagi Prefecture is known as the Hitome-Senbon-Sakura (1,000 cherry trees in one glance), sporting over 1,200 trees of several of Japan’s well-know varieties. Celebrations in this spot in this spot 20 minutes outside of Sendai in the Tohoku region draw over 200,000 visitors yearly.
  • Miharu Takizakura in Fukushima Prefecture is one of Japan’s “big three” cherry blossom trees and has been designated a natural monument by the Japanese government. It stands 13.5 meters tall and sports thick branches in all directions.
  • Nagano Prefecture’s Takato Joshi Park sports 1,200 trees of a rare variety of cherry blossom tree. In 2023, opening didn’t occur until the end of March, making this a good stop for folks who might miss the start of the season in central Japan.
Miharu takizakura
Miharu Takizakura. (Picture: Hiroko / PIXTA(ピクスタ))

2024 cherry blossom dates (projected)

Here are the projected dates for opening of the blossoms in 2024, based on current weather patterns (from south to north):

Kagoshima: March 25th

Fukuoka: March 16th

Kochi: March 19th

Hiroshima: March 20th

Osaka: March 22nd

Nagoya: March 19th

Kanezawa: March 27th

Tokyo: March 17th

Nagano: April 1st

Sendai: April 1st

Niigata: March 31st

Aoyama: April 10th

Akita: April 8th

Sapporo: April 18th

Kushiro: May 5th

Sources

日本の桜の歴史. Japan Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries

「東京でサクラ開花」発表 気象庁 最も早い記録に並ぶ. NHK News Web

地球温暖化で桜の開花に異変!? 日本列島でいっせい開花も?Japan Ministry of the Environment

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Jay Allen

Jay is a resident of Tokyo where he works as a reporter for Unseen Japan and as a technial writer. A lifelong geek, wordsmith, and language fanatic, he has level N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) and is fervently working on his Kanji Kentei Level 2 certification.

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