It’s Sakura Season! Here Are 5 Tips To Avoiding Tourist Gridlock In Japan

It’s Sakura Season! Here Are 5 Tips To Avoiding Tourist Gridlock In Japan

It’s Sakura Season! Here Are 5 Tips To Avoiding Tourist Gridlock In Japan

Japan’s Tourism Ministry recently unveiled a plan addressing the country’s overtourism problem. More than 25 million foreign tourists arrived in the country in 2023, a whopping six times the amount from the previous (yes, still-covid-era, but still) year, with the metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto drawing two-thirds of international visitors. Spring’s cherry blossom season and its associated hanami (flower-viewing activities), make for the busiest tourism inflow all year. It’s also a season I often tell visitors to avoid. I hate to be a sakura spoilsport or the bah humbug of blossoms, but let’s face it: cherry blossoms are less beautiful when you’re surrounded by swarms of sakura snappers. 

Crowds in Ueno Park, Hanami
Crowds in Ueno Park, Hanami. Photo by GettyImages/sunrising4725

Though the ministry’s plan doesn’t say how to specifically avoid sakura season crowds, it offers general advice on how to travel more sustainably and responsibly in Japan, outlining approaches for tourism professionals to increase more transport routes and use technology to monitor crowds. But it also encourages travel to 11 lesser-visited destinations in Japan from eastern Hokkaido and Mount Hachimantai to Kyushu’s Kagoshima and the Okinawa Islands. Below are a handful of tips to help you enjoy more of the cherry blossoms and less of the pits of the season. 

Cherry Blossom season tip 1: Skip Kyoto

Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto
Courtesy of Hotel The Mitsui Kyoto

Kyoto is beautiful, for sure. But it doesn’t have the best sakura blooms. What it does have is a very real overtourism problem, much like Venice, Bali and Phuket. Crowds at its Sannenzaka, Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion and the Zen rock garden at Ryōan-ji swell during the season. Do its residents a favour and haul your hanami picnic mat elsewhere. My tips are to wait for May for peak cherry blossom season in Hokkaido or go earlier to Okinawa, which sees its peak from mid-January to mid-February.

Finding good cherry blossom viewing in Japan is like trying to find good spaghetti in Italy or good green curry in Thailand. It’s a no-brainer and almost hard not to. If you cannot for whatever reason skip Kyoto, consider staying at the Hotel Mitsui, which offers a sustainable sakura package including yoga under a weeping cherry tree in its private courtyard (¥8,000/INR 4,501 per person), and a cherry blossom evening art tour (¥4,000/INR 2,250 per person) that not only guides you around the property’s private art and architecture pieces as they relate to sakura but teaches guests how to appreciate the blossoms in the evening light and reflection in water, a tactic that comes in handy for Tip 2.


Book your stay at Hotel Mitsui via Agoda.com


Book your stay at Hotel Mitsui via Booking.com

Cherry Blossom season tip 2: Go dark

Full bloom illuminated by the morning sun
Full bloom illuminated by the morning sun. Photo by GettyImages/kuppa_rock

The best method to avoid cherry blossom gridlock is to utilise “time diffusion” by seeking out sakura during off-peak times, including nighttime. This was a measure first spearheaded by Kyoto tourism agencies in 2019 to deter kankō kōgai (tourism pollution) and instead foster evening and morning visits to temples, parks and shrines–but it can be used everywhere. 

The pink and white cherry blossoms may be especially beautiful when set against a blue sky. But that blue sky doesn’t have to be at Ueno Park or Nakameguro, two of Tokyo’s busiest sakura spots. And it needn’t be on a weekend between 12 noon and 5 pm when peak crowds gather. Cherry blossoms are no less beautiful on a Monday morning or during a Thursday lunch hour when you will have them to yourself. Early mornings are typically less windy and another ideal time to catch cherry blossoms when the sun’s first rays hit and the dew on them still glistens.

Cherry Blossom lights up from Rikugi Gardens.
Cherry Blossom lights up from Rikugi Gardens. Photo by GettyImages/Saha Entertainment

But sakura are particularly beautiful at night, especially when they are lit up, as they are across most of Japan, and reflected in water like an impressionist painting. Throw in a moon, and you’ve got the embryo for a haiku. Nighttime viewing of sakura is so revered it has a name (of course it does): yozakura. Places known for yozakura include Hirosaki Park in Aomori prefecture, Takada Castle in Niigata prefecture, Mifuneyama Rakuen in Saga, and Utsubuki Park in Tottori. Don’t forget that even some of the most crowded places in Tokyo and Kyoto will see crowds drop off after sunset.

Cherry Blossom season tip 3: Go Off Piste

A train passing through cherry blossom trees. Photo by GettyImages/Steven Han

Every year, Japan’s Meteorological Association publishes a detailed cherry blossom forecast, widely republished in newspapers, social media, blogs, and popular English tourism sites like JR Rail Pass and apps like Sakura Navi. It details when the buds open across the country, an indispensable tool for seeking out the right time to go, but it also showcases more than 1,000 ranked places to experience sakura, including triple-rated heritage spots that are the most popular to lesser-visited spots like Fukushima’s Shinobuyama Park and Hakodate Park, and Sapporo’s Moerenuma Park, designed by Isamu Noguchi and home to a grove of late blooming cherry trees.

Wild cherry trees can be found across Japan, too, in ancient woodlands and mountain trails; while these might not be the cultivated show ponies you’ll see in parks, they can be breathtakingly beautiful. Basically: before embarking on a sakura sojourn, it’s worth asking yourself how many other people read the same info you did in order to help you gauge crowds. 

Cherry Blossom season tip 4: Think (beyond) pink 

Manju, a traditional Japanese sweets
Manju, a traditional Japanese sweets. Photo by GettyImages/kumikomini

Cherry blossoms aren’t just visual; they can be appreciated in edible form year round. Sakura festivals, which draw the biggest crowds, typically offer a range of sakura-flavoured foods, but most of them are sakura imposters like pink-icing-covered bananas, strawberry champagne, and strawberry bubble waffles. Many fast-food chains and big brands jumped on the pink bandwagon, too, with “cherry blossom flavoured” Kit-Kats, coffees, cakes, sandwiches and McFlurries to feed your inner sakura slut. Just because it’s pink doesn’t mean it’s actually made from cherry blossoms.

Surprisingly, fewer people try to eat authentic sakura flavours, which are easy to find at festivals and in food courts, supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, and bakeries during the season. Sakura-an is a Japanese sweet made with shiro-an (sweetened white bean paste) mixed with chopped salted sakura leaves. Manju are steamed buns stuffed with salted sakura flowers and leaves. Other forms of the delicate aromatic flavour include cherry blossom-flavoured salt, sugar, tea and tea lattes (with sakura tea and milk), mochi, candy, rice, onigiri with pickled sakura twigs, and a variety of pickled leaves and flowers served on meats, in sushi, sake, ramen, and more. 

Cherry Blossom season tip 5: Sayonara Sakura, aka, pick a different season

Lake Nakatsuna
Pink cherry blossoms are reflected in Lake Nakatsuna. Photo by GettyImages/tak-photo

Sakura ain’t the only game in town. Japan is known for its 72 microseasons, many of which outline the specific blossom and budding times of plants. So avoid cherry blossoms altogether and focus instead on Japan’s numerous other flowering tree seasons including plum (ume) from January to March, apricot (February to April), peach (March to April) and apple (April to June).  While foreign tourists flock to sakura for its IG buzz and appeal, don’t forget that the point of admiring cherry blossoms within Japan is to appreciate the fleeting, transient beauty of the microseason.  

While Japan has cultivated more than 300 cherry-tree varieties today, cherries don’t originally come from Japan. It’s believed they originated in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey. The Greeks first cultivated the trees, and the Romans perfected what the Greeks started. While sakura in Japan dates back to the 8th century, and some wild species, such as the Yamazakura, exist, proper sakura cultivation in Japan didn’t exist in earnest until the Meiji Restoration, around 1868. Because cherries themselves don’t do well in Japan’s rain, the blossoms took off instead. Never has a failed crop turned into such a cultural icon.


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This story first appeared here.

Lede and hero image by GettyImages/Matteo Colombo.

Related: You Can Witness Cherry Blossoms At These Places In India






Written By

Adam H. Graham

Adam H. Graham

Adam H. Graham lives in Zürich, Switzerland though he spend much of his time on the road reporting on stories. He has traveled to and reported on over 90 countries. He specializes in travel writing, but also report on design, food, contemporary art, architecture, urbanism, and nature.

Japan’s Tourism Ministry recently unveiled a plan addressing the country’s overtourism problem. More than 25 million foreign tourists arrived in the country in 2023, a whopping six times the amount from the previous (yes, still-covid-era, but still) year, with the metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto drawing two-thirds of international visitors. Spring’s cherry blossom…

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