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Where to Shoot Cherry Blossoms in Japan: A Practical Photo Guide

Japan goes into a frenzy each spring as millions of locals and tourists gather to catch a glimpse of the elusive cherry blossom. Simply known as sakura, the petals come and go like the wind, representing the ethereal beauty of life.

Those who have visited this wonderful country will tell you all about their hospitality, culinary prowess, and ancient traditions, but the experience remains incomplete until you witness the cherry blossom with your own eyes.

Kyoto/Okazaki Canal – The calm water of the Okazaki Canal, reflecting the sun rising upon Kyoto’s Higashiyama with bursting sakura on both sides, is one of the countless photogenic locations you will encounter.

My name is Jimmy Chan, the photographer of Pixelicious from Montreal, Canada. Some of you might remember my in-depth guides for wedding photography lighting and posing, but I also take tremendous pleasure in shooting for myself once in a while. Photography is an endless pursuit, there’s always that next image or project to look forward to. With cherry blossom season upon us, this article is written for you, if:

  • You are visiting Japan this spring!
  • You dream in visiting Japan one day, hoping to witness sakura
  • You simply enjoy taking pictures and uncovering hidden gems while traveling

Let’s be honest, even if you managed to book a trip to Japan during the busy season, your time there will probably be limited. Cooler temperatures can easily delay the bloom by a week or two, completely ruining the visitor’s dream in catching the sakura. This article provides the essential information you’ll need to increase your chances of seeing the cherry blossom at its peak, with a list of locations on where to find them and many other tips along the way.

Before You Go and What You Need to Know

The JNTO’s (Japan National Tourism Organization) website contains a wealth of information for tourists but I wish to draw your attention to their blooming forecast here. It will show a map of various regions across Japan with their first and full bloom dates. Remember to revisit often as the dates will change according to the weather pattern.

Due to a warmer climate, the trees will start blooming in the Southern regions of Japan by end of March. Other regions will follow throughout April as we head North. This means that there’s always one area where you can catch the sakura, often a train ride away. Having flexibility in your itinerary will increase your chances.

The Japan Rail Pass (commonly called “JR Pass”) is a blessing for tourists. It is designed to let you abuse the bullet trains to help save money. The JR Pass is so great that it is not offered to Japanese residents, you must show the “Temporary Visitor” stamp in your passport to get it. You can read about the eligibility and pricing here.

An ordinary adult 7-day JR Pass costs 29,110 YEN (as of 2018), equivalent to a round-trip ticket between Tokyo and Kyoto. The initial cost is recuperated simply by visiting Kyoto, chances are you will anyway. Nearly everything else is free, including bullet train rides for your other day trips and within Tokyo (Yamanote and Chuo-Sobu lines). Note that there are limitations to the JR Pass, make sure you review before purchase.

A tip on JR Pass: You will be able to obtain reserved seating tickets at any JR Ticket Office, but expect huge lineups due to the influx of tourists. Plan ahead: know which date, what time and which destination will you be needing the train that week. This way, the agent can help you book all your bullet train rides without having to wait in line repeatedly.

Photographers all have their favorite camera bag and gear list, so I won’t go into much detail as to what you need to bring. Japan is a very safe country, but you should take precaution regardless to safeguard your equipment. The average tourist will have multiple camera bodies so don’t be afraid to unleash your big guns. The number of people taking pictures during cherry blossom will blow your mind!

Landing in Tokyo: Do What You Have to Do, Then Go

If this is your first trip to Japan, most likely you will land in Tokyo and concentrate your sightseeing within the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka trifecta.

Prime spots to enjoy the cherry blossom in Tokyo include the Chidorigafuchi Park, Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, and Meguro River.

However, Tokyo offers so much more and you will be tempted to eat at the Tsukiji fish market, immerse yourself into the otaku culture of Akihabara, shop at Ginza, or even visit the latest architectural masterpiece known as the Skytree.

Tokyo/Skytree – On a clear day, some say that you will see as far as Mount Fuji.
Tokyo/Skytree – Visiting during weekdays to avoid excessive crowds.

It’s definitely worth spending some time exploring this mega-metropolis but the real fun starts once you board the Shinkansen (bullet train).

Kyoto: Experience Ancient Japan

Kyoto deserves its own article. Everything you have seen or heard is true, this ancient capital will mesmerize. In the heart of the Kansai region, Kyoto is strategically located to serve as a base for your upcoming day trips.

Due to its popularity, the sheer number of visitors can be overwhelming, only to reach extreme levels during cherry blossom. Here are some practical tips and recommended places to visit:

Kyoto/Philosopher’s Path – Head out during the rain when tourists look for shelter. You are the professional photographer and you brought weather resistant gear, use it!
Kyoto/Keage Incline – Get up early and take the first train (or metro). I did when visiting the Keage Incline and there are over 50 photographers on top of the hill already. Somehow I find the opposite perspective from below more compelling.
Kyoto Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) – Be the first or last to arrive at top attractions. Put the camera away during regular business hours, the light isn’t in your favor anyway so you might as well go eat some ramen.

A tip on transportation: The guidebooks will tell you that Kyoto is a very walkable city. It also has an efficient bus network that will drop you off at every location imaginable. However, the lineups can be ridiculously long so consider spending an extra few dollars taking the cab, especially if traveling as a group. Your tired feet will thank you.

Kyoto/Gion – Tourists have become paparazzi, there are now signs warning people to not harass a geisha! If you are lucky enough to encounter one, don’t engage, demand anything or stand in their way. They are busy people.

A tip on seeing a geisha: If you insist on watching a geisha perform (on a small budget), consider the Miyako Odori, a special show during the season featuring traditional dance and music. Advance booking a must and you can get them here.

Kyoto/Gion – By nightfall, head out again while the tourists are sleeping. You will have Gion all for yourself.
Kyoto/Gion – Keep walking until you reach the Shirakawa river, where you find cherry trees lit up at night.

A tip on behavior: Under no circumstances should you shake the cherry trees. I have seen this with my own eyes, where rude tourists hit the branches to make the petals deliberately fall on their kids to snap pictures. The locals become extremely angry and upset, so just don’t do it!

Kyoto/Maruyama Park – Join the Japanese for hanami, which literally means “flower viewing”. The ambiance will be festive, a great opportunity to try out local delicacies as well.
Kyoto/Maruyama Park – You can’t miss the large Shidarezakura, perhaps the most popular cherry tree in Kyoto.

Osaka: Eat Till You Drop

An hour away from Kyoto, head South to reach Osaka. The city offers a very different experience but it is truly known for one thing: kuidaore!

It translates to “eat till you drop”.

Some say that you will arrive in Osaka with an empty stomach then leave with an empty wallet, feel free to indulge yourself in the culinary adventure!

However, by timing your visit carefully, you can visit the Osaka’s Mint Museum, featuring over 130+ varieties of cherry trees. The garden is open to the public during spring for one week only, be sure to check the dates here.

Osaka/Mint Museum – An unmatched collection of cherry trees can be found at the Mint Museum. Expect an outrageous amount of people but that’s part of the fun! When wide shots aren’t possible, take out the telephoto lens.

Nara: Deer Invasion

Home to over 1200 deer, these once considered sacred animals roam freely within the Nara Park. Feed them deer crackers should you wish to come up close and personal. Within walking distance, you will find some of the most revered places of worship, such as the Todai-ji temple and Kasuga Shrine.

Nara Park – Be prepared to spend extra cash to lure deer with crackers. Sometimes you just have to pay to play.

Nagoya: Uncovering the Hidden Gem

From Kyoto, take the Eastbound train for an hour to reach Nagoya. This city is often overlooked by tourists but should you be willing to explore, you will come across one of the most spectacular displays of cherry blossoms.

Nagoya/Yamazaki river – The lack of tourists made the Shikinomichi (Path of Four Seasons) one of my favorite spots. You can easily spend the afternoon walking along the Yamazaki river.

Finding the Yamazaki river can be a challenge, as it involves a metro ride from the Nagoya JR station, then another short walk to reach your destination. If in doubt, follow the locals!

Nagoya/Yamazaki river – Brace yourself for a sakura explosion, where hundreds of cherry trees are lined on both sides of the Yamazaki river in full bloom.

Himeji Castle: The White Heron Soars Once More

Now heading West from Kyoto, another one hour train ride will bring you to Himeji. The Himeji Castle is consistently ranked as one of the very best in Japan but it was closed for over 5 years due to extensive renovation.

The good news is that the castle is reopened to the public as of March 2015. The bad news is that you will have to fight your way through to get in. The castle is known to limit the number of daily visitors to keep things under control, in particular during sakura season.

Himeji Castle – The large castle ground offers many great vantage points to experiment composition.

My best advice is to show up before opening hours, your chances of getting tickets will remain high as long as you beat the large buses from organized tours.

Himeji Castle – Wouldn’t it be nice if you could just fly in without having to wait in line?

Mount Yoshino: Ultimate Cherry Blossom Pilgrimage

Without large shopping malls or fancy restaurants, the average tourist isn’t much interested in Mount Yoshino. If you are researching this place, I can tell that you are already obsessed with sakura.

Reaching the mountain will require tremendous effort, follow the locals and hike your way to the Hanayagura lookout for a sweeping vista of cherry trees.

Mount Yoshino/Hanayagura – The Japanese have been trekking Mount Yoshino for centuries. Remember that the trees will bloom at different times due to elevation so plan your dates accordingly.

There are shuttle buses available but I strongly recommend going down on foot. The festive ambiance adds to the various shops and shrines you will encounter.

Kanazawa: Find Your Inner Zen

Of course, there are other amazing attractions in Japan besides the cherry blossom. The high number of photogenic locations makes this country a dream destination for any photographer.

Among the honorable mentions, Kanazawa offers all the benefits of Kyoto without the crowds. Now accessible via Shinkansen, this small town tops the list for those who wish for a more quiet getaway.

Kanazawa/Kenrokuen – The garden remains the must visit attraction in Kanazawa, showcasing Japanese landscaping at its finest.

Arashiyama: Illusion of Space and Serenity

Arashiyama only requires 15 minutes by train from Kyoto station. Among the many places you can visit, the legendary Bamboo Grove easily tops the list. Two things you should know:

  1. The walk is relatively short within the Bamboo Grove
  2. Popular shall be an understatement, literally everyone wants to see this place

Combining the two statements above means that this place is consistently packed with tourists. Allowing cars (!) to drive through the narrow paths makes things worse.

Arashiyama/Bamboo Grove – There are people here as of 6:00 AM, but a lucky 10 second window without anyone in front allowed me to capture a clean shot.

Matsumoto Castle: The Striking Black Crow

The imposing black exterior of the Matsumoto Castle has earned itself the nickname karasu-jo, the crow castle. Its signature red bridge across the moat has attracted visitors from all over the world, including yours truly.

Matsumoto Castle – Don’t like seeing people walking across your shot? A long exposure with a 10-stop ND filter on tripod will render them invisible.

Each spring for approximately 10 days, a stunning exhibition called Corridor of the Light will take place at the Matsumoto Castle where the trees will illuminate at night so check your calendar in advance!

Miyajima: Island of the Gods

Perhaps the most iconic monument in Japan, the O-Torii (Great Torii) is located on Itsukushima island, but more commonly known as Miyajima (shrine island).

Many would suggest staying overnight on the island itself, or at the nearby city of Hiroshima but one can make it as a day trip should you really want to take advantage of your JR Pass. The Shinkansen will shorten the ride between Kyoto and Hiroshima down to 2 hours.

Miyajima – Study the tide table carefully before arriving to prevent any frustration.

If you aren’t planning to stay overnight, then you have to take the boat back to Hiroshima before sunset.

During low tide, the water retreats and visitors can physically walk to the O-Torii, that itself is a unique experience but the muddy ground isn’t very photogenic. Wait for the high tide, then the water comes back, giving the illusion that the O-Torii is floating on the sea.

At Itsukushima, there are mainly 2 low tides and 2 high tides within 24 hours. What you want is to predetermine the dates where the high tides coincide with the sunrise or sunset, you can check the table here.

Again, unless you plan to stay overnight, you can forget about the sunrise and if you observe the chart carefully, you will notice that a sunset with high tide doesn’t come often. Come to Miyajima if you are looking for a challenge!

About the author: Jimmy Chan is a wedding photographer based in Montreal, Canada. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can find more of his work on his photography wedding business website, Pixelicious.

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