Tuesday, December 4, 2018

How to plan a Sakura chase in Japan

I finally managed a really successful sakura chase this year, and would like to share my travel planning tips with all serious travelers who'd like to experience the same excitement of seeing the cherry blossoms at its best. It's not an easy feat, it's the hardest trip I've ever planned, ever! But the results was totally worth it! Read on if you wanna know how...

How far ahead to start planning?

Your Stay
You should book your accommodation at least 6 months ahead as Sakura viewing dates are extremely popular with locals, good priced and well located rooms will be sold out about 3 months to best viewing dates. If you don't plan to take up a package tour deal, plan way ahead to avoid disappointment.

Trip Duration
As cherry blossoms blooming dates can be very volatile, I had planned a 2 week long trip to cater to a week long sakura chase (need lots of buffer). This is so that the itinerary can be adjusted nearer to best viewing dates (if the blooming dates suddenly becomes earlier/later than usual). The forecast becomes more accurate nearing the predicted dates (accuracy becomes very high approx. 3-4 weeks to the forecast dates).

Plan overlapping room bookings
As the itinerary needs to be adjusted, more than once, I had made multiple concurrent/overlapping room bookings and cancel them off 1-2 weeks before the trip, so it is very important that you choose hotel booking sites that allows free cancellation without penalty. This is the hardest part of the planning, my suggestion is to book blocks of 1-2 nights, overlapping stays (at same or different cities) with different guest names (booking sites will send errors if same guest has overlapping staying dates). Then cancel the multiple room bookings 1-2 weeks before travel date, keep a detail record of your active bookings on a document so that you won't forget to cancel bookings and incur no-show charges.

Panic grounds at Hirosaki park, Hirosaki Aomori

Online resources to aid your planning
After you've decided where you wanna go to view the sakura, check out the below resources for forecasts and track the flower blooming progress for each location in your itinerary. My 2018 trip was focused on Tohoku region (northern Honshu) and southern Hokkaido. You can still use the below sites to track other sakura viewing (Hanami) spots in Japan.

Blooming Forecast and prediction websites

Weather Map Japan

The first to announce current year's predictions. Tracks major cities flowering progress in a single page. First forecast usually starts end January, prediction updates every two weeks till March, after which they will update daily.

The sakura blooming forecast is done based on a Sample Tree in each of the respective cities. This site does not do individual Hanami spot forecast. For each sample tree, they do have an easy to understand best viewing duration graph.

Sample Tree in Mori, Hokkaido

Best viewing between 28 Apr - 2 May in Hakodate, Hokkaido

So you know now that best viewing lasts for about 4-7 days on average and it's rather difficult to plan the trip to coincide with such a short duration. Thus, tracking the blooming progress on daily basis and adjusting your itinerary frequently is a must for a successful sakura chase.

Stunning sakura blooms at Goryogaku park, Hakodate Hokkaido on 1st May 2018

Tenki Japan

This is the official weather site that most popular Japan tourist websites follow, japanguide.com updates their Sakura forecast based on their updates.

Easy to understand map with blooming statuses

My only gripe with this site is that they are a little delayed in terms of updating blooming progress, only once a day, while other online tracking sites updates at least twice a day (some sakura spots goes from 50% bloom in the morning to full bloom in the afternoon). Otherwise, it is a good site to follow as they have an extensive list of Hanami spots, great for picking out places for the itinerary.


One of the most popular tourism sites for planning Japan trips. The entire site is in English, and information are a breeze to find here, no Google translate needed. They have comprehensive beginner's guide to sakura viewing, sakura reports/updates and a map with the most famous locations for Hanami.

This site, while easy to follow, does not contain enough details to actual blooming info of individual sakura spots, so I mainly use this for their sakura reports. The reports has photos of blooms from popular Hanami spots which serves as reference for photo spots to look out for when visiting these places.

Sakura reports by japanguide.com

Weeping cherry at Samurai district, Kakunodate Akita

How to track the blooming progress

Online tracking

Nippon Kishou

I love this website, they let you pick out sakura spots from a map to view statuses, and updates the blooming status twice a day. In the days leading up to first bloom, they are also the fastest in adjusting the blooming predictions (once they detected a change in the weather forecast). And, best of all, they have these idiot-proof graphical Flower Meters to track individual Hanami spots. Do check them out!

Tenki Japan

From the main map, click on different prefecture of interest to access the list of Hanami spots within that area. You can sort the list of individual spots by Ranking (Gold, Silver, Bronze etc.) or by Blooming status (70% bloom, Full bloom etc.). Clicking on the individual spots brings you to a detail description of the location, its address, operating hours, admission fees, food/beverage availability, parking space etc. Pretty useful.

Follow official FB pages of Tourism organisation & Flower Parks
Yes, I followed them all. Even though they write in Japanese, I can still figure out the latest happenings based on the photos they shared.

Tourism FB page with both Jap and Eng comments

Flower park official FB page with comments in Jap only (oldest Somei Yoshino tree)

I got the same shot of the oldest Somei Yoshino cherry tree (planted in Hirosaki park since 1882) taken on the same day!

Follow them on Twitter/Instagram
Yep, most of them have these too. Follow them too if you wish.

Weather Map Japan on Twitter

Japan Guide on IG

Adjusting your itinerary to achieve best viewing experience
Armed with the above resources, you'll be able to finalize your itinerary about 3-4 weeks before the predicted Full bloom dates. By then, you will know which hotel stay period is not needed and cancel them off before they incur any charges. The Japanese are darn serious about the Hanami seasons, especially the sakura. I'm afraid you can't decide on the itinerary first then proceed to book your stay as the rooms will be snapped up way before you can confirm on the ideal dates. As for the extra days that are meant for buffer purposes, you are free to use them for regular sightseeing around your Hanami activities, or have some R&R or retail therapy incorporated into your plans.

Naden cherry (late blooming species) at Matsumae Castle, Hokkaido

Must have food and things to buy in spring time
Many Hanami locations has their own sakura festivals, there will be food stalls, funfairs and performances for locals to enjoy. Why not join in the fun? Buy some food and drinks and bring along a mat to soak in the atmosphere under the spring blooms.

Some must try foods are sakura flavor pastry, ice cream, beer, snacks and coffee.

Sakura cake

Sakura ice cream

Sakura Latte

Sakura beer

Sakura crackers

Sakura Nihonshu KitKat

Tokyo Banana Spring edition (only available in spring)

Enjoy your trip!
There you go, I hope my post is useful and helped with your plans for the Sakura chase in Japan. May the odds be forever in your favor! 🌸🌸🌸

Somei Yoshino, the most common cherry species in Japan

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