2018 Tokyo Sakura Diary

2018 Tokyo Sakura Diary

Tokyo is probably the most urban city in the world but every year, for two weeks, cherry blossoms disrupt the landscape everywhere in the most beautiful and precious way. The cherry blossoms are so pervasive and definitive of what it means to be in Japan in spring. There are of course the insta-famous hanami spots but you do not need to travel far to see cherry blossoms. For two precious weeks, they are part of your daily life: on the main road and the side streets, in schools and playgrounds, next to the train tracks and car parks, on top of mountains and next to the sea.

UPDATE: Follow the 2019 sakura forecast by the Japan Meteorological Corporation (they were pretty spot on in 2018)! Forecast gets updated every 1-2 week in the lead up to March/April.

2018 is my first sakura season and I want to keep a diary of all the sakura I encounter in the coming weeks. There will be photos from my sakura hunting adventures as well as my daily commute and lunch time strolls. This will be different to my other posts as I will be updating this every (or every second) day with live updates, posting less edited and more informal photos and sharing more personal thoughts and feelings as they come - befitting for a diary or photo-journal of sorts! So be sure to check in every day :)

If you are in Tokyo - I hope this will be useful in planning your sakura viewings and travels. If you do end up visiting any of these spots, let me know in the comments section below or tag me in your photos on instagram @thewanderingcam and #thewanderingcam!

If you are reading this from afar, I hope you enjoy these photos of the precious cherry blossom, a symbol of renewal, vitality, and beauty. I hope you will also get out and seek cherry or other blossoms wherever you live!

Sakura Diary

2 weeks and 20 sakura spots later… that’s a wrap!

Two crazy weeks of chasing blossoms around and beyond Tokyo - it was intense, exhausting and more than I could have imagined. It was probably the two most intense weeks of my life in recent memory. There were so many moments when I wanted time to stop and when I was overwhelmed by how beautiful and quickly they bloomed. I so wanted my family and friends from afar to see what I was seeing so thank you for reading this sakura diary and seeing the sakura through my eyes. It is cliche but photos really do not do the cherry blossoms justice, you truly have to experience it in person!

PS I already have a list of 10+ spots I want to see next year...so come back in 2019 and let's do it again!

Sunday 8 April - The Finale featuring Fuji-san

SAKURA spots count: 20

Due to its higher elevation, the sakura season tends to open later around the Fuji Five Lakes area compared to the cities. Today was a beautiful day with good visibility so I visited two of my favourite places around the Fuji Five Lakes. I previously visited in autumn and winter and now I can add spring to that list. I love each season and for different reasons and the four distinct seasons are what makes Japan so beautiful.

My first stop was Chuerito Pagoda (忠霊塔, transport details here) where the sakura was in full bloom. Right out of the station, I was greeted by the amazing view of the hill covered in pink cherries and the many steps up the hill were easily overcome by the many photo opportunities along the way. My fingers could not stop clicking on the shutter button once Fuji-san came into view. The scenery was truly spectacular: fluffy sakura + snow-capped Mt Fuji + red 5-storied pagoda = postcard perfect.

After lunch, we went to Kawaguchiko (河口湖, transport details here) - the most accessible of the five lakes. The sakura along the northern shore of the lake (near the Kawaguchiko Music Forest) was approaching full bloom (around 60-70% opened). I have seen this panoramic view of Mt Fuji several times now and each time was a “pinch-me” moment but I think it is hard to beat this postcard view of Mt Fuji perfectly framed by sakura. This was a fitting finale to my first sakura season - with the sacred and inspirational Fuji-san!

Wednesday and Saturday, 4 and 7 April - Late bloomers

SAKURA spots count: 18

While the yoshino sakura season is ending in Tokyo, other late blooming varieties are entering their best viewing time now. These late bloomers are bigger in size and pinker in colour - almost like roses. Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑) is (of course) the best place to see these other varieties and this is where I ended up (twice this week and four times in total this sakura season) as various brunches/dinners brought me to the area. Even between my Wednesday and Saturday visits, I found different trees to be in full bloom (see the two pictures of me sitting on a bench for comparison below: there were alot more green leaves on Saturday (pink dress)). I am very happy I invested in an annual pass at Shinjuku Gyoen - the variety of sakura it offers is unmatched and this means you can come here every few days and see something different!

Tuesday 3 April - Kamakura and Odawara

SAKURA spots count: 18

As the yoshino blossoms are past their peak in Tokyo, I hopped on a train and headed south (where the sakura tend to bloom a bit later). Kamakura (鎌倉) is a seaside town that is 1 hour away from Tokyo - well known for the Great Buddha and sandy beaches and less known as a sakura viewing spot. I loved Kamakura on my two previous visits (both on a weekend) and loved it even more today as I spent a leisurely morning strolling around its quaint streets, cafe hopping, eating snacks and buying souvenirs, without the usual weekend crowds. I picked one temple to focus on: Engakuji (円覚寺) (closest to Kota-Kamakura station) which is built into hills, offering beautiful vantage points of the surrounding area and subtle sakura viewing spots with shrine details.

In the afternoon, I headed further south to Odawara, a place I have only previously passed through on route to Hakone, Izu and Kyoto. Stepping out of the station, I was greeted by floating balloons in the shape of sakura and dango (sweet Japanese mochi/dumpling). Follow them and you will end up at Odawara Castle (小田原城) - the perfect place to get your sakura and castle fix.

Monday 2 April - Hanami in Yokohama

SAKURA spots count: 16

Because I love sakura that much, I took time off work during the sakura season - time is just so precious when it comes to these blooms! Today, two friends and I decided to have a hanami picnic in Yokohama (横浜). Yokohama is Japan's 2nd largest city (after Tokyo) and is only 1 hour away from central Tokyo.

Here, we found the perfect hanami spot - by a stream and framed by rows of tulips (because when you have been chasing sakura for more than a week, you need something more than just sakura ;) to keep you happy). Apart from some sakura loving locals, we had the whole place to ourselves and soaked in each others' company and the all encompassing blossoms to our hearts' content. From petals falling on my sushi to twirling between the petals, today was magic. Sometimes, things really can be as beautiful as you always imagined. 

By now, you would know that I wouldn't end the day without seeing the sunset. So for sunset, we chose one of the most popular sakura spots in Yokohama: Sankeien Garden (三溪園). There was sakura, a pagoda, a pond (for a beautiful reflection) and a boat and duck in that same pond - can it get any more Japanese and beautiful? We stayed for the light up and ended the day with our hearts and memory cards full.

Sunday 1 April - Sunday in Saitama

SAKURA spots count: 14

I ventured north of Tokyo to a town called Kawagoe (川越) in Saitama prefecture. Kawagoe is a popular day trip destination from Tokyo as it is a historic old town that takes you back to the Edo period (similar to Sawara).

Today, it seemed like half of Tokyo and I went here to admire one stunning cherry blossom spot. Behind Hikawa Shrine (川越氷川神社), cherry blossoms line the Shingashi stream and a man on a paddle boat dressed in a festival happi coat and a traditional sugegasa hat - it looked like a scene out of an old samurai film. The cherry blossoms were past full bloom -  I simultaneously wanted to cry and smile at the snowing sakura around me. And here the petals land in the stream to create a pink floating carpet (also known as "flower raft" (花筏)) - the end of the cherry blossom season is bittersweet but oh so beautiful!

To get to Hikawa Shrine from Kawagoe station - it is a 35mins walk or 15mins bus ride. The walk takes you through the main street with the old style warehouse buildings and quaint shops - sadly lack of time and the crowds prevented me from exploring these properly which means I must come back ;)

I didn't stay for the evening light up of the  Hikawa Shrine / Shingashi river sakura because I wanted to make it to the next sakura spot...

From Kawagoe Station, I took the train to Kumagaya Station (took about 1h with one change). From there, it was a short walk south (towards the Arakawa River) to get to the next sakura spot: Kumagaya Sakura Tsutsumi (熊谷桜堤の桜). This spot is special because there is a seemingly endless wall of cherry blossoms, which is contrasted with the yellow carpet of rapeseed blossoms below. I made it in time for sunset to catch the last light dancing across this field of pink and gold. It was a truly spectacular Sunday!

Saturday 31 March - Kimono and old favourites

SAKURA spots count: 12

A week after my last visit to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑), I was back today with a special shoot. Risa kindly agreed to model for us in a kimono and wagasa (Japanese umbrella) - I think the photos showcase the beauty of Japan so perfectly. The various types of cherry trees in the garden were in various stages of blooming - some were falling, some were in full bloom and some will be even better next week. The representative yoshino blossoms were beginning to fall so I don't expect them to last much longer after this weekend.

After dinner, I braved the crowds to check out Meguro River (目黒川) which I enjoyed in full bloom on Wednesday morning. I estimate that about 30% of the petals have fallen now. The night viewing experience on a Saturday was so different to that on a weekday morning - it was crowded, loud and lively with lots of couples and groups of friends out and about with plenty of food and drinks on offer. I started from Naka Meguro Station and made my way towards Meguro Station along the river and confirmed my opinion from Wednesday - I much prefer the section closer to Meguro Station because the cherry trees were more impressive and the crowds disperse and you can really enjoy the sakura without constantly bumping into and rubbing shoulders with other people. The night illumination was overall very impressive but be warned about the crowds!

Friday 30 March - Boat ride under the cherry blossoms

SAKURA spots count: 12

Long before I first visited Japan, I remember seeing stunning pictures of the boat ride along the moat at Chidorigafuchi (千鳥ヶ淵) and knew that if I was ever going to be in Japan during sakura season I had to experience it for myself. Fast forward a few years, I was lucky enough to cross this off my bucket list today! Floating down the water surrounded by fluffy pink clouds (and at times making our way clumsily out of some of the low hanging branches) was a beautiful dream. The views were incredible and it felt calm and peaceful in the water (compared to the crowded walkway on my first visit). As cliche and touristy as it looks, I still highly recommend it!

Compared to my first visit on Monday (26/3), the petals were beginning to fall so I think this coming weekend will be the last weekend to experience this sakura magic.

Practical information: Go to the boat pier and be prepared for a queue. Boating hours are from 9 am - 8:30 pm. We went just before they opened and there was a decent queue forming already! Cost is 800 yen/30 minutes or 1,600 yen/1hour per boat (each boat fits up to 3 people) - I recommend going for an hour for more time to enjoy the view and take photos.

Thursday 29 March - The most beautiful mirror

SAKURA spots count: 12

I was pretty impressed by Meguro River yesterday but was totally blown away by another river today! I ventured south to Sengawa River (仙川) in Setagaya. Similar to the Naka Meguro sakura spot, Sengawa is a quaint canal lined with thick cherry blossom trees on either side to create that dreamy sakura tunnel effect. But the most amazing part? The water in the canal creates a perfect mirror image of the sakura tunnel - I couldn't stop saying "wow" out loud and even as I look at these photos, I still can't quite believe a place like this exists...

Sengawa is in a quiet and quaint neighbourhood, away from the tourist crowds. Apart from the casual cyclist or dog walker, I had this place to myself and finally found a peaceful sakura viewing spot. This was what I imagined/wished for Meguro River and perhaps that was naive of me given its popularity on social media. But I won't complain as I hope this means Sengawa will remain a hidden gem for those who are willing to explore a bit further and deeper. 

Wednesday 28 March - Morning by Meguro River (目黒川)

SAKURA spots count: 11

You have most likely seen this iconic sakura spot pop up on your instagram feed every spring and you would be a very brave person to come here on the weekend. But on a sunny Wednesday morning, it was a wonderful place for a morning walk (or run). Both sides of the river were overflowing with sakura trees and the petals were beginning to scatter whenever there was a breeze. I started my walk from the south: starting from the Meguro Station end of the river and made my way towards Naka Meguro Station, crossing many bridges in between. I preferred the start of the walk around Meguro Station as the crowds were thinner and the sakura trees were denser and arguably more fluffy and impressive. But the river narrows into a canal near Naka Meguro station so you can see a sakura tunnel effect. All in all, very happy I finally saw this popular sakura spot in person and now need to decided whether I should brave the crowds for the night illuminations...

Monday 26 March - From cemetery to the imperial palace

SAKURA spots count: 10

I had a wonderful morning walk to start the week, albeit in an unusual location - Aoyama Cemetery. It is supposedly one of the most exclusive cemeteries in Tokyo with many wealthy and important people buried here. It is also a famous hanami spot as there are many endless tunnels of cherry blossoms. On this Monday morning, it was peaceful with few people around aside from the casual dog walker and many birds chirping.

In the evening, I visited the iconic Chidorigafuchi (千鳥ヶ淵)- the moat in the northwest corner of the Imperial Palace. The sight of cherry blossoms covering the hill and dipping into the waterway was beautiful and the view of Tokyo Tower at the back made it extra special. I was hoping crowds would be thinner on a weekday but it was packed and I personally felt that detracted from the experience a bit...perhaps I was spoiled by the serene morning I had in Aoyama and the local gem of Suginami on the weekend! I am looking forward to coming back for a paddle boat ride...one way to escape the crowds for sure ;)

Sunday 25 March - New friends and new neighbourhoods 

SAKURA spots count: 8

I had a leisurely start to Sunday with some shopping and lunch in the much-loved and familiar Omotesando. Although not a sakura viewing spot per say, the entrance to Koffee Mameya is so on point (I have also heard good things about their coffee)!

Then I decided to join a sakura photowalk organised by meetup.com. It turned out to be a fantastic way to connect with fellow photographers and explore new areas of Tokyo. We ventured west to Nakano, a super cool part of Tokyo and the perfect jumble of pedestrian streets, ramen shops, quiet shrines and anime arcades. The main road, Nakano Dōri (中野通り / なかのどおり), beginning at Nakano station was the ultimate cherry blossom road, with pink lanterns, cute blue bridges and the occasional train crossing. There were plenty to photograph!

Next up, we went to Suginami, another new neighbourhood for me (and many others in the meetup group) and a place I am definitely planning to re-visit! This is a place to see the humble and quiet wonder of daily life in Tokyo. There were so many families and groups of friends enjoying a day under the sakura - picnicking, playing games, singing or just napping. It was also a joy to watch and learn from other photographers and I was so inspired by the people and places I saw today!

Although I was pretty tired by sunset, I was determined to see one night illumination this weekend! I (and along with half of Tokyo it seemed) decided on Rikugien (六義園) - there was a 20mins wait to enter and it was very slow moving once inside. Rikugien, together with Koishikawa Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) which I visited yesterday (24/3), are often considered to be Tokyo's most beautiful landscape gardens. Coincidentally, they are both famous for the shidarezakura or weeping cherry blossoms. The one at Rikugien is even bigger (15m by 20m) and its size and grandeur really can't be captured in photos. Since this is Japan, this is no simple illuminations - there were special mist effects over the pond and changing colours of the light.

Saturday 24 March - Sakura season under way! 

SAKURA spots count: 5

I started the weekend with brunch at Mercer Brunch, Roppongi and was late to brunch because I kept going down side roads and into hidden gardens each time I glimpsed some pink fluffiness! Mikawadai Park next to Mercer Brunch had a playground area surrounded by cherry trees approaching full bloom - a good sign of things to come ;)

After brunch, we checked out my old home, Ark Hills, a well known sakura spot for the sakura tunnel up the hill. Due to an unusually warm March, the sakura trees are opening about a week earlier compared to last year so these are approaching full bloom. There is also an Ark Hills Farmers Market (every Sat) and night illuminations worth checking out.

Next, we headed north to Iidabashi and had a quick peek at Canal Cafe in Kagaruzaka. The sakura has started to flower and there were a few people paddle boating in the canal. I think next weekend would be full bloom and a paddle boat would be harder to come by then!

Then we walked to Koishikawa Kōrakuen (小石川後楽園) for the shidarezakura or weeping cherry blossoms. It was crowded but the size and sweeping shape of the sakura tree was impressive.

Our final stop for the day was the perennial favourite Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden (新宿御苑). In fact I visited this place and the exact same tree one year ago today and, if possible, it felt even more magical and special today. I was in fluffiness heaven! The garden has many different species of cherry trees spread out over the garden so you will be able to find at least a couple that is in full bloom. We lingered until closing time (5pm) before we were chased out... I have a feeling we will be back soon ;)

We ended the day with some wonderful yakitori and comapny at Fuku, Yoyogi-Uehara - highly recommend!

Friday, 23 March - It begins now...

SAKURA spots count: 1

Spring is in the air! My usual morning walk to the station has turned into a magical cherry blossom tunnel. Bare trees from only a few weeks ago have turned into groves of white cherries and they are popping up everywhere, I have lost count of how many sakura trees there are between my apartment and the station! Photos are taken between Hiro-o and Ebisu on Meiji Dori

Wednesday, 21 March - Spring Equinox

Today was Spring equinox, marking the first day of Spring and the first day of my sakura diaries as I saw my first blooming cherry blossom today! Ironically, it rained all day and actually snowed in Tokyo and temperature was near freezing. It was tempting to stay home but I decided to venture out to Sangenjaya to visit a cake cafe/shop (I cannot say no to matcha rolls) and inadvertently did some sakura and snow shooting (it is so strange to see them together...)!