The most famous, and arguably the most beautiful, season in Japan is the cherry blossom season (sakura or 桜 in Japanese). This is typically associated with the “Somei Yoshino” cherry trees, which is the most popular variety in Japan and blooms typically from late March to early May, depending on the location. However, there are other and lesser known types of cherry blossoms that bloom earlier in February and March. Here, I share 3 day trips from Tokyo where you can start chasing blossoms in February (just remember to dress warmly)!
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.
Kawazu zakura (河津桜) is a type of cherry blossom that begins to flower in early February and reaches full bloom in late February or early March. Compared to the more famous “somei yoshino” blossoms , kawazu zakura have larger petals and a deeper pink colour and have a longer blooming season (which means more time to enjoy them)! I have spotted a few kawazu zakura trees here and there round Tokyo but the three places below are perfect to enjoy and take in the beauty of the cherry blossoms - you can have cherry blossom viewing parties and picnics (hanami or 花見) and experience the sakura festivals (o-matsuri or 桜祭). Plus they can all be done as a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo with public transport!
Flowering time differ each year, depending on weather, so do check the latest forecasts (links below ;)). At all three locations (mapped below), there are night time illuminations as well. Rapeseed blossoms are also in full bloom at around the same time as kawazu zakura so you can enjoy the contrast of the pink blossoms and the yellow rapeseed flowers.
1. Kawazu, Shizuoka
The kawazu zakura was given their name after being discovered in the city of Kawazu (河津) in the Izu Peninsula. The famous sakura festival is along the Kawazu River, where rows of cherry trees line both sides of the river for around 3-4 km. The pink rows seem to stretch on and on - it is quite a sight to behold! More than 2 million people visit the Kawazu sakura festival every year - making it the most popular kawazu zakura viewing spot! It will be crowded but if you are prepared to walk further along the river (walk away from the station and the coast), you will find your own empty row of cherry trees! It also has the best festival atmosphere out of the three locations with plenty of space for picnics along the river, regular performances and stalls selling food and sakura themed souvenirs. Kawazu is a great day trip from Tokyo but I also recommend staying overnight so you can enjoy the sunset and night illuminations, watch the beautiful pink flowers transform in different light and enjoy the quiet mornings before the day-trippers arrive. The first and original kawazu zakura tree (60+ years old!) is still standing in the town and is worth a visit.
To get here: Take the train to Kawazu station (河津) . If coming from Tokyo, this usually involve a change at Atami or Ito and would take around 2-3 hours.
Tip: The sakura festival is typically held 10 Feb - 10 March each year and best time to visit is usually end of Feb / early March. The festival website is updated daily during the festival with information and photos so you can track the flowering progress. Best viewing time in 2018 was around 27 Feb to 3 March.
I visited Kawazu in 2017 on a (long) day trip from Tokyo and again in 2018 as part of a road trip around the Izu Peninsula. If you have the time and can drive, I highly recommend the latter and will put together a post on the full road trip, including what to do in and around Kawazu.
2. Miura, Kanagawa
A row of 1000 Kawazu-zakura cherry trees stand along the Keikyu rail line and there is an overpass (marked on the map) where you can view the cherry trees and passing train from above. I think this is the best spot for train watching and you will see lots of people waiting on the bridge for the train to come so they can get a shot of the red train next to the pink flowers (sometimes the train is blue and you will hear lots of disappointed sighs…). Trains come every 10 minutes from each direction so be ready ;)
The cherry trees are about a 10 minutes walk from Miura-kaigan Station (about mid-way between Miura-kaigan station and Misakiguchi stations) and you can stop by Komatsugaike Pond on the way where there are more cherry trees and where lots of people picnicked.
Compared to the Kawazu sakura festival, the Miura festival is on a smaller scale and can be seen in about an hour or two (unless you really like your trains or want to spend an afternoon picnicking in the park). It takes just over an hour to get here from Tokyo so if you are short on time and still want to get your dose of early blossoms, this is a great spot.
Other things to see nearby: Miura Beach is an easy 5 minutes walk from the station. Misaki (the station after Miura-kaigan) and Misaki Port are famous for having some of the best maguro (fatty tuna) in Japan so definitely plan a maguro meal on your visit! You will see plenty of maguro don (raw slices of maguro on rice) and sushi restaurants around Miura-kaigan station and the Miura peninsula. I tried one and the maguro was delicious and melted in my mouth. Cherry blossom season coincides with strawberry season so I also recommend strawberry picking at a farm nearby (where you can pick and eat all you can during 30 minutes). Miura is about 1 hour from Tokyo and Kamakura so you can do morning in Miura and afternoon in Kamakura/Enoshima. Finally, if you are in need of some ocean and onsen therapy, stay overnight in the Miura peninsula and invest in the Keikyu Misaki Maguro Pass (includes return train fare from Tokyo + unlimited bus in the area + maguro meal and other experiences).
To get here: Take the train to Miura-kaigan station (三浦海岸), about 1 hour 15 mins from Tokyo. The loop from the station to the cherry trees and Komatsugaike Pond are mapped above - or you can just follow the crowds and pink lanterns.
Tip: The kawazu-zakura in Miura tends to bloom around the same time as the ones in Kawazu so you can use the Kawazu website/flowering report for Miura as well. Instagram is always useful too.
3. Matsuda, Kanagawa
The Matsuda cherry blossom festival seems to be less well known compared to the two festivals above which is surprising given it has great views of Mount Fuji and it is the closest to Tokyo. The festival is held at Nishihirabatake Park (西平畑公園), which is located on top of a hill, next to the Matsudayama Herb Garden. From the train or highway, you can see the top of the hill covered in pink.
This one is extra fun for kids as there are slides and a little train for them to ride, all under cherry blossom tunnels.
To get here: Take the train to Matsuda station (松田), about 1 hour from Tokyo (change at Odawara) and then take the shuttle bus (departs every 30 minutes from the north exit of the JR Matsuda station) to the top of the hill. Walking is possible but be prepared for a steep climb.
Tip: Check the Matsudayama Herb Garden’s Facebook page for daily updates (with photos) of the blossoms every day during the festival.
And to think all this is only the prelude to the main cherry blossom season? I am so excited for my first sakura season in Tokyo - subscribe to my blog (below), follow me on Instagram and come #chaseblossoms with me!
For train times and route planning, I use Hyperdia (they have a website and app).