It’s been over a month since I returned from the “Far East.” Yes, it has taken me that long to recover, return to normal life, and prepare to tell you my stories.
The greatest challenge has been how to write about Japan. My previous trips have been fairly straightforward–since we usually visit a few countries at a time, I basically just take it day by day.
This trip was different though. We spent nine days in Japan, hopping untidily throughout cities and regions, spending our days taking buses and trains from parks to markets, exploring one temple after another. Some days we flowed seamlessly within district. On others we crisscrossed the city, racing to make it to an attraction before it closed. I have rarely planned a trip so carefully, and yet felt so pressed for time.
Perhaps it’s simply that there is so much to Japan. You could really say that about anywhere–9 days is a short time to get to know a whole country. And yet… In my voracious desire to experience as much of the world as it has to offer, I don’t feel this about a lot of places, but even while I was there, I already knew I would return.
For now, let me share with you my glimpse of Japan, starting with these tips.
Tips for a successful Japan sakura trip
1. Start planning early.
We started our trip in Tokyo and spent 3 nights there (slightly delayed by some flight mishaps). Then we took the shinkansen to Osaka and spent one night there. The next day, we headed over to Kyoto, where we spent another 3 nights. Finally, we returned to Osaka for another 2 nights.
This odd itinerary happened for a couple reasons.
First, we were intending to travel to Hakone in between Tokyo and Kyoto. We had booked a night at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, complete with kaiseki dinner served inside the room. This was in fact the first thing we booked once we had decided on this trip, because we knew that sakura season would mean hotels and inns selling out very fast. However, once we started looking closer at getting around Japan, we realized that traveling from Tokyo to Hakone to Kyoto would be a pretty complicated affair and would take quite a bit of time. We decided against it, but by then, we had booked our AirBnBs in the other cities, and it was impossible to extend our stays.
We also added an extra night to the end of our trip at the last minute, after we saw that there were so many places we wanted to see, and so little time to do so.
Here’s my conclusion regarding all that: when coming to Japan during sakura season, last-minute changes can be a huge pain. It’s possible to roll with it, of course, and I’ll share with you how we managed the worst of it. But definitely come up with a plan and stick to it as closely as possible, at least in terms of accommodations.
2. Try to look up when things are happening.
A couple times, we were unable to enter certain attractions due to special events occurring thanks to the cherry blossom festivals. It can be difficult to find this out in advance, so check with local information centers (larger train stations will have them). Or just be prepared to switch your plan for the day if something doesn’t work out!
Conversely, you might want to attend a cherry blossom viewing party (known as hanami). If so, you’ll definitely want to check when and where these are happening, though it’s fair to say you’ll likely come across one without even trying.
3. Don’t set your heart on the cherry blossoms alone.
You are having to plan this trip quite far in advance, but you have only an approximate idea of when the flowers will actually bloom. There are many sites that will give you a time frame for when this is most likely happening, but you are still at the mercy of Mother Nature. And she is full of surprises!
We chose our dates based on early predictions and previous years’ averages, but as our trip approached, it seemed like we had booked a week too early. But then warm weather preceded our travel dates, and so it turned out we arrived just in time! We missed the full bloom in Tokyo, but we had plenty of cherry blossoms in Kyoto and Osaka.
And even without them, I would’ve loved Japan. There was so much awe-inspiring (occasionally mind-blowing) culture, delicious food, and really cool stuff everywhere.