Springtime in Japan is a bucket list trip for many people. We had the chance to fulfill our own dream of Spring in Japan with a week long self-guided cherry blossom tour. Read on to vicariously experience Japan in April and find out how to give yourself the best chance of seeing sakura (Japanese cherry blossoms) at their peak somewhere in Japan on a short one week itinerary.
Advantages of Flying to Haneda Airport Instead of Narita
On our first trip to Japan in Autumn, we flew into Narita Airport in Tokyo. This time for our Spring in Japan trip, we flew to Haneda Airport. If you have the option to fly into Haneda, I highly recommend it. Haneda is much less busy than Narita and is located much closer to the center of Tokyo which makes getting from Haneda Airport into Tokyo much quicker. Haneda Airport is so close to Tokyo, in fact, that you can see the Tokyo skyline from the outdoor observation deck at the airport. We definitely needed some coffee after a sleepless overnight flight that arrived into Haneda Airport early in the morning. We took a moment to soak in the sun and reset our internal clock while watching planes land. There are vending machines that sell cold cans of coffee on the observation deck. Another fun fact: I also liked Haneda Airport because the Japanese-style modesty noises in the toilet play automatically instead of relying on visitors to decipher a cryptic control panel.
Cherry Blossom Viewing Strategies
The first step to a successful self-guided cherry blossom tour in Japan is to consult the cherry blossom forecast to determine when sakura will start blooming in different areas. Published early each year, the cherry blossom forecast relies on history and meteorological predictions. As you know from checking out short-term weather forecasts, forecasts are more accurate over shorter time horizons. However, if you are planning a trip to Japan in April, you'll need to make arrangements months in advance to make the most of the trip. How can you be sure of seeing cherry blossoms? There are two approaches you can take:
- hedge your bets and plan a trip that covers destinations with a range from south to north
- stay flexible with a Japan Rail pass and make the decision about where to go much closer to the dates of the trip or even spontaneously while on the trip.
Be prepared to pay more for accommodations and not get your first choice if you book last minute.
To give some additional context, in 2019, the Japan Times announced in mid-January that cherry blossoms were expected to hit full bloom around the 20th of March in Fukuoka in the far south of Japan with the wave of sakura rolling across the country to arrive in Hokkaido in the north around May 10th. That's a pretty large window for cherry blossom viewing. In 2018, cherry blossoms arrived in Tokyo in mid-March; a very early cherry blossom season.
We used a combination of the two techniques. We picked a range of geo-distributed destinations for cherry blossom viewing from Tokyo to Matsumoto to Kanazawa. We booked our flights months in advance but only decided on the exact destinations (aside from Tokyo) to visit about 45 days before our trip to Japan in mid-April.
How to Buy and Activate a Japan Rail Pass
You must order your Japan Rail Pass before you arrive in Japan. We ordered our Shinkansen ticket on Japan-Rail-Pass.com. For 268 USD at the time of writing, we got unlimited rail travel for 7 days. The Japan Rail tourist pass covers JR trains, buses, and ferries. Exchange your rail pass voucher for your transportation ticket at a JR Office (located in major train stations around the country). Make sure to bring your passport with you when you validate your ticket. At the same time, you can make reservations aboard various high speed rail services and select seats onboard. I recommend researching what trains you plan to take in advance and then reserve all the tickets and seats together to avoid having to queue multiple times at JR Offices on your trip. Hyperdia.com is the most comprehensive source we've found for searching schedules in English and filtering by JR trains covered by the Japan Rail Pass. Once you have your validated Japan Rail Pass and reservations for specific trains, you are good to go. Simply flash your pass at the entrance to the ticketed area in the train station and the attendant will wave you through.
Japan for a Week: Day 1: Tokyo Parks and Gardens
Now let's look more specifically at our Japan in April itinerary starting in Tokyo, of course!
Explore the Imperial Palace GardensSpringtime in Japan is the perfect time to visit the Imperial Palace Gardens in Tokyo. Take the train to Tokyo Central Station and walk about 10 minutes to reach the gardens. The Imperial Palace Gardens are a good starting point to look for sakura. When we visited in mid-April, the cherry blossoms in Tokyo were slightly past peak. We still got many beautiful photographs including some stunners amid the greenery of the other trees.
Picnic Lunch To Go at 7-11Bring a picnic lunch to eat in the gardens. We found a quiet spot overlooking Chidorigafuchi Green Way in Kitanomaru Park. Onigiri with different filling (e.g., seafood) shaped into a triangle with rice and then wrapped in seaweed is the ultimate Japanese hand food. Spicy cod roe, anyone? We bought our onigiri at 7-11 before seeking out sakura in the park. Be prepared to keep your picnic trash with you. One of the things I noticed is that there seem to be no public garbage bins in Japan (yet, surprisingly, there is no litter).
Sakura Along Chidorigafuchi Green WayChidorigafuchi Green Way is one of the best cherry blossom spots in Tokyo and is just a 15 minute walk from the Imperial Palace Gardens. A lot of other places in Tokyo were past their prime but Chidorigafuchi really popped pink.
Video Game Fun in ShibuyaOnce you've gotten your fill of nature, use the evening to get in touch with your high tech side. Pop into one of the many arcades in Shibuya. I love how they taunt visitors with "easy" skill crane games (spoiler: the game was not, in fact, easy). We also had fun playing an energetic Japanese drumming game; very useful for fighting jetlag.
Ramen Dinner at Kamukura Noodle HouseGrab some ramen for dinner (one of my top picks for what to eat in Japan) at Kamukura Noodle House in Tokyo's Shibuya neighborhood. Kamukura is a ticket machine restaurant. Put some money in the machine outside, select what you'd like to eat based on the helpful photos, and then take your ticket inside. You can thus order effortlessly if you don't speak Japanese.
Where to Stay in Tokyo
You may be wondering where to stay in Tokyo if you visit Japan in April. We stayed at Shibuya Tokyu REI Hotel. Springtime in Japan can be expensive. We paid around 200 USD per night for a room in Tokyo. The Shibuya Tokyu REI hotel is functional and offers small comfortable rooms. The staff are friendly and greet you whenever you walk through the lobby. The main benefit of the Shibuya Tokyu REI hotel though is the location: just a 5 minute walk from world-famous Shibuya crossing and the Shibuya Station. Location is everything when you are planning a short trip to Japan.
Japan for a Week: Day 2: Tokyo to Nikko
Convenience Store BreakfastConvenience stores are a great resource on a Japan trip. Start the day with a Japanese take on an American staple: peanut cream. What's the verdict? I think peanut cream should definitely be on your list of what to eat in Japan. It's very sweet and very fluffy; like it has marshmallow in it.
Day Trip to Nikko
Tokyo to Nikko takes a little more than 2 hours by train and is a great destination for an ambitious day trip from Tokyo in April. You'll find cherry blossoms in the town but the main attraction is the UNESCO Heritage temples abutting Nikkō National Park. Definitely bring layers if you add a day trip to Nikko to your springtime in Japan itinerary. We found that it was quite cold and there was still some snow on the ground at the upper elevations of the forested temples. I recommend walking from the train station in Nikko to the temples. It takes about 20 minutes to get from Nikko Station to Shinkyo Bridge and the entrance to the UNESCO heritage site. From here, seek out sumptuous Nikkō Tōshō-gū and Nikkosanrinnoji Taiyuin. Taiyuinbyo Shrine and mausoleum is the final resting place of one of the earliest Shoguns. All the temples in Nikko are a photographer's dream.
By taking a spring walk in Nikko, we met the friendly proprietor at Murmur Biiru Stand (a locally run craft beer bar). We tried the cinnamon brown ale and coffee stout. The flavors and styles change frequently but you are bound to find several good choices on offer brewed on the premises. We even made it onto the photo wall of fame. At Soppo we ate a custard-filled monkey cake served with complimentary green tea to help us warm up from the cold (an unexpected treat!)
Japan for a Week: Day 3: Asakusa and Shinjuku
Back to sakura seeking for Day 3 of this one week in Japan springtime itinerary. Take one of the JR train lines in Tokyo out to Asakusa (your Japan Rail Pass is also good on local JR lines; not just Shinkansen).
Sakura Along the Sumida RiverTake a peaceful walk along the Sumida River near Asakusa. Look for turtles and Skytree views in Sumida Park. Sumida Park is also a great destination for a self-guided cherry blossom tour. The trees were in general past their prime but some varieties were heavy with blooms. Did you know that Japan features over 200 species of cherry trees. Some bloom early, some bloom later. Even if you think a region is past the cherry blossom peak, you may still be surprised and delighted to find a particular corner of the city awash in sakura.
Asakusa Sweet Treats and Street FoodAsakusa is one of my favorite Tokyo neighborhoods for shopping and street food. Be warned though: it can get very crowded in Asakusa, especially if you visit on the weekend. We tried sweet bun ice cream at Sakura (in business since 1945). We continued to eat our way through Asakusa with takoyaki (octopus balls) on a quiet side street with obscured views of the Pagoda at Senso-ji. We also couldn't resist trying a hot and fresh sweet potato waffle. We were definitely eating all the things that day in Tokyo!
Shop Nakamise Shopping Street in AsakusaWe fought the weekend crowds to browse Nakamise Shopping Street in Asakusa. The historic stalls in the shadow of Sensō-ji temple are particularly popular.
Conveyor Belt SushiFor dinner, try conveyor belt sushi. Take a seat at a counter station equipped with soy sauce, hot water spigot, and green tea power. Watch the chef in the center prepare different kinds of sushi and place it on the conveyor belt. The plate that the sushi is on indicates the price. You'll likely find a display of plates with associated prices on the wall. Pick whatever dishes catch your fancy and stack up the empty plates. When you are ready to pay, the waitstaff will assess the colors of your empty stack of plates and bring you the bill.
Shinjuku's Over-the-Top Robot Restaurant
Japan for a Week: Day 4: Tokyo to MatsumotoWe continued our independent tour of Japan in April by boarding a Limited Express train from Tokyo to Matsumoto. Matsumoto is located about 200 km northwest of Tokyo. While the cherry blossoms in Tokyo were past prime, in Matsumoto, we arrived just in time for peak blooms! Our 'hedging our bets' strategy of picking a few places for our one week itinerary in Japan spread out from South to North was paying off. If you arrive in Matsumoto early, there are coin lockers at the train station to stash your luggage.
Explore Matsumoto on foot. Popular spots include Matsumoto's flower clock and Genchi well, a natural spring in Matsumoto city surrounded by a small shrine. Shop for local crafts on historic Nakamachi Dori in Matsumoto. Keep an eye out for Matsumoto's famous frog and the Matsumoto timepiece museum. Walking along modern Ise-machi Dori shopping street in Matsumoto where we discovered a decorative stream and soothing music piped onto the street.
Make sure to get off the beaten path and take a walk along some of the back lanes of Matsumoto. We unexpectedly stumbled upon a small Shinto shrine on a back alley in a mainly residential area. The gray stone of the shrine contrasted greatly with bright red tori gates and other bright red accents.
Where to Stay in Matsumoto? A Ryokan for BeginnersWe booked in at Hotel Tamanoyu, what I would consider a ryokan for beginners. We reserved a Japanese style room with tatami mats and onsen (public and private). Hotel Tamanoyu provides detailed instructions in English on how to do everything. Make sure to follow the rules even in the private onsen: shower first, hair up, don't get your hair wet or put your face in the water. Bring nothing into the bath except your small towel. If you get too hot, soak the little towel in the separate cold water basin and place it on your head.We felt very refreshed and relaxed after our bath in the private onsen.
Eat dinner on-site at Hotel Tamanoyu. The 'light' dinner menu includes homemade soba (Japanese buckwheat noodles popular in the Matsumoto region). The instructions in our room told us that we should go to dinner in our Samue (traditional outfit consisting of soft, loose trouser bottoms and a top that ties closed like a robe). I'll admit that it felt a little strange to go to dinner in my Samue which felt a bit like pajamas. Super comfy! Hotel Tamanoya also features nightly music. We enjoyed a Japanese folk music set after dinner. I think we were the only foreigners at the performance. We may have been the only foreigners (aka gaijin) staying at the hotel.
Staying at Hotel Tamanoyu was my first time sleeping on a Japanese futon. I wondered after that first night: is there a trick to sleeping comfortably Japanese-style? I woke up that morning and felt like I'd been beaten up. On the second night, I discovered an extra futon in the closet of the room. Before laying down for the night, I doubled up on the futons. That seemed to help.
Japan for a Week: Day 5: Matsumoto Sakura
The fifth day of our springtime in Japan itinerary focused heavily on finding cherry blossoms in Matsumoto: from morning until after dark.
Matsumoto Castle at Full BloomThe main tourist attraction in Matsumoto is the well-preserved Matsumoto Castle. When we visited, sakura were at their stunning peak. We couldn't have asked for better weather or prettier blooms. You'll find great views from above if you take time to climb Matsumoto Castle's six story tower (¥610, about $5 USD at the time of writing). Be careful if you have vertigo though. The stairs are really steep in places and you'll be doing the climb barefoot. No shoes are allowed inside Matsumoto Castle.
Soba Nomugi for LunchEnjoy a plate of local specialty noodles for lunch at tiny Soba Nomugi on a side street near the end of Nakamachi Dori. Soba Nomugi has just a few tables so be prepared to wait. Soba Nomugi serves soba the traditional way including soba-yu. Soba-yu is the hot water used to boil the buckwheat noodles. Pour the soba-yu into the soy sauce residue that you used to dip your soba and drink it like a soup. Fortunately, there are brief instructions in English at Soba Nomugi that make the soba-eating experience slightly less baffling.
Historic Architecture, Art, and Craft BeerAfter lunch, we wandered into a shop housed in Kurassic-san, an old sake making complex. You can borrow sandals and have a wander around for free. We also tried to visit the Matsumoto City Museum of Art. Public service announcement: Matsumoto City Museum is closed on Mondays. So are a lot of other businesses in Matsumoto. At least we got to see the cool and colorful giant flowers outside. We had some time to spare and it was hot and sunny outside so we decided to escape the heat and grab a super-chill pint at Matsumoto Brewery Taproom. Matsumoto Awesome! Pale Ale and Matsumoto Castle Stout really hit the spot.
Mt. Kobo Cherry BlossomsKoboyama (aka Mt. Kobo) is a popular spot to see cherry blossoms in Matsumoto. Mt. Kobo can be a little challenging to get to on public transportation so we took the public bus to the train station and then took a metered taxi to Koboyama to continue our self-guided cherry blossom tour. We discovered an amazing array of sakura ringing the hillside upon our arrival.
Okonomiyaki DinnerOkonomiyaki was one of our favorite foods on our first trip to Japan in Autumn. Regionally popular in Osaka, we were excited to find a small family-run Okonomiyaki restaurant in Matsumoto. While grandma was making our dinner table-side, we got to wave and play peek-a-boo with her grandson.
Matsumoto Castle After DarkMatsumoto Castle is open late for one week after the cherry blossoms open (Matsumoto-jo Sakura Matsuri). We got extremely lucky and our visit to Matsumoto was perfectly timed for the night festival. We were awed by the castle and sakura bathed in light. The only tricky part about visiting Matsumoto Castle at night is that our ryokan was located about a 15 minute bus ride from Matsumoto Castle and the buses don't run that late. I'd like to send a big thank you out to the local gentleman who spoke a little English and was able to direct us to an alternative route and bus stop when we realized that we'd missed the last 32 bus to our hotel. Fortunately, the 130 runs later. It's just hard to figure out the exact routes, stops, and times when you don't speak Japanese. Also, be aware that it can get very cold in Matsumoto in April after dark so bring layers.
SIDEWALK SAFARI SPOTLIGHT: To learn more about how spring flowers are important to Japanese culture and the range of traditional festivals you will find around Japan, I recommend reading Hokkaido Highway Blues. The author, Will Ferguson, spent one sakura season hitchhiking across Japan and checking out various flower festivals en route.
Japan for a Week: Day 6: Matsumoto to Kanazawa
On to the final stop of our one week springtime in Japan travel itinerary! Kanazawa is located north and west of Matsumoto, very close to the coast. Kanazawa was a very calculated choice of destination as part of our 'hedge our bets' cherry blossom strategy. Because of its location, we expected the cherry blossoms to bloom later in Kanazawa. At the time of our visit to Japan in April, the sakura were just coming into bloom in Kanazawa.
Shinkansen Via NaganoHow far is Kanazawa from Matsumoto? It takes about 3 hours by high-speed train (with a layover in Nagano) to get from Matsumoto to Kanazawa. Shinkansen have a reputation for running on time but in our case, the train from Matsumoto to Nagano was briefly delayed leaving us less than 10 minutes to make our connection. Fortunately, we just made it! The view from the Nagano to Kanazawa Shinkansen line is pretty amazing. Expect to see mountains on one side, sea on the other.
Nagamachi Samurai Neighborhood and Oyama Jinja ShrineKanazawa is very popular with tourists because it is one of very few Japanese cities that did not sustain major damage during World War II. Spend the day exploring the historic Nagamachi Samurai neighborhood of Kanazawa which is impressively well-preserved! The Nomura Samurai House is a must-visit highlight. Check out traditional samurai clothing and swords. Walk along the wooden porch overlooking a Zen garden. I was most impressed by one of the museum exhibits inside the Nomura Samurai House. Have you ever wondered what a 16th century Japanese thank you note might say?
"We appreciate that you worked so hard to kill 1 high ranked soldier on the 4th of last month...We are very happy that you brought us his head"Now I know... 😮
Finish the day with a visit to Oyama Jinja Shrine during Golden Hour before sunset. You'll find a few forested paths to explore and a path across a small pond. The light shines just so through the stained glass at the top of towering entrance to the shrine as the sun starts to set. If you love photography, don't miss Oyama Jinja Shrine.
Japanese Craft Beer and Sushi SetGrab a pre-dinner drink at Oriental Brewing. We tried an awesome Yuwaku Yuzu Ale. Yuzu is a sour Japanese citrus fruit. Head to Takasakiya Sushi for dinner, a small "mom and pop" run place. Order the sushi set which comes with about 8 pieces and will force you out of your comfort zone. I tried uni (sea urchin) and salmon roe which I would not have ordered otherwise but was glad I tried them. One thing I discovered on our visit to Kanazawa is that I'm not good at sitting on the floor Japanese-style. Fortunately, a spot opened up at the counter at Takasakiya Sushi right after we ordered so we were able to move from sitting barefoot and cross-legged at a Japanese-style table to a much more comfortable stool at the sushi counter.
Where to Stay in KanazawaThe UAN Hotel is a good, centrally located choice for your accommodation in Kanazawa. UAN Hotel is a modern establishment but with Japanese-style touches including sumptuous robes and stylish but (much less comfortable) wooden sandals to wear around the hotel. The robes are also handy for when you need to do laundry, like we did, on our visit to Kanazawa. UAN Hotel features coin-operated washers and dryers. The best part about UAN Hotel was the soba and sake. UAN Hotel offers a free bowl of soba noodles to guests in the late evening. Slurp your hot soba with a sake nightcap. The UAN Hotel offers a sake tasting menu. Over the course of 2 evenings, we tried 6 different sakes local to the Kanazawa region. I also liked that the UAN Hotel offers cold and hot drinks and small snacks all day. I tried an unassuming cube which had a wafer thin sugar shell surrounding sake jelly. Loved that sake cube!
Japan for a Week: Day 7: Kanazawa Cherry Blossoms and Geishas
Breakfast NoodlesSince breakfast wasn't included at our hotel, we fortunately had the foresight to pick something up at the local convenience store. We started the last full day of our springtime in Japan itinerary with a spicy cup of instant noodles.
Kanazawa Cherry Blossoms at Kenroku-en and Kanazawa CastleContinuing our self-guided cherry blossom tour of Japan, we bought a combo ticket for Kenroku-en gardens and Kanazawa Castle. Spend a relaxing morning exploring Kenroku-en which is rated one of the most beautiful gardens in Japan. We were pleased that we managed to catch some late-blooming species of sakura in Kanazawa at their peak. Take the opportunity to explore the reconstructed Kanazawa Castle towers and garden. The towers feature stunning views over Kenroku-en.
Japanese Curry for LunchJust outside Kanazawa Castle, saw a small restaurant that seemed to be buzzing with local business people. It turned out to be a Japanese Curry restaurant. We'd arrived at peak lunch hour and had to wait about 10 minutes for a spot at the counter to open up. It was worth the wait though as we thoroughly enjoyed our pork cutlet curry and udon noodles. I do have to say that Japanese curry is rather thick and udon noodles can be unwieldy. I felt like I needed a bib to protect my shirt.
Omicho MarketAfter lunch, Omicho Market in Kanazawa is worth a browse. You'll find looks of cool produce stalls to photograph. I've never seen raw lotus root before. Take some time to get lost in the market. We took a few random turns and ended up discovering Hyakuman Johana craft beer. The stall sells a tasting flight with a focus on fruit beers. I really enjoyed the blood orange flavor. Cheers!
Higashi-Chaya Geisha DistrictFinish the day with a visit to Higashi-Chaya Geisha District. What is a geisha? Geishas are Japanese women who perform historic traditions in the arts, dancing, and singing at teahouses. Geishas are best known for their distinctive kimonos and makeup and were at their peak in the 1920s. The Higashi-Chaya district in Kanazawa is well-preserved (and thus extremely popular with tourists). The two story dark wood buildings feature storefronts and restaurants below. Walk through the neighborhood and you'll feel like you are being transported back in time.
Japan for a Week: Day 8: To Komatsu Airport
Sadly our springtime in Japan itinerary is coming to a close. All that remains is to grab breakfast and head to the airport.
Breakfast at Omicho MarketOmicho Market is just a short walk from UAN Hotel. Seek out freshly fried Japanese crab cakes for breakfast. Select some fresh and fragrant oranges to round out your impromptu meal.
The Bus to Komatsu AirportAs a part-time travel blogger with limited vacation time, it's important to be efficient when we travel. One way that we do this is by not backtracking if we can avoid it. On this trip we flew into Haneda Airport in Tokyo. Rather than returning to Tokyo, we chose to fly out of regional Komatsu Airport. You'll get some pretty nice views of the sea on the 45 minute ride from Kanazawa station aboard the Komatsu Airport Limousine Bus. From Komatsu Airport, you can either connect to a larger airport to catch a long haul flight home or continue on like we did to Taipei Taiwan. We caught a direct flight to Taiwan on EVA Airlines and in just 3 hours we were touching down in Taipei. This is another way that we travel efficiently: seeing multiple countries when we do a long-haul trip from Europe.
I'll leave you with this. Looking for a fun way to spend your leftover Japanese yen? Seek out the banks of capsule toy machines in Komatsu Airport.