There are few things as cheery as a cherry tree in full bloom. Sakura season in Japan is eagerly anticipated across the country, as well as by travellers keen to time their visit to coincide with the best of the blossoms. The sakura season spans a period of a few weeks, beginning in the south of the country and making its way north as the winter chill subsides and the warmth of spring is finally felt in the air. Northern Japan has some of the loveliest sakura-viewing spots of all, with snow-capped mountains, castles and historical fortresses creating dreamily romantic backdrops. If you want to discover different varieties of cherry blossom in spectacular natural settings, this is the place for you.
While the name in Japanese, Hitome Senbonzakura, may translate to “1,000 cherry trees in one glance”, wander beneath the clouds of pale pink blossoms along this stretch of the Shiroishi River in Miyagi Prefecture’s town of Ogawara and you’ll be dazzled by more than just the flowers. With snowy mountains in the distance and the rush of water alongside, this is a magical place to welcome the joys of spring, and is one of the best sakura-viewing spots in the whole of Japan’s northern Tohoku region.
While the count in the name may be 1,000 trees, there are actually closer to 1,200, stretching over eight kilometres of riverside walkway. Easily accessible from Tokyo by shinkansen bullet train, followed by a 35-minute ride south on the Tohoku Line from Sendai to either Funaoka or Ogawara stations, a visit here during sakura season is likely to be a highlight of any trip to Japan. The best time to see cherry blossom here is usually around mid-April, but keep an eye on the Sakura reports to see the exact status.
Pro Tip – once you’ve enjoyed walking beneath the cherry trees, take the funicular train up to the Funaoka Castle Ruins Park for a completely different view of these billowing clouds of blossom from above.
For even more cherry trees in bloom, head to Hirosaki Park in the northern prefecture of Aomori. The sakura blossoms a little later here than in Miyagi, usually around mid-April to early May, meaning that you could potentially combine both in one trip.
Hirosaki Park is home to around 2,600 cherry trees, with more than 50 different varieties of blossom. It’s also home to Hirosaki Castle, the only one of its type in the Tohoku region which, while beautiful at any time of year, looks even more spectacular when seen through a frame of sakura flowers. Some of the trees here date back more than 100 years. Sit beneath one and let petals rain down on you for one of the loveliest things you can experience at this time of year.
There are plenty of great photo opportunities in the park, too. Look out for the red bridge spanning the moat, trees that form the shape of a heart, and a tunnel of sakura to walk through. But for something really special, rent one of the small rowing boats and head out onto the moat, at its most magical when covered with a layer of fallen pink petals.
Continuing our sakura trail north, next stop is the city of Hakodate, the southernmost city in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. Hakodate has a mood all its own, a coastal city with the dramatic Mount Hakodate forming a backdrop, and a blend of Japanese and Western-style architecture, a result of this being one of the first ports in the country to open to foreign trade.
Today, the city has a laidback feel and is a popular spot for visitors from around the country and overseas throughout the year. But in spring, Hakodate really comes to life. The unusual star-shaped Goryōkaku fortress, inspired by European citadels but with a Japanese flavour, is a must-see, its moats lined with more than 1,000 cherry trees.Pro Tip – for spectacular views of the fort and its surrounding clouds of cherry blossoms, head to the observation deck at the top of the 107-metre tall Goryōkaku Tower for a full panorama of the city.
Not everything revolves around cherry blossom in springtime. This is also a season when Japan’s countryside takes on a multitude of shades of green after the chill of winter. At the foot of Miyagi Prefecture’s Mount Zao lies a traditional luxury hotel that is a delight at any time of year, but even more so at this time of year. Surrounded by the forest and fed by natural hot springs, Chikusenso is a place designed for relaxation, whether its soaking in the warm therapeutic waters of the indoor and outdoor baths, listening to the wind in the bamboo and birdsong on the terrace, or gazing at the surrounding forest bursting with the green hues of fresh young leaves.
Indoors, Chikusenso is a beautiful showcase of traditional Japanese design, with tatami mat floors and sliding paper doors complemented by an impressive collection of contemporary art. For extra luxury and privacy, book a suite, each of which comes with its own private indoor and outdoor hot spring onsen baths. Opt for a deluxe room and you’ll still have the opportunity to reserve one of the hotel’s two private baths.
In the Kamajin restaurant, seasonal produce – local fish, vegetables and meats – from Miyagi Prefecture is prepared with skill and flair beneath a gold-leaf ceiling. Chikusenso’s spa offers a wide range of treatments including shiatsu pressure point massage, and the rooftop Cloud Lounge, with outdoor terrace and Japanese Zen garden, is the perfect place for meditating on the beauty of this very special location.