As the end of March approaches, so does your Spring Break.
If you're thinking of traveling and enjoying lovely spring scenery and weather, there is no better place to go than Japan.
What to Expect in Japan
Springtime in Japan starts in March and lasts until May.
However, thanks to being a long archipelago island, the weather may be drastically different depending on the region of the country.
In early spring it's possible that trees will be blooming far south in Okinawa, whilst Hokkaido may still be receiving snowfall.
Region is an important factor when it comes to the climate.
Make sure you check the specifics for your where you plan to travel as well!
Temperature and Wardrobe
The days are relatively warm and can reach 15 degrees Celsius.
Early mornings and late evenings can get chilly though, so it's recommended you dress in layers.
Having a waterproof jacket is also useful for spring showers.
If you are taking your shoes off a lot to go into temples and the like, make sure your socks are clean and don't have holes! Not having nice socks is a social faux pas.
For your convenience it's also nice to wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off as well.
Availability and Crowds
Spring is the most popular season for tourism in Japan, with travelers coming from all across the globe.
Expect flights and accommodation to be booked if you haven't gotten reservations beforehand. Finding bargains and deals will be harder as a result.
There will be crowds as well, especially in popular tourist destinations and local hang outs.
Residents will be traveling as well, especially during Golden Week. Golden Week usually starts at the end of April and ends after the first week of May.
Schools are closed and many workers are given days off, thus many people take advantage of the consecutive holidays to travel.
Experience Japanese Cherry Blossoms in Bloom
It would be remiss to talk about Spring in Japan without mentioning the annual blooming of the Cherry Blossoms.
Sakura, as they are called in Japanese, mark the start of Spring in Japan.
For a brief period of time, depending on the weather, the sakura trees will be in full bloom, painting a swath of pink across Japan's landscapes.
Hanami translates into 'looking at flowers' and is the act of appreciating the flowers by walking under the trees or having parties under them.
Though the act of hanami is not exclusive to sakura, flower viewing has now become nearly synonymous with the cherry blossoms.
As beautiful as the trees are, it's important to abide by the local etiquette to avoid offense.
Trees should be treated carefully, a good rule of thumb is to avoid touching any part of them. Sakura tree roots are fragile and should be avoided. It is not recommended you pick up the fallen flowers as well.
Many parks also don't have garbage bins, so be mindful of your trash and take it with you if necessary. Depending on where you go, the rules may differ from place to place regarding various factors like alcohol.
However, despite — or because — of its popularity, hanami celebrations may not excite everyone.
The crowds at these gatherings can be both a pro and a con as Alex Sturmey writes in an article on GaijinPot. "Yes: You’ll easily meet new people," he says, adding: "Nope: You’ll spend a lot of time in the queues for the toilet."
For more about the positives and negatives of the chaos that is the cherry blossom experience, check out his article Is Hanami in Japan Actually that Fun? for an in-depth read on what to expect.
The reason why something as simple yet beautiful as the annual blossoming of the sakura trees has such a profound impact on the Japanese can be traced back in history.
Flower appreciation dates back as early as 710, but became popularized during the rise of feudal Japan.
As the arts flourished, so did the appreciation for the beauty in the environment.
Art, poetry and prose written about the sakura can be found in abundance. Blossoms were embroidered onto kimonos and painted onto pottery.
The flowers hold a deeper meaning as well.
Sakura provide the perfect embodiment for the Buddhist philosophy of impermanence.
Though Japan has some of the oldest people in the world, the Japanese still consider the sakura as an important reminder about mortality.
Where to Go
There are a ton of places you can go to see the cherry blossoms in Japan, depending on the region and area.
Remember, you aren't limited to cherry blossom parks for flower viewing!
Sakura trees will be in bloom all around the area, so you can enjoy the blossoms with tourist attractions like castles and Mt. Fuji as well.
To get you started, here are three different places you can go for sakura hanami.
Ueno Park (Tokyo)
A well-known spot for cherry blossom parties, Ueno Park features more than 1000 trees and is only a short walk from Ueno Station.
You will find many Tokyo residents and tourists alike enjoying the sakura that line the paths.
Thanks to the popularity, prime spots are often reserved early.
Office workers will often send one member of their team in the morning with a picnic sheet to reserve a spot until work hours are over.
Admission here is free!
Expo 70 Commemorative Park (Osaka)
The 1970 World Exhibition in Osaka was hosted here before being turned to a public park.
There is a lot of lawn area and over 5,000 sakura trees, as well as other cultural facilities.
It is about a 15 minute walk from two different stations. You can enter the East Gate from Koen Higashiguchi station or the Central Gate from Banpaku Kinen Koen station.
It is normally closed on Wednesday, but it will be open every day during cherry blossom season.
There is a small admission fee to enter, and possibly further fees for additional use of other facilities like pedal boats.
You can experience the famous 'weeping' sakura trees in Kakunodate.
The most straightforward way is taking the Akita Shinkansen Line, exiting at Kakunodate Station.
Against with the beautiful backdrop of the preserved samurai district as well as river, the pink willow-like trees provide a stark and striking contrast.
There is also a cultural significance with the sakura for the samurai. The blossoms were a metaphor for a samurai's life, beautiful but brief.
Six of the preserved samurai houses are also open to the public and some are even free!
Why stop at one?
Sakura will be flowering all over the country at different times. So if you miss out on the short window they are in bloom, you can try your luck further north.
John from the blog Japan-Australia, recommends using a Rail Pass for an amazing spring vacation.
With it, you can "travel across the country while experiencing this amazing natural phenomenon in the same way that the Japanese do - by eating, drinking, and barbecuing underneath the cherry blossoms".
Find out more prime cherry blossom locations you can follow by train with a JR Pass on his blog post here!
Enjoy Other Spring Activities in Japan
Going to Gardens
As mentioned earlier, hanami is not limited to appreciation for the sakura blossoms.
There are also many other flowers that bloom throughout the year that are enjoyed by many Japanese and tourists alike.
Whether you want to expand your flower watching repertoire or avoid the crowds at sakura hot spots, the lesser known blooms may be a better choice for your trip.
One of the many gardens available to you in Japan is Ashikaga Flower Park, in Tochigi Prefecture (north of Tokyo).
Mandy of Uncovering Japan paid 1,700 yen for admission to the park, which is charged based on how many flowers were in bloom.
Despite the more expensive price, she says, "I feel the garden was worth it."
See more lovely photos of wisteria in full bloom at Ashikaga Flower Park at Mandy's blog post.
Matsuri in Japanese simply means festival. Local festivals are a frequent occurrence because every shrine celebrates different gods or events and at different times of the year.
What makes these festivals so special are the processions and parades.
Processions consist of large, ornate and heavy shrines are carried around town by a large group of people.
They do this to bring the local god out and bless the people.
Festivals often attract huge crowds, but they aren't always necessarily loud. Depending on the occasion, it may be more solemn.
Make sure you do your research on the festivals you plan on attending.
Here are three different festivals we suggest checking out!
Hana Matsuri is a festival that celebrates the birth of Buddha.
Though not everyone in Japan is Buddhist, this festival is still celebrated throughout the country.
It is also one of the festivals that has a fixed date on April 8th.
Every temple celebrates this day differently, so it's recommended you check the temple the wish you visit to avoid missing their parade.
Held on only odd-numbered years, Kanda Matsuri is a festival that celebrates the wealth and good fortune of the people.
There are three main deities and three shrines that make up the procession.
Daikokuten the god of good fortune for harvest and bounty, Ebisu the god of good fishing and commerce, and a feudal lord named Masakado
Local guardian deities are also thought to be traveling with the procession on these days, blessing the neighborhood.
Kanamara Matsuri is a very unique and eye-opening festival. Why?
This is primarily because of the phallic imagery that is paraded around at this festival.
Kanamara means 'steel phallus' and celebrates fertility and reproductive health.
The legend behind the festival is a story about how a woman defeated a demon living inside her using a steel phallus made by a blacksmith.
Thus the gods of mining and blacksmith are now represented by numerous phalli.
See this eye-opening festival for yourself in Kawasaki!
Geiko Dance Performances
Though Kyoto is no longer the capital of Japan, it is undeniably the Geisha capital with five famous districts.
One of the dances you can enjoy in Spring is Miyako Odori, or 'The Dance of the Capital'.
Many of the locals in Kyoto wish for the capital city to be moved back and this dance represents their hopes.
The dances have a seasonal theme and will often be sakura themed.
Kamogawa is another annual spring performance in Kyoto.
The dances started as a way to attract tourists and have since become an annual event locals and tourists look forward to.
The performance often showcases historical stories and even has some of the geiko acting as samurai.
As the Odori (traditional dancing) are considered formal events, it's recommended you wear business casual when going to watch the dances.
Tickets sell out quickly, so purchase them as soon as you can.
Tantalize Your Taste Buds With Japanese Food
Spring is also a celebration for the tastebuds. If you’re a foodie, don’t miss out on the seasonal foods that makes Japanese cuisine so intricate.
This stems from the ingrained culture that appreciates and celebrates nature.
In food this concept is called ‘shun’ (旬). Shun has no English equivalent and roughly translates to a moment in time where an ingredient is at its peak in terms of readiness and taste.
Chefs draw a lot of inspiration from the surrounding environment in every detail of their food, from the seasonal vegetables, to the garnish, and the very plates they rest on.
Here’s a look at some things to try while they are at their peak in Spring!
Sakura is the quintessential Spring food. You can recognize it easily thanks to its distinct pink colour or blossom motif.
If you are in Japan from March to May, you can’t miss the assorted array of cherry blossom flavoured products.
Pictured above is but one example in the form of sakura mochi, pink rice cake with a red bean filling wrapped with a pickled sakura leaf.
You will find them in humble traditional desserts like mochi to multinational corporate products like Starbucks' Frappucino drinks.
Though sakura is more often used in sweeter recipes, pickled flowers are also used to provide a savory taste.
You can even experience sakura in its purest form with Sakurayu, which is a tea with a pickled blossom seeped in hot water.
Often paired with sakura are strawberries, known as ichigo, another popular spring produce of Japan. They can be enjoyed fresh or as part of a dish.
A distinctive and delicious variation of a Japanese dessert using strawberry is ‘ichigo daifuku’.
A regular daifuku is pounded rice cake dough filled with sweetened bean paste. Ichigo daifuku is a variation of daifuku desserts that contains a whole strawberry inside.
They are sold and eaten in abundance only during strawberry harvest seasons.
If you are feeling adventurous you can try a lesser known spring fruit called Loquat.
Aside from fruits, a variety of vegetables are now available with the seasonal change.
The abundance of budding plants in nature are often incorporated into dishes to reflect the new beginnings of spring.
Many of these vegetables taste bitter, so they are often treated prior to cooking to minimize the bitterness. However, slight bitterness is considered to be a part of the spring flavour.
Some things, like the popular bamboo sprouts, can only be eaten fresh in spring and have to be pickled to be consumed any other season.
Edible wild greens such as butterbur, wasabi mustard, nanohana, coltsfoot are served in a variety of ways, or fried in batter to make Sansai Tempura.
Seasonal produce isn’t limited to what is grown in the soil.
Shun is applied in seafood as well, as inhabitants of the sea are too affected by the changing of the seasons.
Mollusks such as oysters are popular delicacies in spring. Clams will often be mixed in broths, soups and rice, adding rich flavour.
Certain fish species such as Sweetfish (Ayu), Grunt (Isaki) and Flounder (Makogarei) are considered ‘spring fish’ and will feature more prominently in seasonal menus.
You can find these spring fish prepared in different ways from sashimi to fried to boiled. Size is not an issue either, as small sand eels that are a popular treat when cooked to crunchiness.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, so keep an open eye, mind and stomach to enjoy Japanese spring cuisine at its shun!
Now, Start Your Journey
Spring in Japan ends in May, so there's no time to lose if you want to experience the season in Japan!
If it's too late, well that only means there's more time to plan and prepare your trip for the upcoming season.
However, taking a holiday in Japan is but one way to enjoy the landmarks and culture of the country. Alternatively, you could consider doing an internship in Japan to gain work experience at the same time.
Unlike the sakura, our internships in Japan are available all year round, so apply with us now!