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Lesser-Known (and Totally Spectacular) Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Japan

With delicious sushi, an Edo-era castle, and thousands and thousands of cherry trees, the Tohoku region in northeastern Japan makes for an off-the-beaten-path dream trip.

Lesser-Known (and Totally Spectacular) Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Japan

Hirosaki Cherry Blossom Festival

A spectacular sight in Japan, sakura or cherry blossoms are also an important part of Japanese culture. And visiting the Tohoku region—renowned for some of the country’s most breathtaking examples—makes for a stunning setting to experience the phenomenon in spring. With snow-capped mountains and vast blue skies (and without the packed crowds that gather in Tokyo), you’ll gain insight into the cultural role they play, along with opportunities to taste delicious regional dishes and enjoy the tradition like a local.

A part of the national identity, cherry blossoms symbolize a fresh start, new beginnings, and a time for renewal. In ancient times the arrival of sakura was a sign for farmers that it was time to start planting rice. Today, the hundred-yen coin commemorates the flowers and it’s a common girl’s name. A symbol of Japanese diplomacy, sakura trees were given to the city of Washington D.C. more than a hundred years ago.

Hanami, or cherry blossom viewing, has been a ritual in Japan for upwards of 1,000 years when the blooms appear between late March and early May, depending on the regions and the year. In Tohoku, they typically bloom from Mid-April to early May. Coinciding with the start of the new school year and the fiscal calendar for businesses and government in April, the distinctive fruit trees on campuses throughout the country welcome students, and often homes will have first-day-of-school-photos with sakura in the background.

Even though it is one of the busiest times of the year, many will take pause to revel in nature’s gift, a much-anticipated event. The Japan Meteorological Association has sakura forecast maps predicting kaika, when cherry blossoms will start, and mankai, when the trees are in full bloom. The fleeting beauty of the short-lived perennial is a reason to celebrate by gathering with friends under the delicate blooms to enjoy colorful bento lunch boxes.

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More than 400 varieties of sakura blossom in a colorful spectrum ranging from white and pale yellow to pink and dark fuchsia. Somei Yoshino, the most popular variety makes up about 70 percent of all the cherry trees in the country. The blossoms on Somei Yoshino last about eight brief—but breathtaking—days. Even the petals, lightly falling like snow, called sakura fubuki, are a pretty sight and a gentle reminder of the passing of time.

Here, where to go in Tohoku to see these flowering trees, how to picnic among them, other ways to savor culinary delights, and small businesses where you can pick up handcrafted souvenirs to take home.

One thousand trees at one glance

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Just south of Sendai, in the Miyagi prefecture and the largest city in Tohoku, is home to Hitome Senbon Zakura, literally 1,000 trees at one glance. The 1,200 trees, originally planted in 1923, stretch about five miles along the Shiroishi River, a dramatic panorama with the snow-covered Mount Zao in the background. The grassy banks of the river make an idyllic picnic area.

Near the Ogawara station on the JR Tohoku line, go to the 7-11 (a Japanese phenomenon itself that far outdoes its U.S. counterparts) to pick up lightweight picnic tarp, usually blue, to spread out on the ground. While at the conbini (short for convenience store) pick up some onigiri rice balls, karaage fried chicken, and green tea. Be sure to try the seasonal wagashi sweets. Sakura mochi is sticky rice filled with a sweet azuki bean paste and wrapped with a salted leaf from the cherry tree or garnished with salt-cured cherry blossoms.

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Another tranquil way to observe the sakura is from a yakatabune open-air passenger boat. And, near the Hitome Senbon Zakura, at the Funaoka Castle Ruins Park, a slope car takes passengers through a tunnel of 1,000 sakura trees to the summit. Consider coming back at night to see the blossoms lit up each evening. For dinner go to Arahama for harako meshi, a local dish of salmon cooked with rice and topped with ikura salmon roe, a mother and child dish.

Eating, shopping, and nature in and around Sendai

North of Sendai and easily accessible by train is a chance to delve deeper into Japanese culinary culture and nature. Go early in the morning to peruse the 90 stalls with colorful seafood at Shiogama Seafood Market. Feast on a donburi, a large rice bowl topped with seasonal sashimi for breakfast. From Shiogama port, take a ferry to Matsushima, considered one of the three most scenic spots in Japan, to see the 260 islands covered with pine trees.

You can also visit Shimanuki Kokeshi in Sendai, a shop that specializes in a traditional folk craft of wooden kokeshi dolls. Hand painted, each doll’s face will be slightly different. While in the city, try gyutan, smoky slices of grilled beef tongue and a kikizake flight of local sake at Tanya Zenjirou near Sendai station.

Blossoms fit for royalty

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On the northernmost part of Honshu in Aomori, the majestic Hirosaki Castle, originally built in 1611 and rebuilt in 1810, is one of the few remaining castles built during the Edo period. Its 2,500 sakura trees set the stage for a mesmerizing landscape that includes colorful bridges, moats, and a snow-capped majestic Mount Iwaki in the background. Illuminated at night, the reflection of yozakura (cherry blossoms at night) in the moat is a dreamy vision.

Top it off at a lively izakaya pub that features local dishes and sake from Aomori breweries, Tsugaru Joppari Isariya Sakaba. Percussive and spirited, live Tsugaru shamisen performance each night at 7 p.m. percussive and spirited performance is an energizing way to end the day and wonderful addition to the sakura-filled memories you’ll take home with you from Tohoku.

For more information about Tohoku click here.

Japan National Tourism Organization
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