Planning a trip during Japan’s famous sakura (cherry blossom) season can be hit and miss, especially if you are moving around the country a fair bit. Peak blossom time can vary year on year by at least a week or two which means that the few days you have in a given location could fall too early or too late to be there at just the right time.
The good news is that your chances of seeing sakura are not as poor as that may sound.
Firstly, there are many different varieties of cherry tree in Japan all of which flower at different times; some flower far ahead of the most common yamazakura variety and others burst into bloom much later. So chances are you will still be able to enjoy the beauty of cherry blossoms in one or more place you visit.
Secondly, I’d suggest that you plan an itinerary that includes visiting some locations on their usual peak blossom dates, but also takes you to others earlier and later than the peak sakura usual dates. This way, whether the blossoms are running early, late or right on time, you will see them at at least one of the places you visit.
The itinerary for our recent four-week trip included just one night in Hikone. Although I was keen to visit the castle, I chose it primarily as a handy location to pick up our first rental car for a drive through Shiga Prefecture.
Disappointed that there was very little sign of cherry blossoms in Hakone – one of the most popular sakura-viewing destinations in Japan – we were utterly delighted to discover that the cherry trees of Hikone were at their very best during the few brief hours we spent in the small city.
Located on the shores of Lake Biwa (Japan’s largest lake), Hikone is most famous for its castle, one of only four in Japan to be designated as a national treasure.
Construction was completed in 1622 and the castle served as the seat of the local daimyo (feudal lords) until the feudal system ended in 1868. Visiting Hikone Castle gives a wonderful insight into life for the nobility during Japan’s feudal era.
What makes Hikone Castle special is that the majority of what you see is original, having survived in tact since it was built. A number of other castles in Japan are virtually completely new builds, the originals having been destroyed by fire or other natural disaster, often more than once in their long histories.
Happily for us, Hikone castle’s extensive grounds are planted with many cherry trees, most of which were in blossom during our visit and just as enchanting as I’d dreamed.
The cartoon character above is the castle’s mascot, Hiko-nyan; every organisation, tourist attraction and business in Japan seems to have one!
After our tour of the castle, we also visited Genkyuen Garden, a traditional Japanese garden built within the castle grounds in 1677.
We also stopped for a delicious and inexpensive lunch at a small restaurant specialising in wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets). They also offered a short menu of udon noodle soups.
The noodles were simple and delicious, with a perfectly cooked egg, a slice of tofu and some sliced fishcake.
My favourite was the traditional Zenzai dessert I tried. In my lidded bowl was a sweet syrup of azuki beans topped with two chargrilled rice cakes – I loved the soft chewy sticky texture of the rice cakes against the sweet earthy beans and syrup, though Pete wasn’t such a fan.
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Have you visited Japan during sakura season? What are you top tips and what was the highlight of the trip for you?
You may like to check out my other posts about my travels to Japan.