Japan is one of the best places to view cherry blossoms – “Hanami” is a traditional cultural activity and the country is planted with numerous cherry trees. The cherry blossoms bloom in spring, and while they can be seen basically nationwide, the viewing periods are not exactly the same because of the difference in temperature.
It starts in the warmer south, usually as early as January in Okinawa, then early March in Kyushu, spreading up north to Hokkaido until May. This is great because it stretches the viewing period to more than 4 months. Check out the “Cherry Blossom Front” site for more about the predicted periods of cherry blossoms across Japan. Not only does the website indicate the blossoming time in detail, but also lists the hotspots for the best viewing. It helps to design and plan your itinerary if you are going to Japan in spring.
To me, Kyoto is one of the best places for a first-time experience, the historic temples and palaces serve as the best backdrop framed by the cherry blossoms. Most foreign visitors come to Kyoto via Osaka, as the Kansai International Airport is the major hub that connects the world with the Kansai area.
I have shared a splendid cherry blossom viewing route in Kyoto, or if you are visiting Kyoto in the fall, consider renting a bike and riding on a superb biking route. Continuing on your journey to the south, from Osaka to Hiroshima, is also one of my favorite itineraries as it has no less than wonderful spots to view the cherry blossoms, along with many exciting landmarks that are lesser-known to general tourists, but definitely worth a visit if you have more time; you will be surprised that you will get to see quite a lot famous sights in Japan.
I remember I mentioned that I am a “Tokyo” kind of guy but it doesn’t mean I like Osaka any less. The second-largest city in Japan has everything you need, yet the metro-area of Kansai comprises a number of both modern and historic cities like Kyoto, Kobe, and Nara; Heading to the south, Wakayama is one of the best areas for a hot spring vacation; not to mention the delicious cuisines and local food in Osaka that make the mouth water.
To fully experience Osaka, you will need at least a few days, or even a week, to spend some time in Umeda, Shinsaibashi, Dotonbori, and then Umeda, and also the Port of Osaka, families can have a day in the Universal Studio! The city also has an exciting number of Ferris wheels and observatory decks, from the Tempozan Giant Ferris Wheel, Ebisu Tower Ferris wheel, Hep Five, Osaka Prefectural Government Sakishima Building Observatory, Harukas 300, Tsutenkaku, and Umeda Sky Building.
The National Museum of Art, Osaka
The National Museum of Art in Osaka is one of the most prestigious art institutions in the country.
The museum itself has a striking and eye-catching exterior designed by Cesar Pelli. The origin of the museum came from the Expo Museum of Fine Arts at Expo 70. The new building moved to its current location in Nakanoshima in 2004, hosting numerous international art exhibitions of artists like Paul Cézanne, Max Ernst, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Boris Mikhailov, Pablo Picasso, and more. For beautiful cherry blossoms, Osaka Castle is a classic location doing so. I visited there a couple of times, and one of the most impressive and memorable exhibitions that I have seen is Bruegel’s exhibition, and the Tower of Babel is his most notable artwork. The painting can be found in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Osaka Castle Park
Osaka Castle is one of the most visited Japanese castles in the country and it played an important role in the unification of Japan during the 16th century of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. Like many other castles, the castle was badly destroyed during World War II as the castle served as a part of the Osaka Army Arsenal, manufacturing weapons including guns and explosives. In 1995, Osaka’s government approved a large-scale restoration project, restoring the look of the main tower like the original in the Edo period. The interior of the castle today has a modern structure and it is a museum showcasing historic photos and artifacts of important events. The roof of the main tower is also a great observation deck that offers a view of Osaka’s modern city skyline.
In spring, the castle park is one of the most popular cherry blossom viewing spots in the city. It is situated in a convenient location and connected by both subway and JR, being on the JR West Osaka Loop Line. The sprawling castle park grounds feature food vendors and taiko drummers. Explore the many monuments like the castle, the Ishiyama Hongan-Ji monument, the Hokoku Shrine, the concert hall, and the martial arts center. The park is a perfect place to have a picnic, and apart from cherry blossoms, the park has a great number of pine trees and plum trees in the plum garden as well.
Osaka Mint Bureau
The Bureau is the head office of the Japan Mint, responsible for producing and circulating the coins of Japan. While the building is not open to the public, the surrounding grounds of the site have many cherry blossoms that draw tens of thousands of visitors every year. Japanese paper bills are printed by the National Printing Bureau and its head office is located in Tokyo.
Expo ‘70 Commemorative Park
Do you know that the next World Expo will be once again in Osaka in 2025? The last World Expo ‘70 was held in this park in 1970, and it was the first world fair held in Japan. The main architect of the Expo was Kenzo Tange, and it attracted international attention for the extent to which unusual artworks and designs by Japanese avant-garde artists were incorporated into the overall plan and individual national and corporate pavilions. The motto of the expo was “Progress and Harmony for Mankind”.
Over 64 million visitors attended, the Tower of the Sun, designed by artist Taro Okamoto, was the most famous and iconic artwork during the Expo and it is still standing in the park today. The park has a number of facilities like the Japan Folk Crafts Museum, and new attractions next to the station include the Redhorse Osaka Wheel, NIFREL (Aquarium and zoo), and LaLaport EXPOCITY. The park, of course, offers a great open area for cherry blossom viewing, yet it is a little bit off the city center. Visitors can take the monorail from the Yamada subway station to the park.
Other fabulous sites in Osaka to view cherry blossoms include Kema Sakuranomiya Park, Daisen Park, and Settsukyo Park.
Koba is known for being a major port city, located on the north shore of Osaka Bay with about 1.5 million residents. It’s close to Osaka and serves as a pass-through connecting Osaka to Sanyo, the area in the south of Honshu. Kobe may not be the most exciting as compared with other travel destinations in Japan. It is connected with a number of sites that are worth visiting, with many exciting cherry blossom viewing opportunities.
The port area is the centerpiece of the city with a number of landmarks and eye-catchy architecture. The red steel Port Tower is a sightseeing tower completed in 1963. Designed by Nikken Sekkei Company, it’s 108 meters tall with 8 layers and 32 red steel staves that resemble the look of a Japanese drum, Tsuzumi. 7000 LEDs were installed during its renovation in 2009, with 40 lighting effects that illuminated the city’s skyline after its reopening in 2010.
A Ferris wheel is within walking distance which also offers a breathtaking view of the surroundings. Check out the giant sculpture, Fish Dance, at Meriken Park. It was designed by architect Frank O. Gehry and copper sheets were used to construct this art.
Of all kinds of Wagyu beef in Japan, Kobe beef is a delicacy that is beloved among many. It is considered among the top graded and high-quality wagyu beef, together with Matsusaka beef and Omi beef. The beef is produced only from Hyogo Prefecture’s Tajima cattle farm which has strict standards. The overall appearance of the meat is understated and refined, with the subtle distribution of fat. There’s no way not to have a taste of this delicious meat while you are in the city. If you are looking for a recommendation, check out Yazawa Kobe beef located on the Motomachidori, while they serve their beef in Japanese barbecue style.
Arima Onsen and Mount Rokkō
Of many hot springs in Japan, Arima is a hidden treasure of modern Kobe, located behind Mount Rokko. The onsen got its fame as it was quoted as one of the three most famous and prestigious springs in an important Heian Era book, “The Pillow Book”. Kobe has a bus connection to the onsen and it’s a popular getaway for locals. The onsen is also one of the country’s oldest onsen, together with Dōgo Onsen in Ehime Prefecture and Shirahama Onsen in Wakayama Prefecture.
Not to mention that it is a wonderful cherry blossom viewing spot. The onsen has two kinds of springs: kinsen “the gold spring”, and ginsen “the silver spring”. The color of the spring water is distinctly different due to the different compositions of radium and carbonate. Check in to one of the Ryokans in the area and they usually offer both kinds of springs for a wonderful thermal bath experience.
Talking about great sights and locations, Mount Rokkō is also one of the three “ten-million-dollar night views”, together with Mount Inasa in Nagasaki, and Mount Hakodate in Hokkaido. The great thing is, that there is a Rokko-Arima cable car that takes visitors smoothly between the summit of Mount Rokkō in the national park and Arima Onsen in just 12 minutes. There’s no better way to fully enjoy the captivating beauty of the mountain scenery and the panoramic view of the entire Kansai Bay area.
Keep on going to the west from Kobe, Akashi is a small neighboring city as a gateway that connects Honshu with Shikoku across the Seto Inland Sea.
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge is a major and striking landmark for being the longest suspension bridge in the world 1,991 meters across the Akashi Strait. It is part of the Kobe-Awaji-Naruto Expressway, and the Hyogo Prefectural Maiko Park at the bottom of the bridge is an area packed with attractions for tourists to enjoy a day walk by the water.
Explore the Maiko Marine Promenade, a glass-bottom walkway at the beginning part of the bridge, and visitors could take a look at the intensive steelwork in the observatory at the end of the deck and have a sip of coffee at the cafe. For the daredevils, experience the bridge from 300 meters up on the few bridge climbs in the world! On the tour, visitors will hear amazing stories of the decade over how this structure came about.
The Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Exhibition Center is located right next to the bridge showcasing the design and technology behind the bridge, with a virtual reality tour. Right at the seafront, there is a rather whimsical historic building, the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall, honoring a Chinese statesman.
Take the walk a little bit further to Goshikizuka Tumulus which is a restored burial site thought to hold tombs of a 4th-century clan, with a city view from its flat top.
For a small detour, hop on a bus and go across the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge to the Awaji Yumebutai for another kind of flower viewing. It’s an offbeat location to many tourists yet it is a conference center complex, hotel, and memorial designed by renowned Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, near the epicenter of the 1995 Great Hanshin Awaji earthquake.
Take a walk and appreciate the signature design of the architect, the clean shapes and concrete used in many of his works. Yumebutai means “Dream Stage” in Japanese, metaphorically, “a place in which to dream”.
One unique feature of the complex apart from the fountains is the Hyakudanen, a layered flower bed, 100 of them, spreading over several levels. These mini gardens are planted with different kinds of flowers and there are in total 1575 steps and 235 flights. It’s an outdoor botanical “museum” overlooking the ocean.
As some may know, most of the Japanese castles were damaged during the war, and those we usually see today are restored after the war. Having said that, they are keeping them faithful to their original design and almost every city in Japan has at least one castle, there are over 100 castles extant, or partially extant in Japan. Only twelve of these castles are considered “original”, a.k.a. they escaped damage and today show the world what it was like centuries ago. It was amazing that architect in the past was able to construct a massive structure without a single piece of nail, without losing their distinct aesthetics and the pursuit of symmetry.
There are only twelve castles that are considered “original”:
- Bitchū Matsuyama Castle
- Hikone Castle
- Himeji Castle
- Hirosaki Castle
- Inuyama Castle
- Kōchi Castle
- Marugame Castle
- Maruoka Castle
- Matsue Castle
- Matsumoto Castle
- Matsuyama Castle (Iyo)
- Uwajima Castle
Out of these twelve castles, Himeji Castle was the one that has the most grandeur and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993. Therefore, if there’s only one castle in Japan you are planning to see, Himeji Castle should be the one at the top of the list.
Nicknamed the “White Heron”, Himeji castle just ran through a 5-year renovation of the roof and walls, and once again it is now showing the world the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture. The castle consists of 83 rooms, and old wooden staircases that lead to the top of the castle, offering a panoramic view of Himeji city and beyond. The origin of the castle dates back to the year 1333 when Akamatsu Norimura commanded to build a fort on top of Himeyama hill. The fort was then dismantled and rebuilt to the current site in 1346 and then once again remodeled by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1581 with new structures added to the top of the castle. The castle was truly blessed as it has largely remained intact even though it has also been through a series of bombings of Himeji in World War II, and natural disasters including the 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake. Along with Matsumoto Castle and Kumamoto Castle, these three are considered one of three Japan’s “three famous castles”.
Not only is it a world-class heritage that attracts millions of visitors, but it is also a major cherry blossom viewing spot so the best time to come to the castle is in spring, usually between late March to early April. The pink cherry blossoms, blue sky, and white castle are the best combinations to appreciate the castle for all its glory.