Marvelous Japan, in Bloom
Sakura cherry blossoms are more than just the county’s national flower and a pleasant backdrop for a selfie session.
Deeply symbolic, the sakura cherry blossoms represent destiny and karma, and can be found throughout Japan’s arts and culture, as well as on stationery and kitchenware. While many assume that the blossoms bloom exclusively in spring, it actually varies throughout the country and year to year: Now’s the time to start planning if you hope to catch some flower power in 2016.
Where can you catch the real thing? Pretty much everywhere, depending on the month: The subtropical islands of Okinawa can see them as early as January, while on the northern island of Hokkaido it’s frequently not until May that the fabulous fronds reveal themselves. In between, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are in flower from around March. Milder weather will also see an earlier blooming.
All Japan Tours’ most popular sakura experience is the Golden Route Japan Cherry Blossom Special Tour, which takes place March 27-April 10. Taking in hanami, or flower viewing/picnicking spots in gardens and parks famous for their blossoms, the trip begins at Osaka Castle, which boasts more than 4,000 cherry trees, before a visit to the gardens and temples of Kyoto, followed by a day at Hakone with its hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji, plus a guided tour of Tokyo.
The tour costs US$2,198 ($17,140) per person, including five nights western-style and one night Japanese-style accommodation (double or triple occupancy). Also included are airport transfers, coach transfers, bullet train ride, tour guide, daily breakfast and some other meals, entry to sites and activities. You’ll need to organize your own flight to Japan. Book before January 31 to save US$50 ($390). alljapantours.com.
There are some good deals to be had on a first come, first served basis through Zuji, who has partnered with the Japan National Tourism Organization to launch a bundle of promotional offers, including 10 percent off hotel prices, free roaming data SIM card, free three-day rail pass and even free selfie sticks (if you’re a university student).
As part of Zuji’s recent “Search, Discover and Share” campaign, the company is particularly keen to promote less visited destinations but where there are still good hanami opportunities, instead of pushing the more obvious cities.
One of these is Takamatsu in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s major islands and famous for its 88-temple Buddhist pilgrimage route. In addition to the blossom action, the surrounding area offers historical gardens, hot spring spas, hiking trails, the stunning Oboke Gorge, whitewater rafting and Takamatsu Castle, built in 1590. (Wasn’t that an 80s Japanese game show?)
The rail pass deal means you also can travel around the region at your leisure. China Airlines operates flights to Takamatsu from around $2,152 before tax, while hotels such as the 3.5-star Hotel Bokaiso offer nights from $529. Book using American Express for a further 15 percent cash rebate. zuji.com.hk.
Off the Beaten Blossom
It’s not only Japan that calls the cherry blossom its own. While not offering official sakura tours, Flight Centre has flights and accommodation deals to Seoul and Taichung, and you’ll have to sniff out the blossoms for yourself when you arrive. It shouldn’t be too challenging: They’re brightly-colored, fragrant and everywhere. However, the travel company does have some tips for the best hanami hangouts.
In Seoul, head to the Yeouido Cherry Blossom Festival at Yeouido Hangang Park (this sounds like a pretty good bet to us), Seokchon Lake, Kyunghee University, Seoul Grand Park in Gwacheon, Seoul Forest, and the palaces of Changgyeonggung, Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung. To catch Taichung’s beautiful blooms, check out Yangmingshan National Park, Wuling Farm and Alishan Forest.
For Seoul packages start from $4,299 per person, and include return Korean Air airfares and three nights at the Millennium Seoul Hilton in a deluxe room. To Taichung packages start from $2,959 per person, including return Dragonair airfares and three nights at Freshfields Resort & Conference. Prices exclude taxes. Flight Centre also offers flights and accommodation packages to Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, starting from $6,199 per person. flightcentre.com.hk.