April 2019 saw me chasing the Cherry Blossom in Japan. This was a sight that I had wanted to see for many years. I had visited Tokyo, Japan in 1984 but only spent 4 days there and didn’t get the chance to see very much. Of course, Tokyo is not Japan. Similar to most countries, the capital is not necessarily representative of the rest of the landscapes. The best time to see the Cherry Blossom is around March-April, but it varies each year, and it varies depending on which part of the country one visits. I chose to fly into Osaka and fly out of Fukuoka. In the interim, I visited Kyota, Nara and Hiroshima. Each of these cities were very unique in their own right. I purchased a Japan Rail Pass voucher in London, UK before travelling. On arrival in Osaka, I had to exchange the voucher for the rail pass. This is where I learned my first lesson. I spent hours trying to find Osaka Train Station, not realising there are actually 6 main railway stations in Osaka. So make sure you research the train stations before you travel, and make a decision on which train station is the nearest to where you are staying, so that the voucher can be exchanged, if you purchase it. It cannot be purchased in Japan for the same price and conditions, so is worth buying before you travel. Also, there are certain bullet trains that you cannot use the rail pass on, so make sure you research this as well. I found myself on the ‘incorrect’ bullet train several times but my rail pass was never checked on the train. Although this doesn’t mean it won’t be when you travel!
I found my first Cherry Blossom in Osaka, around Osaka Castle, and along the river that runs through the city. Osaka is a bit of a concrete jungle, and like most Japanese cities, you really have to get out and about to the environs and countryside to see the real Japan. Otherwise you are lost in a ton of unattractive grey concrete. Osaka Castle was magnificent and it isn’t too expensive to visit, but get there early to avoid the crowds. The first construction of the castle was in 1583, and has had many ‘reincarnations’ since. Photographs are not allowed inside the castle, but I didn’t realise so I managed to obtain a couple of snaps before I saw the signs. There is a beautiful moat around the castle and you can take a short boat ride on the moat.
From Osaka, I took a day trip to Kyoto on the local train which took about 30 minutes from the main Osaka train station. Kyoto is also famous for its Cherry Blossom and much more besides, particularly the Golden Temple or Golden Pavilion (Kinkaku-ji). Kyoto is easily walkable but the temple is a bus ride away. You can take the local bus from Kyoto train station and there are ‘ambassadors’ outside the train station who will help you locate the right bus and tell you how to buy a ticket. Kinkaku-ji is a Zen Buddhist temple that has two top tiers covered in gold leaf, set in a beautiful, tranquil setting. It is one of the most popular buildings in Japan and should not be missed. One could easily fill a day in Kyoto, although a lot of travellers spend a couple of days there.
I also took a day trip to Nara from Osaka on the train. For me it was much easier to base myself in one place and take the train on day-trips, rather than lugging my bags from city to city. Nara is famous for its tame deer that wander through the streets. The Nara park area where they wander is a very short walk from the train station and easily located. Nara was the ancient capital of Japan. There is a shinto shrine which dates back to 768 AD.
When my planned time in Osaka came to an end, I took the bullet train to Fukuoka, as I wanted to visit someone who lived there. Not many people travel to Fukuoka apparently, but there are some beautiful temples a short walk from the train station, and I found lots of Cherry Blossom. Often known as Fukuoka-Hakata, Fukuoka is the castle town and Hakata is the ‘merchant’s quarter’, separated by the Naka river. The train station has 2 exits so make sure you exit from the correct one to get to your destination, otherwise you will be lost for hours as I was!. One tip is don’t be afraid to take taxis if you get lost. People in Japan are extremely helpful, but will often give you directions that are incorrect because they don’t want to lose face if they don’t know where your destination is. Taxis are easy to hail and quite inexpensive. In my experience they were also quite safe.
Fukuoka Castle has a Cherry Blossom Festival. It is a unique city in that it is one of the few cities in the world where you can actually walk to the airport, although it takes about 30 minutes with luggage. There is also a port, which is ‘walkable’ from the train station, and is an easy train journey to Hiroshima. Hiroshima was easily my favourite place – apart from the historical context it is also known as the Venice of the East. There are 6 rivers that run through it.
From Fukuoka, I did indeed take the (wrong) bullet train to Hiroshima. If you go to the tourist office, they will give you maps and information, and direct you to the free bus that can take you around the city, hop-on/hop-off, which is only free with your Japan Rail Pass. I only spent one day here, but next time I will dedicate a couple of days as there is so much to see. Hiroshima should need no introduction, but I know there are several countries that don’t teach Second World War history anymore, so I encourage you to Google the importance of Hiroshima. As with all my blogs, my job is to inspire, not to tell all. I will say that Hiroshima as a city is very forgiving and it has moved on from the past, whilst ensuring respect is paid to the past. The Peace Memorial aims to achieve this, which is just one example.
There was plenty of Cherry Blossom in Hiroshima. Why is Cherry Blossom season so important to the Japanese people? As well as being very beautiful, it was very important in ancient times because it announced the rice-planting season, moreover Cherry Blossom is very short-lived and is a ‘metaphor for life’ – meaning something beautiful can be tragically cut short, as in life. ‘Hanami’ – Cherry Blossom viewing, where people have picnics under and around the trees is an ancient tradition in Japan. It is very popular, therefore, so do book as far in advance as you can, if you plan to chase the Cherry Blossom – but be aware the season is at a slightly different date every year, and differs depending on which part of the country you are visiting. I got lucky! Happy Chasing the Cherry Blossom – but be aware that Japan offers so much more.