Are you heading to Japan for Sakura? 2016 cherry blossom season forecast dates have just been released by the Japan Weather Association. Based on their forecast, the season this year will begin around March 25th onwards. Japan has always been a hugely-popular destination for Aussies, especially during Sakura. How can you make the most of your trip, and squeeze in everything you’d like to see? We’ve done some research and if you’re after a flexible itinerary, this article can help you with:
- Places to see the cherry blossom and tips on how to plan your journey;
- Where to find out about 2016 cherry blossom forecast and dates;
- Transport options for Japan, from local public transport to Japan Rail Pass, car rentals and air travel.
Firstly, when it comes to cherry blossoms, the important thing is to be flexible. You may be thinking you really want to visit a certain place, but if the blossoms are not yet in bloom, you'll end up disappointed. However, if you're flexible, you’ll be able to see the places which are in bloom, and enjoy those.
Generally, Miyazaki, Kochi, Shizuoka, and Tokyo are the first places to bloom. Our advice is to start in Tokyo - it’s a better, more logical place to start your trip than to start and then end in Kyoto. If you have a JR Pass (a Japan Rail Pass - you can get more information here), though, and you find that far places, such as Kochi or Shizuoka, are in full bloom but Tokyo is a bit early, it's easy to make the trip.
If you're planning to go to Kyushu, then start there and head north. There’s an excellent chance you’ll end up following the path of the blossom, and you’ll catch it at peak time!
However, the trick is with cherry blossom is to make up your mind if it’s the only reason you’re making the trip, or a visually-pleasing ‘add-on’ that you’re happy to accommodate if time allows. If the blossom is the only reason you’re there, be prepared to make very few concessions and accept that you’ll have to follow the blossom based on real-time info - sites like these can help you out once the season has started (tip: view in Chrome and accept the translate option). This will ultimately alter the course of your trip - so it’s wise to ask yourself if you’re willing to miss out to see some petals falling. If you’re content to see it as and when and you’re within a two to three week window, you should be fine.
Finally, never underestimate the other people who have made the trip. You may find the crowds who turn out overwhelming in big cities like Kyoto, but being in quiet, unpopulated areas may not be what you’re into either. Lesser-known places include Kotohira (head here to see the Konpirasan Shrine). There are always some people there, but you won’t have to endure a packed subway train to get there.
Here are our top three places to catch the blossoms:
This is number one on our list for a good reason - it’s where plum and cherry trees blossom at the same time. Prepare yourself for an explosion of camera, and take your time here, so you can (not literally) drink the blossoms in.
This is one of Japan's most crowded, noisy and popular cherry blossom spots, featuring more than 1,000 trees. Watch out for the parties which take place underneath the blooms, and try to avoid all the lovers smooching away under the pink petals.
This registered World Cultural Heritage Site in southeastern Kyoto has been famous for its blossoms since 1598. During that year, 700 trees were planted by great daimyo Toyotomi Hideyoshi so he could throw a blossom-tastic party for 1,300 people including his son, his wife, and his mistresses. It takes about an hour and a half minutes on foot to walk to Kaizan-do Hall on the top of the mountain, but don’t be put off - it’s highly recommended.
Cherry blossom season forecast dates for 2016 have just been released on the Japan Weather Association website (tip: view in Chrome and accept the translate option the browser offers). If you want to get an idea of average Sakura season dates, the Japan National Tourism Organization has some great resources, including a cherry blooming forecast map (currently showing 2015 dates) and, our favourite: an infographic of the average blooming times for the main cherry blossom destinations based on the past ten years (scroll down for this one).
Public transport’s easy in Japan - like in most cities, you can buy all day travelcards/day passes for unlimited journeys on buses, trams, and the subway. They’re usually called an ichi-nichi-jōsha-ken.
If you’re staying for a longer period of time, you can also get week-long passes (if you’re there on business, you’ll use one of these).
If you’re a claustrophobe, you may favour the bus, but beware - they’re notoriously tricky as all the signs are written in Japanese. Fares are normally paid when you get off, and in Tokyo and some other cities, there's a flat fare regardless of distance.
Train and Subway:
Lots of Japan’s main cities have subways, and they’re the cheapest way to get around the city. Before you travel, you buy your ticket from a machine, and the maps on display are normally pretty easy to follow.
If you can't work the fare out, a solution is to buy a ticket for the lowest fare. When you finish your trip, go to the fare-adjustment machine (seisan-ki) or the staffed counter before you reach the exit gate and pay what you owe.
Japan’s trams are great, as you get the best of buses and subways - you travel quickly, but you also get to see where you’re going and make sense of your surroundings.
Taxis are easily found and convenient - if you’re struggling to find one, just head to the nearest train station. A word on taxi etiquette - don’t try to yank the door open, the driver will open it for you. They’ll also shut it when you leave.
Communication can be an issue, so make sure you have your destination written down in Japanese before you go. If your Japanese is rusty, the staff at your hotel should be able to help.
If you’re planning on making several long-distance journeys across Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is exactly what you need. It can be bought outside Japan, unlike other rail passes, and there are certain degrees of flexibility which you can tailor to your trip. For example, the comprehensive pass lets you travel wherever you want, but the cheaper regional passes can be great if they fit in with your plans.
The traditional pass allows you to travel on nearly all of Japan’s JR services, with the exception of the Nozomi Shinkansen (these are the famous bullet trains you’ll have heard about). Be aware that if you’re caught on one of these, even unwittingly, you’ll be liable for the full fare for the trip. Good news if you’re travelling with children - kids aged between 6 and 11 travel for half price, while those under 6 travel free.
If you’re aged between 12 - 25 and you’re planning on taking the Shinkansen, the JR East Pass is great value. It costs ¥20,000 (¥16,000 for 12- to 25-year-olds) for five days, and a ten-day pass is ¥32,000 (¥25,000 for 12- to 25-year-olds).
If you decide to buy your pass in your home country, be aware that the exchange rate will define how much you pay. Make sure that you compare prices across sites offering the pass - you may get a better deal, as they don’t all use the same exchange rate. When you buy it, you’ll be given an exchange voucher which must be swapped for a pass in Japan within three months. Also, take care of it - if you lose your pass it will not be replaced for free.
Hiring your own car is the best way of exploring rural Japan - and if you’re chasing cherry blossoms, you’re likely to end up in some areas which aren’t on public transport networks. However, don’t rent one to explore the cities - traffic is heavy, parking is hard, and it’s difficult to find your way around.
The minimum age for driving in Japan is 18, and you’ll need a Japanese driver's license or an International Driving Permit (IDP) in order to rent and drive a car.
International driving permits are not issued in Japan and must be ordered in your home country in advance. They are usually issued through your country's national automobile association for a small fee. You can find out more here.
Who to rent from:
Leading car rental companies include Toyota Rentacar, Nippon Rentacar, Orix Rentacar, Times Car Rental, Nissan Rentacar and Ekiren. There are numerous outlets across Japan, and a few have begun to offer English online reservation systems.
International car rental companies which you may be more familiar with, such as Budget, Avis and Hertz also offer car rental in Japan. However, their rates are not as competitive as they’re not solo operating outlets - they work in tandem with the leading car rental companies.
How much will I be paying?
Expect to pay around 5000 yen per 24-hour period for a sub-compact car, 7500 yen for compact cars, and 10,000 yen for mid sized cars - but bear in mind that rates may increase and decrease, depending upon the season. Many companies also offer rates for short rentals of up to 6 or 12 hours.
Lots of companies allow you to drop the car off in a different location - if it is relatively close, you may not be charged, but if it’s a fair distance away from the original outlet you may be charged.
Car rental excess
Many car rental agreements come with an insurance excess of multiple thousands of dollars for any damage to the car. You can usually reduce this excess by paying a daily premium to the rental company. However, it’s often cheaper to refuse this offer and take out travel insurance that covers rental vehicle excess waiver instead.
I’m frightened I’ll get lost...
Don’t worry. Most rental cars come with a GPS navigation system built into the dashboard, which can be adjusted so the displays and directions are in English. However, these aren’t universal, so check with your rental company before you leave.
Thanks to the deregulation of Japan's airline industry and increasing competition, domestic airfares in Japan have become much cheaper; sometimes, it’s cheaper to fly than it is to take the bullet train.
Regular fares can still be pricey, but if you’re after a deal, the low-cost carriers are known for their discount offers. Foreign tourists are able to apply for air passes, which enable pass holders to board domestic flights for around 10,000 yen per flight.
Other local, trusted airlines include: Skymark, which offers cheap routes between Tokyo and Fukuoka, Kōbe, Naha and Sapporo and Kōbe-Naha.
Air Do run discount services on routes from Tokyo to destinations in Hokkaidō, and Skynet Asia Airways provide good deals on flights between Tokyo and Kyūshū, including Kumamoto, Miyazaki and Nagasaki.