Spring is Japan’s most dazzling season, famous for its millions of cherry trees that paint the country with billowing, cloud-like profusions of flowers. While Tokyo and Kyoto have long been popular with blossom-viewing enthusiasts, Tohoku and Hokkaido in northern Japan are virtually unknown to foreign visitors, despite their equally spectacular displays of the delicate, ephemeral petals.
With the March opening of the new Hokkaido Shinkansen High-Speed Rail connecting Tokyo with Hokkaido travelers will find it easer than ever to hop aboard the train, consult the annual Sakura Zensen (Cherry Blossom Forecast) meticulously provided by the press and weather bureaus, and follow the progression of the cherry-blossom season as it unfurls across the country from the south to the north. Late April and early May are the best times for viewing cherry blossoms across northern Japan.
There are many famous cherry- blossom viewing spots throughout Tohoku and Hokkaido but several standouts, complete with festivals and nighttime illuminations, are top on the list. In Kitakami, 10,000 cherry trees line both sides of a 1.2- mile promenade, forming an ethereal tunnel of cherry blossoms through which you can stroll or ride in a horse-drawn carriage. Sightseeing boats on the adjacent Kitami River are another way to enjoy the dreamlike spectacle, especially during the Kitakami Tenshochi Cherry Blossom Festival, when carp streamers strung across the river flutter in the breeze.
Farther north, Hirosaki boasts one of the most famous cherry-blossom scenes in Japan, with the ancient tower, gate and moat of Hirosaki Castle providing dramatic background to more than 2,600 cherry trees of approximately 50 different varieties. Other sights include old samurai residences, the 16th-century Chosho-ji Temple, and a five-story pagoda.
Hakodate, the terminus of the Hokkaido Shinkansen High-Speed Rail on the Island of Hokkaido, attracts sightseers to Goyokaku Park, a 19th- century star-shaped fort surrounded by many cherry trees. An old port town, Hakodate is also famous for its morning market and night views.
A traditional Japanese custom, hanami (flower viewing) in the spring not only celebrates the birth of the season but also acknowledges the transient beauty of the blossom and thus of life itself. By timing a trip to Tohoku and Hokkaido with the cherry-blossom season, you’ll be part of a rite that has inspired Japanese culture for centuries.