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Japan and South Korea: cherry blossoms spring flings!

The evidence of the forthcoming spring is heralded by all things botanical – and most convincing and much-awaited of them all, the blooming of cherry blossom trees. During this time, vegetation slowly regains signs of life with their remarkable display of lush, vibrant colors enough to lure a crowd of locals and committed travelers. The cool, crisp air the season brings (a mild 10-15 degrees Celcius during daytime) also contributes to a reassuring ambience perfect for a nice stroll through some soul-inspiring landscape.

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Every year between the months of March and April, sakura or cherry blossoms devotees gather in great numbers to pay their respect to East Asia’s most favored floral meccas: South Korea and Japan. It has become so serious a business that week-long festivals are commonly held in some cities across each country annually to celebrate the arrival of these delicate pink-hued wonders.

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To help you plan your trip and cross that item off of your travel/bucket list, here are some personal accounts (photos mostly) of our short-lived summer affair with the sakuras!

Tokyo (Shinjuku Gyoen Park)

Our last day in Tokyo fell on spring equinox, that time of the year when the length of day and night is nearly equal. Before heading to the airport, we managed to squeeze in an hour’s worth of visit to see the sakura trees in Shinjuku Gyoen Park, arguably the best hanami viewing spot in the city. At exactly 9am, we marched inside the park’s landscaped gardens, passed by a serene lake, and made our way to an area condensed with the pinkest of all cherry blossom trees/ flowers we’ve seen in Japan! And we all agreed it was one of the best decisions we’ve made in this trip.

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Directions:
Take the Yamanote Loop and alight at JR Shinjuku Station. Walk east from the New South exit towards Shinjuku Gate.

Alternative hanami viewing sites in Tokyo: Ueno Park (Ueno Station), Yoyogi Park (Harajuku Station), Meguro River (Nakameguro Station), Aoyama Cemetery – no kidding (Nogizaka Station)


Kyoto (Arashiyama)

The prefix “kyo” in Kyoto means fine work. And like most excellent pieces of great art, even the seemingly straightforward activity like hunting sakuras requires a combination of patience and perfect timing. Schedule a visit a day or two earlier than the blooming forecast and you will spot plain-looking (boring) cherry buds. While a trip a few days past the timetable will just bring you total disappointment. Thankfully, the charming countryside of Arashiyama holds many redeeming qualities. We hopped on a bike and made our way to the Togetsukyo Bridge crossing and further deep into the arteries of the Sagano Bamboo Forest with a brief stop at the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Tenryu-ji Temple.  While it was a bit tiring, it certainly did keep our minds off of our sakura frustration.

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Directions:

From OSAKA: Fastest way is through a JR train to Kyoto Station. From Kyoto Station, take the JR Sagano Line (also known as JR Sanin Line) to Saga-Arashiyama.

From KYOTO: take the JR Sagano Line (also known as JR Sanin Line) to Saga-Arashiyama.

Alternative hanami viewing sites in Kyoto: Hirano Shrine (via Kyoto bus), Nijo Castle (1st castle stop from Kyoto Station)


Osaka (Osaka Castle/ Nishinomaru Garden)

Over 4,000 cherry trees are planted within Osaka Castle’s premises. Crowds begin to swell early in the morning with tourist buses arriving one after the other. To enjoy a more relaxed cherry blossom experience, try visiting during the late afternoon to early evening. The Nishinomaru Garden, located at the castle’s western citadel, schedules spring illumination where hundreds of cherry trees receive artificial lighting come nighttime. This brings a new dimension to your sakura encounter and produces more dramatic photos than what daytime visitors can probably capture. It’s less crowded at night, too.

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Alternative hanami viewing sites in Osaka: Osaka Mint Bureau (Temmabashi Station), Expo 70 Commemorative Park


Seoul (Yeouido)

An entire week is devoted to the celebration of spring through the Yeouido Spring Flower Festival. Dates vary from year to year depending on blooming forecast but this festival continues to draw a stream of patrons from Korea and around the world. Outlining the banks of the Han River (Hangang) are impressive rows of colorful azaleas and forsythias. But the main highlight and the obvious scene stealer are thousands of Korean cherry trees with pink, velvety flowers waiting for their ultimate surrender to the earth. Light winds transform this place into your typical romantic Koreanovela episode sans the slow-mo effect. When all the walking gets boring, rent a bike or grab a bite! We found the latter to be the more satisfying choice, by the way.

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Directions:

  1. National Assembly Station (Seoul Subway Line 9), Exit 1.
    2. Yeouinaru Station (Seoul Subway Line 5), Exit 1.
    3. Yeouido Station (Seoul Subway Line 5 or 9), Exit 2.

Alternative cherry blossom viewing spots in Seoul: Namsan Mountain (Namsan Shuttle Bus 02 or 05), Kyunghee University’s Cherry Blossom Road (Hoegi Station), Palace Grounds (Gyeongbokgung, Changgyeonggung, etc.)

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I personally can’t think of any other symbol as representative of spring as the cherry blossoms in these two neighboring countries. So make sure to book that piso fare as soon as the forecast is made public. Truth be told, regardless of your choice for your spring destination, these cities promise the nicest arrivals you’re ever bound to make.

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