Destination Hanami: Hacking Golden Week for another Chance at Cherry Blossoms

When it comes to hanami (cherry blossom viewing), a mere two weeks a year of blossom-induced bliss is never enough. However, there’s a way to partake in a hanami encore or make up for missing the Tokyo hanami season entirely. How is this possible? As spring begins, cherry blossoms bloom across Japan from south to north. With some clever planning, you can follow them while taking in some of the country’s most beautiful scenery in the process.
Fortunately, catching cherry blossoms at their peak in northern Japan lines up well with the annual Golden Week holiday period that bridges late April to early May. Read on for three northern hanami hotspots to visit and how to make the typically hectic act of traveling during Golden Week work in your favor.

Sakura in Sendai

If the cherry blossom forecast is on your side (it varies slightly from year to year) a Golden Week trip to Sendai is a great way to experience splendid vistas, fascinating history, and cherry blossoms just past full bloom.

If you have time to spare (and enjoy a good workout), I recommend taking a long walk through the easy-to-navigate, grid-based streets of Sendai, from JR Sendai Station to the ruins of Aoba (Sendai) Castle. You’ll see plenty of cherry blossoms as you work your way through the beautiful city and discover even more once you reach the castle grounds. Upon completing the final leg of your journey and ascending to the high ground on which Aoba Castle used to stand, you’ll be further rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the city and beyond.

Entering the Miyagiken Gokoku Shrine, located on the Aoba (Sendai) Castle grounds.

Making the most of Matsushima

No visit to Sendai is complete without venturing to nearby Matsushima, which is a mere 30-minute train ride from JR Sendai Station. Matsushima—a bayside town home to over 250 tiny, pine-tree-covered islands—is regarded as one of Japan’s three most beautiful places (nihon sankei).

With its rich history and tranquil atmosphere, Matsushima is a pleasure to visit in any season. Being surrounded by cherry blossoms, however, makes a spring-time trip extra special. As you explore this pleasant seaside town, be sure to spend some time on Fukuurajima Island and pay a visit to the historic Zuiganji and Entsuin temples.

Fukuurajima Island and the crimson Fukuurabashi Bridge that leads to it.

Adventure in Aomori

Mt. Iwaki as viewed from Hirosaki Park in Aomori Prefecture.

Aomori, Honshu’s (mainland Japan) northernmost prefecture is filled with pink, picturesque scenery during Golden Week. In fact, the city of Hirosaki hosts an annual cherry blossom festival. Here you can enjoy all kinds of local culinary delights from food stalls while leisurely strolling through the city and the beautiful park that surrounds Hirosaki Castle.

Looking up at Hirosaki Castle.

Additionally a trip to Aomori prefecture is the perfect excuse to try out the Tohoku Shinkansen—the fastest and smoothest bullet train ride in the country. Kick back and relax in an ultra-comfortable reclining seat as you whisk past cherry-tree-dotted landscapes at 200 miles per hour. Just make sure that you secure a reserved seat. As you’ll see in the next part of this article, crowded trains are one of the pitfalls you need to avoid when it comes to Golden Week traveling.

The Tohoku Shinkansen.

Avoiding the perils of Golden Week travel

You may have heard that Golden Week is one of the worst times to visit and travel throughout Japan. This series of consecutive national holidays means that Tokyo experiences a mass exodus, with residents simultaneously fanning out across the country to visit leisure destinations or return to their hometowns. And, of course, the travel industry isn’t about to let that “golden” opportunity for profit slide. On top of this, trains can get insanely crowded and traveling by car amounts to grueling, endless traffic jams throughout the country.

With all of this in mind, how can I possibly recommend traveling during Golden Week? Well, with some careful planning, you can avoid these pitfalls and experience the wonders depicted above. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Travel by train with a reserved ticket. Airlines may jack up their pricing for Golden Week, but train prices are stable throughout the year. Get a reserved seat when possible to ensure that you don’t end up standing for a three-hour shinkansen ride. If reserved seats aren’t available, then move on to the next tip…
  • Shift your schedule. Make sure you aren’t traveling near the beginning or end of Golden Week. Japanese families are usually on the move within the first and last couple of days of the holiday period. Make your move just before or in the middle of Golden Week and your commute should be just fine.
  • Stay in business hotels. Golden Week is typically a family affair, so ryokans (Japanese-style inns) and family-oriented accommodations will most likely be at full capacity or prohibitively expensive. You should, however, be able to find affordable accommodations at business hotels. Don’t let the term “business hotel” deter you—many well-known chains are clean, convenient, and affordable, even during Golden Week. For starters, Richmond Hotels and Daiwa Roynet Hotels are two chains that you can usually rely on.

Head north

With a little planning, flexibility, and the tips highlighted above, you can turn one of Japan’s most notorious travel periods into a blissful experience. Most importantly, heading to northern Japan during Golden Week will give you a second chance to appreciate the coveted beauty of Japan’s ephemeral cherry blossoms.

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Writer / Translator

Originally from Riverside, California, I've been living, working, and writing in Japan since 2009. Japan has become my second home, and I'm especially fond of Shinjuku, Tokyo. That being said, I also love getting out into the countryside and exploring the entire country. Through Tadaima Japan, I hope to share the wonders of Japan with a wider, international audience. Check out my articles if you enjoy exploring on foot, convenient cafes, and affordable dining.