Japan is a much bigger country than you might expect. Its four main islands, Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Shikoku are together 150% the size of the United Kingdom.
I traveled through ten locations on the main island of Honshu, ranging from Miyajima Island in the south to Hirosaki in the north. The drive between these places take about eighteen hours.
From coasts in the south to the Japanese alps — there were cherry blossoms in every single place! Even in places where the peak bloom was more than a month past. How is that even possible? I thought they bloom for a mere two weeks??
Here’s what I learned about cherry blossoms in Japan.
1. Every tree is different
The phrase “late-bloomer” exists for a reason. Cherry blossom trees aren’t connected to each other by some underground communication network. Yes, most trees of a specific variety in a specific place do bloom together. However, it doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily miss out on cherry trees in bloom because you’re too late. There are many factors that contribute to when a specific cherry tree blooms.
CHERRY TREES IN FULL BLOOM AT TENRYU-JI IN KYOTO, 21. APRIL (19 DAYS AFTER “FULL BLOOM” FOR THE CITY). IT’S MOST LIKELY SO LATE BECAUSE IT’S ONE OF THE COMMON LATE-BLOOMING VARIETIES.
2. Sakura bloom depending on latitude
Sakura bloom over a broad period of time, largely based on latitude. For example, blooming begin in Okinawa as early as January. The “cherry blossom front” slowly moves north over the course of several months, with sakura blooming in Japan’s northern island, Hokkaido, throughout May. This front indicates the opening of the first blossoms, and not the arrival of full bloom (which is often about a week or two after).
This means that any trip between February and May has the possibility of viewing cherry blossoms. That’s encouraging!
CHERRY BLOSSOM TREE IN BLOOM IN SHIRAKAWA-GO IN THE JAPAN ALPS.
3. Sakura bloom depending on elevation
Latitude is not the only factor in creating the Spring conditions needed for cherry trees to bloom. A more southernly city can have a later cherry blossom season if it has higher elevation (which keeps temperatures cooler).
FOR EXAMPLE, TOKYO WAS SET TO BEGIN BLOOMING AROUND THE 21ST OF MARCH. YET, AT THE BEGINNING OF MAY, WE SAW CHERRY BLOSSOMS IN FULL BLOOM IN KAWAGUCHI-KO, A TOWN SOUTHWEST OF TOKYO NEAR MT. FUJI. THESE TREES WERE LARGELY IN FULL SUN, AND INCLUDED VARIETIES THAT YOU’D EXPECT TO BLOOM AT THE BEGINNING OF THE SEASON.
4. Sakura bloom depending on immediate surroundings
A lot of the cherry trees in bloom that I saw in the south of Honshu were in surroundings that either delayed or protected their blossoms. For example, these trees were located in the shade, or shielded from damaging Spring rains by other trees or buildings.
THE FLOWERS ON THE RIGHT BANK HAVE STARTED TO FALL BEFORE THOSE ON THE LEFT. MY GUESS WOULD BE THAT THE RIGHT BANK IS EXPOSED TO MORE POWERFUL SUNLIGHT.
5. Sakura bloom depending on variety
Different types of cherry trees bloom at different times. This is a large reason why you can catch cherry trees throughout Japan at any point during Spring after the first bloom.
Most of the pictures you’ll see of masses of blooming cherry trees are the Somei Yoshino variety, which bloom relatively early.