Ke Wei Tsai/500px
Japan takes the cake for being one of the most popular destinations as of late—travelers simply cannot get enough. Spring—April especially—is the absolute best time to go because of the gorgeous array of cherry blossoms that only bloom during this time of year. With near-perfect temperatures, ranging on average from high 50°F to high 60°F, you’ll be able to go swan boating on the river, attend a tea ceremony under the sakura trees, and explore a Shinto shrine without breaking a sweat. Below, we’ve put together the ultimate guide for visiting Japan in the spring. Read through, and then book your flight ASAP.
If you’re flying into Tokyo from the States, you’ll likely be coming into Narita International Airport, which is typically the most affordable way to fly to Japan. In order to get to your hotel from Narita airport, it’s best to take the Friendly Limousine Company bus for around $30, which usually takes an hour and a half to get to hotels within the city, depending on traffic (just look for the orange-and-white signage when you exit customs and baggage). If you don’t do that, a cab will run you up to $200.
Within Tokyo, the subway system is pretty easy to figure out—the attendants at the help booth often speak English and can point you to the correct platform—but make sure to get in line to get on the train, because people don’t just pile into the car like you would on New York City subways. There are also taxis in both Tokyo and Kyoto, although in Kyoto you can pretty much walk anywhere. (Friendly reminder: Don’t touch cab doors yourself; the driver will open and close them for you.)
On your first day in Tokyo, it’s best to visit the train station and buy any tickets for inter-city travel so you have your pick of the best departure times. Opt for the Green Car—the fancier reserved car—which is not much pricier and proves much more luxurious.
CHERRY BLOSSOM SEASON
Hanami translates to “viewing flowers,” but it is specifically the act of viewing cherry blossom flowers—and these festivals that celebrate the flower are the number one reason tourists visit Japan in the spring. The most popular type of cherry blossom tree is the sakura, and it blooms all over the country at different parts of late March and April. Depending on when you visit, you can try to attend different festivities, such as joining a tea ceremony held under the cherry trees or a lit-up night event celebrating the blooms. Planning for specific ceremonies can be difficult, but once you’re there and the blossoms hit their peak, you’ll be able to catch some of these special celebrations.
Swan Paddle Boating
Take the train a bit outside of the city to the expansive Inokashira Park in Musashino (the park is ranked one of the top 100 spots to see cherry blossoms in Japan). Here you can engage in prime cherry blossom—and people—watching from inside of one of the cool swan-shaped paddle boats on the river. Buy your ticket from a vending machine, and then hand it to the boat attendant, who will help you get situated. If you’re up to it, pack a small picnic lunch or grab food at one of the many cafés in the park to enjoy under the cherry trees after your boat trip.
DRINKS AT GOLDEN GAI
The sunny spring weather makes it perfect for bar-hopping at night. Shinjuku Golden Gai, a collection of more than 270 itsy-bitsy drinking dens packed in a few alleyways, is a sight to see. Each bar has only around five seats and revolves around an interesting theme like rock ’n’ roll or even leopard. Often the bar owner will entertain you—but do look for a sign that says “OK English” or something similar so you know tourists are welcome.
STAY AT A RYOKAN
Spring is a great time to venture out to this small coastal town to have a ryokan experience. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns where you wear a Japanese robe and sandals and sleep on tatami mat floors in (you literally don’t wear real clothes the entire time). One amazing perk is they have elaborate, multi-course dinners and breakfasts, which are often included in the cost (although a ryokan can run you somewhere from $500 to $1000 a night). One specific inn, Hanafubuki, has a Swiss Family Robinson vibe, is mid-range in price, and boasts eight different indoor/outdoor onsens (natural hot springs). What’s great about the onsens here is that they are private—when you lock the door, a red light goes on to signal that it’s taken. To peruse a ton of luxury ryokans, visit this site.
EXPLORE NISHIKI MARKET
We haven’t delved too much into food yet because *cherry blossoms*—but tasting the local cuisine is an absolute must. Head to Nishiki Market, a five-block-long covered food market. This spot is called “Kyoto’s Kitchen,” and it has everything from grill-your-own mochi (Japanese rice cake) to skewered meats to pickles, dried seafood, and sushi. It’s also a great spot to pick up one of the famous sharp Aritsugu knives that home cooks swear by.
SEE A SHINTO SHRINE
There are more than 400 Shinto shrines in Kyoto alone (these spots are dwellings of the gods where sacred objects are housed). We recommend Fushimi Inari-Taisha, which was founded in the eighth century and houses Inari, the Shinto god of rice and sake (Japanese wine). What it’s most famous for is the nearly 10,000 bright red and orange torii gates that line the 2.5 mile walk up to the shrine—all of the traditional torii gates were donated by Shinti worshipers. Since it can take nearly three hours to get to the shrine itself, the spring is a perfect time for the walk. (Quick note: At night it’s much less congested.)
VIEW GEISHA AT GION
You can’t make the long trek to Japan without seeing some of the traditional geisha, women who are trained as youth to entertain locals at dinner parties and tea houses. Gion, a willow tree–lined quaint neighborhood, is a great place to wander around. You can visit local shops, peruse the iconic tea houses, and, if you’re lucky, catch sight of the beautiful geisha that keep the Japanese heritage alive (kindly remember not to take photos of the geisha without their permission). Since you are visiting in April, you’ll have the opportunity to attend the Miyako Odori dance festival, where you can see the geisha dance at the Gion Kobu Kaburenjo theater four different times during the day.
For more springtime travel inspiration, be sure to read about the best places to travel in April, and tell us what you think about visiting Japan in the spring in the comments.