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Shooting Sakura: Getting the Best Photos from Japan’s Cherry Blossom Season

Jordan Hammond takes his camera through the Lands of the Rising sun to shoot sakura from Tokyo to Osaka, visiting castles, waterfalls, and modern city streets in cherry blossom season.

Japan is a fascinating country to visit year-round, but something about the pink cherry blossoms (known as sakura) sweeping across the landscapes from north to south draws in hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. The cherry blossom is Japan’s national flower, and ‘hanami’ (flower viewing) is a tradition that dates back centuries. Hanami is about gathering with friends and family, picnicking in one of the thousands of parks, and having fun. And, of course, taking photos.

My top piece of advice for cherry blossom season is to keep checking the blossom forecast; keep an open schedule so that if the blossom dates do change, you aren’t tied to a hotel or train booking. Due to limited time, we only managed to visit a few of these places on our most recent trip, but there’s always more to see.

Tokyo Skytree

You can incorporate cherry blossoms into almost all the major buildings in Tokyo, but the famed Tokyo Skytree, in my opinion, takes the prize. Tokyo Skytree is Japan’s tallest tower – second only worldwide to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai – and looms large above the city, offering some great vantage points. From the ground level in sakura season, however, it also makes for some great photos.

There are streets surrounding the tower lined with cherry blossom trees, and if you can frame the tower with the leaves on a clear morning, you’re in for a treat. The bank of the Sumida River is also a great place to get a good vantage point of the Tokyo Skytree, and there are many restaurants in the area too for a spot of breakfast after your shoot.

Memory Lane

ABOVE: Shinjuku’s Memory Lane.

The raw grit of the capital city is brought to life with a trip down Memory Lane, and it is particularly magical during cherry blossoms. A black market turned drinking quarter, Memory Lane isn’t usually the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about sakura shooting locations but brings an interesting dimension of nostalgia to a very modern city. Located in the center of Shinjuku, this alley is a world away from the skyscrapers and shopping malls that surround it.

Head here in the evening and partake in my favorite hobby – people watching – and shoot the local businessmen and women as they finish work and dive into the nearest yakitori restaurant to fill their bellies. Frame your photos with the small cherry blossom branches hanging from the signs and pillars for a seasonal twist on a popular shooting destination.

Imperial Palace

ABOVE: In a paddle boat outside the Imperial Palace.

The Imperial Palace is usually thought of as a well-needed respite from bustling Tokyo, but think again during cherry blossom season, as you’ll be joined by thousands of other people all looking to experience sakura season in one of the most picturesque gardens in the city. Don’t let this put you off though, as it is still a beautiful place to go and you can get some great shots whilst doing the sakura circuit around the moat.

ABOVE: Paddle boats among the sakura.

Better yet, rent a paddle boat for an hour and get away from the crowds. You can photograph the trees up-close from this lower angle, adding another dimension to your photography.

Also, Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo Tower, and Shinjuku Gyoen are all great places for sakura viewing as well. When you have had enough of Tokyo, catch the high-speed train down to Osaka or Kyoto and follow the sakura there.

Osaka & Kyoto

Both Osaka Castle and Philosophers Path in Kyoto are incredible places to view the cherry blossom further down the country, and are only a short train ride between each other. Head to both locations early in the morning for your best chance at photos without the crowds.

Osaka Castle still remains one of my favorite places to shoot no matter the season, but the cherry blossom trees surrounding the moat are really something else. Philosophers Path in Kyoto is known by domestic tourists to be one of the best places in Kyoto to see the pink flowers in all of their glory, and involves a charming stroll through alleys, temples and riverside paths.

Mount Yoshino

ABOVE: Mount Yoshino has over 30,000 cherry trees planted on the slopes of the mountain.

Mount Yoshino is Japan’s most famous cherry blossom spot, and people travel far and wide for the chance to view the incredible trees from the mountain. It is located in Nara Prefecture, but can take a little while to get there. Mount Yoshino has over 30,000 cherry trees planted on the slopes of the mountain, and the whole landscape turns bright pink for just a few short weeks a year. On arriving at Yoshino Station, head up the mountain to the viewing platform to witness the vastness of the cherry blossom season. This is also the perfect place to fly a drone; keep on the lookout for winding mountain roads scattered with pink.

Nachi Falls

My favorite place outside of the normal tourist route to see the cherry blossoms was Nachi Falls. Nachi Falls is quite a journey out of Osaka (around four hours), and really requires an overnight in the quiet fishing village of Nachi in order to be at the waterfall early in the morning. A road from town leads straight to the falls, and if you plan well, you might be the only ones there. Use the pagoda and the foreground cherry blossom trees to frame the shot of the waterfall, and if you can go on a foggy morning, even better.

If you plan well enough in advance and luck is on your side, you can catch the sakura just right.