One of my favorite Japanese haiku about sakura by Saikyo throws shade on the hanami experience, not because it’s not beautiful, but because it’s crowded. And in the 800 years since the poem was written, things have gotten only worse. The popular cherry blossom viewing spots are crowded for a reason – they are gorgeous. But cherry blossoms are everywhere in Japan, whether it’s a sole tree in a field or residential area streets and highways lined with pink-crowned trees. If you’re tired of fighting for blue tarp real estate in Ueno Park or Inokashira Park, check out these alternative cherry blossom viewing ideas to escape the crowds. Note, however, that alternative cherry blossom spots are usually good for viewing but not for sitting down and having a boozy hanami picnic.
Cherry Blossoms at Schools and Universities
Cherry blossom season in Japan signifies new beginnings. Both graduations and new school year enrollments happen around the same time. New graduates as well are hired en masse by the big companies and start their first jobs in April. There is virtually no school or university campus that doesn’t have a whole flurry of sakura trees. What is more, students are on spring vacation in late March and the campuses are quite peaceful. As long as there is no ceremony and students taking photos with their diplomas under the trees, you can probably walk under the cherry blossoms without a big crowd.
University campuses are usually open to walk through, but in the case of elementary and high schools, it’s better to admire the blossoms from the outside. Either way, if you can plan your walks or bicycle rides around education institutions anywhere in Tokyo, you are sure to encounter many sakura trees and not many people.
Cherry Blossoms Near Sports Fields
Sometimes adjacent to schools and university campuses, and other times part of municipal sports centers, many sports fields in Tokyo are lined with sakura trees. These fields and stadiums are often located further away from the city center and from the busy train stations, so aside from people playing sports, there shouldn’t be many people walking around. Even when there’s practice or matches being played there is no issue, as you generally view the cherry blossoms from the outside.
The alternative cherry blossom viewing spots are perfect for jogs, walks, cycling, and of course, taking an infinite number of photos.
Cherry Blossoms Near Public Institutions
You don’t have to go register your new address in the City Hall, just take a walk there because streets will often be lined with cherry blossom trees. Across Tokyo, this is the case with many government offices and public institutions. These can also include hospitals and cemeteries, for those who don’t mind strolling around there. In fact, Aoyama Cemetery and Yanaka Cemetery have become pretty popular in spring. We could still call them alternative cherry blossom viewing spots, but you won’t be the only one there.
Not necessarily public institutions, but often in public view and accessible, big companies and buildings often have at least several sakura trees on their premises.
Cherry Blossoms in Residential Areas
The probability of seeing a cherry blossom tree gets exponentially higher the further you go away from the train station. Going into residential areas you will find that any tiny neighborhood park and playground has at least one sakura tree. Take a walk in your neighborhood and you’ll notice many pops of light pink on the streets, gardens, rivers and canals. What these places lack in quantity of cherry blossom trees, they make up for with tranquility. No lines, no crowds, no passive-aggressive elbowing to take a photo. At the end of the day, that close-up shot of sakura petals will look beautiful, regardless of whether you’ve taken it in the Imperial Palace or in front of a 7-Eleven in the middle of nowhere.
Of course, when in quiet residential areas, you too need to be quiet and respectful. Don’t loiter around and don’t go into private spaces.
Nocturnal Cherry Blossom Viewing
If all else fails, or you are desperate to see the famous Tokyo spots, you can go there in the dead of night to avoid the usual crowds. Popular cherry blossom spots are illuminated for a few hours in the evening, so it won’t be completely empty but the crowd will be thinner. There will be fewer people after the illumination ends (usually after 9 or 10pm) while the cherry blossoms are still visible because of street lights or moonlight. The best-case scenario is visiting between the first train and the last train, especially if you can walk or cycle to the place. Usually, there shouldn’t be restrictions, so in a public park you can even sit down and do a mini hanami picnic with drinks and snacks. But make sure to read the rules, as many places have a special set of those for the cherry blossom season.
These alternative cherry blossom viewing ideas in Tokyo aside, it’s good to get out of the city whenever possible. Check out Day Trips from Tokyo: 6 Places to See Cherry Blossoms. Hakone and Kamakura are popular, but there less known spots still.
To see how people in Japan admired cherry blossoms, see our Cherry Blossoms Through the Ages article showcasing ukiyo-e prints and early 20th-century photos.