Cherry blossoms at a shrine in Sapporo, Hokkaido

Photo:MIKI Yoshihito

Japan’s Late Bloomers: The Best Places to See Cherry Blossoms in Hokkaido

Happen to miss the cherry blossoms in Tokyo or Osaka this year? No worries, it’s not too late to see them in Hokkaido! According to the 2018 Cherry Blossom Forecast, Hokkaido’s cherry blossoms are forecasted to bloom from around late April to early May. The exact estimates are from around April 25th to May 6th, with sakura blooming from the southwest to the middle, then finally to the eastern part of the prefecture. If you have happened to make plans to go to Hokkaido for Golden Week, here are a few of the best places to view cherry blossoms:

1. Goryokaku Park (location: Hakodate, southwestern Hokkaido)

It’s no lie that Hakodate is one of the best places to go see cherry blossoms in Hokkaido, so it’s no surprise that it’s made the top of this list. The park holds over 1,000 cherry blossom trees, and the park encircles an old, European-style fort. The star-shaped fort was built in the nineteenth century as the main fortress of the very short, five-month long Republic of Ezo (1869) and was built to protect the Tsugaru Strait against possible Russian invasion. It was also the site of the last battle of the Boshin War, the Japanese Revolution.

Goryokaku Park cherry blossoms, photo by Yuki Shimazu
Cherry blossoms in Goryokaku Park. Photo by Yuki Shimazu on Flickr

Besides the fact that you can see the beautiful flowers in Goryokaku Park, you can also go to the top of Goryokaku Tower, located right next to the park, to see the view. The beautiful view there definitely makes it the top spot for seeing sakura in Hokkaido. After you go to the tower, be sure to stop at Lucky Pierrot across the street. Opened in 1987, it’s a burger joint special to Hakodate, and each of its 17 restaurants—only located in and around Hakodate—have a different crazy theme, like an amusement park, angel, Christmas, Audrey Hepburn and even an Elvis Presley theme. Alternatively, you could always eat lunch inside the tower at Gotoken Hakodate Curry, one of the more popular curry restaurants in Hakodate, then eat Milkissimo (a local gelato shop with unique flavors) gelato afterwards.

Other things you can do while you’re there are try the local salt ramen, go to the morning seafood market for a seafood bowl and go to Mount Hakodate for one of the best night views in the world: accordingly the third best night view in Japan. Described as a “sparkling jewelry box,” this view is something you don’t want to miss.

In addition to Goryokaku Park, you can also see cherry blossoms and local deer at Hakodate Park! Here, food stalls are set up, so when you feel hungry, you can head over to try “yakisoba”, “oden”, “takoyaki” or “yakitori.” Lights are strung between trees to make for a wonderful view. It’s the perfect place to eat dinner, if you ask me. Just be sure to wear a light jacket; it can still be chilly on spring nights!

Estimated viewing time: The blooming period will start in late April (4/25 to 4/29).

Directions to Goryokaku Park:

It takes about 17 minutes by tram to the “Goryokaku-koen-mae” train stop, then an additional 13 minutes on foot. A ticket is 230 yen one way from Hakodate Station. If you are planning to drive, parking is not available, but there is a parking lot not far from the tower.

For Hakodate park:

It is a 30 minute tram ride from Goryokaku Park. It costs 240 yen to get to Aoyagi-cho stop. The park is free of charge.

How to get to Hakodate from Sapporo:

Hakodate is a bit far from Sapporo, so unless you drive or take a plane from Sapporo, you may have to factor in another day or two into your travel itinerary just for traveling. A bus ride takes about 6 hours from Sapporo to Hakodate and will cost around 4,810 yen. Luckily, there are overnight buses, if you are interested in trying that.

The JR train from Sapporo Station takes around 5 hours, and the cost is 9,640 yen.

Goryokaku Park information:

The park’s hours in April are from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Goryokaku Tower’s hours are from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. (late April to late October) and from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. (late October to late April). The admission cost for the tower is 900 yen, but admission discounts are available for senior citizens, children and students.

Hakodate Official Travel Guide Website

2. Matsumae Park (location: southwestern Hokkaido)

Located about a two hours’ drive away from Hakodate is Matsumae. Matsumae Park is around the southernmost point of Hokkaido, and has the only real traditional Japanese castle in Hokkaido. Only 20 kilometers across the strait from Aomori, Matsumae was the northern limit of Japan in the Edo Period (1603-1868). The castle belonged to the feudal lords who ruled the southern parts of Hokkaido between the 17th and 19th centuries. It was reconstructed in 1854 to protect against foreign invasion. The castle’s towers were rebuilt in 1961, but the castle’s moat and walls remain the same.

Matsumae Park cherry blossoms, photo by pakku
Photo by pakku [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The park holds over ten thousand cherry trees of more than 250 different varieties, which makes it among the top 100 cherry blossom spots in Japan. Besides the rows and rows of cherry trees, the park has a small museum dedicated to providing information about the park’s sakura. In addition, during blooming season, a sakura festival is held with food stands and some live events. The castle is also illuminated in the evenings until about 9 p.m. between April and November.

After you see the sakura, you can visit the cluster of Buddhist temples that can be found adjacent to the castle. While if you go to the western edge of the castle, you can visit Matsumaehan Yashiki, a historical park that depicts Matsumae as it was in the Edo Period. Here, you can also rent historical costumes to walk among the 14 Edo-themed buildings that include merchant houses, a magistrate’s house and a guard station.

If you have additional time, you can go to Fukushima town (located nearby) on the way back to Hakodate to see the longest and deepest undersea rail tunnel in the world, the rail which connects Hokkaido with Aomori Prefecture. If you are interested in learning more about it, the Seikan Tunnel Museum can provide you with more information.

If you are in the area (specifically, in the southwestern part of the prefecture) and want to see more of the Japanese-side of Hokkaido, then I recommend going to Matsumae Park to see cherry blossoms. Because it is relatively close to Hakodate, it's possible to go for a day trip.

Estimated viewing time: Because of the variety of cherry blossoms, the estimated viewing time is longer than in most places. It lasts from late April to late May.

Directions to Matsumae:

Take a train from Hakodate Station to Kikonai Station. It will take about an hour and it will cost 1,110 yen. Afterwards, take a bus from the station. The bus will take about 1 hour and 30 minutes, and it will cost 1,370 yen one way.

Alternatively, there are direct buses from Hakodate Station to Matsumae. It will take around 3 hours and 30 minutes, and it will cost 2,150 yen. The closest bus stop to the castle is Matsushiro.

Read more about the Matsumae area on JNTO's Website

3. Nijukken Road Cherry Blossom Trees (location: mid-southern Hokkaido)

One of the more famous places to visit to see cherry blossoms, Nijukken Road is a 7 kilometer (or 4.35 mile) road with over 3,000 cherry blossoms planted on each side. This road was apparently constructed in the past to please members of the Japanese imperial family. In early May the Shizunai Cherry Blossom Festival is held, and as many as 200,000 people from all over Japan attend. During the festival, you can see Ryuunkaku, the 1909 palace-like guesthouse that hosted members of Japan’s imperial family.

The guesthouse’s hours are from 9:00 to 16:00, and it is only open during the Sakura Festival term (early May to mid-May). The price of visiting the guesthouse is free.

Estimated viewing time: early May

How to get to Shinhidaka from Sapporo

A JR train from Sapporo to the nearest city (Shinhidaka) will take about 3 hours and will cost around 2,410 yen. Alternatively, it will be a 2 hour long drive from Sapporo.

How to get to Shinhidaka from Asahikawa:

The JR train from Asahikawa to that same station will take around 5 hours and cost 4,470 yen. Alternatively, you can drive for 3 hours and 30 minutes to the cherry blossom road. At the time of writing, I am unsure of a local bus that can take you from the station to Nijukken Road (called “Twenty between the road cherry trees” on Google Maps).

Shinhidaka Official Tourism Website

4. Odori Park (location: Sapporo, western Hokkaido)

Your trip to Hokkaido would not be complete without a visit to Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido. From the Chitose airport, you can take a 45 minute train ride into the city to the most famous park in Sapporo, Odori Park, to see the park’s pretty spring flowers. You can expect to find many stalls selling food, so don’t be afraid to spend an afternoon here! You can also visit nearby sites, such as the Sapporo TV Tower, located at the end of the park, and Sapporo Clock Tower, the historical building that serves as the symbol of Sapporo and the development of Hokkaido.

Odori Park with flowers and Sapporo TV Tower in background
Photo by t-konno [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Odori Park is known for hosting Sapporo’s famous snow festival. In spring, however, you attend the park’s flower festival. The 2018 Sapporo Lilac Festival is held in Odori Park from May 16th to May 27th. The park holds 400 lilac trees, and on the first day of the festival, lilac seedlings are given away to visitors. There is additionally a music festival, tea ceremony and a few other events.

Other parks in Sapporo good exclusively for cherry blossom-viewing include Moerenuma Park, Kawashimo Park, Maruyama Park and Shimokawa Park. What makes Moerenuma Park unique is its surrounding artwork. Sculptor Isamu Noguchi created “a fusion of nature and art” when he opened his park in 2005. As for Shimokawa Park, during the cherry blossom season, tours of lilacs are available and themed quizzes are held.

While you are in the big city, some recommended activities are going to the Sapporo Beer Museum, Hokkaido Shrine, the Historical Village of Hokkaido and to Mount Moiwa to see Sapporo’s beautiful night view. Additionally, don’t forget to try soup curry, a local Hokkaido specialty!

Estimated viewing time: The viewing time starts in late April. The estimate for the cherry blossoms’ full bloom period is from April 29th to May 6th.

Flowers and benches at Odori Park
Photo by t-konno [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

How to get to Odori Park from Sapporo Station:

Luckily, Odori Park is only about a 16 minute walk from Sapporo Station. The walk is pretty short, but you can also always take a bus or take the subway. If you take the green subway line from Sapporo Station, you can arrive at Odori Park quickly, in just two minutes, and the cost is only 200 yen.

Read about Odori Park on the Sapporo City Official Site

Read about the Sapporo Lilac Festival on the Sapporo City Official Site

5. Asahiyama Park (location: Asahikawa, central Hokkaido)

If you are planning to make a trip to Asahikawa’s famous zoo, Asahiyama Zoo, sometime this spring, then you might as well stop to smell the flowers—literally. There are an estimated 3,500 wild cherry blossoms in bloom in the park right next to Asahiyama Zoo. A Night Cherry Festival is also held, with the cherry blossoms being lit up.

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Because this can be coupled with doing other things in Asahikawa, this would make a nice day or weekend trip. Don’t forget to try soy sauce-based (shoyu) ramen while you are there!

Estimated viewing time: According to cherry blossom forecasts online, you should be able to see cherry blossoms blooming in Asahikawa starting around April 30th.

How to get to Asahiyama Park:

It takes 30 minutes by car from the airport or 40 minutes by bus from JR Asahikawa Station. If you take the bus, it will take one minute on foot from the Asahiyama Zoo front bus stop.

Asahikawa Park Website (Japanese only)

6. Noboribetsu Onsen Flower Tunnel (location: Noboribetsu, southwestern Hokkaido)

Noboribetsu is one of the best hot springs towns in Japan and is the best in Hokkaido. You can first enjoy the view of the cherry blossoms, then you can hit the hot springs! Be ready to splurge on a hotel room and soak your worries away.
The road that leads to Noboribetsu Onsen reportedly has around 2,000 cherry trees planted along an eight kilometer road (4.91 miles). While you are there, enjoy a hike to “Hell’s Valley” or Jigokudani. This is the name of the volcanic area that powers the hotels’ onsens. Be on the lookout for demonic statues, as well. Other recommended places include the bear park and the historical theme park, Date Jidaimura Noboribetsu. While you’re there, be sure to try Noboribetsu enma yakisoba, a local type of yakisoba.

Estimated viewing time: It is reported that the flowers are at their best in mid-May.

How to get to Noboribetsu:

Going to Noboribetsu from Sapporo takes 1 hour and 30 minutes by car.
From Sapporo Station, you can take a direct train to Noboribetsu (Hokuto Suzuran 11 line). The train ride will be around 1 hour and 15 minutes, and it costs around 4,480 yen.

A cheaper option is taking a bus. You can take a bus from Sapporo to Noboribetsu for only 1,850 yen. Once you arrive in Noboribetsu, you take a shuttle bus to the onsen area. On the way back, bus services can take you directly to either Sapporo or New Chitose airport. If you want to go to Noboribetsu from the airport, go to Donan bus service’s ticket counter for information.

7. Seiryuji Temple (location: Nemuro, eastern Hokkaido)

Nemuro is the absolute latest place where cherry blossoms bloom in Japan. You can go to Seiryuji Temple to see cherry blossoms here. The temple was founded in 1893, and its main building was built in 1912. Only a few cherry trees are planted around the temple (about 30), but what makes Nemuro a place worth visiting is the fact that it is the easternmost city in all of Japan. When you visit, you can go to Cape Noshappu to see the border between the water currents of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean. While you’re there, try Holand-senbei, a sweet cracker, and Homerun-yaki, a baked sweet filled with red bean-paste. The crackers can be found at many supermarkets in Nemuro, while the red bean-paste sweet can only be bought in Hanasakiminato.

Estimated viewing time: It is said that the best time to see the cherry blossoms here is in mid-May.

How to get to Nemuro:

From the Memanbetsu airport, you can drive for about 3 hours until you get to Nemuro. There is no direct train from the Memanbetsu airport. You should first try to take a bus or train to either Kitami or Kushiro, then take a train or bus to Nemuro. The best option for visiting, however, seems to be driving.

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