If you are currently traveling in Japan, Kyoto is certainly the place to be this week as the cherry blossoms, or sakura, should be reaching peak blooms.

I had the pleasure of spending my birthday week in Japan this year, with Easter weekend devoted to Kyoto and Nara — on the hunt for the best displays of cherry blossoms.  Unfortunately, the sakura peak days were slightly delayed courtesy of the major storm that swept through Japan last Tuesday.  The cold front brought some intense rain and typhoon-like winds. During the height of the storm in Tokyo, I was literally blown over while walking back to my hotel at Disney.

Cherry Blossom, or sakura, buds in Kyoto, Japan

Each year, regions prepare a schedule detailing the expected best times to visit the renowned cherry blossoms, but as I unfortunately learned, unexpected weather disturbances can really throw things off.  While I didn’t get to witness the grandeur of the trees in full bloom, it still easily ranks as one of my top travel experiences.

After exploring Kyoto during the day and photographing the trees we did find, we raced down to Maruyama Park in hopes of catching a few blossoms before dark.  The park ended up being further away than we realized – that map was definitely not to scale! By the time we arrived, the sun was setting and I admit to being slightly bitter that my window of opportunity had passed.

After grumbling for a few minutes, I started to notice that people were pouring in to the park, not out.  Turns out, Maruyama Park takes on a whole new vibe at night, and it’s actually the best time to enjoy sakura!

Everywhere you looked, blue tarps covered the park’s grassy areas, with local groups coming early in the morning to stake out their preferred spots for the all-night party.  Pathways were lined with stalls filled with street eats and local handicrafts.

Tarps spread out in Maruyama Park as big groups converge to celebrate sakura, or cherry blossom season

People began pouring in through the neighboring Yasaka Shrine, many of them holding signs and chanting or singing.  They had sleeping bags, heavy jackets, and crates filled with beer and other nibbles.  The parties are quite legendary and are an integral part of the Japanese culture.

The main sight at Maruyama Park is the shidarezakura, a weeping cherry tree that is lit up at night.  As the sun set and the lights came on, it was definitely a “wow” moment, full blooms or not.

Weeping Cherry Blossom Tree or shidarezakura, the centerpiece at Maruyama Park

Nearby, there are fixed location restaurants with tables set up under the blooming trees.  Large groups of Japanese businessmen filled many of the tables ordering copious bottles of beer and grilled menu items.  Within 15-20 minutes after sunset, I’d say nearly every table was full with groups – some as large as 30 or more people.

Groups sitting under the cherry blossom trees enjoying beer and lots of good food

Maruyama Park is one of the best spots for cherry blossom viewing, especially if you are short on time. It’s quite easy to reach the area while walking around Kyoto, or it’s about 20 minutes via bus from Kyoto Station.  Taxis are anything but cheap in Japan, but we took one as we were in such a rush to get there before the sun went completely down – it was about $8 US for a 10 minute cab ride!

While you can see cherry blossom trees throughout cities like Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo, it’s definitely worth checking out one of the prime viewing spots like Maruyama Park and experiencing sakura and these viewing parties, known as hanami.  And if you are really lucky, maybe one of the groups will invite you to join them!

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Erin De Santiago

Erin is a US Expat currently living in the Netherlands and Belize. She is a full-time freelance travel, food/wine, and Disney Theme Parks writer who has eaten her way through 40+ countries so far. Erin is also the Taiwan/Hong Kong and Belize, Central America Regional Membership Coordinator for the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). In addition to the various publications she writes for, Erin publishes a culinary blog, Our Tasty Travels, a new travel photography blog, No Checked Bags and her Disney Travel Blog, Pooh's Travels. Follow her travels and culinary adventures on Twitter @poohstraveler and/or @ourtastytravels, and on Facebook.
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