5 of the Best Places to Photograph Cherry Blossoms in Japan - Mark Iandolo
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Five of the Best Places to Photograph Cherry Blossoms in Japan

April 1, 2018 | Mark Iandolo


Once a year, around the beginning of April, photographers and tourists alike flock to see a heavenly spectacle of sakura in Japan. The fragile beauty of these cherry blossoms have captivated audiences for centuries. With their short but breathtaking bloom season, the flowers become a metaphor for the fleeting nature of life.

Residents and tourists spend the spring perched under the blossoms enjoying their transient beauty. Photographers come to capture that beauty, that perfect clash of pink and blue, of contrasting warm and cool tones.

But Japan is not just a site for sakura; It's also the site of dozens of iconic temples, castles and other structures. The architecture here is unique: you can find thousand-year-old temples next door to modern skyscrapers. And despite the dense urban areas, forests still populate 67 percent of the country's territory. Japan has primeval jungles, vast mountainscapes and roaring waterfalls.

To me, it is the combination of these two elements – exquisite cherry blossoms and extraordinary destinations – that make Japan so exciting for photography.

The sakura trees are remarkable in their own right. But find a view of them framing one of the nation’s most important historic monuments and you’ll have hit the jackpot! To the adventurer seeking to attempt this challenge, I’ve compiled five of the best locations to capture the cherry blossom bloom next spring. Among the list below, you'll find spots where the sakura trees are the star, spots where the blossoms become the backdrop to magnificent temples, and spots where the bloom and historic subject perfectly intertwine.

1. Tokyo

"The overriding sense of Tokyo is that it is a city devoted to the new, sped up in a subtle but profound way: a postmodern science-fiction story set ten minutes in the future" - David Rakoff

With upwards of 38 million people and 51 of the global Fortune 500 companies, Tokyo is the largest metropolitan area in the world and home to some of the busiest places you'll ever see:

Under the Rainbow

It is one of the closest things to a science-fiction megatropolis on this earth. But while the city feels like a place where the "fast-forward" button is perpetually pushed down, moments of solitude are still possible among the cherry blossom bloom in the spring.

I’ve included three major sakura spots in Tokyo. In each location, the sakura take the starring role in photos.

Chidorigafuchi:

Under the Bloom

Chidorigafuchi, a moat located in the northwest of the Imperial Palace, showcases the immense size of the sakura trees. During the spring, families and friends take boat rides on the river, rowing beneath the bloom. 

Photography strategy: Twilight is the best time to photograph this scene. The lights turn on, shining right up to kiss the sakura petals. The white and pink of the blossoms contrast well with the ambient blue in the sky. 

Camera settings: I chose an f/8 aperture in aperture priority mode, but cranked the ISO up to 1600. I did this to freeze the action. Low ISO and therefore slow shutter speed would have left all the boats a blur.

How to get there: A few stations are within a short walk from Chidorigafuchi, namely Kudanshita station and Hanzonmon station.

There is a viewing platform at Chidorigafuchi, but make sure to get there early. Peak sakura season involves hundreds of photographers and tourists vying for the perfect shot, so you'll need to lock down your spot.

Shinjuku Gyoen:

1,500 cherry trees can be found in Shinjuku gyoen, a garden in the Shinjuku district of the city.

Photography strategy: Wander and shoot, wander and shoot, wander and shoot.

How to get there: Shinjuku gyoen is a short walk from Shinjuku-gyoemmae Station on the Marunouchi Line or Sendagaya Station on the Chūō-Sōbu Line.

From the Shinjuku-sanchōme Station on the the Tokyo Metro Fukutoshin Line, the garden is also just a few minutes away by foot.

It's important to note that the garden is only open to the public at certain hours, usually between 9:00 and 16:30.

Meguro River:

Down the Meguro River

Lanterns and sakura line the Meguro River, a famous location in Tokyo.The canopy of cherry blossoms creates a mystical, forest-like setting deep within the city’s sprawling metropolis. When night falls, the lights turn on, the colors clash, and the crowds thin out just enough to find a peaceful moment taking in the wonder of the bloom.

Photography strategy: My strategy was to spend two twilights at Meguro River. The first evening, I set up my tripod and photographed a couple specific locations while the light changed (I had pre-scouted the compositions). On the second evening, I spent the twilight hunting for as many compositions as I could. I mostly ditched the tripod for this second adventure; I would place the camera on the ground, on railings and on ledges for longer exposures. In two nights, I was able to come away with a multitude of photos. I'm still not sure which is my favorite! 

Camera settings: Experiment with different options. If you want the flowers to be as detailed as possible, you'll need a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion if there is any wind. Accomplish this with a combination of opening your lens and raising the ISO (but remember, the more you open your lens, the more depth of focus you'll lose). If you want to create the starburst effect on city lights (as seen in both the photos above and below), you'll need to use an aperture of f/16 to f/22.  I tried both strategies. 

How to get there: The prime viewing spot is near the Naka-Meguro transit station.

Elegance
  • Ivy and Envy
  • Out From the Bloom

2. Mt. Yoshino

Want to get out of the big city and commune with nature? Plan a visit to Yoshino. Thousands of cherry blossom trees pepper the landscape of the mountainous region, Japan's most famous sakura-viewing spot. Yoshino is part of the "Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range" UNESCO site.

According to various accounts, the trees at Yoshino were planted in four groves at different altitudes, partly so they'd bloom at different times of the spring. Travelers could then climb to the top of the mountain, enjoying the lower 1,000 cherry trees at the base, the middle 1,000 along the way, and the upper 1,000 at the top. 

How to get there: Take either the Kintetsu Railway from Osaka Abenobashi Station or the JR from Osaka's Tennoji Station.

A Thousand Sakura

The above photo was taken while looking up the hill from just outside the Yoshimizu Shrine.

Photography strategy: I chose a spot that allowed the one structure off in the distance to remain in view. I placed it at a power point in the photo. 1/3 of the way up the photo and 1/3 in from the right.

Camera settings: f/8 (aperture priority), ISO 200 (with my Fuji X-T1, 200 is the lowest), 125mm focal length full-frame equivalent (the Fuji X-T1 a cropped-sensor camera, but I will always list the full-frame equivalent focal length).

How to get there: When making the walk from Yoshino Station up the mountain, Yoshimizu Shrine will be on the left about a third of the way up.

Along These Sacred Hills

A thousand sakura glitter in the evening light, undaunted by heavy fog and misty conditions. This scene is best viewed from the popular Hanayagura viewpoint high on Mount Yoshino. 

Photography Strategy: Sunset could be great from this location, but instead I faced a hazy and overcast atmosphere. I went with it and tried to give the photo a mystical vibe.

Camera Settings: f/8 (aperture priority), ISO 200, 42mm focal length.

How to get there: A shuttle operates between Yoshino Station and the Naka Senbon area near Chikurin-in Temple during sakura season. You'll then have to walk the rest of the way. Alternatively, you can walk all the way uphill from the station. It's worth it. The shops selling snacks and souvenirs, the sakura as far as the eye can see, the differences in views as you ascend to the top – they're all extraordinary.

3. Nara

Of Blossoms and Buddhas

Like Mt. Yoshino, Nara lacks the chaotic busyness of Tokyo. Instead, deer roam freely and ancient temples dot the area as part of a group called the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara.” These historic monuments, however, separate Nara from Yoshino. In Nara, you can combine the sakura bloom with dramatic temples. And while there are a couple temples in Yoshino, none are as dramatic as Todai-ji, the largest wooden structure in the world up until this past decade.

Photography strategy: The key to Todai-ji is depicting the massive size. To portray such a sense of scale, I opted to include people in the photo. The Sakura tree and the temple create an interesting duality, while the people walking underneath deliver the grandeur of size. Additionally, I went with a slight worm's eye perspective, angling the camera just a bit upwards. Finally, I used the lines of the path and railings to create diagonal leading lines. They start at the bottom left and right of the frame and head diagonally inwards to the temple. Also of note is the 16x9 crop. I use all sorts of aspect ratios in my photos, essentially choosing what works best for each photo. I felt the top part of the sky and bottom part of the photo weren't very exciting, so a 16x9 crop pulls everything in tighter. 16x9 is also in between a normal photo ratio and a film's ratio. I tend to enjoy cinematic-feeling shots. 

Camera settings: I went with an f/16 aperture (in aperture priority mode) to get as much in focus in a single shot as possible, since I was so close to the tree in the foreground. ISO 200. 18mm focal length.

How to get there: You can find Todai-ji in the northern part of Nara Park. From Kintetsu Nara station, the temple is roughly a 30-minute walk. From JR Nara Station, it's about 45 minutes. Alternatively, you can take a bus from either station and exit at Todai-ji Daibutsuden. From there, it'd be about a five-minute walk to the main temple. 

Two other important things to note for Todai-ji: The temple grounds are only open at certain times (8:00 to 17:00 in March and 7:30 to 17:30 in April), and the temple does not allow tripods. You can attempt to get in with a monopod, but I chose to simply shoot hand-held. Since there is plenty of light during the daylight hours, you can achieve a fast shutter speed.

A Stroll in Spring

Of course, there are still opportunities to leave architecture behind and fully commune with nature.

Mount Wakakusayama provides unobstructed views over Nara for a small entrance fee. Hundreds of sakura trees line the slopes. I'd recommend bringing a picnic lunch and enjoying it at the top of the hill.

How to get there: There are two main plateaus: one takes about 15-20 minutes to reach and the other is at the mountain's peak an additional 20-30 minutes uphill. The hiking trail can be found on the left side of the slope.

4. Matsumoto

The Crow Takes Flight

An estimated 5,000 castles once existed in Japan. Today, more than a hundred still remain. 

A photography trip to Japan wouldn't be complete without a visit to one or more of these castles. And many of them are surrounded by cherry blossoms; the castle is the star, the sakura trees add to the scene. 

My goal for the fortresses was to make them seem imposing and dominant – an ode to the warriors who once lived there.“From the moment they awake, the samurai devote themselves to the perfection of whatever they pursue,” Nathan Algren said in the film, The Last Samurai. And their main pursuit was war. There is possibly no other warrior in history that invokes as much graceful power as the Samurai. I wanted to capture this power in my photos of Japan’s castles.

One of the strongholds on my itinerary was Matsumoto Castle, the oldest one remaining in the country.

Photography strategy: I feel the dominance of these Japanese castles is most on display when you photograph them from an angle. What I love about the keep at Matsumoto it is the fact that it has two great angles to photograph from – one shooting away from the sun and one into the sun. And these two angles are only a couple hundred feet from each other. You can therefore shoot one composition for golden hour, capturing the light hitting the building, and one composition for sunset/sunrise with an explosive sky behind the castle. 

For the above photo, I arrived before dawn and set up at a 90-degree angle from my subject. The morning was also the best time to get a strong reflection, as the waters were calmer. The fortress' graceful power was on full display, and the cherry blossoms added to the aura.

Camera settings: f/8 (aperture priority), ISO 200, 21mm focal length

How to get there: The castle is a 15-minute walk or a 5-minute bus ride on the Northern Course bus loop line from JR Matsumoto Station. To reach the city, take the JR limited express (Azusa line) or local line (Chuo Line) from Tojyo Shinjuku Station.

Crow's Nest

5. Osaka

We've taken a look at four locations, with each having their own distinct photographic opportunities:

Tokyo is a bustling city and therefore has plenty of photography destinations. And during sakura season, portions of the city come alive with the sights and scents of the bloom.

A journey to Mt. Yoshino keeps the idea of an explosion of white and pink flowers alive, but leaves the urban sprawl behind.

Nara adheres to that more peaceful vibe, while adding a few temples that complement the blossoms.

A trip to Matsumoto gets you up close and personal to one of the nation's premier castles, with peak-bloom sakura trees dotting the landscape around it. 

The final location on this list combines elements of each of the previous four.

Osaka's been called Japan's second city for its modern hip vibe when compared to big brother Tokyo. This vibe comes to life through its bold, modern architectural style, which creates a dramatic contrast with Japan's steep history. The two versions of Japan, old and new, come together beautifully in Osaka. The future comes in places like the Umeda District where the "City of Air" project resulted in two connected structures called the Umeda Sky Building. The history comes in the form of Osaka Castle, which rests in a park surrounded by skyscrapers.

In Osaka, you can head from ancient castles to bridges in the sky, and you can stare at urban density for as far as the eye can see:

  • The Beating Heart of Osaka
  • Into the Sunset

Osaka's best cherry blossom spot, though, comes within Osaka Castle Park. Imagine Central Park in New York City, except with sakura trees and a massive castle sitting in the center. I found it easier to escape the crowds in Osaka Castle Park than in any of Tokyo's nature areas.

And of course, Osaka comes with possibly the end-all, be-all of cherry blossom subjects: Osaka Castle – a lavish structure built by a warlord to surpass every other castle in the country. While the current keep is a reconstruction, it's no less impressive. 

You can make the castle the star of the photo, with the sakura as the support:

Death and Rebirth

The still-dead trees on the left contrast with the blooming cherry blossom tree on the right, creating the perfect story for the castle, which has been destroyed and rebuilt numerous times over the last four centuries.

Camera settings: f/8 (aperture priority), ISO 200, 25mm focal length

Or, you can use cherry blossoms to frame the castle:

Sentinel of the Sakura

Camera settings: f/9 (aperture priority), ISO 200, 27mm focal length

Or, you can give equal weight to the castle and the sakura:

The Floating Fortress

Camera settings: f/8 (aperture priority), ISO 200, 62mm focal length

How to get there: Head through the Otemon Gate of Osaka Castle Park, which is located at the southwestern corner. The Tanimachi Subway Line and Chuo Subway Line drop off nearby at Tanimachi 4-chrome Station.

Before You Go

Due to the delicate and quick nature of the spring bloom season, planning and research are of the utmost importance, so it’s a good idea to start as early as possible!

One last item of note: try to have more photographic subjects on your itinerary than just cherry blossoms. The sakura's fragile nature, and the climate patterns that dictate whether they bloom early or late (or at all), can ruin even the most well-planned blossom itinerary. Luckily, Japan has thousands of photographic options!

Whether you're looking to shoot city or nature, whether you want blossom-centric photos or photos of grand castles with sakura dotting the surrounding landscape, Japan has it all. 

FIN


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