2016 Classic Japan Cherry Blossom Tour Report

28 March – 10 April 2016

Tour Report – Part 1

Visiting Japan during its cherry blossom season is one of the iconic travel experiences in the world. From 28 March to 10 April 2016, Incredible Photo Tours completed its first Japan spring tour, the Classic Japan Cherry Blossom Tour, with six fantastic guests from Australia – Tim and Lisa from Perth; Sue and Rob, Maria, and Emma, from Sydney.

Over 14 days, we explored the best cherry blossom locations and photography sights between Tokyo and Hiroshima. The cherry blossoms (or sakura as they known in Japanese), were blooming at their typical times this year. This meant that we experienced all stages of the sakura bloom as we toured Japan, from opening flower buds, full bloom, and finally, the falling petals.

Our tour guests had many opportunities to capture the beauty of the sakura and experience the culture of Japan. We also all experienced the warm hospitality of the Japanese people wherever we went and came away with many fantastic memories. Outside of photography, our team were also keen and adventurous eaters, trying out familiar dishes only now in Japan, or new dishes not available in Australia.

In this review, I’ll cover the many locations we visited and what we got up to during the tour. We will visit many of these amazing locations again in our 2017 Classic Japan Cherry Blossom Tour.

I would like to extend my thanks and gratitude to Tim, Lisa, Sue, Rob, Maria, and Emma for your company and friendship during the tour. I’ll miss your camaraderie and enthusiasm!

– Julius Pang

Cherry blossoms and beautiful hedges in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (広島平和記念碑)

Days 1-3: Tokyo (東京)

Our cherry blossom tour started off with 3 days in Japan’s capital city, Tokyo (東京). The first day saw everyone arrive in Tokyo, with the early birds taking advantage of the time before our welcome dinner to explore this megacity a bit on their own. We were based in Ginza, a world-famous shopping area home to high-end fashion brands amongst stunning architecture. We enjoyed a delicious tempura dinner and I outlined our travel and shooting plans for the tour.

Day 2 was an early start for both Tim and Emma as they took the option to see the Tsukiji Market tuna auction. We arrived at 3am to secure our spots for this ever-popular activity. After a 2.5hr wait, we were ushered into the auction and saw hundreds of tuna on the auction floor, with buyers carefully assessing the fish, and felt the frenetic pace of the auction. We visited Tsukiji Market again later in the morning with the rest of the group to explore both the inner and outer markets, still busy with activity until the late morning.

After lunch, we were off to Harajuku’s famous Takeshita Street, a bustling hub for Tokyo’s youth and home to some of the craziest fashion you’ll ever see. We completed a loop of the Harajuku area, making sure to stop by Meijijingu Shrine and Yoyogi Park along the way.

We finished off Day 2 with a visit to Shibuya, home of the famous scramble crossing which sees thousands of pedestrians cross the intersection at the same time.

The amazing mirrored entrance of Tokyu Plaza Omotesando Harajuku.

Day 3 started off with a visit to the Imperial Palace Gardens. We were treated to a welcome surprise when we found out the inner gardens were open to the public without requiring advanced booking! A special cherry blossom viewing event was being run by the Imperial Palace, giving us the rare opportunity to see the inner gardens. After, we headed for Chidorigafuchi Moat, one of Tokyo’s most famous sakura spots, with several trees at the end of the moat in full bloom.

From Chidorigafuchi Moat, I decided to take our group on an unscheduled visit to Rikugien Garden due to the perfect timing of their cherry blossom bloom. Rikugien is better known for its autumn colours but it also features one of the most stunning weeping cherry trees in Japan – and true to its reputation, we were in awe and luck to catch this particular tree in 100% full bloom.

The next stop was Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple and a famous landmark. Nakamise-dori street leading up to the temple was packed full of tourists who were busy eating, shopping and taking photos. After Sensoji, we made our way to Tokyo Skytree to capture Tokyo lighting up during the blue hour and at night.

Chidorigafuchi Moat (千鳥ヶ淵)

Weeping cherry tree (枝垂桜) at Rikugien Garden (六義園)

Nakamisedori (仲見世通り) and the Kaminarimon Gate (雷門) at Sensoji Temple (浅草寺)

View from Tokyo Skytree

Day 4: Shinkansen (新幹線)

Day 4 saw us finish our time in Tokyo with a morning visit to Ueno Park. The famous cherry blossom tunnel here was in full bloom and our group took advantage of the free time to wander around the park area.

After leaving Tokyo, we made our way down to Yoshiwara in Shizuoka Prefecture for a special activity – train spotting! You’ve all probably seen the iconic shots of Japan’s bullet train, the shinkansen, whizzing past Mount Fuji and this is where you can see them both. Mount Fuji was a bit shy today though despite weather reports indicating otherwise!

Our team was new to train spotting but quickly got hooked into trying to capture the shinkansen as they zoomed past at 270km/h! A local Japanese man even stopped his car next to us to have a chat – as he too, was a keen train spotter!

The team at Ueno Park

The team shooting a passing shinkansen. Mount Fuji decided to hide in the clouds in the background.

Day 5: Himeji Castle (姫路城) and Ritsurin Garden (栗林公園)

Day 5 was spent visiting Himeji Castle and Ritsurin Garden. At Himeji Castle, the sakura were mostly in full bloom inside the castle grounds and we were able to capture some shots with both sakura and castle together. Despite the rainy weather, there were still many tourists visiting Japan’s most celebrated castle.

After Himeji Castle, we took a long train ride to Takamatsu City on Shikoku, one of the four main islands of Japan. Getting to Shikoku by train requires crossing the Great Seto Bridge from Honshu island and this happens to be the longest two-tier bridge system in the world.

At Ritsurin Garden, we enjoyed a leisurely two-hour stroll, taking in the incredible features of the garden along with the “borrowed scenery” of Mt Shiun in the background. We were fortunate enough to see two couples having their engagement/wedding photos taken around the garden. I personally consider Ritsurin to be one of the most picturesque wedding photography locations I’ve seen in the world.

Himeji Castle (姫路城)

Bride and groom at Ritsurin Garden (栗林公園)

Day 6: Hiroshima (広島) and Miyajima (宮島)

Day 6 saw us make our way down to Hiroshima. We spent the early afternoon visiting Peace Memorial Park, home to several memorials related to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and World War II, most notably the Atomic Bomb Dome. The cherry blossoms in the park were in full bloom and there were many people taking advantage of the beautiful weather to enjoy a hanami (“flower viewing”) party under the cherry trees.

In the late afternoon we made our way to Miyajima, home of Itsukushima Shrine and its famous “floating” torii gate, one of Japan’s “Three Great Views”. In between fending off the local deer, we waited patiently for sunset and the torii to be illuminated. Despite being a weekend day, there were surprisingly few other photographers around.

Atomic Bomb Dome (原爆ドーム)

Cherry blossoms and beautiful hedges in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park (広島平和記念碑)

This is the coolest sightseeing boat I’ve ever seen!

Torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine (厳島神社)

Day 7: Kurashiki (倉敷) and Iwakuni (岩国)

Day 7 marked the halfway point of our tour and the whole day was free for everyone to do as they wished. Our group took advantage of the free day to visit Kurashiki (倉敷), a city famous for its Bikan Historical Quarter, a beautiful canal district with preserved buildings from the Meiji era.

In the evening, we were back to our tour schedule to visit Iwakuni (岩国), home to the beautiful Kintaikyo Bridge (錦帯橋).

Canal in the Bikan Historical Quarter, Kurashiki (倉敷)

Kintaikyo Bridge (錦帯橋)

Group photo on Kintaikyo Bridge (錦帯橋)

Cherry blossoms around Kintaikyo Bridge (錦帯橋)

Day 8: Nara (奈良)

The morning of Day 8 was free for everyone to get some last minute souvenirs from Hiroshima. Several of our group took a liking to merchandise related to the local baseball team, the much-loved Hiroshima Carp with their distinctive red and white colours!

Our highlight today was supposed to be a visit to Nara before making our way to Osaka. However, we needed to make a change to our plans as Rob was not feeling well while on the shinkansen. We decided to split the group into two – I accompanied Rob and Sue to our Osaka hotel and checked them in early, while Emma, Tim, Lisa and Maria explored Nara together on their own.

After dropping Rob and Sue off at our Osaka hotel, I headed to Nara where I found the rest of our group waiting at Nara Station after following my instructions perfectly. Emma did a fantastic job as the Nara tour leader for the afternoon and I was so proud of how everyone was able to visit Nara on their own and help accommodate Rob and Sue.

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