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When spring comes, Japan turns into a pink cloud. The entire country shifts color from a wintery brownish grey to a fluffy land of pink.
Japanese people go out of the way to celebrate spring when it finally comes. They lay out blue plastic sheets on the ground and sit down to have a picnic - with the kids if it happens on a weekend.
The cherry blossom season often coincides with spring coming, the temperature shifts from verging just above zero to 20 degrees centigrade. But not every year. Some years the cherry blossoms wait until the warm weather comes, some years they spring out long before spring comes. Every year there is a special section on the news when the cherry blossoms break out in Kyushu, the southernmost of the main islands of Japan. In the southernmost province of Okinawa, the cherry blossom start already in January. But that does not count; Okinawa is almost in the tropics. In 2018, the forecast date for cherry blossom to start in Tokyo is March 28.
If you think the Japanese eat a lot of cherries, you would be mistaken, by the way. The cherry blossom trees produce small inedible berries. Their main product is the flowers. Or the visitors. If you have seen the bus tours around Japan during cherry blossom season, you will realize that the cherry blossom spots are an attraction for domestic as well as international tourists.
If you plan on taking a break during the walk, do not forget to bring a packed lunch, or at least snacks and a bottle of water for you child. There are places to buy either in most sakura viewing locations, but they will be crowded and overpriced.
So here are five recommendations for where to bring your kids in a stroller to see the cherry blossom. Just remember when you take the train to get there that you should try to avoid rush hour on weekdays. And on weekends, these places may be too crowded anyway.
1. Ueno Park
Ueno Park is where all Japanese go to see the cherry blossoms, or at least it feels that way. But there is a reason so many people in Tokyo go to see the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park: They really are stunning. Ueno was a temple before it was turned into a public park, and it was during that time it was planted with thousands of cherry trees.
So if you bring a stroller with a child, places like Ueno Park will seem even more crowded. Especially since you have to cruise between people having picknicks on a blue sheet, and people who had a bit too much at the picknick and fell off the blue sheets. But Ueno Park is still an amazing place to see the cherry blossoms, if nothing else because there has been thousands of trees blossoming here for more than four centuries.
There are two advantage to this being a public park, however. The first is that it has excellent paved walkways, and there are accessible slopes where there are stairs. Although sometimes you will have to be prepared for a detour.
The second advantage is that there are toilets with changing rooms. Of course, during cherry blossom season, they are not sufficient and the city puts up portable toilets. But if you need to change your baby, just go to one of the changing room toilets and the people waiting will let you go first in line.
The Edo Castle, as it was known until the emperor moved there from Kyoto, was one of the strongest fortifications in the world when it was built. When the ”black ships” came steaming into Tokyo Bay, it quickly became obvious that it was no match for their cannon.
The fortifications around what today is the Imperial palace are still impressive, and the moat is impenetrable if you do not cross at one of the bridges.
The northwest part of the moat is known as Chidorigafuchi, since it looks like a small bird. The area surrounding the moat is planted with cherry trees, and some of the people coming to see the cherry trees are doing it from boats on the moat. The boats are not something you want to do with toddlers, although an infant works fine. You do not want your child moving about in the boat.
But the area is equally amazing from the shore, and the sight of the boaters under the hanging cherry tree branches is likely to fascinate your toddler for several minutes.
This is a public park but toilets are not that easy to find. You have them in the boathouse and the subway stations (Hanzomon is the closest)but if your child needs an urgent diaper change the best option may be to find a café near the subway stations.
The little town of Nakameguro is an upscale shopping and restaurant destination next to the more famous Daikanyama. But Nakameguro has something that Daikanyama does not have: Meguro River. With banks planted with cherry trees.
The river is very easy to access - when you exit the station, go back in the direction you came (if you came from Shibuya), and at the bridge, and then walk to the left. This is upriver towards Meguro, and the banks of the river are planted with cherry trees all the way. And there are pedestrian paths all the way. Unfortunately they are not stroller accessible - there are steps at a few points, so you have to carry the stroller at a few places if you want to go all the way to Meguro. It takes almost an hour though, half an hour if you do not have a stroller. But just strolling around Nakameguro in cherry-blossom season is pleasant enough, and there are plenty of child-friendly restaurants and cafes in the area.
4. Shinjuku Gyouen
When Japan opened up to the west, the old residences of the samurai families were confiscated and attached to the imperial palace. Often, they were used by the military. After the second world war, most of the imperial properties were turned to public parks. Today, it is run by the Ministry of the Environment, which is why this incredibly attractive piece of land has not been built over by developers.
Shinjuku Gyouen is closed Mondays (unless Monday is a public holiday, but there are no Monday holidays during cherry blossom season in 2018). And it costs 200 yen to enter - 50 yen for children. But it is worth it, and the walks are excellently paved and there are plenty of toilets with changing rooms.
5. Imperial Palace East Garden
The Imperial Palace is literally a green island in a sea of concrete, and part of the grounds are open to the public. That is not the north garden, where Budokan is, although that is a nice extension to the walk if you enter through the Ote-mon gate, next to Maronouchi. Entrance is free, but the gardens are closed on Friday and Monday, except if those days are public holidays. They also close pretty early - at 1630 until April 15, then at 1700 after that.
The Imperial Garden paths are well paved, although there are fewer restrooms than in a public park. And it is interesting not just because it is so well tended, and has a lot of variation in the flowers planted, but also because of the historic ruins from Edo Castle that dot the grounds. The castle burned down in the 18th century but before that it was one of the strongest fortifications in the world. The guardhouses and other surrounding buildings still stand.
Some Cherry-Blossom Viewing Tips
as I mentioned, bring your own lunch, snacks, and drink. And a blue plastic sheet to sit on - you can buy it in the nearest 100-yen-store.
Always check the weather report before you go. It can turn quickly. Japan is an island, after all.
Avoid rush hour on the trains. Between 7 AM and 10 AM you do not want to take your kids on the train. The evening is much better, as I wrote about in a blog post.
Mornings are less crowded than afternoons. This is partly because bus tours will arrive around lunch.
Try some traditional Japanese sweets. Sakuramochi is a kind of soft rice cake filled with bean mush and wrapped in a pickled cherry leaf, usually with a salted cherry flower on top. You can eat the cherry leaf but not everyone does. Be careful with children, they may choke if you give them too large pieces.
This post is one in my ongoing series on how to navigate Japan for travelers with children. I have written before about the Japanese travel year and the Japanese travel day (for most people heavily centered around taking the train), but sometimes for long trips you can choose between train and flying. I have a couple of articles on buying diapers in Japanand buying baby goods in Japan. I have written about how to figure out where to stay in Tokyo and how much you should budget for your trip to Japan. The latest was about how to use a Japanese laundromat. And I have written about whether you will be safe in Japan. And of course, since I have three kids, I have written a lot about Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disney Sea. And lots more, like the collection of 20 questions I put together to help people planning a trip to Japan with your kids.
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning four and a half - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.