Travel to Japan: A Guide to the Country’s Favorite Flowers and Where to Find Them

Our Japanese BBQ meat skewers are inspired by Japanese yakitori (yakitori literally means grilled chicken). We love the strong flavors of the marinade.

It may be famous for its cherry blossoms, but there are plenty of other flowers to admire in Japan, writes Denise Stephens.

For the past three seasons, the Japanese have enjoyed popular cherry blossom-viewing sites without crowds, as border closures meant there were no international tourists. That’s likely to change as Japan gradually opens up to tourists and international visitors arrive for long-delayed trips, making cherry blossom season even busier next year.

If you’re planning to visit Japan, it’s worth considering months outside of the cherry blossom season. Cherry trees bloom from mid-March to early May, but Japan has a flower for every month of the year – including chrysanthemums, plum blossoms and irises. No matter what time of year you visit, you can see spectacular flower arrangements in gardens, temples and castles. There is also often a festival with food or events celebrating the season.

Here are some seasonal flowers to look for on your trip to Japan, and some of the best places to see them.

Chrysanthemums

The chrysanthemum is the national flower of Japan, associated with the imperial family and featured on the 50 yen coin. As the days grow colder and shorter, chrysanthemums bring a welcome splash of color to gardens in Japan. Varieties range from small, bushy plants covered in flowers to large, single-priced blooms, with puffy layers of petals so heavy they’re supported by frames.
When: from September to November.
Where: The Chrysanthemum Exhibit in Hibiya Park in central Tokyo has more than 2,000 flowers of all colors and varieties.

As the national flower, the chrysanthemum adds a splash of color throughout Japan.  Photo/Denise Stephens
As the national flower, the chrysanthemum adds a splash of color throughout Japan. Photo/Denise Stephens

Cosmos

The cosmos is sometimes called “autumn cherry blossom” because the massive plantings of pink flowers are reminiscent of cherry blossom in spring. There are other colors including white, mauve and red which are often planted in striking patterns or mixed together in a colorful display.
When: from September to November.
Where: In Tokyo’s Showa Kinen Park, fields of cosmos spread over the hill and it’s also a great place for fall foliage in November. At Lake Yamanaka, a few hours from Tokyo, visitors to Hana no Miyako Koen can see Mount Fuji with a million cosmos plants in the foreground.

winter peonies

Even during the coldest and darkest months of the year, flowers bloom thanks to intensive cultivation techniques unique to Japan. Winter peonies shelter inside straw tents protecting them from snow and wind, with an opening so their beauty is visible.
When: from late December to mid February
Where: Winter peonies are not common, but there are two well-known peony gardens in Tokyo. At Hamarikyu Gardens, a former imperial retreat is now a public park with a teahouse for a hot bowl. The Peony Garden at Historic Toshogu Shrine in Ueno Park opens for the winter peony season and later for the spring bloom.

plum blossom

The first shades of pink in parks and gardens are plum blossom, announcing the approach of spring. Shades range from white to dark pink and the flower is fragrant, unlike cherry blossom. Many places hold a plum blossom festival, with events such as a plum bonsai display or food stalls selling seasonal snacks and locally made plum wine.
When: from February to mid-March
Where: Kairakuen is one of Japan’s Three Great Landscape Gardens and has 3,000 plum trees. It’s in Mito, about an hour by express train from Tokyo. The plum orchard at Kyoto’s Kitano Tenmangu Shrine is open to the public during the blossom season, and on February 25 there is a festival where local maiko (apprentice geisha) serve tea.

Unlike the popular version of cherries, plum blossoms are fragrant.  Photo/Denise Stephens
Unlike the popular version of cherries, plum blossoms are fragrant. Photo/Denise Stephens

Azaleas

As cherry trees shed their bloom and turn green, azalea blooms appear in vibrant shades of pink, purple, and red. Azaleas are ubiquitous, from large expanses of sculpted round bushes in parks and temples, to small potted plants at city gates. Native to Japan, azaleas are popular as bonsai trees, and you may come across bonsai displays during the blooming season.
When: from mid April to early June
Where: Nezu Shrine in Tokyo is famous for its azalea garden on a slope overlooking the shrine. Its Azalea Festival runs from mid-April to early May. Kyoto’s Nijo Castle Gardens are worth visiting year-round, and the azaleas provide splashes of color when in season.

Iris

Another plant native to Japan, the iris comes in a wide range of colors. Blue irises are the most common and traditionally grown in ponds or streams in Japanese gardens, which provide great photo opportunities with reflections in the water.
When: from mid May to end of June
Where: Large Tokyo gardens such as Hamarikyu, Shinkuku Gyoen, and Koishikawa Korakuen all have irises, but the smaller Horikiri Shobuen in northern Tokyo specializes in irises, with unusual varieties and colors. An iris festival takes place in June when the flowers are at their peak. Kenrokuen in Kanazawa, another of Japan’s Three Great Landscape Gardens, has traditional blue irises planted along streams and bordering the lake.

Blue irises are common in Japanese gardens.  Photo/Denise Stephens
Blue irises are common in Japanese gardens. Photo/Denise Stephens

Hydrangeas

The rainy season begins in June, with hot, humid weather ideal for hydrangeas. Intense blue, pink and purple flowers sparkle with raindrops, their colors brighten up dull gray days. Hydrangeas are native to Japan, mentioned in writing as early as the 8th century. It is a popular flower today, with many varieties found in parks and temples.
When: June and July
Where: Kamakura, a seaside town south of Tokyo, is known for its temples and hydrangeas. Meigetsu-in Temple is called the Hydrangea Temple because its gardens are filled with intense blue hydrangeas. Hasedera has flowers for all seasons, including hydrangeas. Although the uphill walk can make you sweat in the summer heat, the coastal views from the hydrangea garden are worth it.

Originally from Japan, hydrangeas are part of the country's history and are still popular today.  Photo/Denise Stephens
Originally from Japan, hydrangeas are part of the country’s history and are still popular today. Photo/Denise Stephens

For more on Japan tours, see japan.travel/en/