Spring arrives early in sub-tropical Okinawa, and so do its cherry blossoms. Okinawa is pretty in pink in late January, while the rest of Japan braces for an onset of full-fledged winter. Ryukyu Kanhi-zakura (the local variant of Japan’s beloved cherry blossoms) take on vibrant pink flowers, and many Many tourists flock to Okinawa’s best flower viewing locations to enjoy the flowers blooming against the backdrop of beautiful skies and waters.
This article will cover 3 locations widely known as the best locations to view Kanhi-zakura blossoms: Mount Yaedake of Motobu Town, Nakijin Village’s Nakijin Castle remains (a world heritage site), and Nago Chuo Koen Park’s Nangusuku Area, of Nago City. Let us depart on a journey to escape the winter cold, and greet Okinawa’s coming of spring.
Ryukyu Kanhi-zakura -- Okinawa's Cherry flowers Blossoms
Okinawa's cherry flowers have a distinctive dark pink hue
Okinawa’s cherry blossoms are a variety known as Ryukyu-kanhi-zakura (琉球寒緋桜), which is takes on a dark pink hue, differently from the pale-flowered somei-yoshino variety commonly seen in the rest of Japan.
Unlike somei-yoshino cherries, Ryukyu-kanhi-zakura blooms in a downward direction, and instead of the petals, the entire flower drops off the branches.
Typically, Okinawan flower-viewing is an easy stroll alongside the cherry blossoms
In Okinawan cherry blossom-viewing, people simply enjoy strolling through the tunnel of blooming cherries and taking in the view.
That’s a sharp contrast to the picnics and parties held under blooming cherry trees elsewhere in Japan.
Okinawa's cherry flowers bloom during January and February
Mount Yae-dake's voluminous cherry blossoms
Okinawa’s Ryukyu-kanhi-zakura flowers start blooming in the north as the temperature goes down. As the temperature continues to fall, the flowers begin to bloom southward too.
The first flowers are usually observed in mid-January near the peak of Mount Yae-dake in the north of the Okinawa main island. By end January to early February, cherry blossom reach the major city of Nago and its surrounding areas.
Okinawa's three best spots to enjoy cherry flowers
Mount Yae-dake, the Naki-jin castle ruins and Nago Chuo Park are considered to be Okinawa’s three prime locations for cherry blossom viewing.
All three of them are located in the north of the Okinawa main island, where Okinawa's cherry blossoms first come into bloom. Each of the locations hold festivals when the flowers are at their best, drawing crowds of visitors from near and afar. Read on for more details on each location.
Mount Yae-dake (Motobu-cho town)
Rows of cherry trees leading to the peak of Mount Yae-dake
Mount Yae-dake in northern Okinawa is said to be the first in the prefecture to welcome cherry blossoms. At a height of 453.4 meters, Mount Yae-dake is the tallest peak in the Motobu Peninsula. It is the second highest peak in the Okinawa main island, after Mount Yonaha-dake.
About seven thousand cherry trees grow around Mount Yae-dake, on land protected by the local government. When the temperatures start to drop, Ryukyu-kanhi zakura cherry trees at the top of Mount Yae-dake begin blooming. The flowers thrive in full-bloom at end-January to early February, when they cover the hillside in pinkish hues their pink hue.
Tall “hego” tree ferns and wild “itajii” evergreens grow on the slopes
Mount Yae-dake boasts a one of a kind landscape. Kanhi-zakura cherry trees dot the hillside covered with tropical hego tree ferns and Itajii evergreen chinquapins. There are many photo-worthy spots on the path leading to the peak. Make stops here and there and take in the vast view.
The top of Mount Yae-dake has expansive views of Motobu town below and the blue ocean. Ie-jima Island can also be seen in the distance. As one can drive to the top, it’s easy to reach this breathtaking view surrounded by nature.
Ie-jima island in the distance
A different view: cherry blossoms seen from above are also beautiful
Mount Yae-dake area is a prime viewing spot amid Okinawa’s rich nature. The slopes are covered with pink when the cherry flowers are in full bloom for a dazzling scenery.
■ Motobu Yae-dake sakura festival (late January to early February
Motobu Yae-dake sakura festival (photo provided by Motobu-cho townhall)
The town hosts its annual Motobu Yae-dake Sakura Festival from end January to early February. Don’t miss the stage performances held on the first weekend. For more details visit the town’s official website here: official site
World Heritage Site, Naki-jin Castle ruins (Naki-jin village)
Naki-jin Castle is also famous for its cherry blossoms
Like Mount Yae-dake of Motobu Town, the Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa is home to another lovely spot for cherry blossom viewing -- the Naki-jin Castle ruins, which is listed as a World Heritage site. Famous for its flowing stone walls, Naki-jin is the biggest castle ruins predating the Ryukyu Kingdom (from 1429 to 1879).
The ruins stand 100 meters above sea level and offer fantastic views of the village below with the beautiful ocean in the distance. The Naki-jin ruins is known as one of Okinawa’s most scenic destinations.
Cherry blossoms and the castle wall
The cherry blossoms within the castle ruins reach their peak in late January to early February -- around the same time as Mount Yae-dake. The sight of dark pink flowers blooming against the backdrop of stonewalls is found only here.
The historic Heiro-mon gate
After purchasing tickets, head straight for the main gate.
The Hei-rou-mon gate is mentioned in historical records of the Ryukyu Kingdom. As the story goes, Naki-jin’s powerful king dominated northern Okinawa. The Heiro-mon gate symbolizes his mighty rule. With peep holes on both sides to look out for intruders, Hei-ro-mon was considered an impregnable structure. The current gate was rebuilt in 1962 when Okinawa was under US occupation.
【Okinawa】Experience The History And Traditional Culture of “Nakijin”
The cherry trees line both sides of the path beyond the gate, making for a great photo opp.
Snap away under the cherry blossom tunnel
Once past the Hei-ron-mon gate, the path connects to a staircase leading to the main castle tower.
This area has the highest concentration of cherry blossoms. Soak up the breathtaking view as you stroll down the tunnel of cherry blossoms.
View from the top of the staircase: sakura trees along the steps
Those who climb up the steps for about 15 minutes are rewarded with sweeping views of the cherry blossoms below with the sea beyond. The cherry trees inside the ruins were planted by residents of Imadomari village at the foot of the castle.
■The Cherry Blossoms illuminated at night
Cherry trees lit up during the night
Make time to visit Naki-jin ruins during the night, when the sakura cherries trees are lit up. The combination of blooming flowers and colorful lights creates a magical feeling.
The “Nakijin-gusuku Sakura Matsuri” festival is held every year during the cherry blossom season, and attracts many tourists. During the festival, visitors are welcomed inside the castle ruins late into the night. Although entry costs an admission fee, if you visited in the daytime you can re-enter free of charge.
Meet the King and Queen of Naki-jin Castle, that are chosen every year
Keep your eyes open for the King and Queen of the Nakij-in Castle, who are sometimes spotted during the event. If you’re lucky enough to run into them, they will gladly pose for photos with you.
Nago Central Park, Nago City, and its surrounding areas
Nago Central Park and its neighboring areas offer breathtaking views of cherry blossoms
Nago city stands on the northern tip of the Okinawa Expressway. The city is the economic center of northern Okinawa. Nago Central Park lies in the city center. The area surrounding the park’s Nan-gusuku castle is one of the three most famous sites in Okinawa for cherry blossom viewing.
The best spot in the park is the approximately two-kilometer staircase that leads up to a shrine. During the cherry blossom season, the steps are surrounded with blooming flowers that please the eyes of visitors.
Cherry blossoms decorate the surrounding of Nangusuku
Challenge yourself to the 20 to 30 minutes long ascend. A wide view of Nago City and Motobu Peninsula will reward you at the top of more than 600 steps.
The ascend is just enough to make you break a sweat. If you opt for less exercise, you can drive the road that takes you part of the way up, and walk from there.
■Nago Sakura Festival held in January’s Last Weekend
Nago Sakura Festival is full of stage performances
The annual Nago Sakura festival is held on the last weekend of January. During this event, crowds not only gather to Nago Central Park, but also to the special stage built in Sakura Park, Nago Juujiro Street, and Nago Fishing Port. It is an event that involves the entire City of Nago in its energy!
Cherry Blossom flavored ice cream. Local food galore.
The Nago Sakura Festival offers a variety of local foods, and decks the cherry blossoms in illuminations after dark. Whatever time of the day you choose to visit, the festival is bustling with activity. Just take note that during the two-day event, parking is forbidden around Nago Central Park. If you're driving here, you'll need to park at a designated space away from the venue.
Self-driven tour of cherry blossom spots in Okinawa
The three locations in this article make for an easy two-day road trip. Follow the route below to enjoy Okinawa’s beautiful cherry blossoms with local experiences along the way.
Kanhi-zakura cherry blossom spot ①： Nago Central Park and Nangusuku area
↓ about a 5-minute drive
Factory visit ：Nago City "Orion Happy Park"
↓ about a 10-minute drive
Lunch ： Nago City Gabusoka restaurant main branch
↓ about 23-minutes by car
Kanhi-zakura spot ②：Naki-jin castle ruins at night
↓ about a 3-minute drive
Overnight stay：Imadomari, Naki-jin village B&B "Nunen"
↓ about a 15-minute drive
Kanhi-zakura view point ③： Mount Yae-dake
Cherry blossom viewing at Nangusuku
Sweeping views of Nago city from atop
Exit Okinawa Expressway and visit Nangusuku. Climb up to the castle from Nago Central Park for sweeping view of the city.
Orion Happy Park -- brewery visit
Orion Happy Park (photo courtesy：Orion Happy Park）
Never leave Nago without sampling Okinawa’s delicious food and drink. One of the best places to enjoy local dishes is right outside Nago Central Park. Orion Happy Park houses a factory operated by Orion Beer that allows factory tours.
Learn the brewing process （photo credit：Orion Happy Park）
Guided tours of the factory cover the entire brewing process from the selection of ingredients to the final bottling stage. The staff will accompany you and provide commentary on the procedures and intricacies of beer-making.
Factory tour ends with tasting session (photo courtesy: Orion Happy Park)
Unless you're driving, the factory tour wraps up with a few sips of freshly brewed beer. (Soft drinks are served to drivers and underage visitors.) Orion Happy Park is a quintessential stop during any Okinawa trip.
Gabusoka-shokudo restaurant serves hearty Okinawa noodles
Gabusoka-shokudo: the birthplace of Okinawa's hearty "soki-soba" noodles
Gabusoka-shokudo restaurant stands along a road connecting Nago with Naki-jin village. This place is known as the birthplace of hearty Okinawa noodles called so-ki soba.
The dish features an addictive combination of chewy noodles and clear soup topped with soft, crumbling pork ribs better known as "so-ki" in Okinawa.
The restaurant's famed soki-soba noodles
Fret not if you miss the main outlet on Route 71. This restaurant operates many branches across Okinawa.
Cherry blossom viewing after dark at Naki-jin Castle ruins
Cherry blossoms basking in nocturnal lights
After sunset, head to Naki-jin Castle ruins -- a World Heritage site – to view the cherry trees and the castle walls basking in night lights. This magical scene can be enjoyed only during the cherry blossom season. The ruins are usually closed after dark during the rest of the year.
Stay at nunen – a traditional Okinawa house in Imadomari Village
Discover Okinawa's good old way of life
Imadomari is a village just outside the castle ruins of Naki-jin. nunen is a small hotel housed inside a traditional home surrounded by Okinawa’s unspoiled nature.
In the Okinawa dialect, nunen means “nothing is there.” Don't expect immaculate service or maximum comfort from this humble accommodation. This place is for anyone who wishes to be near Okinawa's rich nature and traditional lifestyle.
Single floor, traditional wooden house
nunen is a no-frills accommodation tucked away behind windbreak trees. The old house is a wonderful place to wind down after a night out under the cherry flowers.
Day 2: more cherry blossoms at Mount Yae-dake
Cherry flowers blooming along the roadside leading to Mount Yae-dake (photo courtesy: Motobu-cho Town Hall)
On day two, drive further north to Mount Yae-dake. About a 15-minute drive from nunen takes you to the beginning a hiking trail.
It only takes two days to cover Okinawa’s best locations for cherry blossom viewing. The best time to visit is from end January to early February, when Okinawa's Kanhi-zakura flowers are at their best. The easiest way to reach all three spots is by car, so it's good to rent a car. A self-drive trip will let you explore each area (and try various local dishes!) at your own pace.
Visit Okinawa's early blooming cherry blossoms
The Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa has many other tourist destinations such as the scenic Kouri-jima island and the Okinawa Chura-umi Aquarium. Many events are held throughout the winter at various locations, so be sure to mark them on your calendar. Also, keep track of the cherry blossom forecast as it's updated frequently. Please fully enjoy the early coming of spring in Okinawa!