We’ve found the best time to avoid the tourist crowds at one of Tokyo’s top hanami sites.

Sakura season has finally arrived in Tokyo, with the blossoming period officially beginning on 29 March, the latest start date in 10 years. The overdue arrival means that this weekend is now the prime time to see the city’s cherry blossoms in full bloom, and one of the most popular spots to see them is at Ueno Park.

With close to 1,000 trees across 53 hectares (133 acres), Ueno Park is incredibly famous for hanami flower-viewing picnics, where people gather beneath the trees to admire the blooms above them. However, this fame attracts throngs of visitors from around the world, making the park one of the busiest spots to see the sakura, so we decided to find out if getting up early is a good way to avoid the crowds.

Our reporter Mariko Ohanabatake awoke at sunrise to begin her early morning investigation, and though the park is open from  5 a.m. to 11 p.m., she timed her arrival for 6 a.m., figuring this might be the time when most tourists would begin their daily adventures, especially as sunrise right now is around 5:20 in the morning.

▼ When she arrived at the park…

▼ …it was much quieter than expected!

Nothing alluded to the popularity of the park at this time of day, aside from the piles of garbage from the previous night’s hanami picnics, which were being cleared by workers.

Another sign of the crowds was, well, a literal sign, which asked visitors to refrain from having picnics on Sakura Dori, one of the streets lined with cherry blossom trees, and at Shinobazu Pond, in order to alleviate congestion.

As the sign indicates, there’s no sitting under the trees on Sakura Dori (literally “Sakura Street”), and there are barriers in place to prevent people from entering the prohibited areas.

Mariko looked around for a place to sit, but was surprised to find most of the possible seating areas were cordoned off.

Eventually, at around 6:30 a.m., she managed to find a rock where she could sit, drink tea and eat dumplings, enjoying a hanami picnic of her own.

There was something refreshing about being in the centre of Ueno Park so early in the morning, and it appeared she wasn’t the only one to feel that way, as a group of seniors started up a rajio taiso calisthenics session, enthusiastically chanting “1,2,3,4…5,6,7,8” in unison.

▼ Apparently this group gathers here for calisthenic at 6:30 every morning.

Surrounded by cherry blossoms, and with nothing but a handful of early morning runners and dog walkers obscuring them from view, Mariko felt a sense of peace wash over her as she was able to truly enjoy the flowers.

▼ At this time, the only people at Ueno Park appeared to be locals.

The peace and quiet made this a very different cherry blossom viewing than what she’s used to experiencing, and she ended up sitting on her rock for around an hour, soaking it all in.

▼ At 7:30 a.m., the number of people in the park began to increase.

Visitors now were mostly made up of commuters heading to Ueno Station, and camera enthusiasts keen to photograph the cherry blossoms.

Still, the atmosphere remained enchantingly peaceful, and there weren’t that many people on the paths beneath the cherry blossoms, so she was able to admire the flowers while strolling along at a leisurely pace.

▼ Come the middle of the day, this spot can be shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors.

It was now getting close to 8 in the morning, and by this stage it was becoming brighter, with the sunlight feeling warmer, making her think this might be the most ideal time of day to visit.

However, from 8 a.m., the number of tourists began to increase significantly, with more and more people gathering at some of the best spots and posing for photos. The Starbucks at Ueno Park also opens at 8 a.m., so if you’re planning on grabbing a drink or a bite to eat there, you’ll want to get there at opening time, because…

▼ …this is a popular branch that’s always crowded, with a line outside from the minute it opens.

There are a lot of seats, so if you get there right as the store opens, you can sit on the terrace and view the cherry blossoms.

Mariko says she’s usually a fan of rival chain Doutor, but going to this Starbucks early in the morning to see the cherry blossoms was such a memorable experience that it may have converted her.

Happy to have snuck a second hanami picnic into her morning, Mariko left the Starbucks at around 8:30 a.m., and by this time the park was really becoming crowded with tourists.

It’s mornings like this that make you appreciate the benefits of getting up early, and Mariko was pleasantly surprised to find that despite being a mecca for cherry blossom viewing in Tokyo, Ueno Park was a peaceful haven.

Things change as the day progresses, though, with visitor numbers and noise levels rising significantly, so if you’d like to enjoy a quiet sojourn beneath the blossoms, Mariko recommends visiting between 7 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. In her opinion, this is the best time to stop by Ueno Park during hanami season, but the one thing to be aware of is that no matter what time of day you visit, it will always be difficult to find a place to sit with a picnic.

For that reason, she recommends strolling through the park first and then stopping by Starbucks for breakfast, right when it opens. After her memorable morning in the park, she now firmly believes it really is worth getting up early to see the cherry blossoms, and with full bloom in Tokyo forecast for 5 April, now is the ideal time to visit.

Related: Ueno Park
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