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Shooting Cherry Blossoms in Okinawa

Where to enjoy cherry blossoms in Okinawa and tips for taking the best blossom pictures.

Every year, the first cherry blossoms in Japan bloom in Okinawa. Blossom season comes in late January and early February and festivals are held all over the island to celebrate the beauty of the iconic sakura trees. This post is about where on the island to view them and, more importantly, how you can take the best photos.

The Facts about Okinawan Cherry Blossoms

The cherry blossoms you’ll find in Okinawa are different from the blossoms you typically find in mainland Japan. Known as ‘hikanzakura,’ the blossoms in Okinawa are more pink in color compared to the ‘Somei-Yoshino’ blossoms in Tokyo or Kyoto. Besides their pink color, hikanzura blossoms differ in the way they bloom and fall. Whereas Somei-Yoshino blossoms tend to lose petals one at a time (creating the incredible showers of blossoms in places Yoyogi Park in Tokyo), hikanzakura blossoms tend to fall to the ground in one piece.

The cherry trees in Okinawa blossom in late January and early February and there are all kinds of blossom festivals around the island.

Hikanzura Cherry Blossoms in Full Bloom (Meio University, Nago)

Where to See Cherry Blossoms in Okinawa

There are many places you can go to take in the beauty of the cherry blossoms in Okinawa. Most of the well-known places are in the north, but if you want some variety you can also visit Yogi Park in Naha, or Yaese Park, where there are more than 500 hikanzura trees planted. If you can get there, I recommend going north and spending the whole day and night viewing and photographing blossoms.

Nago Castle Park

One of the most famous is Nago Castle Park. If you like to climb stairs, this is the place for you because the park has lots of them, and many are lined with beautiful cherry blossom trees. You can park in the regular parking at the bottom of the big hill and walk up, or you can drive the backroads and possibly find parking in one of the secret spots by the shrine near the top of the hill. There are numerous trails running up and down the hillside, some through groves of cherry trees, and some through deep forest.

Nago Castle Park is a truly magical place, worth visiting even when there are no blossoms, and if you go, be sure to check out the platform at the top of the hill. The view of Nago Bay is one of the most spectacular vistas in all of Okinawa and is a wonderful place to take one of Okinawa’s legendary sunsets. The park is open 24 hours, but it is not well-illuminated at night so you’re probably best to leave before it gets too dark.

I should note that during their blossom festival, if you get there before they sell out, you can try some traditional yagijiru (goat soup) served by vendors at the bottom of the hill. It’s not for everyone, but if you like trying new things, I recommend it.

Cherry blossoms at Nago Castle Park

Nakijin Castle

Another amazing place for cherry blossom viewing in Okinawa is Nakijin Castle Ruins. It’s a wonderful place to visit for the day, but when the blossom festival is on, it comes alive at night. The blossoms are lit with multicolored lights that change over time and speakers are positioned around the whole park, playing gentle soothing music. Be sure to get there early enough to buy a cup of fresh-squeezed satokibi juice (sugar cane), but be warned, this stuff should come with an addiction warning.

One awesome aspect of shooting at night in Nakijin is the ability to take long-exposure shots. These pictures were all taken with slow shutter speeds with the intent of rendering the people as “ghosts.” There is something so powerful in these ghost images and I think it’s the way they reflect the ephemeral nature of our presence on this island, and this earth. Think about how long Nakijin Castle has been there, and how brief a time any human has spent on the grounds, even the royals of the kingdom of Hokuzan in the years before the unification and the first Ryukyu dynasty.

If you want, you can even get creative and do some light painting, like in the third photo. The blazing streak running through the trees was made by me with a simple flashlight. You could bring colored gels, or even lights of different colors to create dazzling effects. Maybe this year I will! 

Nakijin lit up
"Ghosts" descent Nakijin steps
Nakijin Castle at the very top level

Mount Yae (Yaedake)

Some people would say that if you could only visit one place for the blossoms, make it Yaedake. It’s amazing, and perhaps the best place to shoot portraits with blossoms, if that’s what you’re into, but I placed it third because I like the other places a bit better. If you go, try to go on a weekday so you don’t have to deal with the traffic backups that happen during this season on the weekends.

Also, if you go to Yaedake, I recommend going all the way to the top of the mountain. You’ll be glad you did because the view down the west coast of the island is nothing less than spectacular. You can’t drive all the way, but there is a place to park at the entrance to a paved road that goes all the way up to the peak (bless the US military). I use the word ‘peak’ generously because the top was blown off with explosives years ago to accommodate communications equipment. While I don’t condone blowing the tops off of mountains, the fact that there is a well-maintained viewing space right at the top is a big plus. You’ll have to walk from the parking area to the top since the road is closed to vehicle traffic, but it’s a very safe walk. However, be advised that it is steep, so you might want to get in some time on the stairmaster before you go.

West coast panorama from the top of Yaedake

Tips for Shooting Cherry Blossoms

Here are a few simple tips for shooting cherry blossoms in Okinawa (and anywhere blossoms can be found). I’d be thrilled if you posted your best images on the Facebook Page for Okinawa Heartbeat Community.

Tip #1 - Find the Best Blossoms

Cherry Blossoms tend to cluster on the branches and they come in all kinds of conditions and orientations. Many in the same face in different directions. Some are beginning to lose their petals just as others are starting to bloom. This is a good thing because it makes for great variety in the photograph. The trick is to find the clusters that have blossoms in the best condition and offer the best composition. You may have to walk around looking at blossoms to find those most suitable for a closeup.

Tip #2 - Shooting People with Cherry Blossoms

If you’re looking to shoot specific people amid the blossoms (that is, the main subject is the people and not the blossoms), try to find an area that gives you good blossoms in the foreground and the background and place the people in the middle ground. The angle of the sun is important and, generally, you want the sun behind the models. If you’re not using flash, try to keep the sun itself out of the shot so you can get a reasonable exposure on the sky without turning the subjects into silhouettes.

Blossoms in the foreground and middleground (iStock)

Tip #3 - Finding the Best Compositions

The problem with shooting cherry blossoms is that most of them are up high in the branches. This makes them hard to shoot. A lot of people just aim their cameras upward and snapshots of blossoms against the sky. While these can make excellent pictures, they generally feature dark blossoms against a bright sky. If you can, try to find lower-hanging blossoms and shoot them against a darker background. You can cheat by getting a friend to pull a branch into position. I often shoot alone and I’ve even grabbed a branch with my own hand to bring it to exactly the right place and give it the right orientation.

There are lots of potential background compositions that work with blossom shots. If I’m shooting closeups I like green background, or sometimes forest with a bit of sky for contrast and bokeh. In Okinawa, if you can find blossoms with a shrine or a castle wall behind them, so much the better. If you can find a blossom you want to shoot, then frame it in such a way as to capture other blossoms in the middle ground against an interesting background, that’s a big win.

Light is a big issue here. If you can find blossoms that are out of direct sunlight, you’ll get much better colors. Of course, some photos of blossoms with the sun blazing through translucent pink leaves can be absolutely mesmerizing, but the most professional-looking images of blossoms tend to be those captured in soft light.

Tip# 4 - Lens Choices for Shooting Okinawa Blossoms

I know that 90% of people reading this post will be shooting with a smartphone camera. Everything I’ve said up to this point is applicable to smartphones. However, I thought it might be a good idea to provide some tips specifically for people using mirrorless or DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. Using longer lenses (such as 200mm) rather than wider lenses (like 24mm or 35mm) will help you be more selective about the background and will often make the background softer, particularly if the subject is near the minimum focusing distance of the lens. This helps to isolate the subject in the image (photographers call this background separation). Long lenses will also create nice compression.

If you have a macro lens, you can shoot very close. This will tend to expand the apparent distance between close and far blossoms, making for some interesting compositions, and you can still keep the background nice and blurry. You don’t need a super-expensive camera to pull off amazing shots. Some of my favorite images were captured on a low-end DSLR with kit lenses.

Shot with Canon 24-70mm in macro mode for bokeh

Tip #5 - Take Lots of Pictures

So many amateur photographers will focus on a subject and just snap one or two pictures, then move on. Pros will snap dozens, sometimes hundreds. To get the photo of the bee on the blossom, I took over 200 photos. Of those, only 12 were usable and of those 12, only two were “world class.” Blossoms are harder to shoot than you think because the pictures that give good background separation necessarily have very shallow focus. That means, when you get back to your computer to edit, you might be very disappointed with many of your images. Blossoms blow in the wind, your body moves and it’s hard to keep the camera still, so even if you do your best to get focus right, sometimes you miss.

When you take lots of photos of the same blossom, make sure to vary the focal point. Focus on one part of the blossom, then shoot a series, then focus on another part and shoot another series. At the pro level, shooting with telephoto or macro lenses under field conditions, if you’re truly happy with one in 10 of your images, you’re doing pretty well.

Tip #6 - Shoot Raw and Edit Your Images Carefully

The AI in smartphones and mirrorless cameras is amazing today. You can get great results straight out of camera just bysetting everything to auto and snapping away. But if you really want control over how the image looks and put a real sheen to it, you need to edit and images shot in raw uncompressed mode (as opposed to jpg compression in-camera) have a lot more latitude and color depth. The details of editing cherry blossom photos are beyond the scope of this post, but for what it’s worth I use both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for most of my images.

Editing brings out vibrant colors and fine details.

What else to do on your Okinawan Cherry Blossom Adventure

Personally, I recommend making your blossom trips all about blossoms and nothing else. This is because blossoms happen only once a year and when they’re gone, you’ve got to wait until next season. But if you’re looking for other things to do, if you’re going north, you could check out the fukugi trees in Bise. If you’re in Nago, you won’t be disappointed by the Pineapple Park, tourist trap though it is. You could get lunch at Niceness Vegan Cafe, or, if you don’t mind the short drive to Yagaji Island, enjoy a delicious meal at Avocafe. There are some blossom trees at Aha Dam Park too, but on the east side of the island, this may be a bit out of the way.

If you’re going south, you should check out Okinawa’s most famous shisa, the iconic Tomori Stone Lion, which is quite close to the Yaese blossoms mentioned above. If you go to Yogi Park, you can check out Shuri Castle or other historical highlights there.

Regardless of where you go, just be sure to time you trip for the peak of the season so you can bask in the incredible beauty of Okinawa’s pink cherry blossoms.

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