For any girl, receiving a bunch of flowers is always a pleasure. Putting them in a vase, and enjoying the smell and the way that they brighten any room. But really, how much time do we actually spend enjoying and studying those flowers? Not a lot. Once a year however, the Japanese do exactly that. They celebrate the world-famous Sakura (or cherry blossom to you and me). This mass-viewing is known as ‘Hanami’, and occurs for only a few months each year. In some parts of the country, it will start in late January, and in others as late as May, but in each place the blossom will only last for a few weeks. Popular cities Tokyo and Kyoto tend to be around the same time each year, in late March/Early April. However, you can never be completely sure when the trees will blossom with the delicate flowers, as a lot depends on how harsh the winter months have been.
Hanami has been around for centuries, today thousands of people spend days, even weeks, enjoying picnics, listening to music and photographing the enormous blooms of pink and white flowers in the trees above.
The Japanese actually believe the beautiful flowers symbolise the clouds; and when the trees catch the wind during the later stages of the season, the air is filled with what looks like snowflakes. Whether in the trees, or falling to the ground, it is nothing short of exquisite, and in some of the most beautiful parks you will even see local artists painting pictures of the scenery.
The cherry blossom trees have several different varieties, therefore the shade of the flowers will vary from very pale pink, almost white, to bright, hot pink.
Months in advance, the people of Japan will track the status of the cherry blossom blooms, and follow the season across the country as the warmer weather travels from South to North. Publications will predict the timings of the blossom, so that locals can book time off work to enjoy the celebrations, and tourists can travel from around the world to enjoy the spectacle.
Where the cherry blossom grows, so do the crowds. Younger generations dominate some of the parks, and the gatherings can get a little raucous as the evening sets in! Some of the canals and walkways, though, tend to be a calmer affair, with couples, families, and friends taking long walks and sitting down to civilised picnics to enjoy the celebrations.
It is a season for everyone, and locals do like to get dressed up for the occasion. It was really nice to see some people wearing the traditional dress, and for the most part, the majority of others looked quite glamorous.
Planning to go to Japan for Cherry Blossom season?
My best advice, although risky because of the unpredictable nature and timing of the blossom, is to book ahead. Use this helpful website to get cherry blossom predictions. Hotels get booked up several months in advance, and if you find yourself booking it last minute (like myself) you will struggle to find anywhere to stay. And I mean ANYWHERE! Tourists can purchase the Japanese rail pass which gives you discounted tickets for traveling across Japan on the Shinkansen (bullet) train. Ensure you purchase the pass a few days prior to traveling to Japan, as once you are there you can’t get one!
I can’t imagine a better time to visit Japan. Temples and other man-made and natural scenes are brought to life with the cherry blossoms draping over walkways and framing rivers, and it can even make some of the ugliest buildings look pretty.
Where to see the blossom?
There are so many places to see the blossom across Japan, and to be honest, there are trees everywhere, but here a few ‘must see’ places in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto – three of the major cities in Japan.
Shinjuku Gyoen – Ensure you get there earlier in the day as the park closes at 4pm. This is not a place for photos or picnics, just viewing, and they don’t like people bringing in food.
Kitanamaro Park – Close to the former Edo Castle, this peaceful park is a perfect place for a picnic, and the cherry trees here are recognised as some of the best.
Ueno Park – This tends to be more of a party park, where crowds gather for food and drink, all day and all night. A long walkway takes you through the trees, but it can be a little spoiled by the crowds.
Chidorigafuchi – A moat surrounding the old Edo castle – this was one of my favorite places to see the blossom, such was the sheer volume of it. It can get very busy, but it’s usually a much calmer affair. You can rent boats to row down the moat in order to get closer to the beautiful flowers.
At night, visit the Yanaka Cemetry where the flowers are lit up by street lamps in a narrow orchard, and the graves where locals have buried their loved ones are beautifully lit up. It’s a spooky yet eerily calming atmosphere.
Kema Sukuranomiya Park – Over 5,000 cherry blossom trees line the Okawa River, and I would recommend getting a boat down the river to gets the best shots of the river banks in all their glory.
Osaka Castle – The Castle itself is spectacular, but the trees just make it a picture postcard scene.
Philosopher’s Walk – If you want to avoid the crowds, go later in the day after visiting the famous Silver Pavillion. This peaceful pathway along a canal will take you about an hour to walk, but for a rest you can stop off at one of the local teahouses along the way.
Maruyama Park – Day or night, this is a popular place for parties. There are food stalls in abundance, and if you want to spot a Geisha, this might be the place!
Of course, these are just some recommendations, based on my personal experiences, and there are hundreds of spectacular cherry blossom spots all over Japan. You don’t have to go to some of the more popular tourist spots to see a beautiful tree, and there are plenty that decorate street corners and even the smallest of temples throughout the cities. I hope you enjoy seeing the blossom, where-ever you decide to go; it was certainly a memorable experience for me.
1. Don’t forget your camera, you’re definitely going to need it!
2. The Japanese weather can vary quite drastically at this time of year, so take plenty of both light and warm clothes, as the weather can go from glorious sunshine one day to icy winds the next.
3. Do as the locals do! Take a picnic blanket and a picnic, and lie under the trees for a spot of hanami. Get there early to put your blanket down to ‘mark your territory’, as it tends to get very busy as the day goes on!