Generally beginning in April and lasting only a couple of weeks, Japan’s cherry blossom season although short is a stunning display of nature, renewal and vitality, and is always very popular with visitors to this country and locals alike. Known locally as hanami which translates as “watching blossoms” and refers to the tradition of gathering to have a picnic with family and friends under the blossoming trees. The sakura, as cherry blossoms are known in Japan, symbolise the arrival of spring and can be best viewed in Maruyama Park, Mount Yoshino, Himeji Castle and Fuji Five Lakes.
When does Japan’s cherry blossom season start?
Blooming usually occurs across most of Japan in late March and early April, but can vary widely by geographical location, and is also affected by winter climates, warmer ones often leading to earlier blossoms. The southern region of Japan is usually the first to have blossoms bloom, and then they spread northward across the country sometimes opening as late as early May for some of the northern regions. Kaika meaning “first blossoms” usually occurs earliest in Okinawa.
If you cannot make it to the appearance of the cherry blossoms, there are alternatives a little earlier and later in the year. One such in February is ume or plum blossoms. These are the first important flowers to appear in spring in Japan. Near to Tokyo you can experience the Mito Plum Blossom Festival. There is also the period of wisteria, which is often formed into tunnels. The Great Wisteria Festival also just a short train journey from Tokyo runs from mid-April to late May, offering a beautiful display of purple blossoms most prominent in early May.
Where are the best places to view sakura?
There are many grand and beautiful locations across Japan where you can see the amazing cherry blossoms as they start to bloom, or once they have fully flowered. The most famous location is probably Mount Yoshino where the blossoms coat the sides of the mountains in a flowing cascade of thirty thousand cherry trees. The most epic though is Maruyama Park with its one huge tree whose blossom covered branches bow towards the ground. The tree is illuminated from dusk to midnight for a truly stunning sight. Fuji Five Lakes is most renowned for its beautiful scenery with Mount Fuji in the background, and in the grounds of Himeji Castle you can find one thousand cherry trees which burst into life.
If you prefer to stay in Tokyo to view the blossoms the capital has many beautiful parks which can offer an experience of resplendent blooming sakura. One of the most popular of these is Ueno Park which, much like in the grounds of Himeji Castle, has one thousand cherry trees in bloom, but also offers other attractions with museums, shrines and ponds. For a more peaceful experience you can head to the English Garden at Shinjuku Gyoen which is perfect for picnics on the long rolling lawns, where you can enjoy hanami with others, or partake in yozakura which means to view the blossoms in the evening. At this time simple lights and lanterns are laced among the branches of the cherry trees making the flowers appear to glow in the dark.
Can I take part in hanami or yozakura?
The more the merrier. Visitors are very welcome to join in at any time of day and share in the experience. Be sure to bring your own picnic blanket, and preferably a waterproof one, as depending on the weather the ground may be wet. It is also advised to take a few layers of clothing so that you can adjust along with the temperature. If you pop into a local supermarket known as a depachika, you can not only pick up a spring-themed bento box containing ankake meatballs, inari sushi, strawberries and red bean mochi, you can also pick up hanami-themed products like clear Asahi beer, pink Sakura Pepsi and pink Kit-Kats. You should also take along a camera to record this once in a lifetime experience.
Not every park or display of cherry blossoms will allow hanami, as it may ruin the grass, so always check before putting down your picnic blanket. It is advised to stay clear of tree roots so as to not damage them, and don’t take up too much space, as this is an experience for everyone. It would be seen as sacrilege to pick any of the flowers or to break any of the branches, so avoid doing this. Once finished with your picnic be sure to clean up and place any rubbish in the bins provided or take it with you, as the Japanese are known to be fastidiously tidy. But most of all, just enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, the beauty that surrounds you, and the people around you sharing it all with you.
Why are cherry blossoms so important in Japan?
Since more than a thousand years ago during the Heian period, sakura have been a subject of nationwide adoration. They are celebrated in Japanese literature, art and poetry. They have been found engraved onto ancient samurai swords, they symbolise new beginnings, friendship and are often related with fallen soldiers.
For many, the meaning of cherry blossoms is many layered, and not just a chance to admire some pretty flowers; it is a meditation on life, death, renewal and the meaning of life itself.