Japan in Bloom

There’s no other event at which you’ll find the Japanese so cheerful, so friendly and so sentimental.

Everywhere you look, pink petals flutter, waving from trees in great swatches of colour before twirling down like confetti at a Mills & Boon wedding. They spread across lawns like pink carpet in a camp cocktail lounge.

It’s April, and Japan is blushing pink. Young women trip along in silk kimonos embroidered with pink flowers; waitresses have sprigs of pink in their hair; and, wherever you look, you see men snapping their wives, who pose coyly in the latest blossom-matching lipsticks. Even pastries turn pink and watercolourists splatter the season’s hue on paper in public parks.

The cherry blossom season is both an outrageously silly time of picnics, parties and pink kitsch, as well as a deeply felt cultural celebration of the national flower. For centuries, the sakura (cherry blossom) has represented purity and innocence in Buddhist philosophy, as well as transience and mortality in painting and literature. The season is a time for festivals and fresh beginnings: April is for weddings, job transfers and the start of new academic year. The sakura, in fact, has also been a diplomatic gesture of friendship, with Japan gifting 3020 cherry trees to Washington, DC, in 1912 as a token of friendship.

Nature’s timing, however, is never predictable, and the cherry blossom season also varies with location. The nation waits in anticipation as weather forecasters on television show the pink blizzard sweeping slowly northwards across Japan. Exact festival dates are often not announced until the flowers bloom; local tourist offices have the most up-to-date information. In general, aim for April in central Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.

The earliest buds appear in the southernmost part of Japan in March, though there are exceptions: Kawazu on the Izu Peninsula has special early-flowering cherries that attract more than a million people as early as February. As the blossoms erupt, they are honoured with nationwide festivals, traditional music recitals, tea ceremonies and costumed processions. It’s also a time for hanami (blossom-viewing parties), a courtly custom dating back to the eighth century. Now many Japanese get in on the act. “In the cherry blossom’s shade, there is no such thing as a stranger,” wrote 18th-century haiku master Kobayashi Issa. Indeed, there’s no other event at which you’ll find the Japanese so cheerful, so friendly and so sentimental.

In parks and on mountain-sides around the country, tarpaulins are spread out under the trees, and entire families gather for picnics and outdoor merriment. People recite poetry, sip sake, and tuck into sushi and salads. Wannabe pop stars warble into portable karaoke machines, with Sakura Sakura the inevitable song of choice. Elderly women infuse dried blossoms to make sakurayu (cherry blossom tea), the petals unfolding when hot water is added. By nightfall, lanterns glow among the trees, chicken skewers sizzle on makeshift grills and old folk doze with sheets of newspaper over their faces.

Of course, one of the characteristics of the sakura is its short life, seen at its best only for a couple of days, and lasting a little more than a week. The sumptuous celebrations, too, are achingly transient. No wonder the Japanese grow slightly maudlin as the season fades, quoting sad poems about the shortness of life and the fleeting nature of beauty. After a while, the tarpaulins are folded away, kimonos boxed in tissue, and portable karaoke machines and traditional instruments fall silent. The last few petals fall from the trees. Nature’s pink flamboyance fades, leaving only memories.

If you’re looking for some pink pleasure and keen to get into the spirit of hanami, here are some of the best cherry blossom locations in Japan.

Tokyo Evanescence

Transient beauty comes to the concrete jungle when the Japan Meteorological Agency declares the official beginning of the season with the budding of two trees at Yasukuni Shrine in Chiyoda district. The prime minister hosts an elegant hanami for celebrities and dignitaries in popular Shinjuku Park. Ueno Park is another busy venue, where blossom viewing is accompanied by an antiques fair and evening parties under paper lanterns.

On the northwest side of the Imperial Palace, experience a romantic rowboat ride on the Chidorigafuchi moat to admire the overhanging cherry branches. In the city’s northeast, Sumida Park hosts a festival along the Sumida River; another place where locals take to rowboats to admire the blooms. On the riverbank, tea is served with weekend entertainment featuring taiko drumming and folk dancing.

The ephemeral nature of music has long been associated with cherry blossoms. A 30-minute train ride from Tokyo takes you to Yokohama’s classical Sankeien gardens, which play host to koto (traditional harp) performances under the cherry trees in early April each year.

Riverside In Nagoya

The Path of Four Seasons along the Yamazaki River in Nagoya’s south-east is a spectacular cherry tree-viewing spot, with the frothing pink trees lining an almost three-kilometre-long stretch of river.

Nagoya Castle is another popular site, boasting some elegant weeping cherry trees. The banks of the moat and surrounding park are full of blossoms, and the castle makes a wonderful picnic backdrop, especially at dusk when its lights illuminate the petals.

Downtown Tsuruma Park is the people’s choice. Expect plenty of food stalls, noisy evening picnics and drunken recitals of poetry at corporate hanami parties. Heiwa Park is much more tranquil and boasts more than 2000 cherry trees, while aficionados head to Higashiyama Botanical Gardens to see its 40-odd blossom varieties.

Nagoya is also surrounded by many famed cherry-viewing destinations that are easily reached by train. Kakamigahara, in the north, hosts a major cherry festival and parade in the first week of April, while in Iwakura, also north of Nagoya, the Gojo River is flanked by cherry blossoms on both sides of its banks, each decorated with traditional lanterns.

Kyoto on Show

Japan’s ancient capital is crammed with glorious temples and palaces whose grounds put on the best sakura displays in the country. Kyoto’s fabled geisha are out and about for the season, cherry blossoms fixed in their lacquered hair. Celebrations have a cultural edge: a daily tea ceremony under the weeping cherries at Heian Shrine as well as performances all through April by traditional musicians, dancers and geisha at Gion Kobu Kaburenjo Theatre. On the second Sunday of April, locals in colourful traditional attire parade through Daigo-ji Temple and enjoy a sumptuous hanami in an unbroken tradition first started by the local shogun in 1598.

For more laidback hanami, head to popular Maruyama Park, where a superb illuminated weeping cherry tree is the focus for outdoor dining. Another Kyoto must-do is a stroll along the sakura-lined Philosopher’s Path, a popular semi-rural walk which follows a canal between Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion) and Nanzenji Temple in the city’s eastern foothills; early morning is best if you want to avoid the crowds and meditate on the beauty of the cherry blossoms.

Castle Country

“The samurai of Japan is like the cherry, which blossoms and dies so suddenly and so beautifully,” goes a much-quoted Japanese poem, reflecting a recurrent cultural theme linking cherry blossoms with the transience of life. Samurai castles such as Sendai, Himeji, Fukuoka, Matsue and Tsuyama have spectacular sakura displays. Takada Castle in Niigata is renowned for night viewing, with food stalls set up under 4000 trees illuminated by lanterns. Odawara Castle, a 95-minute train ride south of Tokyo, also has magical lantern-lit trees, and hosts a particularly good festival that includes a parade of kimono-clad children and a public tea ceremony under the blossoms.

Matsumae, a small town in Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido provides a last chance for visitors to see blossoms, which flower in early May in this cool-climate location. One of Japan’s top sakura spots, Matsumae boasts 10,000 cherry trees in 250 different varieties. The park around Matsumae Castle extends to the hills beyond, and is popular for hanami, while the park library is worth visiting for its sakura paintings and artworks.

Osaka’s Late Bloomers

Osaka Castle puts on a magnificent flower display, and the Okawa River features 5000 cherry trees along a four-kilometre promenade through Kema Sakuranomiya Park. Expo ’70 Commemorative Park has 5000 illuminated trees for one of Japan’s best evening-hanami locations. Some say the best trees in town stand around the Ministry of Finance, but aficionados head to the Mint Bureau where 100 varieties of sakura are noted for rare, double-petalled and late-blooming varieties — perfect if you’ve missed the main event.

East of Osaka, the ancient capital of Nara has a profusion of blooms at Nara Park, which is also known for its free-roaming deer, while its Kofukuji Temple is renowned throughout Japan for its abundant blossoms. Don’t miss nearby Mt Yoshino, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site featuring ancient Buddhist temples and a staggering 30,000 cherry trees covering the mountain in pink. Settle into one of Yoshino’s natural hot springs either lining the river at Yunomine or at the old Yumoto Hanoya Inn, where the spring bubbles with carbon dioxide. It’s the kind of spa only nature can provide, with marvellous views of pink hills and petals twirling down into the water.

Cherry Ripe

So fond are the Japanese of cherry blossoms that they even eat them during the season. Blossoms are pickled in brine and used to flavour wagashi (traditional confectionary) or anpan sweet buns, which are popular snacks. Mochi (rice and red-bean cakes) are dyed pink and decorated with cherry leaves in celebration. Cherry blossoms pickled in plum vinegar are also infused with water to make sakurayu.

Words by Brian Johnston - Published in Voyeur April 2012
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,500,000
Time Zone GMT + 9 hours
Languages Japanese (national)
Currency Japanese yen (JPY)
Share this article 
facebook Twitter Pinterest Google
Related Articles 
Ramen
The story of one man’s pilgrimage to Tokyo in search of the ultimate hot noodle soup. An international holiday cannot really be considered successful unless it completely ruins something you love...
Local's Guide to Tokyo
The Japanese capital has always been known for its eccentric style.
Keeping the Peace in Kamikochi
Resplendent with stunning alpine views, wild snow monkeys, hot springs and more, Kamikochi is the perfect location to refresh the body and soul.