A guide to Japan’s cherry blossom season

The country’s annual cherry blossom harvest is a riot of colour and cultural festivities. It’s also given rise to a flavour of KitKat. We traveled to Japan to find out what it’s all about.

A gift for the senses

Once a year, between the end of March and the final flush of May, Japan is gripped by cherry blossom fever.

Sweeping from South to North in a wave of explosive colour, bright sprays of sakura – as the flower of the blossom is known – take over the parks, temples, and streets of Japan. This riot of candyfloss pink and dusty white (like raspberry juice discoloring a glass of milk), makes everyone in the country stop and stare. Quite literally.

But the blossom isn’t just about pretty flowers (and they are pretty). It also carries immense cultural significance.

Centuries ago, local samurai brought hundreds of these weeping trees from the country’s then capital, Kyoto, to Kakunodate – in the far north. These gifts would bud, and swell, and grow, kicking off a form of gentle social competition between the area’s nobility (the original garden hedge argument, basically.)

The samurai knew that the blossom were beautiful. But it was also so much more than that.

When does it happen?

Starting on Japan’s southern, subtropical islands, the cherry blossom opens as early as January. In the far north, in Hokkaido, the buds may bloom well into May.

For everywhere in between, from Tokyo to Kyoto, the season generally takes place between late March and early April. It’s better to think of it as a gently rolling, floral wave than a singular ‘event.’

Anyway, here’s everything you need to know and everywhere you need to go to get an eyeful of this most Japanese of flowers.

The Japanese art of flower watching

During the eye-catching cherry blossom festival that marks the arrival of the bloom, nearly everyone in the country partakes in hanami – the art of springtime flower watching. Like much else in Japan, it’s an art taken into overdrive; giving life to everything from vibrant street festivals to a blossom flavor of KitKat.

The flowers themselves – tiny starlets of pink, red and white – of course have deep cultural significance in Japan, where their short-lived existence taps into a long-held appreciation of the beauty of life’s transience. This is known in Japanese as mono no aware, meaning ‘an empathy toward things.’ Belonging to Japanese Buddhism, this bitter-sweet concept recognizes the fundamental impermanence of life. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Unity is found in celebration of sakura

As sakura lives for only two short weeks, it remains abundantly clear why this concept is so important. Hanami reminds the Japanese that life is short and they must make the most of it. By the end of the season, the pavements will be littered with mucky, crumpled stains of pink. Torn shreds of petals. Life goes on.

Aside from their eye-popping beauty and their pandering to a sense of mild existential angst, the blossom quite literally embodies some of Japan’s most deep-rooted cultural and philosophical beliefs. For this reason, Hanami is enthusiastically enjoyed both in the countryside and the city, among the young and the old.

But, regardless of where you go, it’s easy to roll a blanket under the trees and ponder the transient nature of life against this startling backdrop. We recommend watching the photoshoots that take place around – and often in – these dusky trees. There’s a great selfie opportunity if you’re willing to climb. But don’t fall, please.

Hanami

Japanese triptych print showing people walking along the Sumida River, among cherry trees in full bloom.

Chasing the bloom

The cherry blossom season in Japan is an annual event. Warmer weather is the spark that encourages these short-lived trees to bloom. Accordingly, daily broadcasts from the Japanese Meteorological Agency will amp up the hype once the blossom arrives in March, tracking the impressive floral wave as it moves northward with the approach of yet warmer weather.

Coins will bear its likeness, as well as advertising, menus, and fashion. There’s a mix of nobility and playfulness to its role in Japanese cultural life. Young warriors were once likened to sakura, ‘ready like the myriad cherry blossoms to scatter.’

More prosaically, a favourite pastime is to make use of Japan’s many parks to eat seasonal sweets and sip fruit wines while gazing at these nougat-colored wonders.

The cherry blossom isn’t unique to Japan. But its cultural significance is.

There are over 1 million Sakura trees in the country, spread throughout its parks, pathways, temples, shrines, schools, imperial properties and private residences. It’s the highest concentration of cherry trees the world over, but they’re also the most adored.

Residents of Kawazu, on Japan’s Izu peninsula, are often the first to experience the blossom, sending residents of Tokyo heading out of the city for the three hour journey.

Japan's cherry blossom
Japan's cherry blossom

Do what the poets do

Put simply, the blossom is something you need to see to believe.

Onitsura, the famous Japanese Edo-period poet, put it another way: ‘And so the spring buds burst, and so I gaze.’

We’re with him on this. But it’s also an excellent opportunity to get to know Japan at its most relaxed and outgoing.

The blossom brings people from every walk of life together, though older Japanese may choose to watch the plum and peach blossoms as these crowds tend to be less quieter (you’ll also be rewarded with plum wine, which isn’t a bad excuse.)

Japan's cherry blossom

I’m sold. Where can I see it?

Shibuya Canal, Tokyo

Tokyo may be famed for its concrete and skyscrapers, but its plethora of parks and gardens mean that it’s just as beautiful a place to experience the cherry blossom festival as the rest of Japan. There are numerous picnic-friendly locations in the city, including stately Ueno Park, which plays host to 1,000 of the trees.

Nakameguro is a creative neighborhood south of bustling Shibuya with a popular cherry-tree-lined canal. After dark, the boughs are strung with lanterns, casting warm light as revelers pick their way between food and drink stalls below.

Nakijin Castle, Okinawa

The cherry blossom begins in the South, on the island of Okinawa. The blooms in this region are often bell-shaped and a deeper shade of pink than other regions, with the first flush arriving in the middle of January.

We recommend sighting the sakura among the ruins of Nakijin Castle, where a world-famous tunnel of cherry trees is illuminated with lanterns every night during sakura season. For something a little wilder, the island of Kyushu (north of Okinawa) is famed for its balmy climate and hot spring (onsen) baths. The tiered castle of Kumamoto City has over 1,000 cherry trees blooming each year.

The Kamo River, Kyoto

The ancient capital of Japan is also one of the best places in which to view the blossom. This is partly because the city is crammed with parks and picturesque historical attractions. Some of the best spots for hanami include Maruyama Park, which is guaranteed to be packed with picnickers from day to night.

Instead, head to the Kamo River, which flows through the city, whose length is lined with large cherry trees (and many stunning restaurants).

Heading North

Last but by no means the least, the north of Japan experiences its cherry blossom from April into May.

Tohoku, the northeastern region, is a mecca for cherry blossom connoisseurs. Other locations include the dramatic scenery of Hitome Senbonzakura in Miyaki, where over 1,000 cherry trees line the river and are set against a dramatic backdrop of snow-covered peaks. It’s quite literally picture perfect. Others will head to delightful Kakunodate, which is famed for its romantically weeping cherry trees which were bought specially from Kyoto hundreds of years ago by local samurai. While this was done as a form of gentle social competition, there’s nothing adversarial about the sight today.

Japan's cherry blossom

The Black Tomato take on pink blossom

Doing anything in Japan during cherry blossom season is recommended. However, the beautiful kabuki performance of Miyako Odori in Kyoto’s newly renovated Minamiza (one of the birthplaces of Japan’s traditional kabuki style of theatre) is an experience not to be missed.

The dance itself, first performed in 1872, unfolds across eight gorgeous scenes, with the stunning finale set among cherry blossoms in full bloom at the city’s Daikakuji Temple. This experience runs throughout April, and is a perfect cultural introduction to the meaning of sakura and the art of hanami. You can also polish off this slice of traditional Japan with a private geisha-led tea service in Kyoto’s most authentic tea houses.

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