One of the great events of nature is the blooming of the cherry trees of Japan. It’s a deep part of Japanese culture too so a visit to Japan at this time is more than just a floral tour. Indeed, hanami is a thousand-year-old tradition of cherry blossom viewing. But where and when should you go to watch Japan turn pink and white?
When to go
In general terms, most of the delicate pink and white sakura, or cherry blossoms, are seen in Japan from late March until early May but there’s more to the story than that. The warmer, southern islands of Okinawa may have blossoms opening as early as January while Hokkaido in the north may bloom in May. The typical season for the major population centres of Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto is early April. However, the conditions over each winter and into spring can cause these dates to vary by up to a week or even more. And trees within a city will flower at different times depending on how much sunlight they get.
You don’t get much leeway, either. From first opening (kaika) to full bloom (mankai) there’s generally only about a week but that can be cut even shorter by rain or wind. Each year, the local media breathlessly follow the progress of the cherry blossom front (sakura zenzen) but you need to remember that’s the line of first blossoms, not peak bloom. Keep an eye here.
So, while cherry trees bloom in Japan over several months, the season in each area is quite short. Unless you have time to spare or are prepared to move to where the peak season is, it’s a bit of lottery. But the prize for flexibility or perseverance is seeing something truly remarkable. And even the fringe seasons are special, though less intense with only early or late bloomers on display.
The beautiful cherry blossoms around Nagoya Castle
Where to go
In this most organised nation, of course there’s a Japan Cherry Blossom Association and of course it has a list of the Top 100 Cherry Blossom Spots equitably finding at least one in each prefecture. You’ll find it in English here. There are many varieties of cherry trees so each area is likely to look quite different.
The pale flowers contrast well with the dark wood of Kyoto and the city’s geishas are busy in full costume at this time. Sadly, others know this too so the city’s accommodation is full to bursting and latecomers won’t get a look in. This is not new. Saigyo, a 12th-century poet, lamented that “the cherries only fault: the crowds that gather when they bloom”.
Imposing Nagoya Castle in Aichi is surrounded by many species of cherry trees and they are illuminated by night.
While there are parties everywhere, Maruyama Park, the oldest park in Kyoto, hosts a big one every night in early April by a large illuminated tree. Walk the riverside Philosopher’s Path between Wakaoji-jinja Shrine and Gingaku-ji Temple. And the road by the Katsura-gawa River becomes a tunnel of cherry blossoms. Or head to World Heritage Daigo-ji Temple where 700 cherry trees were planted in 1598 and there’s a great walk to the Kaizan-do Hall at the top of the mountain.
Mt Yoshino at the heart of Nara Prefecture is regarded by many as the best place to view cherry blossoms. There are some 30,000 cherry trees here.
In Osaka even the Mint gets into the spirit and opens its gates so you can stroll along the river under some 120 of the 370 varieties of cherry trees.
In Tokyo, Ueno Park is very popular so you may wish to head for Shinjuku Gyoen instead. Shibuya has a cherry tree-lined canal that is illuminated in the evenings.
Of course, there are cherry blossom tours that pass some of the guesswork over to your host. It’s still a gamble but in 10 days you’ll cover enough ground to hit peak bloom somewhere. Again, you need to book early. Because of the fickle flowers it’s best to regard the trip as a regular tour of Japan (albeit at peak price) with cherry blossoms thrown in.
Japan's cherry blossoms aren't just for the day time
The end of the cherry blossoms is in Hokkaido and the city of Sapporo is covered in flowers. In Hokkaido plum and cherry trees may flower at the same time. The large star-shaped Goryokaku fort in the port city of Hakodate is beautiful in full bloom.
Cherry blossom time is much more than mere flowering. It’s a rite of spring when picnicking under the blooming trees is de rigueur. Beer and sake sport special labels and there’s a very festive mood across the nation.
There’s a lot of philosophy in hanami, too. The brief spectacular season is regarded as reflecting the transience of life as well as the spectacle of new beginnings. The first of April is the beginning of the financial and academic years, too. While falling flowers signal the end, like life, it’s very much part of the spectacle.
Have you ever been to Japan? What’s your favourite memory?